Sunday, 6 April 2008

Review of "Kingdom Triangle"

YepA review of Kingdom Triangle by J. P. Moreland, Zondervan 2007

Kingdom Triangle is an important book that doesn't really fit into any conventional categories. In this review I'll be treating it as belonging to the genre of church improvement books, most of which address church growth. However, Moreland's approach is very different, and this is a very philosophically strong book.

So, what's it about? Well, the cover has an extended subtitle, which aptly summarises the work: "Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit's Power." As you would expect from the title and subtitle, there are three major thrusts to this work (three legs of a stool, as Moreland puts it). Each of these forms a chapter in Part 2, which is preceded by several chapters laying out the groundwork, called "Assessing the Crisis of Our Age."

In Part 1 Moreland uses his extensive philosophical nous to dig into the current situation in the Western world, and the status of the modern church. Moreland believes that the church is the hope of the world, and he views the evangelical church as, in many ways the most healthy of Western churches. However, as he works through the slow decay of the church from the Enlightenment on, it becomes clear that the church has really failed to properly respond to the changes in our culture.

Moreland uses the metaphor of a hunger for drama to describe the yearning that God has placed in everyone's hearts. He explains how real drama is only possible in a "thick" world, namely one infused with meaning. He then traces the way that naturalism has stripped away meaning, resulting in a terribly thin world, devoid of drama. He examines how postmodernism offers a terribly false hope, replacing real drama with fantasy.

This section is very well written, robustly researched, and an excellent summary of where our society is at this point in time. Moreland summarises it in Chapter 4 From Drama to Deadness in Five Steps. He traces this process through these five steps:
  • From Knowledge to Faith
    Moving from a worldview where spiritual knowledge was real and attainable, to one where there is no real knowledge, and faith has become the only way to hold onto matters of the spirit
  • From Human Flourishing to Satisfaction of Desire
    Tracing the move from good being a matter of character to it being a matter of pleasurable sensations
  • From Duty and Virtue to Minimalist Ethics
    Moving from an understanding of ethics based on real knowledge of what is good and true, including spiritually, to a point where no-one has access to truth, and so a minimalist ethic of "doing no harm" reigns
  • From Classic Freedom to Contemporary Freedom
    Moving from the freedom to do what is right to the freedom to do whatever one desires to do
  • From Classic Tolerance to Contemporary Tolerance
    Moving from being able to disagree with a person's ideas but still tolerate the person, to denying the option of disagreeing with ideas (and not tolerating people who disagree)

The goal of this section is to indicate the currents of thought that have been hostile to the Christian concept of a meaningful, significant world. Moreland clearly points out the terrible acidity of both naturalism and relativity, and makes it clear that Christianity is simply incompatible with such worldviews.

In part 2, he charts a way out.

The first, and strongest chapter of part 2, describes the reclamation of a truly Christian concept of knowledge. In a densely argued chapter, Moreland carefully justifies the legitimacy of absolute truth, confident knowledge of this truth, and of spritual knowledge in addition to empirical (physicalist) knowledge. Page 114 to 120 contain an extensive list of Biblical references to knowledge, just so that the reader understands the Biblical priority for this.

Moreland helpfully maps out the differences between certainty, confidence and simply knowing, justifying the particularist view of knowledge, which is most compatible with Christianity. He then goes on to explain the types of knowledge, and uses this foundation to explain how knowledge relates to faith. "In actual fact, faith -- confidence, trust -- is rooted in knowledge." (p 131)

He uses this strong foundation to then explain how to build our faith:

  1. Understand the content and strength of your beliefs, and develop a plan to improve them.
  2. Take appropriate risks that will stretch your faith (we aren't really confident in something until we've tested it).
  3. Read and seek testimonies about God's miraculous work in people's lives.

The third point is an interesting one, and Moreland actually starts the book with the story of a miracle, using that story to point out how naturalists and relativists will interpret it, and how Christians should interpret it. In this chapter he gives several more stories, as examples and encouragement.

