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Everybody needs to calm down about the Blood Moon (especially Christians)

I didn’t really believe it at first, but there it was, right on my Facebook feed. Someone talking about how the lunar eclipse that happened on Tuesday. Or, in their terms, the “blood moon.” I don’t really blame them, there are people who like to stir up hysteria and they make very convincing arguments with nice rhetoric. But they are mistaken about it, and usually don’t really care how often they are wrong (and if you look at the track record of the sorts of people who cause these hysterias they are almost always wrong). Nor was simply talking about the moon a problem. I mean everybody was talking about it. This was one of the clearest and fullest lunar eclipse of our lifetimes, and so it is a rare opportunity to view the moon looking almost entirely red. No, the problem was that the talk focused entirely upon a discussion of how the end of the world is about to happen at any minute. Now it may be the case that the end of world really is about to happen at minute, but it has nothing to do with the “blood moon” and here are three reasons why:

Someone get that moon a bandage. It's bleeding everywhere.

1. This is not the first lunar eclipse and it won’t be the last

This point is really pretty obvious. It is true that most ancients and medievalists thought the red moon or “blood moon” was a bad omen, but they thought that because it occurred periodically. However, when bad things followed such an event, it was really just a case of confirmation bias. That’s a phenomenon where you only pay attention to observations that confirm your already held suspicion. It’s not proof, it’s selective observation. “But this one’s different” I’ve heard and seen people say. Well…

2. This lunar eclipse is not really that different

It’s different in the sense that it looks a lot clearer and more obvious than most lunar eclipses we will likely witness in our lifetime. But it’s not different in the sense of paying attention to specific dates and times, etc. Do you know who set about creating calendars and such? People did. They are a social convention. Now, it is true that they’ve conformed generally to some external phenomenon, like the revolution of the earth around the sun, or the lunar cycle (note: the current Jewish Calendar is somewhere between the two). Still, it is ultimately a human invention. The Holy Days enacted in Scripture are an example of God accommodating his revelation to us. At least that seems to be the opinion of Paul in the 2nd chapter of Colossians (NIV):

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

In fact, the obsession with timing specific days and alignment with the planets as somehow an omen is not routed in Christianity. Instead, you would expect to find that sort of thing in Astrology and Paganism (both ancient and modern or neo-paganism).

“But” someone will object “what about those bible verses?”

3. Those Bible verses don’t necessarily mean what you think they do

There are, by my count, exactly three verses of the bible that refer to a red moon. And one of those is a New Testament passage explicitly quoting an Old Testament passage. So let’s look at that one first.

In Joel 2, it reads:

28 “And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
30 I will show wonders in the heavens
    and on the earth,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
31 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. (NIV)

Now that doesn’t sound so bleak. I mean, it does call it a “dreadful day of the Lord,” but the Hebrew text uses words in different ways than we do. I mean what’s with the prominence  of “Fear of the Lord” in Proverbs. Does that mean we should be scared and hiding from God, or does fear mean something else? Does “dreadful” mean something else? This becomes particularly clear in the context of the chapter. Immediately prior to this section, the prophet Joel describes the restoration of the land and provision from God, and immediately after Joel notes that all who call upon God will be saved. That’s not very bleak at all. In fact, if we look to the New Testament, we see how they understood its fulfillment.

At the beginning of Acts, immediately after the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, Peter gets up and starts shouting that this very passage has just been fulfilled. After all, the Spirit is being poured out on all of the church, not just an individual (as had been the case in the Old Testament). What’s more, he quotes the bit about the sun being black and the moon being blood during what, by all accounts, seems to be a pleasant day (people are outside celebrating this festival and no one is terrified). There’s no black sun and no red moon. What gives? It could be that the black sun and red moon mean something else entirely.

One more passage before I come back to that. In Revelation 6 we have the following appear:

12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. (NIV)

It’s always interesting to me how different people treat the book of Revelation. (Sidenote: pet peeve of most biblical scholars: putting an “s” on the end of Revelation. If you know one, try it out and watch them squirm a little before apologizing). Everyone talks about taking it “literally” but what they mean by that varies.

-Revelation mentions that there will be two prophets against the city of Babylon? Well then, we better look for exactly two men who are prophesying against a pagan city, bonus points if that city is actually named Babylon.

-Revelation talks about a beast rising up out of the sea, a third of the stars falling from heaven? Well, I mean it’s not a “beast” but a person. And those stars are demons. Clearly a metaphor.

