Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Image of the Christ as Portrayed in the Beatitudes

A simple discovery: The beatitudes function as an implied dialog. They begin with the crucial first step for proper functioning in an ethical community, followed by a second step that addresses a moral pitfall that besets an exclusive emphasis on the first step. The second step also has an associated moral pitfall that needs to be addressed by a third step, and so on through the nine beatitudes. Because the first beatitude begins with the crucial first ethical perspective and the last with a meta-point that intensifies and personalizes the preceding eight beatitudes, it is plain that the implied dialog is intended. Furthermore, it is plain that what is intended is a conceptual depiction of moral balance, a way of "seeing" how to avoid the moral pitfalls associated with human attempts to maintain an ethical equilibrium. They can, then, be viewed as a depiction of the points of view that provide proper moral balance.

Since the beatitudes are the central moral teaching of Jesus, and Christianity has traditionally claimed moral perfection for Jesus, it follows that Jesus' central moral teaching will be seen as descriptive of Jesus within Christian tradition--and, of course, the Gospels are a product of Christian tradition, thus preventing a vicious circle in the reasoning. In that sense the beatitudes depict Jesus, the Christian image of the Christ. This is significant, since the central image of the faith is the cross, and--to be blunt--the cross is no way to live.

The form of exposition to follow will be to simply put the beatitudes in order along with the "missing" implied dialog. First, however, a brief explanation of why the first of the beatitudes provides the crucial first ethical perspective.


Immanual Kant addressed the ubiquitous human tendency to engage in a "natural dialectic" that "quibbles with the laws of duty" and perverts moral principles by adapting them to "our wishes and inclinations; that is, to pervert their very foundations..."1 Jesus addressed that very tendency in the religious culture of his time. "...woe to you, Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice..." (Luke 11. 42, NRSV) Kant prescribed the "categorical imperative" to counter the tendency to adapt ethics to our wishes: "I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law."2 In effect, Kant advised us to continually act on a rule that is designed to prevent the use of convenient exceptions for ourselves to rules of action we expect of others in our society. That is, it is the purpose of the categorical imperative to remind us that we are not in a different category than others in our society.

But what of another human tendency, equally likely to pervert the foundations of our moral principles, namely pride? It too impels us to place ourselves apart from the rules that we expect others to be bound by. This is an especially insidious moral problem, because it addresses the very idea that one OUGHT to function within the same moral categories as are expected of others. It is precisely this meta-Kantian danger that the first beatitude addresses:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Mt. 5.3, NRSV) The Phillips translation uses "humble minded" rather than "poor in spirit." In simple language Jesus endorsed a moral/ethical principle that persons who understand ethical principles should not see themselves as above them. It can be argued that Jesus began with a blessing that is at once more fundamental and more practical than Kant's imperative, since it addresses the root cause of the human tendency to find exceptions to moral principles when they considering the application of those principles to their own case. In that sense, the first of the beatitudes states the crucial first ethical perspective: be "humble minded."

(The hypocrisy Jesus confronted in the Pharisees is an ironic form of pride as an underlying moral hazard: They viewed themselves as superior to those who were not in a position to keep the small points of the law, thereby justifying an injudicious pride by means of which they dealt with those who did not keep the small points of the law with contempt.)

With that in mind we are ready to see the beatitudes as an implied dialog by which Jesus provided the Christian community with an ethical perspective held in proper balance.


"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

But if a person is "poor in spirit" isn't it a moral hazard that she or he will decide that their hopes and wishes just don't matter, that they will lead lives of resignation and detachment?

"Yes! Therefore, I say to the poor in spirit...

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

But if a person cares so deeply that they are in mourning, don't they leave themselves open to developing an angry and vengeful attitude?

"Yes! Therefore, I say to those who mourn...

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."

But isn't it possible that those who are meek will lack resolve in the face of life's challenges and injustices?

"Yes! Therefore, I say to the meek...

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied."

But, isn't it possible that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will become heartless and legalistic in their pursuit of justice?

"Yes! Therefore, I say to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy."

But isn't it possible that those who love mercy will become morally slack?

"Yes! Therefore, I say to the merciful...

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."

But isn't it possible that the pure in heart will be unyielding and uncooperative to those with less pure points of view?

"Yes! Therefore, I say to the pure in heart...

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."

But isn't it possible that peacemakers will become disillusioned, since peace is often illusive, and even opposed by those who unjustly want to get their selfish ways?

"Yes! Therefore, I say to the peacemakers...

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

[Here, the beatitudes' thematic structure at once has gone full circle--they have returned to the first blessing of "their's is the kingdom of heaven"--and goes meta: the implied rejoinder to this beatitude concern's the hearers having ears to hear.]

But, isn't it possible that a person can agree with these recommendations you make without really taking them to heart?

"Yes! Therefore, I say to someone who understands and agrees with these moral values and blessings but has not personalized them...

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven."