The second leg of the Kingdom Triangle is the renovation of the soul. In this chapter Moreland talks about the development of spiritual disciplines.

He starts out well, with a wonderful summary of the problem modern Westerners face: the empty self. Modern Western society encourages people to become empty selves: inordinately individualistic, infantile, narcissistic, and passive. It is worth quoting Moreland's observation of how this impacts the church, from page 143.

Given the impact of the empty self on all of us, we can no longer afford to do church the way we have frequently done it. We can no longer afford to build churches largely around powerful communicators who do our studying and thinking for us, and we can no longer build our services around providing bits of entertainment for an hour or so once a week. Already addicted to passivity and entertainment, these are precisely what empty selves are looking for.

There is nothing wrong with having an excellent communicator or an entertaining service each week. All things being equal, I would rather have an interesting teacher on Sunday than someone to whom it is hard to listen, and the same goes for the rest of the service. But the Sunday morning service was never intended to be the staple for growing world-changing communities or for producing radically different people under the shelter of God's wings. Those dramatic goals require a decentralized philosophy of ministry, which takes as its aim the equipping of the body for the work of ministry and the fostering of authentic Christian spiritual formation.

Moreland then goes on to explain what he means by fostering spiritual formation. He takes Paul's words in Rom 6:11-13, 19, and develops a metaphor of training our bodies for tennis, as we train them for righteousness. Just as tennis players train their muscles to perform the correct actions, so we need to train ourselves to perform the righteous acts with our bodies and minds. Tennis players spend time doing repetitive training, to build strength that can be used in the game; we too should build our spiritual strength through disciplines. Moreland points out how some exercises are merely means to an end (such as playing piano scales, or writing a prayer journal), while others are ends in themselves (such as practicing a tennis serve or praying constantly). We need to work on both.

This is the weakest part of the book, since it has little effort expended on justifying the directions that Moreland takes (unlike the previous section, which the entire first part of the book thoroughly undergirds). Moreland uses a traditional approach to spiritual disciplines, with much of it referring to other books, such as Dallas Willard's Spirit of the Disciplines. However, his lack of careful justification of his recommendations in this area does, I believe, show up in the few weaknesses. For example, Moreland recommends a "Christian therapist" to help us identify and overcome the causes of various spiritual, emotional and mental issues in our lives. The concept of a Christian therapist, while it may seem reasonable in the USA, sounds indulgent and rather silly to Australian ears. Not only that, but Moreland doesn't even mention a prolific author in this area of spiritual disciplines who has developed a strong theme of small group therapy, namely Larry Crabb. I strongly recommend his Safest Place on Earth, Connecting, and Soul Talk, all of which address how the church and its small groups can (and, indeed, should) fulfil the purpose of Christian therapy. But this seems to be the only place that Moreland stumbles, and it is in the details, rather than the big picture.

Finally Moreland describes what he considers his most radical direction for the church: the restoration of the kingdom's miraculous power. In this chapter, which has been thoroughly justified by numerous examples peppered through the book so far, and then further bolstered by numerous further accounts here, Moreland points out how the church needs to recognise the miraculous power of God at work in our world, and its role in delivering that power. As Moreland has carefully developed, the Christian worldview is absolutely committed to the miraculous power of God. Indeed, it is founded on it. And yet we so often think and act as if that power is no longer present in the world. Moreland challenges us to live and act as if God were real and on the move right now, and he gives plenty of evidence to build our confidence in this being the case. This section, despite its radical challenges to materialists, with well grounded and easy, even exciting for a committed Christian to accept.

The book is rounded off with a conclusion, a helpful biography, and a detailed index.