-Revelation mentions Jesus standing at the door and knocking? Well that is not bound to a specific time period in any way shape or form. Come on, give us some credit.

Here’s the problem with the above. How literal one takes Revelation depends upon how literal the one doing the reading decides to take it. And it usually is a personal choice, with little to no respect (or even awareness) of the genre in which the book was written. It’s read like a modern book, and one that the reader knows based upon a gut feeling (that gut feeling is not the Spirit, by the way. The Spirit is expressed in the full body of believers known as the Church). So we read it “literally” when it is convenient, and dispense with literality any time it is convenient or interesting to do so. That’s a problem. Revelation is a hard book to understand. I don’t claim to fully comprehend it, but while I’m willing to admit that, I do understand it on some level.

So what’s going on here?

Well John, the author of Revelation, is very adept at blending into Revelation and referencing a wide variety of Old Testament symbols. He doesn’t do so explicitly (partly because that would violate the genre in which he’s writing), but it is permeating by the Hebrew Bible. Given that the only reference to a red moon found in the Old Testament is in Joel, we should probably see if there is any overlap. For Joel, the use of the images of a black sun and red moon were indications of the end of the world. Not because Joel thought there natural occurrences would actually foretell the end of the world, but because this was an already established motif. Other cultures sure seemed to think that, but Joel didn’t (or, at the very least, Peter quoting Joel didn’t believe that). They are merely a more poetic way of talking about the end of history.

That fits pretty well with Revelation, but it doesn’t explain why Peter references it in Acts.

It helps if we understand that Peter was a Jew, not a Gentile Christian. As such, he had certain expectations about how the world would end. During the first century, this included a belief in the “resurrection of the dead.” Peter, and all the early church, wholeheartedly believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. For the early church, then, that meant the end of history wasn’t only eminent, but already present. The end of the world had come. Indeed, one question that 1-2 Thessalonians and Revelation are all trying to deal with is how the end of the world could have so clearly arrived, and yet the world not be over yet. It is then that the church began to make sense of Jesus’ statements that “A time is coming and is now here.” This is two Kingdoms theology. The end of the world has come, it has come in the Kingdom of God, which is the Church as it should be. It is at war with the kingdom of the world. Yet, in light of the resurrection of Christ and Pentecost, the kingdom of this world has already lost to the Kingdom of God. The end of the world has already happened. It’s coming, yes, but it’s already here. Maranatha!

Creation from nothing (part 1): What’s the big deal?

The next few posts in Science and Religion Friday will focus on why Christian Theology insists on a doctrine of creation out of nothing, what this means both philosophically and scientifically, and what it necessarily cannot mean theologically. Please note that the following posts are a little bit technical (though I’ve tried to ease out some of the technicality).

Why make it a big deal?

What does it matter if the world was created out of nothing or not? There are creation myths that do not require that the world was made from nothing. For instance, many of the ancient cultures more or less believed the the universe was the result of a great cosmic battle (or perhaps some sort of sexual encounter) and the world formed from the blood or as the offspring of a god or gods. Some of the early Greek philosophers argued that there was a divine craftsman who carved the earth out of already present stuff. In fact, the first unambiguous promotion of the idea of creation out of nothing (or Creatio ex nihilo in the Latin) in a religious text occurs in one of the Maccabees (those books rejected by Protestants as unauthoritative, and considered by Roman Catholics as only secondarily authoritative).  Clearly there is a way to talk about the universe as if it were not made out of nothing.

Well, in a way. Once one accepts monotheism as the best description of God (which, for these posts, we are assuming), the scope of possibilities becomes severely limited. Now one cannot speak of the physical universe as if it is the leftover bits of a god who lost or something along those lines. We are ultimately left with one of two options: either matter always existed, or at some point matter began to exist. Both are compatible with monotheism, but only the latter works with Christian monotheism.

Why contingency matters

Defining Terms (Contingency and Necessity)

Contingency, if you are unfamiliar with the term, does not apply solely to funds or plans. It is simply the opposite of necessity, closely related to determinism, but not the same. One must be careful here, because it does not mean “indeterminate.” Indeterminate means unpurposed. Similarly Undefined means not known or in a state of flux (or similar things). Contingent things do have a definite existence, and may actually be purposed or have a purpose (though not necessarily), but are nevertheless not fixed in the means to an end, or even on the exact particulars of an end. Often contingency is used in terms of free will or, in physics, to speak of sub atomic particles and their interactions (and often in physics contingency is used interchangeably with indeterminism, but the terms are distinct, and there is a small debate about whether particles are just contingent or also indeterminate when in superposition).