For our purposes here, three outstanding attributes run throughout this implied dialog: 1. Each moral desideratum is kept in proper balance and perspective against a wider range of moral desiderata. 2. Conviction and strength of character are necessary and to be prized (blessed). And 3. The person who is able to avoid the pitfalls inherent in the possibility of any single moral value's capacity to distort our minds when taken singly will have an extraordinary suppleness of mind. Strong will. Good will. Great intelligence. All are needed to see the counterpoised balance among multiple moral and ethical desiderata that must be maintained to achieve moral perfection. That is the image of Jesus that the beatitudes gives us, on the assumptions given above. It is a moral and conceptual likeness, in Christian form, that bears a likeness to the Greek ideals of balanced perspective and strength, as seen in statues of Apollo, in which the Greek arche' is depicted. The image of Jesus, implied, is a striking, beautiful image: a Christian arche'.


1. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanual Kant, tr. H. J. Paton (Harper and Row, New York, 1956) 73.
2. Ibid., 70.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Seeing Bertrand Russell as Christian: Commentary on "The Grand Design"

The importance of THE GRAND DESIGN" does not derive from the finality of its point of view with respect to extirpating philosophical theology. It cannot be, since the point of view used to show that religious/theological/metaphysical/philosophical points of view are obsolete is--frankly--embarrassingly flawed. Nevertheless, it makes a landmark claim. And furthermore, that Hawking and Mlodinow have not argued their case well is not the same thing as saying that they do not have a good case to make. So how does a person go about trying to be fair to them and the point of view they wished to establish?

It occurred to me that Bertrand Russell had a more nuanced view of the question than Hawking and Mlodinow, which just might provide some insight into how to appraise THE GRAND DESIGN's big claim. Plus, we can have some fun with the fact that Russell seems to have made, in some sense, "a decision for Christ" near the end of his A HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY. The "decision" is couched in an amusing--and very clever--thought experiment in which Nietzsche and the Buddha argue their views for the Almighty. The quote is extensive:

If Buddha and Nietzsche were confronted, could either produce any argument that ought to appeal to the impartial listener? I am not thinking of political arguments. We can imagine them appearing before the Almighty, as in the first chapter of Job, and offering advice as to the sort of world He should create. What could either say?

Buddha would open the argument by speaking of the lepers, outcast and miserable; the poor, toiling with aching limbs and barely kept alive by scanty nourishment...and even the most successful haunted by the thought of failure and death. From all this load of sorrow...a way of salvation must be found, and salvation can only come through love.

Nietzsche, whom only Omnipotence could restrain from interrupting, would burst out...: "Good heavens, man, you must learn to be of tougher fiber. Why go about snivelling because trivial people suffer? ... Trivial people suffer trivially, great men suffer greatly, and great sufferings are not to be regretted, because they are noble. Your ideal is a purely negative one, absence of suffering, which can be securely accomplished by non-existence. I, on the other hand, have positive ideals: I admire Alcibiades, and the Emperor Fredrick II, and Napoleon. For the sake of such men, any misery is worth while. ..."

Buddha, who in the courts of Heaven has learned all history...replies with calm urbanity: "You are mistaken, Professor Nietzsche, in thinking my ideal is a purely negative one. True, it includes a negative element...but it has in addition quite as much that is positive as is to be found in your doctrine. ...I too have my heros: my successor Jesus, because he told men to love their enemies; the men who discovered how to master the forces of nature...; the medical men...; the poets and artists and musicians who have caught glimpses of the Divine Beatitude. Love and knowledge and delight in beauty are not negations..."

"All the same," Nietzsche replies, "your world would be insipid. ...what is more beautiful than the tiger, who owes his splendour to his fierceness? No, if the Lord should decide for your world, I fear we should all die of boredom."

"You might," Buddha replies, "because you love pain, and your love of life is a sham. ..."

For my part, I [Russell] agree with Buddha as I have imagined him.

So Bertrand Russell comes down on the side of Buddha and Jesus, as he understands them. What do we make of this "decision for Christ," partial and in need of much qualification though it be?!! I will admit to a perverse delight in framing Russell's view here in an Evangelical Christian category--but the question is entirely legitimate.

I began playing with the question after reading a post on Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity" at Experimental Theology. The question of what happens to Christian faith when emptied of metaphysical and religious elements dovetails precisely with the question of what one might say about a professed atheist who expresses agreement with arguably the core message of Christian faith. And that question also illustrates something important for anyone asking whether a positivistic doctrine such as Hawking and Mlodinow's "model-dependent realism" can really be used to limit the scope of one's (meaningful) beliefs.

Let's look at how Russell framed his own approach in order to get some commentary on these dovetailing questions. Immediately following the statement of agreement "with Buddha [and by implication the Jesus the Buddha admires in Russell's dialog] as [Russell] imagined him" Russell went on to say:

But I do not know how to prove that he is right... I dislike Nietzsche because he likes the contemplation of pain, because he makes conceit a duty, because the men he admires most are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing men to die. But I think that the ultimate argument against his philosophy, as against any unpleasant but internally self-consistent ethic, lies not in appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the emotions. Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world." (773-4)

That Russell felt universal love to be "the motive power to all that [he] desire[d] as regards the world" makes the question of whether he can be considered Christian more than a framing of his words to fit some technicality of Christian faith. The words just quoted describe precisely what ought to be the motive of anyone who believes that God is love and that the great commandments of the faith are to love God and neighbor. What other motive could capture the core Christian view of how one ought to live better than Russell's?