If the church could pay attention to this work, then I, like Moreland, believe that we could transform our society. We need to stop imitating the world around us and start living, talking, and acting like we are the ones who know the secret of the world. We should be unashamed of our confident knowledge of Christ's miraculous work in our minds and our bodies! We should be living as if God were really the creator and maintainer of all we see and are. Can we do that? Can we take God's word seriously and apply it to our lives as the body of Christ? I believe we can, and I hope and pray that I can be a part of helping that to happen here in Australia.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Review of "The God Conversation"

Review of The God Conversation, J. P. Moreland & Tim Muehlhoff, IVP Books

This slim volume aims to demonstrate how to present important Christian concepts in friendly, thoughtful conversations with non-believers. Its approach, tone, and content is particularly suitable for older high-school (15 years old and up) and university students, but will be of value to anyone who has thoughtful friends who are open to discussing the way the world works, and what Christianity has to say about it.

Moreland and Muehlhoff present their conversation primers around five important topics: the problem of evil ("Can God be Good if Terrorists Exist?"), religious plurality ("Jesus, Buddha or Muhammad"), the reliability of Christianity's historic claims, the moral argument ("What Would Machiavelli Do?"), and the design argument ("Are We an Accident?"). Each topic is split into two chapters, and dealt with quickly but rigorously (unsurprising considering Moreland's training as a philosopher).

The real strength of the book is the way that these two elect to present these ancient arguments: using carefully chosen but contemporary illustrations and stories. The best way to illustrate how powerful this approach is, is to give an example from the book.

On the question of religious plurality, Moreland and Muehlhoff recognise that the most common argument against the exclusive claims of Christianity involves a variation of the "climbing the mountain" illustration. I'm sure you've heard this one yourself: all religions are different paths climbing the same mountain towards God at the top. What is important is not the path taken, but the (same) destination. M. & M. point out that there are two clear problems with this illustration: a) it denies the claims of the religious figures themselves (such as Jesus and Muhammad, who were very explicit in their claims to exclusivity); b) it fails to recognise the clear differences between religions (such as the radically different views of God between Judaism and Buddhism).

But M. & M. don't stop with pointing out the problems with the illustration: they propose a replacement illustration. Rather than everyone climbing a mountain to the same destination, imagine religion as something like the famous maze at Hampton Court Palace just outside London. This maze, like most mazes, has only one path to the centre. On the way many paths run parallel to the correct one, and some even branch off right towards the end of the correct path, but all of the wrong paths lead to dead ends, sooner or later. This, M. & M. argue (and I concur), is a far better analogy for religions, and takes into account the two problems with the mountain illustration. They then go on to flesh out this new illustration with a range of stories, arguments, and observations.

Throughout the volume, illustrations are clearly delineated (with a vertical line down the margin), making them easy to find, there are plenty of references in the end notes, and a short subject index is supplied. These features make this work a reference work as well as a primer.

And you will want to use it as a reference work, too. The illustrations and arguments are carefully formed, memorable, and mostly universal (at least for Western audiences).

To leave you with another example of the simple, humble brilliance of this little work, consider how they approach the problem of discussing moral relativity ("what's good for you isn't necessarily good for me"): they suggest creating a "Not to be Tolerated" list with your fellow conversationalist, and then working through that figuring out commonalities (and discussing why these are shared, and what possible basis we could have for not tolerating these things), and differences (and similarly questioning the foundation of these differences). This is a wonderfully gentle way to unpack this difficult issue, and succeeds in creating both common ground to share in and differences to discuss.

So, if you are interested in improving your ability to share with others about how Christ answers the important questions of life, you will find this book incredibly helpful. I unreservedly recommend it.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Problems with Evolutionary Psychology & Sociology

Evolutionary Psychology (EP) and Sociology (ES), when they are operating "properly" should be the study of how human psychology and sociology could arise from the raw biological processes of evolution.

Unfortunately, psychology and sociology deal with human thought and its results (human actions or behaviour) and the accumulated results of that (ie. societies). Human thought and behaviour is so far above biology that psychologists and sociologists are completely bewildered by it. They handle this by pretending that it is, somehow, equivalent to biological organisms.