For the purposes of this post, then, the question is whether material stuff is contingent or necessary. If something is necessary, then it is eternal, that is it must always have existed. The reason for this is that if there was a time when it was not (or will not be), then it is not, by virtue of that, a necessary entity. For those who have had intro to philosophy, the ontological argument for God’s existence presented by Anselm essentially argues that God is a necessary being (and thus must always exist). To be clear, though, one can reject the ontological argument for the existence of God as valid while nevertheless affirming that God is necessary. In short, necessary things must always exist. The converse is also true: if something always exists (that is, it is eternal), then it must be necessary. I should make one further clarification that I am not using eternal in the technical philosophical sense and so it is (for this post) interchangeable with everlasting.

Contrast that with contingency, which means that something is necessarily dependent upon something else. If it were necessary, it would have always existed and thus it would not be dependent upon some other being. However, if it is contingent, then there must have been some time (or will be some time) when it will not exist. It is not eternal, and thus its existence is dependent (or we might say contingent, based upon the existence and/or causal interaction of) some other thing.

This leaves us with two options, then, if the physical/material universe is eternal (always existed) it is necessary. If, however, it is not necessary it must be contingent, which means it had to have come into being.

Picking contingency

If we are to say something was created, yet also claim that it is eternal, then it must be necessarily created. The problem with this kind of language in talking about God is that it suggests that God is somehow required to create the physical world. That is a genuine restriction upon God that we cannot have if we assume, as we are, that God is omnipotent. So may we affirm that the material universe just was, and wasn’t created?

Leaving aside the biblical argument (that is that the bible says God created), let’s examine this purely philosophically. If the universe is necessary, then that means it must always be. It cannot be destroyed (modern physics calls this the law of conservation of mass, matter cannot be created or destroyed). I’ll get to the scientific issues another day. For the moment, what would this mean with respect to our picture of God? Yet again, it would mean that something exists which a) is non-dependent upon God (which could compromise our view of sovereignty) and, perhaps more importantly at present, b) acts as another barrier to the power, omnipotence, of God. Unlike “square circles” and “rocks so big God can’t lift it” this would present a genuine problem. This is not a self-contradictory limitation (as the others are). However, there is no reason to assume that we are required to choose that.

Thus, for Christian theology, we cannot say that the physical universe is either necessary or eternal. This means that it is contingent, and it’s existence is based upon God’s action to create. Thus the universe had a beginning (and could, conceivably, have an end). In order for it to have a beginning, then, we say it was created. Since there was no prior material “stuff” for it to be created from, we say it was created from nothing (or ex nihilo). Next week I’ll go through some of the other implications of this.

Wait Lenscrafters is Heretical? (Church History Minute)

Today I’m talking about Baruch (sometimes Benedict) Spinoza, not the glasses-in-under-an-hour chain.

Engraving labeling Spinoza (correctly) a Jew and (incorrectly, sort of) an atheist

Who was he?

Spinoza was a 17th century Jewish person raised in the Portuguese Jewish community living in Amsterdam (having been expelled from the Iberian peninsula). At the age of 23 he was expelled from the Jewish community through cherim (similar to excommunication) and lived out his days as a  lens and optic maker, turning down offers to work as a scholar or other honors. The majority of his writings were not known until after his death. At which time they were swiftly put on the Roman Catholic Church’s banned books list. It’s unclear whether he was a pantheist (God and nature are just two terms for the same thing) or a classical panentheist (all of nature is an expression of God, but God is more than nature), but this is the primary (though not only) reason for his cherem and having his books blacklisted.

Why was he important?

Spinoza was an incredibly important predecessor to 18th century Enlightenment, particularly in Germany. He also inaugurated, in a way, modern biblical criticism (and challenges conservatives must answer) by questioning the legitimacy of books in the Hebrew TaNaKh (Old Testament). In particular he questioned whether Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. Further he presented the first major modern challenge to Cartesian dualism, while nevertheless retaining an idea of God as fundamentally impersonal. Also he denied, to an extent, the notion of libertarian free will (also known as the only valuable notion of free will). He is important because he set the tone for so much that followed him in biblical studies, theology, and philosophy. Eventually he would be challenged by theologians in the form of Schleiermacher, hardly a “conservative,” and then later other challenges would be offered against him up until present day.