I suppose that the basic point to the question of whether, and if so in what sense, Bertrand Russell can be considered Christian is this: It is clearly possible to see the basic stance of Christian faith (ostensibly, at least) as right, at least for oneself, without seeing it as true in any "deep" sense. He could look at Buddha and Jesus as say "Those are my heroes in my quest to enact an ethic of universal love." Yet he could also be an atheist with respect to belief in the metaphysics of traditional faith.

This is where the question of how to make sense of a "religionless Christianity" dovetails with the question of whether and in what sense Bertrand Russell can be called "Christian": In Bonhoeffer's exploration of the idea we are forced to consider the possibility of a faith without metaphysics, something that sounds very much like being asked to be Christian in whatever sense Russell might be considered to have been.

But Russell's perspective breaks through this impasse too, albeit probably unbeknownst to him. Consider the final paragraph of his History.

In the welter of conflicting fanaticisms, one of the few unifying forces is scientific truthfulness, by which I mean the habit of basing our beliefs on observations as impersonal, and as much divested of local and temperamental bias, as is possible for human beings. To have insisted upon the introduction of this virtue into philosophy, and to have invented a powerful method by which it can be rendered fruitful, are the chief merits of the philosophical school of which I am a member ["logical analysis," often called positivism]. The habit of careful veracity acquired...can be extended to the whole sphere of human activity, producing a lessening of fanaticism with an increasing capacity of sympathy and mutual understanding. In abandoning a part of its dogmatic pretensions philosophy does not cease to suggest and inspire a way of life. (836)

Two things need to be said. First, it is odd, to say the least, that Russell credits a philosophy that bases "beliefs on observations as possible for human beings" for "inspir[ing] a way of life" that increases the "capacity for sympathy" amongst peoples. Just a bit ago we read that there is no "appeal to facts" (774) to determine whether a Nietzschian antipathy to humanity in general or a Buddhist/Christian ideal of universal love ought to serve as one's motive in life. Clearly it is Russell's experience that the two (his philosophy of logical analysis and a Buddhist/Christian ideal) can exist together. But that they are compatible does not change the fact that--on his own view--the commitment to compassion is a supplement to his ideal of truthfulness based on impersonal observation rendered coherent by logical analysis. Moreover, it is a supplement which, if we hold him to his philosophy, he ought not make: he chose the Buddhist/Christian view over the Nietzschian challenge by an appeal to "emotions," claiming that it is not established by "an appeal to facts." (774) Clearly, his habit of basing his beliefs on "impersonal observations" was not nearly as well established as he believed. His choice of an ethic of universal love was neither impersonal nor based on factual observation. It might even be called atheistic fideism.

Second, there is an important sense in which Christianity has always implied, and required, a form of atheism. A man hanging on a cross looks like anything but a god. To say it is so is to contradict everything a person who did believe in the gods or God of the first century would have thought, at least prior to becoming a Christian. In that case to be a Christian is to be an atheist with respect to the old beliefs about God. And here's the coup de grace: A very good argument can be made that the cross is supposed to function as an ongoing reminder that the very human temptation to deify one's own view in order to make the world serve one's own goals (whether cultural, national, personal, philosophical, biological, or even non-sensical, etc.) is "demonic"--or "fanatical," to use Russell's word. (I am using Tillich's view here.) So rendered, Christianity marries a commitment to universal love to a reminder that any attempt to set up our personal (cultural, etc.) view of the divine as THE divinity is both wrong and false. And need it be added that God rendered as something that is impersonal and observable and then rendered intelligible by logical analysis is idolatry by any fair understanding of relevant biblical texts?! But in that case a right thinking Christian and Bertrand Russell--with his thoughts straightened out a bit--are saying the same thing! Apparently, at least at a high level of abstraction. (I did say this would be fun--at the end of the last post.)

What are we to make of this extremely odd situation in which the 20th Century's most famous atheist's core beliefs are the same as the core beliefs of Christianity? I think that Paul Tillich--whose framework we will borrow again--framed the best possible answer in his conclusion to BIBLICAL RELIGION AND THE SEARCH FOR ULTIMATE REALITY.

The correlation of ontology and biblical religion is an infinite task. There is no special ontology that we have to accept in the name of the biblical message [in which case Russell is Christian without qualification]... There is no saving ontology, but the ontological question is implied in the question of salvation. To ask the ontological question is a necessary task. Against Pascal I say: The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the God of the philosophers is the same God. He is a person and the negation of himself as a person.

Faith comprises both itself and the doubt of itself. The Christ is Jesus and the negation of Jesus. Biblical religion is the negation and the affirmation of ontology. To live serenely and courageously in these tensions and to discover finally their ultimate unity in the depths of our own souls and in the depths of the divine life is the task and the dignity of human thought.