Thus they come up with ludicrous ideas like memes (though, credit where credit is due: it was the biologist Richard Dawkins who came up with that clanger of an idea, not a psychologist or sociologist). While memes may not be formally utilised by EP's and ES's, they nonetheless speak about human thought as if thoughts, plans, desires, and beliefs were somehow capable of independently mutating and then replicating themselves. They talk of ideas as if they "live" in people's minds like viruses live in their bodies. But, of course, ideas no more live in people's minds than words live on this page.

See this article in the Economist for a contemporary example, which draws the analogy of human behaviour evolving in the same way that a peacock's tail feather's have -- for sexual display.

Let's assume for the moment that a peacock's tail feathers did, indeed evolve for sexual display. What the analogy is claiming, then, is that human female altruism (for it is only the female in their theory that is altruistic) is not based on any reasoning, learnt behaviour, or the like, but is purely instinctual. It is on the level of a pain reflex. This is a big claim for such a complex behaviour. A huge claim.

What is there to support it?

Well, not much. A small study demonstrated that women conditioned by a society that approves of such things acted altruistically when in a romantic mood, but not so much when not in a romantic mood. The idea that this demonstrates that this behaviour is instinctual is clearly ludicrous.

Basically, all the scientists are showing is complete disdain for the complexity and richness of human behaviour. One must ask: do they so desperately desire some of the most complex human behaviour to be instinctual in nature so that they can tie it directly to biology, and thus provide some desperately needed support for evolution? Or do they want an excuse to be profligate (the men among them, anyway)? I'm questioning their motives here because this is such a bizarre project that it can never be considered rational science, so it must have some other purpose.

In any case, their wild imaginings contribute next to nothing to any understanding of humanity, whether it be grounded in evolution or not.

Sadly, this approach is prevalent in evolutionary psychology and sociology. The gulf is so great between even the simplest levels of human thought and biology, that EP's don't even attempt to make that link, instead reaching for these ridiculous leaps.

Attempting to Explain Morality and Rationality

Really, EP's have two ways to describe human morality, and only two ways:
  1. Morality is directly grounded in biology. In other words, morality is purely instinctual.
  2. Morality is grounded in reason (or some other intermediary, but I doubt that anyone would propose anything other than reason here, so we can take it as the most likely form of this argument), which itself is grounded in biology (ie. is instinctual).

The article referred to above seems to indicate (by its use of the analogy of a peacock's tail feathers) that morality is instinctual. This is pretty clearly ludicrous, as only a few moments reflection will show. Moral decisions are amongst the most complex and perplexing decisions we, as humans, can make, and we routinely apply substantial rational resources to them. In fact, often the moral decision seems to be made in the face of (and against) the instinctual one. Our instinct is to cheat or lie, but our moral decision is to not do so, for more complex (often teleological, ie. based on future goals) reasons.

Furthermore, if morality was purely instinctual, then it is merely descriptive and has absolutely no way to even attempt to be prescriptive. The accidents of evolution have no foresight: they cannot usefully guide us in taking the best path towards our (or our society's) survival unless we are confronted only with exactly the same situation that we have evolved for. Given that change is, not merely a constant reality, but the very engine of evolution, it is rather difficult for evolutionists to then contend that we should pay any attention to such instinctual morals. Rather, we should use the faculty that has (in our experience) at least some chance of predicting the future and mapping a pathway to a goal: our reason.

Which forces us to the second approach: that morality is grounded in reason. Of course, the problem with this approach is that reason itself must then be grounded in biology. No matter how tall a tower we build to get there, we must eventually end up grounding reason on biology because, for evolutionists, there is nothing else.