Interesting Fact

His work crafting lenses likely contributed to his (relatively) early death as the glass dust may have scarred his lungs. Hegel said of him, during his time, “You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher” (but I don’t like Hegel).

Where might I have heard of him

He has been mentioned or alluded to in a variety of settings and famously influenced Einstein’s spirituality. Also, if you ever go to the Netherlands, there is a lot of admiration for him (he was on the 1000-Guilder note until the Euro came along, some would call that the best reason for the Euro). He is generally either loved or loathed, very little middle ground.

Philosophy of Science: A Bridge for fruitful dialogue

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been showing how I don’t find Ian Barbour’s scheme entirely helpful, and why I’ve abandoned NOMA as in any way adequate. Yet, I’d like to suggest something that sounds like I am endorsing a form of NOMA (that is, the view that science and religion don’t interact).

I’d like to suggest that the best source for a fruitful dialogue between religion and science is likely to be found by turning to the often maligned, much misunderstood discipline of philosophy of science.

On the surface it might seem like this is giving into NOMA, and saying that really religion only engages with philosophy of science and never with what scientists are actually doing. Instead, I’d like to suggest that any time a scientist moves beyond a description of the methodology and occurrences of an experiment, and moves to interpretation, she or he is, aware or not, engaging in the philosophy of science. The philosophy of science, then, rather than something external to the work of science is something integral to it. For a long time people engaged in it without really acknowledging it, but in for long time people engaged in metaphysics (which is related), without calling it that either.

Karl Popper

Some of the early pioneers in the philosophy of science as a discipline distinct from science and metaphysics were, among others, Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper, who included significant discussions of epistemology (how we know anything) into their dialogues. Thomas Kuhn is perhaps best known for popularizing the term “paradigm shift,” while Karl Popper has been, perhaps, a bit more influential in actual scientific investigation (many disciplines now accept Popper’s suggested “null hypothesis” and falsification as their method). Despite this, the philosophy of science has been largely ridiculed.

Perhaps the most famous derision of the Philosophy of Science comes from Richard Feynman who said “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” While Feynman was certainly brilliant, his lack of self-awareness in this quote is striking. First let’s take the statement as true.

Richard Feynman

The fact is that ornithology is actually incredibly useful to birds, the birds just aren’t generally aware of it. Ornithology can help others know how to protect or regrow habitats. The study of migration patterns of one species can help others to problem solve population control issues in another species. Ornithology is actually quite helpful to birds, the birds just aren’t aware of it (so maybe Feynman was more right than he realized).

Here’s the other problem. Any time scientific investigation moves from what is to what was or what will be (i.e. anytime it tries to say something useful), the one making the claims is engaging in philosophy of science because, as has been demonstrated by numerous people at numerous times, such claims are non-empirical. They rely on some interpretive power beyond sensory observation. They are making existential claims about the universe that go beyond the realm of science. This is not to say they shouldn’t make such claims, but only to say that when they make those claims they are engaging in non-empirical philosophy (even if it is informed by empiricism).

Likewise, religions (and particularly Christianity) make existential claims about the universe, including what has happened and what will happen. This, it seems, means they have a common overlap with the philosophy of science.

It is my contention that a fruitful dialogue may occur via the philosophy of science. In other words, the interpretation of scientific claims and the claims of, in my case, Christianity (which is really just an interpretation of historical events), are talking about the same subject matter, and therefore are de facto in dialogue. Thus Ian Barbour’s scheme may be descriptive for how people think science and religion interact, but in actual fact, the two are in a dialogue which they cannot escape. Science and Religion are in dialogue because, by the very nature of both of them, they cannot not be in dialogue.

Does God change?

In a bible study I’m part of we have been going through the book of Hebrews. We’re on the last chapter, where we’ve been somewhat (and yet happily) stuck, and last week ended up covering a single verse (Hebrews 13:8): “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” It’s the same wording in virtually any major translation of the bible, which, as the leader rightfully noted, means there is no real dispute over what the Greek is saying, at least as we understand English. However, with regard to what it means, there could be multiple options for it. What does it mean to say “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever”?

First and foremost (and, I think, somewhat unquestionably) this is a reference to the identity of Christ as God. The Old Testament speaks of the LORD  (Yahweh) as the God who does not change. By saying that Jesus doesn’t change, especially in this changing world, the writer of Hebrews is saying Jesus is God (Yahweh).