Two sentences stand out. The first: "To ask the ontological question is a necessary task." If so, whether we frame positivism as the philosophy of logical analysis (Russell) or "methodological realism" (Hawking/Mlodinow) our philosophy is incomplete. Russell's importing of a foundational value based on feelings at the very point he is asserting a philosophy based on impersonal observation is a nice case study in support of Tillich's claim. But if our philosophy is always incomplete, we will always be in need of supplementing our philosophy with some form of faith.

The second: "Biblical religion is the affirmation and the negation of ontology." Isn't it interesting that we have been considering the puzzle of whether an atheist can be considered Christian, when it can be just as well asked whether a theist can be! Life is fun, and don't let anyone tell you differently, except when it's not. If you want it simpler than that, just don't try to do theology--or atheology for that matter: You'll be in over your head. On the other hand, if you don't know you're in over your head, you're not doing theology--or atheology.

That's what Hawking and Mlodinow need to know. They, like all the rest of us, are in over their heads. That's what Russell came within a hair of discovering within the sphere of his own philosophy.* That's what Tillich was getting at--and Bonhoeffer appeared to be, though I've got some reading to do on that question. That's what's implied in the biblical prohibition against idolatry conjoined to the injunction to love God. Atheistic theism? Religionless faith? What's the alternative? Well, it seems that either one can be in over their head and not know it, or be in over their head and know it. And to know it is compatible with faith. In fact to know it is a form of surrender to faith--and doubt!

*William James made what I take to be the deepest view possible on this: "One's objective deliverance, when one says 'the absolute exists,' amount[s] this, that 'some justification of a feeling of security in the presence of the universe' exists, and that systematically to refuse to cultivate a feeling of security would be to do violence to a tendency in one's emotional life which might well be respected as prophetic." (Preface to THE MEANING OF TRUTH) And this comes very close to bringing together Russell's smuggling in a commitment to universal love founded on his personal feelings with the Christian view that we must all come to God as little children.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Grand Move in THE GRAND DESIGN


The first two chapters of THE GRAND DESIGN lay out this view:

A quantum-informed understanding of the world is very different than a common sense understanding of the world. Unlike a common sense understanding of the world, a quantum understanding of the world can answer the big questions surrounding why there is a universe, with the laws it has, which make the seeming miracle of our existence possible. Given this claim, the rationales for belief in God that arise out of a common sense understanding of the world are obviated by a quantum-informed understanding of the world. The "space for God" once reserved by natural theology with its common sense view of reality has been eliminated.

As it pertains to the--supposedly now defunct--God question, that is the first two chapters of THE GRAND DESIGN in pure abstraction. Since the Hawking/Mlodinow approach was to give a brief overview based on their expert understanding, it is best for me to give you the bare abstraction and refer you to the book, if you wish to begin filling in a few details. Since I will in no way contest the science--just the conclusions drawn from it, aka, the Hawking/Mlodinow philosophical perspective--that is sufficient.

The just referenced "Hawking/Mlodinow philosophical perspective" implies that even if we grant to them that their quantum-informed science answers the big questions of the old common sense view of reality, there is a new field of metaphysical speculation opened up by their quantum science. Does anyone really think that we won't go meta on the new science and ask "is that all there is?" with respect to the understanding of the world wrought by the new physics?

Implicitly Hawking and Mlodinow address this question. For it is the need to close off this pretty obvious human tendency to "go meta" that they resort to a new form of that old chestnut, positivism: their "model-dependent realism."

The Grand Move

Model-dependent realism is the grand philosophical move in THE GRAND DESIGN. The argument for it is found in Chapter 3, "What Is Reality?"

Hawking and Mlodinow begin their exposition of model-dependent "reality" by making the point that a pet goldfish looking out from a frame of reference that begins with its transparent, spherical bowl would arrive at a different science--we're assuming that fish can do science--than someone outside the bowl. We might hope that the fish would arrive at a paradigm that allows it to think outside the bowl, but let's not spoil the point of the illustration: we are influenced by our means of observing the world, at least till we (via science) arrive at a better way to "see."

They begin with the illustration for an important reason. They want to establish that there is complete identity between what we think of as "reality" and our observation of it. To wit:

"According to model-dependent realism, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. If there are two models that agree with observation, like the goldfish's picture and ours, then one cannot say that one is more real than another." (46)

This follows from two things. First, the definition of model-dependent realism, and second, the claim that "There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality." (42)

Here's the definition:

"...model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations." (45)

Obviously, if there is no concept of reality apart from a model formed from a person's (or fish's) frame of reference, then reality simply IS what we perceive it to be--presumably it should be added, "in coherent moments where one's frame of reference is not distorted," i.e., we can't be on acid or be looking out from a place where our "fishbowl" has a crack or flaw in the glass.

Here's the crucial point--though it is never explicitly addressed in the book. It is incoherent to say of a false point of view that it is "real." For that reason, the Hawking/Mlodonow position must be that "If there are two models that agree with observation, like the goldfish's picture and ours, then one cannot say that one is more real than another." (46) For if model-dependent observations of the world are sometimes wrong, unbeknown to the person in the thrall of their frame of reference at a given time, then it must be allowed that Hawking and Mlodonow implicitly endorse a view by which--incoherently--they claim of a false point of view that it is real.