If reason is grounded on biology, then there is no reason to believe that it reflects actual reality. After all, it is, at core, merely a bundle of reflexes and reactions. Why should it allow us to think abstractly? Why should we be able to form logical arguments, and recognise their strength? The distance between abstract reasoning and any possible survival benefit is so great that the filter of evolution: survival of the fittest, has no real selective power over it. You can see this by observing how, even surrounded by a pre-existent society highly geared towards promoting abstract thought, the most powerful abstract thinkers are no more successfully in sowing their genes than the weakest!

No, abstract human thought, while clearly functional (ie. it does correspond to reality) cannot be explained by neo-Darwinism because it is such a complex property with so little immediate survival benefit. Cockroaches, with their dearth of abstract reasoning power, are clearly better survivors than the Stephen Hawkinses of the world. This presents the evolutionist with a problem: if abstract thought cannot be reliably selected for, then the only alternative explanation is that it arose purely by random chance. Considering the phenomenal complexity of abstract thought and the mechanisms required to support it, the alternative "God thesis" is a hands-down winner in the believability stakes.

And thus we find that, at heart, evolutionists are people of great faith. They cling mightily to the fantastic proposition that abstract thought arose spontaneously, while busily mocking the down-to-earth idea of a transcendent creator.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Dumb News, Smart Entertainment

Newsflash: news is getting dumber; entertainment is getting smarter (eg. Lost, Heroes, 24, Prison Break, Jericho, etc.)

Question is: why?

I've already suggested why news is getting dumber in a previous post about the crisis of context where I explained that context is being constantly stripped away from everything in our public (and private) lives, depriving them of meaning. News that consists merely of sound-bites and clips of things blowing up, bleeding, crashing, or wailing carries no meaning, and cannot carry meaning. So why try to make it balanced? How can it be? How can you be objective about a sound-bite?

So news is getting dumber because our society demands it. But why, then, is entertainment getting smarter? We're seeing an explosion in TV shows that have incredibly complex, multi-year plots. They involve numerous characters (both Lost and Heroes have more than ten major characters), numerous twists, and some of them address some very deep metaphysical issues (fate vs. freewill, individual responsibility vs. entitlement, the value of human life, etc.).

Perhaps the old adage, "nature abhors a vacuum" is evident here. Perhaps the lack of meaning and context in reality (the news) is being filled by the meaning in our entertainment? Instead of applying our reasoning to nutting out whose policies are best, and trying to predict how a particular political proposal will affect us and our country, we're spending time puzzling over the latest clue in Lost, or trying to guess which Hero or prison escapee will get killed.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Err. Shouldn't that be obvious? Using our mind's capacity on entertainment, while not a bad thing in itself, should merely be practice for using it on reality. Just as fairytales should present moral issues in a black and white way, training us in understanding core principles so we can apply them in a much more complex world, so should entertainment be preparing us to understand and engage with the real world.

But it clearly is not. People vote unthinkingly. People engage in and encourage behaviours which have clearly detrimental long (and often short) term effects. Our stories are no longer preparing us to better engage with the real world. They are merely feeding our hunger for meaning -- any meaning will do.

We are amusing ourselves to death.

The (False) Story of God of the Gaps

I recently watched the TV series The Story of God, from Robert Winston, a fairly famous medical scientist. The book of this series is subtitled A personal journey into the world of science and religion, a subtitle that is very apt, especially for the third episode of the TV Series, itself titled God of the Gaps. The first two episodes are a (rather naive) overview of the world's major religions, but it is the last episode, examining the struggle between science and religion, that I want to address here.

Winston's "personal journey" is one of uncertainty. He argues that we must allow for uncertainty in our belief in God, refusing to dismiss him (or it) and equally refusing to allow him to dictate reality. He casts Richard Dawkins on one side and Ken Ham on the other.

Dawkins is clearly irritated at Winston's treachery (he's a scientist, he should know better!) and almost mocks Winston's fondly held uncertainty. Winston, for his part, pokes fun at Dawkins's unjustified certainty (and I would certainly agree with Winston that Dawkins has no reason to be so smugly confident in the legitimacy of his beliefs, and here, as always, he gives no grounds for them apart from his brand of blind faith).