Ok, so what does it mean to say that God doesn’t change?

Not talking about this kind of change

Today I’m going to give you one of the older historical views, and next week I’ll talk about what it means for us today

Arriving at Divine Immutability

In viewing this verse, and those like it, many of the older (and as in more than a millennium ago) views took it to mean something that came to be called “divine immutability,” that is, the idea that absolutely nothing about or within God changes, ever. The idea is grounded, interestingly, not in any biblical text, but in Greek philosophy. One can read the bible and come up with a very different picture of God (i.e. one who, in certain respects, does change). Yet most (but by no means all) of the early theologians argued that we should read these passages in the same way we read passages about God having a hand, or a finger, that is to say they are anthropomorphisms: ways to talk about attributes of God by relating them to human elements. They don’t imply God actually has a finger, or a hand. It’s just a way to describe something that is otherwise indescribable (for instance, when you say/sing “he touched me” you don’t mean he physically touched you with a material hand, rather there is something indescribable that happened as a result of your intimate encounter with God, and the closest thing you have to describe it is “touch”).

The Greek philosophical grounding is largely platonic (or possibly “neo-platonic”) on the one hand or based in Aristotle on the

The School of Athens

Plato and Aristotle Just chillin’ you know, like you do (in a Raphael painting)

other. Regardless of the source, the reasoning went one of a few ways. The first was the idea that the more perfect something was, the simpler it was. Thus in order to be at the most simple (the most indivisible) something could not change, as that would imply more than one part or state. The interpretation of the idea of forms from Platonism gets at this. When you think of the form of something (such as, what makes a table a table) you think of it at its most basic. So when you think of the form of the good (the perfectly good) it must likewise be at its most simple. Another way to think of this is that if something is perfect, any change would necessarily eliminate that perfection. If it is a change for the better, the previous state was not perfect, and if it was a change for the worse, then perfection has been lost. Thus the perfect divine does not change.

Another way to arrive at the idea of divine immutability (that God doesn’t change) is the idea that if something is perfect it will also be more beautiful and elegant, which also entails simplicity and, therefore, a lack of change. Yet another source of this is, is the doctrine of “divine aseity” which means God has no dependence on anything else; that is, God is completely self-sufficient, to the point that he is not dependent on anything for his existence. When that is coupled with the idea of divine eternity, understood as timelessness, it is easy to see how impassibility might result. If God does change, it was argued, then God’s current nature is, in some sense, dependent on those prior changes, and thus God is not self-sufficient. Further, if God has no time, and time is change, then an eternal, self-sufficient God, cannot change.

This was the argument for centuries concerning God. I say ‘was‘ because, among contemporary theologians, there are very few advocates. Instead it has been considerably modified.

The Problem of Divine Impassibility

If God doesn’t change in any way shape or form, then that meant (and means) that God also does not feel anything. God would be

The problem of human impassibility (not the subject of this blog)

a numb God, without emotion. This is usually referred to as divine impassibility, the idea that God does not have emotional responses. The ancient theologians argued that God could still be characterized by love, if it means that love is a constant disposition toward people that is without change. Augustine was a big fan of this idea, and with him Martin Luther and John Calvin. God doesn’t emotionally react, and God’s disposition never changes.

However, this only works in certain theological schemes. In order for God’s disposition to be completely constant, then a divine election of specific individuals who are saved or not before the world is created (i.e. the disposition was present in God from the beginning) must be correct. No biggie, you might think, just be a Calvinist. Problem solved. Well… not quite (and not just because I’m not a Calvinist)

As I mentioned above, the passages that say God is “grieved” by sin, or by a person were/are taken by advocates to be somewhat metaphorical. However, the main problem with this view is found in the passion of Christ. If Jesus is not only fully a human, but also fully God (the argument of Hebrews), then how do we take his passion? Some of the older theologians would claim that when Jesus cries out “My God My God! Why have you forsaken me?” it is only to point to the passage in Psalm 22. He didn’t really feel abandoned. But to say that Jesus did not feel pain, did not collapse under exhaustion, did not feel rejected, and was completely unaffected by those events is to deny the humanity of Christ. If Jesus is God, then, God cannot be “impassible” (God cannot be without emotional response). Further, if God is love, then he cannot be unmoved by our sin or the death of his Son, which grieves him. Love means we have compassion: we suffer along with each other. God has true (not just metaphorical) compassion for us.