In my first post on this book, I expressed my frustration with the central use of model-dependent reality for this very incoherency. To buttress my opinion I cited Thomas Kuhn's comment below:

"Looking at the moon, the convert to Copernicanism [from a Ptolemaic frame of reference] does not say, 'I used to see a planet, but now I see a satellite.' That locution would imply a sense in which the Ptolemaic system had once been correct. Instead a convert to the new astronomy says, '...I was mistaken.'" (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Second Ed. (University of Chicago Press, 1970) 113-4.)

But in THE GRAND DESIGN the authors specifically take on the view that one frame of reference, or "model" of reality, can falsify another by disallowing the very point I had Kuhn make for me:

"So which is real, the Ptolemaic or Copernican system? Although it is not uncommon for people to say that Copernicus proved Ptolemy wrong, that is not true. As in the case of our normal view versus that of the goldfish, one can use either picture as a model of the universe, for our observations of the heavens can be explained by assuming either the earth or the sun to be at rest. Despite its role in philosophical debates over the nature of the universe, the real advantage of the Copernican system is simply that the equations of motion are much simpler..." (41-2)

Is it really that simple--just a choice between alternative realities based on which frame of reference is more convenient or, perhaps, familiar? No. In fact, the example can be clearly falsified, making Kuhn's point of view clearly true, and the Hawking/Mlodonow view clearly false.

Falsifying the Hawking/Mlodinow Grand Move

If one scientific frame of reference simply subsumes another--which is one way of construing the move from a Ptolemaic to a Copernican model of the universe--there is no contradiction between them, and both can be coherently called models of "reality," just as Hawking and Mlodinow wish us to do. But that is not the case, either here or with respect to the move from a Newtonian framework to an Einsteinian one, or from an Einsteinian one to the quantum-based framework in THE GRAND DESIGN. We will look at the falsification of the Ptolemaic model by the Copernican, since it is so simple to show (and it was the case used for purposes of illustration by Hawking/Mlodinow).

Assume just these two commonly known truths of "reality" that current science has confirmed for us: that the speed of light is constant in all frames of reference, and that we live in an amazingly vast cosmos, in which the nearest star to the Sun (Alpha Cantauri AB) is 4.37 light years away. Since a frame of reference in which the Sun goes around the Earth will include the third brightest star in the ski (Alpha Centauri AB) as part of the observational backdrop, Alpha Centauri AB will also have to travel around the Earth. But then every day Alpha Centauri AB will need to travel its distance from our (presumed) geocentric center of reference, doubled to get the diameter of the circuit it must travel, times pi to get the circumference of the curcuit, times 365 to convert light year speed to a distance traveled in a single 24-hour period, by which we arrive at a speed for Alpha Centauri AB as it travels around the Earth of 10,016 light years per day. That's a little over one million percent of the speed of light, which is a constant in all frames of reference at one millionth the extrapolated speed of Alpha Centauri AB. If that is not a blatant falsification of the Ptolemaic model, it's difficult to think of what would be.

But that is not the end of the embarrassing problems for Hawking/Mlodinow, based on their own statements. Recall the claim that "There is no picture- or model-independent concept of reality." (42) But what about their handling of the question of free will in the face of the admission that their deterministic paradigm may well never be able to provide a model of how human volition works:

"How can one tell if a being has free will? ... We cannot even solve the equations for three or more particles interacting with each other. Since [a being our size has]...about a thousand trillion trillion would be impossible to solve the equations and predict what [a being our size]... would do. We would therefore have to say [by default] that any complex being has free will--not as a fundamental feature, but as an effective theory, an admission of our inability to do the calculations that would enable us to predict its actions." (178)

So no effective model of human volition is possible, but free will is posited by default as "an effective theory." That sounds like "a model-independent concept of reality." Of course, the hedge that the "theory" is not a "fundamental feature" was made. But there it is for all to see: a "fundamental feature" of reality for which there is no model. That directly contradicts the claim that "There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality." That is, unless a "theory" that can't account for what it is a theory of counts... This is a version of the commonplace objections to old-style positivism that things like love, which we know about, can't be observed in the way positivism requires. But it's nice to have THE GRAND DESIGN provide another example for its ideological opponents.

This is enough to show that Hawking and Mlodinow are very much in need of the philosophical perspective they begin their book by disparaging. Since the grand move by which they want to place philosophical theology out of bounds forever more (model-dependent realism) is so deeply flawed, we can safely call that project as questionable in the least, if not outright failed.

A more interesting line of enquery going forward is whether the questions one can ask when going meta on the new quantum-based physics account of consmology are still meaningful. (Hint: See the C. S. Peirce quote at the head of this blog!)

Note: What a friend has called "the occasion gauntlet," aka, "the holidays," is upon us. I'll get to the next post when I can--but I promise, it will be fun. Since the comments are disabled, email me at with any questions. Any credible challenge will be noted and responded to.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Lesson to Remedy Overconfidence

After a very busy weekend filled with making plans for promoting my rower next year, including exploring possible speed record attempts that have me really excited, I thought I would comment on a life lesson that the weekend reminded me of.