Ironically, Winston then talks to a mathematician, who calculates the probability that Winston's belief system would give him for the existence of God. This turns out to be 95%. Seems that Winston's uncertainty is pretty certain, then. Why persist with this sham? (Keep watching, there is a reason!)

Winston then visits Answers in Genesis's creation museum, and comes away from a personal tour with Ken Ham feeling sickened by the "mockery of science". Winston wasn't even listening to Ham, when Ham carefully explained that the underlying assumptions of naturalistic science are both incompatible with Christianity (and, indeed theism) and just plain wrong. Winston challenges Ham to a debate, so he can not listen to him some more. We only see the debate from Winston's side (since it's on his show), but even then it looks rather one-sided (in Ham's favour), with Winston's attempt to corner Ham in his "literal interpretation of Scripture" looking wildly ridiculous. (He asked Ham why, if he took the Bible literally, he wasn't circumcised. In Winston's show, Ham seemed bewildered for a moment, as any sensible person would be by such a non sequitur. We never saw his answer, but it could be as simple as, "because I'm not a Jew!" If Winston then wanted more of an explanation, a pointer to the Jerusalem council described in Acts should suffice.)

Clearly Winston wants us to feel revulsion for these two extremes of certainty. He also presents another approach he finds distressing, which he labels "weighing the soul". This is when science tries to measure the supernatural. He finds a modern version of this in Dean Hamer's so-called "God Gene". Hamer strenuously denies this having any impact on religion, a denial which Winston (correctly) dismisses. Hamer's genetic research clearly attempts to explain "spiritual" sensations (not to mention homosexual tendencies, in his earlier research) primarily as a result of "nature" (in the "nature vs. nurture" debate). Perhaps Hamer's gene should be called the "gullibility" gene, or the "weirdo" gene, since it correlates to how "spiritually connected" someone feels to the universe. Hardly a serious measure of religious belief -- at least not Christian or Jewish (Winston's religion) belief.

But Hamer's mistake is not in trying to "weigh the soul", but in assuming that something is merely natural. Winston, with his struggle to resolve the clash between his belief in materialist science and a supernatural deity, sees this sort of thing as an unjustified invasion of materialistic science into the realm of the supernatural. If he had a holistic view, he would realise that Hamer's mistake is twofold: trying to explain the why of something by showing the how of it, and limiting the discourse of psychology (the science of the mind) to materialistic causes only. The former mistake is a result of the latter, and both are sometimes described as "reductionism". Materialistic science "reduces" everything to a deterministic, material chain of cause and effect. If human beings really are spiritual beings (or at least have a spiritual component), as both Judaism and Christianity claim, then this reductionism is a dangerous mistake.

Winston finishes his rather bewildered journey in CERN. Here, he claims, he has allies in the physicists who are building these multi-billion dollar machines in order to discover the Higgs boson, or so-called "God particle". It is immensely ironic to see Winston appealing to these men, who are spending billions of dollars in search of certainty on one tiny, elusive particle, to side with him about the primary importance of uncertainty. But they are polite, and manage to concede that, behind the wall of certainty that their billions of tax dollars should push back a little further in a couple of years (ie. around about now), there remains a few micro-seconds of uncertainty. Maybe enough room for God.

And, having won that Pyrrhic victory, Winston exits stage left, happy that he still has a God. If only a God of the Gaps.

Me? That's most definitely not how I see the universe. Certainly I value science -- I'm an engineer, I apply science every working day. But I know that science applies because God sustains the laws of the universe. It doesn't surprise me that the universe is full of specified complexity -- information; or that it is, on a large scale, describable by very simple, elegant mathematics; or that it is, on a small scale, mind-numbingly complex and unexpected. It doesn't surprise me that we all innately "know" logic; or that we know that there is a right and a wrong, and even substantially agree on what it is. It doesn't surprise me that the day follows day with delightful regularity, or that the Son of God can rise from the dead.