As Alvin Plantinga notes (in his self-Profile to the 1985 book about his work Alvin Plantinga):

As the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, cooly observing the suffering of His creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering. He endures the anguish of seeing his son, the second person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. Some theologians claim that God cannot suffer. I believe they are wrong. God’s capacity for suffering, I believe, is proportional to his greatness; it exceeds our capacity for suffering in the same measure as his capacity for knowledge exceeds ours. Christ was prepared to endure the agonies of hell itself; and God, the Lord of the universe, was prepared to endure the suffering consequent upon his son’s humiliation and death. He was prepared to accept this suffering in order to overcome sin, and death, and the evils that afflict our world, and to confer on us a life more glorious than we can imagine. So we don’t know why God permits evil; we do know, however, that He was prepared to suffer on our behalf, to accept suffering of which we can form no conception.

God changes, because he feels. His emotional response is what makes him God.

Losing Immutability

Does that mean, then, that we can salvage something from immutability? Can we claim that God is immutable (completely without change) in every respect except the emotional one? Possibly. Many people do. There’s just one problem with that, and it’s kind of a big one:

The Word became flesh

The incarnation destroys any sense of “immutability” because God, in the person of Jesus Christ, changed who he was. God was not incarnate as some kind of “everyman” where we can plug in whomever we want with whatever attributes we desire. Nor did he just seem to be human, while not really being a person, like the gods of Greek mythology (this is a heresy called “Docetism” from the Greek for “seems” or “appears”). The argument of the New Testament, and Hebrews especially, is the God became a real, genuine human being. Not only that, he became a very specific historical human being.

Think about that.

God had hair color

Eyebrows.

Toes.

Gums.

He got dust in his eyes.

He ate food.

He got tired.

His feet hurt.

He had to bathe.

He had to relieve himself.

Almighty God

Digging a hole in the dessert.

That seems like a pretty big step down from heaven.

And that’s exactly the point. At least that’s the point Paul makes in Philippians 2. God humiliated himself.

So much so, that he was beaten and marched to the point of exhaustion.

Then he was executed in the most public, embarrassing, painful fashion possible.

Naked.

On a cross.

And people made fun of him for it.

And here’s the thing. After the crucifixion, and the resurrection, Jesus didn’t stop being a human being. He didn’t even stop being a particular historical human being. Yes his body was transformed, but he still had those scars, he could still be touched, he still ate food. He ascended to heaven as a human being, and the angels told those watching he would come back in the same way. The book of Hebrews takes great pains to tell us that Jesus was just like us, in every way. God, in the person of Jesus, changed who He was.

He had to.

Because He loves us that much.

So do I believe in immutability?

No. I believe in a thing called love, and, more than that, I believe in the One who loved me first. God Almighty: Father, Son and Spirit.

So what does Hebrews 13:8 mean, then? I’ll get there next week.

The Fall (and return) of Logical Positivism

So last week I began talking about logical positivism. It is, genuinely, the foundational philosophy for much of analytic philosophy that currently dominates philosophy departments in the US and UK. If you will recall, the logical positivist position can be boiled down to a single statement:

“All meaningful statements are either analytic or empirical”

I tried to give a brief explanation of what “analytic” means by saying that it is essentially something that is logically sound (both valid and true). I also defined empirical (as the positivists did) as those things that are derived entirely from sensory observation or a combination of sensory observation and analytic statements.

The result of such a strict criteria was the exclusion of many disciplines from the academic discourse (or any discourse) not because they were false, but because they were without meaning. In other words, if I start talking about religious things then I would be considered by the logical positivists to be spouting nonsense not falsehood. This strategy was actually wildly successful in the first part of the 20th century for marginalizing these other branches of the humanities. However, the victory would soon be short lived.

Cracks begin to form

A lot of the fervor for logical positivism came from a clearly optimistic perspective of what could be done in the world. In many ways, it was thought that if efforts were simply focusing on meaningful goals (as defined by the logical positivists), then most of the world’s problems would be alleviated. In particular there was a huge amount of optimism about the potential that science had to explain and revolutionize our world. This optimism, however, was shattered in World War I. Then, it became clear that science was not a purely positive thing, but could be used for negative as well as positive ends. This disillusionment with the ideal, though, could mean that the efforts of the logical positivists needed only to be increased (and that was the initial response). However, some more fundamental problems began to arise.