Of words I've heard that seemed way off base when I first heard them, these--spoken at the end of a conversation with the patent examiner of my first application--stand out: "Next time..." The entire comment does not matter here. It is the two words, "Next time..." that matter most.

Having invested a year developing a product to the point that I had tested it enough to believe in it; having spent a year learning how to write a patent correctly; how to research and specify and make the claims effectively in an arcane and detailed form; having called on favors from friends and family to test and comment on and draw the rower for me; the thought of "Next time..." seemed ludicrous. I was just so pleased to be DONE.

Two realizations had not yet set in for me, which would transform my attitude toward those words. First, once begun, an area of experiment and investigation takes on a life of its own--assuming there is enough success for the idea to remain "live." And second, it is very difficult, having already put in tremendous time and effort in an area, not to continue that effort when a promising way forward presents itself. The psychological momentum is just tremendous. Apparently the patent examiner knew all this--as well as the fact that I was far from having perfected my idea.

There are two applications here, for the analysis of Stephen Hawking's and Leonard Mlodinow's view that Feynman's quantum theory obviates theological speculations about ultimate origins. The first is indirect--a background point. Before making an application for a patent, it is crucial that a careful and thorough job of researching the "prior art" has been carried out. Hawking and Mlodinow cite Augustine's ideas from Book Ten of the Confessions about the interface of time and eternity, but utterly fail to understand, let alone appreciate them. Put simply, Augustine's "prior art," with respect to THE GRAND DESIGN, undercuts the Hawking/Mlodinow point of view. I will not link to prior posts on Augustine's argument here, since I have improvements to it that I want to introduce on this blog in forthcoming posts.

More directly, the authors believe that they have finished the work of knocking the life out of philosophical theology. (The direct quote, you will recall, is "...philosophy is dead." (p. 5.)) Well, "next time" the authors take up the subject--and I take no joy in stating this--they will need to think through the implications of their science with more precision. Which is to say that a resurrection of the supposedly "dead" discipline is needed, if they are to clarify their thinking.

An example will help:

"Though it may sound like philosophy, the weak anthropic principle can be used to make scientific predictions. For example, how old is the universe?" (sic., p. 154.) That's a line that--I would have supposed--would be found in the likes of my favorite cartoon, non sequitur. In fact, the thought process--and I may go into this in more detail in a later post--for the authors is a deductive application of current scientific understanding (of the processes that had to be in place to arrive at a planet like ours that supports intelligent life) to the question of the earth's age. But the process of deduction as a means of "advancing" scientific understanding is Aristotelian!

Don't get me wrong. I intend to take Hawking's and Mlodinow's word in all areas of their scientific expertise. Thus, I intend to accept the deductions by which they extend their understanding of quantum theory as it appliers to the origin of our cosmos. So this won't be the latest version of the Flat Earth Society. What it will be is a sober analysis of whether THE GRAND DESIGN is the end of anything.

And as I prepare my thoughts about that I could not help but recall the words, "Next time..." directed my way when I had made the mistake of thinking I had brought a subject to its terminus.

This will be fun. But I hope not to be mean spirited or flippant: it is precisely because THE GRAND DESIGN tells us important new things about the state of scientific understanding with respect to philosophical theology that it is important and interesting. And if Hawking and Mlodinow made a few mistakes and left a few stones unturned that an amateur theologian can point out and pick up, well, it was nice of them to set me up!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Appraising Hawking's THE GRAND DESIGN--Introduction

With co-author, Leonard Mlodinow, Stephen Hawking begins THE GRAND DESIGN by telling the reader that "...philosophy is dead." ((Bantam, New York: 2010) p. 5.) Having just read the quote a few weeks ago when I had a chance to talk with a friend who teaches ethics through the philosophy department at the local university, I was treated with a little joke: "If philosophy is dead, then nothing is permitted!"

The grand claim, otiose though it certainly is when applied broadly to "philosophy," contains a core point that anyone who cares about the interface of science and theology will want to note. Hawking and Mlodinow employ an approach to quantum physics pioneered by Richard Feynman that obviates the version of the cosmological argument for the existence of God that most persons--who take an interest in the interface of science and theology--will be familiar with. William Lane Craig's simplified version of the cosmological argument summarizes the familiar line of argumentation well:

Everything that has a beginning has a cause. The universe has a beginning. Therefore, the universe has a cause. ("The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe.")

Paul Davies' words, below, provide insight into why someone as bright as Hawking could arrive at such an immoderate appraisal of their own position.

This so-called cosmological argument has in one form or another often been used as evidence for the existence of God. Over the centuries it has been refined and debated by many theologians and philosophers, sometimes with great subtlety. The enigma of the cosmic origin is probably the one area where the atheistic scientist will feel uncomfortable. (THE MIND OF GOD (Touchstone, New York: 1992) p. 39.)

Clearly Hawking and Mlodinow were focused on "the one area" where a philosopher doing natural theology could still make an "atheistic scientist...feel uncomfortable." If they are correct that the cosmological argument is based on a "naive view of reality...not compatible with modern physics," (p. 7) it follows that the "one area" where philosophy (and theology) still had something of note to bring to a conversation with atheistic scientists has been lost--that is, assuming the informed point of view makes the old, naive philosophical point of view obsolete. In that sense, philosophy would be "dead." They are not correct. But at least we have marked the origin of their overweening claim.