You see, I believe in a God who loves order, and who made us to love order, but who loves us so much that he doesn't shy from intruding into this world, and doing something radical to fix it when necessary. I'm afraid I don't have enough faith to believe in a world of blind chaos resulting in what I see, in what I am. I know what chaos leads to -- I can simulate it day after day, year after year, and the result will be the same: chaos. Only if I cheat (as Dawkins does in his Weasel program) and place a purpose, an end, a telos, into it will anything other than chaos emerge.

So, unlike poor old Robert Winston, who clings desperately to his uncertainty, and tries to keep his God squeezed into the narrowing gaps, I don't worry. Every new discovery is a paean of praise. Every new uncertainty is a recognition of God's bigness. What else could you possibly expect?

Monday, 28 May 2007

Degrees of Confidence in Belief

We all hold beliefs. Even when we don't think about them, we still hold them. Getting up, having breakfast, and driving to work involves a massive sequence of beliefs, even if we do it semi-consciously. Putting on our clothes, for example, expresses a belief that there are external realities that we need to cater to -- environment and other people (who have standards of modesty that they expect us to meet). Having breakfast is an expression of the belief that our hunger will be sated by the funny-shaped pieces of sugar and starch we pour into a pool of white liquid. Driving the car requires, not only a significant skill-set, but a whole raft of beliefs, and substantial faith in our own skills, the reliability of our and others' vehicles, and others' skills and obedience to the road rules.

Anyone who claims that they hold firmly to no beliefs is lying to themselves. Without a firm belief in many things, from the laws of physics to the basic law-abiding attitude of others, they would never step foot outside their home.

However, we have varying degrees of confidence in our beliefs. This is appropriate. Don't let people fool you into trying to express all your beliefs as if you had either 100% or 0% confidence in a belief. This is most often used as a common argumentation trick to try to get you to express confidence in a peripheral belief, prove you wrong in that, and then call into doubt all of your beliefs. If you are not aware of the confidence you hold in your beliefs, you are vulnerable to this sort of attack. (And sometimes this sort of attack isn't malicious -- it may be that a cherished, or even foundational belief has been called into question by some circumstance, and because you don't understand the confidence with which you held that belief, you overreact by questioning all of your beliefs. This is actually quite a common occurrence, and is very unsettling.)

A definition

So what does it mean to talk about "degrees of confidence in beliefs"?

First, it does not mean how foundational a belief is. The foundationality of a belief speaks to how many other beliefs are based on a belief. A foundational belief is one that forms the base for other beliefs. For example, a belief in the validity of logic is one of the primary foundational beliefs in most people's worldviews (or frameworks of beliefs). A less foundational belief may be the belief in the inherent goodness of people, or the inherent badness of people. The degree of confidence you hold these beliefs in is independent of how foundational they are. (However, the more foundational a belief is, the more difficult it is to change it, since it has wider ramifications. Thus, if you are a responsible thinker, you will tend to have tried to build your confidence levels in your foundational beliefs so that your worldview is an accurate reflection of reality.)

Second, it does not mean how important a belief is. For example, your belief in the competence of a particular surgeon is more important than your belief in the best word to use in a particular email. But that has nothing to do with how confident you are in either of those beliefs. However, the more important a belief, the more likely you are to seek to ensure that you have a high level of confidence in it.

Third, it does not have anything to do with the type of belief. You can be more confident in metaphysical beliefs (such as the belief in the validity of logic) than in physical ones (such as the belief that your favourite socks are currently in your top dresser drawer). Equally, you can be more confident in an historical belief (WWII was initiated by the Germans under Hitler) than a personal memory (you met Fred in 1987).

Fourth, it has nothing to do with the history of your belief. Beliefs that you have held all your life are not necessarily those that you have more confidence in than beliefs you started to hold yesterday. The longevity of a belief may simply be related to its lack of importance to you, or the fact that you hold the belief for reasons of convenience rather than trust in its truthfulness.