One of the foundations for reason in Kant’s writing was this idea that mathematics were synthetic a priori truths. In other words, they did not meet the criteria for meaning as the logical positivists had laid them out, but instead mathematics were things that we, essentially, constructed and yet could readily identify as being true. This did not sit well with the logical positivists and one of the primary goals of the movement was to give an account of mathematics that was entirely analytic.

This challenge was taken up by Bertrand Russell, a brilliant mathematician and philosopher, and Alfred North Whitehead. Russell’s initial work The Principles of Mathematics was meant to be a first volume, but the second volume was eventually expanded into three and became a much more important influential work in its own right. This work, Principia Mathematica, is truly a monumental and spectacular work in mathematics and was the most serious attempt to give an analytical account for mathematics. However there was a problem.

Three of the axioms that were needed to make the logical system work, axioms related to infinity, choice, and reducibility, could not be made into logical (read: analytical) axioms. Russell tried to avoid the problem by not necessarily affirming the axioms, but in the end the system was incomplete without these axioms.

Once one couples this with the other criticisms of the project, and the even more foundational criticism levied by Wittgenstein, who had once been seen as an ally to the logical positivists, and the entire project ended up a spectacular, if very insightful, failure.

So disillusioned was A. N. Whitehead by this that he eventually, upon abandoning the positivist movement, went in a very different direction as a founding member, in many ways, of process philosophy and process theology (a rather interesting, but I would argue also fundamentally incorrect) movement.

The Nail in the Coffin

The final blow might be traced to a few different criticisms. However, the one that seemed the most decisive was the one offered by someone from within the logical positivist group. In 1951 W. V. O. Quine published what might be the most important philosophical paper of the twentieth century. In his paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” he dismantles the logical positivist position in a number of ways. The first of his critiques, which itself has been questioned and criticized, it that the analytic-synthetic distinction seems forced and arbitrary. Admittedly, this particular section does not seem all the convincing. However, in his second argument, he attacks to dogmatic approach the logical positivists have to meaning. Recall that for a statement to have meaning it must be either a) analytic or b) derived from sensory experience. The problem is, this criteria for meaning is itself neither a) analytic nor b) derived from sensory experience. To use the phrase Quine does to describe it. It is “self-referentially incoherent.” Under no definition of analytic or empirical truth can the claim that those are the exclusive claims to meaning be established. Quine does reserve the final section to discuss what amounts to applying Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm views to the positivists. He notes that there may be attempts to reconcile the positivist vision with this attack upon the “core beliefs”. Surprisingly, though, in philosophy at least, the logical positivists quickly began to fade. By the 1960s it was largely considered a dead movement, built upon demonstrably false premises. It does exist in a few forms here or there, but these are not taken seriously by the majority of the philosophical community.

The Surprising Return

Perhaps its not that surprising that this movement has returned, particularly through a few science popularizers.  Specifically, I am referring to the New Atheists. Of course there arguments and calls to dismiss religious beliefs as ridiculous and general refusal to accept that religious and metaphysical claims have a say in society are not new; no they aren’t new, they are foolish and display a massive ignorance of philosophical history (and not obscure philosophical history, but some of the most foundational work in the 20th century English language). They are new in their surprising zeal, showing much more enthusiasm (and calling for the same among their untrained followers) than the positivists. If you will notice, though, there are virtually no philosophers (and really few scientists who are still engaged in active research) who are involved with the movement. It is, largely, a populist one. This is not because they want to bring “power to the people” or help save people from the “oppression of religion”. Rather, it is because the view can only thrive among those who are ignorant of this past movement. One of the surprising exceptions might be A. C. Grayling, a philosophy professor at the Univeristy of London (Brickbeck College). However, upon examining Grayling’s recent work, it becomes clear that he is less a philosopher and more a sensationalist (i.e. he likes being in the news). His Atheist Bible was a bit of an abomination, cobbling together bits and pieces of religious and literary texts, all of them horribly out of context, and with no citation whatsoever. Follow that up with his current project, a for profit college called New College of Humaniies which seems to exist primarily to grab headlines with ridiculous claims and to offer the children of wealthy parents who are unable to gain admission to otherwise respectable universities the chance to pretend theirs is an elite school. This project (which welcomed its first class this fall) has been almost universally criticized as misunderstanding almost everything known about higher education. In the end, the New Atheists like to ridicule and dismiss religion as foolishness, when in reality they need only look at their own history to see who really are the foolish ones sticking their heads in the sand.

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