What I like and appreciate about THE GRAND DESIGN is that it wastes no time in getting to the point: An informed understanding of the new, quantum-based physics closes off any need to posit a reason for the origin of the cosmos that comes from outside the scientific model itself. That is their claim, and they stay on point from first to last, to their credit.

What I like and appreciate least about the book is that its reliance on "model-dependent realism" as the criterion of meaningfulness--pathetically--falsifies itself every time a more encompassing model is devised. In Thomas Kuhn's words,

In the sciences...if perceptual switches accompany paradigm changes, we may not expect scientists to attest to these changes directly. Looking at the moon, the convert to Copernicanism does not say, "I used to see a planet, but now I see a satellite." That locution would imply a sense in which the Ptolemaic system had once been correct. (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (The University of Chicago Press: 1979) p. 114-5.)

Of course, looking backward, it is not a problem that better new paradigms can falsify and obviate older inferior ones. So long as I am in possession of a never-to-be outstripped point of view, I can without fear of contradiction identify reality itself with my model of it. But this view is inconsistent with what a study of the history of science tells us about science itself. It used to be the black mark against positivism--sometimes called "scientism"--that it was a philosophical stance toward science that placed a philosophical stance toward science out of bounds (i.e., that science marked the boundary of the meaningful). This new scientism is inconsistent with the history of science. It places the supposed boundary of meaningful inquiry at the boundary of today's scientific models. One would hope for better from the likes of Hawking.

Nevertheless, the core point of the book is not affected by this almost incredibly ironic philosophical naivete, which will prove the book's downfall. That point, again, is that an informed understanding of the new, quantum-based physics closes off any need to posit a reason for the origin of the cosmos that comes from outside the scientific model itself.

So it is important to note the philosophical naivete employed in the book, because it exposes the importance of examining the (rash) claims that Hawking and Mlodinow make in dismissing philosophical arguments, to their immediate discredit (and ultimate demise). But an account of the new quantum-based physics' challenge to traditional views of the relationship of natural theology to science is both interesting and important, and I want to voice my appreciation for the clear challenge THE GRAND DESIGN poses.

I hope to do a creditable job of depicting the core argument found in THE GRAND DESIGN in coming posts. Most of us can learn much from the Hawking/Mlodinow narrative--I have, at least. And in saying so I intend to express my trust in their depiction of the new quantum-based physics and how the model of the cosmos it provides affects an analysis of the cosmological argument--that supposed last stand for the philosophical theologian.

Next week we will look at an overview of the Hawking/Mlodinow argument.

[Note: I will not be enabling comments. However, I will pose any substantive question or challenge that I get via email:]

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Note to Readers

I look forward to sharing a few things via this blog, probably starting again next fall. A partial list:

1. I discovered that the argument from Augustine's Confessions, that I shared last fall here, appears to not just avoid but turn the tables on critics of the cosmological argument in the form that harks back to St. Thomas' "Five Ways." I've reformulated the argument to take advantage of that and sent it to a journal for review. If I don't find a journal to publish it, I'll post it here, and if I do, I'll ask permission to do so.

2. I'm learning some things as I attempt to share my love of theology and philosophy with my 16-year-old son. Since this blog started because I wanted to share a piece I wrote with him in mind, it would be fitting to also share what I am learning by way of my ongoing attempts...

3. I'd like to share some of the challenges and thoughts I've had as I re-engage with a local church community.

Finally, I disabled the comments after it became clear that on-line parasites like to use (seemingly) abandoned blog comment areas for their purposes. If you want to contact me about this blog, you can email me at Please put "blog' in the title line.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Being Wrong about Being Right and the Mystery of Being

Clearly St. Thomas was correct to stress the importance of teaching a subject "according to the order of the subject matter." I have soberly quoted that remark from the Prologue to the Summa Theologica before, and before I go on, let me stress that I have tremendous respect for the Saint's work, even where I think he got it wrong. That said, a funny thought occurred to me this morning. Theology may well be the most disputed "subject" of all time! How then can one be sure that one's own point of view is the right one with respect to God? Now, I'm well aware of how St. Thomas ordered his theology--he began with positions on theology as a science and then went directly to his famous "Five Ways" (of proving God's existence), followed by arguments establishing God's simplicity, infinity, goodness, and so on.

Well, it certainly was not for lack of effort, but neither in his time or any time since has St. Thomas' views on theology caused widespread agreement on the subject. That's a cheap shot, in the sense that his views deserve respect--and I do respect them--but it nevertheless needs to be made: What's the use of teaching theology if it never clears up anything--at least beyond the mind of the person who espouses the view? It would be foolish not to ask that question.

That spurred this further thought. Perhaps it is inherent in the subject of "God" that there cannot be agreement, for this reason: God is a mystery. Certainly St. Thomas would have endorsed that: "...[humanity] is directed to God as to an end that surpasses the grasp of[its] reason." (ST, I,I,I.) His theology--this most reasoned of theologies--is an ordered dance around a subject that cannot ever, really, be known. Real agreement requires a subject that is known and thereby supplies the substance of what is agreed.

Augustine's argument from the Confessions that we looked at, in a couple of versions in past posts, takes this a step further. What is "always before" has never entered into time (for those of you who are not practiced in such abstractions, if it had, it could not be before each and every moment of time, from everlasting to everlasting, if necessary). And what does not enter time does not enter human understanding--for reasons outlined in the argument in previous posts. Because Augustine sets up his understanding of how God's relationship with creation is to be understood in light of this point of view, he essentially makes mystery the starting point of his understanding of theology.

If you like irony or paradox, that's a fine instance of both. It's the same as what we noted for St. Thomas; just arrived at a bit differently. The genius of Augustine, however, is evident in that he shows that our understanding of this world implies a real mystery beyond it as its source. He thereby arrives at what everyone has always called God by arriving at a mystery beyond our understanding. What we know is grounded in what we cannot know. Now that's REAL paradox!

It brings us right back to our opening thoughts, only with a vengeance: How can we be "right" about our musings on "mystery?" It seems incoherent, and I believe it actually is.

If I had to pick the prototype for biblical revelation, the giving of the Ten Commandments would be my choice. And as soon as that is stated, we are confronted with the prohibitions on the making of false gods and of having any gods before God. Surely it is odd to think of making something we can't understand. I think that's the point. The act of making and the fact of being false are inextricably tied with respect to God. Mystery cannot be represented. Beyond that, the Creator cannot be created. At least, the Creator conceived as the mystery that is "always before," and so cannot enter time as a creature cannot be created. These thoughts are not theology as neology; it's as old as the Bible.

Consequently, all true biblical theology is negative theology. Negative theology is the background to Job, chronologically the first book of the Bible. It tells us what we cannot know about God. Smug conceit about God is not just wrong, it's idolatrous. Moreover, avoiding this heresy of biblical heresies--idolatrous conceit about God--ought to be the starting point for any thinking about God.

There, I've said it. We have a starting point now, and I hope you will believe me when I say it's called Christianity--at least when it's properly understood, which is very far from always being the case... I arrive at that claim with a quote from Paul Tillich, which is tied to my understanding of faith in the way the writer of Deuteronomy intended when he wrote that God's commands are to be tied to our hands:

"The criterion of the truth of that it implies an element of self-negation. That symbol is most adequate which expresses not only the ultimate but its own lack of ultimacy. Christianity expresses itself in such a symbol...namely, in the Cross of Christ. Jesus could not have been the Christ without sacrificing himself as Jesus to himself as the Christ. Any acceptance of Jesus as the Christ which is not the acceptance of Jesus the crucified is a form of idolatry." (Dynamics of Faith, 97-8.)

I believe that my analogy between my use of Tillich's words here and the writer of Deuteronomy's words is apt, in that the cross is the ultimate, the final, the core, the overriding revelation from a Christian standpoint, and Tillich makes the right case for understanding the cross as the final revelation: we sacrifice our right to create gods in our image when we understand what it means to have faith in God. And if we do not understand that, we do not understand God as both clear thinking and the biblical witness require us to: God is NOT what we would make God out to be. Again, that is idolatry, the core heresy of the biblical witness.

In a final point, this is tied also to the view that God is love. To think that I am right is to think that I have a standpoint against which others can be known to be wrong. From that point of epistemic privilege I can look down on others, who are not right. What better form of justification for treating others badly than to be right about ultimate truth over against which they are wrong?! There is no mystery about why religion and ideals generally are the source of much that is truly worst in human nature. But if I am looking at this question clearly, Christian faith--and I do not speak for or against the many religions I do not understand well enough to appreciate properly--ought to be the cure for that all too human illness.

To say that God is love is to say that I have no basis in the Great Mystery of being to critique you, only to love you as a fellow traveler in this world--this house for our mortality provided by that source of being that is always before us, but never understood, yet always implied in all our understanding.

I truly think Augustine and Tillich are good guides to helping us think as Christians. I think they point us to the correct starting point. But it is a starting point that ought to make us exceedingly humble about our approach to God. For though that starting point gives us more than enough for faith, we are mistaken if we think it gives us enough to judge others as wrong relative to our point of view. In that case we are wrong about being right, and the mystery of being convicts us of our conceit. There is no conceit in the Cross of Christ.

It might well have become obscured that I have been thinking about how to teach Christian faith to young people over the course of these last half dozen posts. In the comment to the last post I indicated that i would not be posting again for a couple of months. My failure to make the point of this post, about the incompatibility of conceit and Christian faith, made it imperative for me to do so. In fact, as I hope is now clear, the starting point in teaching Christian faith should be precisely that.

This may well be my final post, ever, in that once one has made the most important point, it seems rather pointless to continue. And in terms of the purpose of this little blog, it is to get a few people thinking about this crucial topic, which I will state once more: how do we teach Christian faith to young people. There are few topics more important in the minds of my Christian friends, I would think.

Best wishes for Christmas and the holidays!