So, what is confidence in a belief?

It is a measure of how close you think a belief is to reality. Remember the discussion about accuracy and precision? The degree of confidence you hold in a belief is the extent to which you believe it is accurate (ie. close to reality). This is independent of the precision of a belief (ie. how well-formed or descriptive it is). So, for example, you may have great confidence in your belief that spiritism is bunkum without having a precise understanding of the nature of spiritism. And the corollary is true, too: you may have very detailed beliefs on the character of movie stars without having great confidence in those beliefs.


This definition shows that some beliefs deserve more confidence than others. For example, the more foundational a belief is, the more we would like to have confidence in it. (Otherwise we have a lot of work to do if the belief turns out to be wrong.) The more important a belief, the more we would like to have confidence in it. (Otherwise we are likely to be seriously hurt by an incorrect belief.)

Also, the definition implies that it is possible to do something about the degree of confidence we have for a belief -- we can increase it through some activity. This is fortunate, because it allows us to address the more important and foundational beliefs.

What is that activity? Well, that depends on the type of belief.

If the belief is a simple physical one, we can increase our confidence in it by a physical investigation. For example, if we are unsure of the type of liquid in a bottle we can read the label, smell it, taste it, feel it, and so on. Important beliefs are often physical ones, but not always.

If it is an historical belief, we can seek independent sources to validate it, and we can seek sources that would invalidate the belief. We can measure such a belief by the number and quality of sources that attest to it, and the lack of sources that attest against it. For example, the Holocaust is very well attested by many, many quality sources (including numerous primary sources, ie. people that experienced it), and there are very few sources that attest against it (ie. good alternative explanations from reliable sources for all these reliable primary and secondary and tertiary sources claiming it is true).

If the belief is a metaphysical one (such as the belief in the validity of logic, or a belief in the relativity of truth), then it can only be measured by how strongly the framework it is capable of supporting is reflected by reality. This can also be expressed as its level of coherence in a framework that has a strong correspondence to reality. (For example, logic supports a framework that includes experimental science, which is tightly bound to reality, and it also supports cause and effect, something commonly seen in reality. On the other hand, the relativity of truth insists on a framework where cause and effect, along with physical laws, varies from person to person -- a good reason to have very little confidence in such a belief.)

Holding multiple, competing beliefs with varying confidence

Finally, is it possible to hold multiple, competing beliefs with varying confidence? Look at your belief system, and you'll see that the answer is a qualified "yes".

Depending on the foundationality and importance of the belief, it is possible to hold multiple, competing beliefs. However, once a belief becomes even slightly foundational or important, we will tend to collapse our beliefs back down to the belief we have the most confidence in. For example, if there is a bottle of green liquid in the fridge, we can entertain several competing beliefs about it: it's ant poison, it's soft drink, it's lime cordial, it's medicine. Our confidence in all these beliefs will be very low. However, as soon as we need to do something about the bottle (throw it away, drink it, store it somewhere other than the fridge), we will automatically attempt to increase our confidence in our belief about the contents of that bottle, and collapse our belief into the smallest range possible. For example, we may open it and smell it. If we are considering drinking it, and it smells like poison, we will collapse our beliefs down to the belief that it is poison. We probably won't bother trying to increase the precision of the belief (what sort of poison it is), unless we want to label it, or use it.

For foundational beliefs it is even more important to hold only one. The more competing foundational beliefs we hold, the more separate sets of dependant beliefs we need to hold. (For example, if I can't decide whether Fred is honest or not, I need to entertain beliefs in his behaviors that include his honesty as well as his dishonesty. This is the sort of problem that investigators deal with, and it is such hard work that we simply can't maintain it for everyday life.)


So, you can see how important it is to be aware of the confidence of your beliefs. And you've also had a glimpse into other areas of discussion on beliefs (such as types, foundationality, importance, etc.). If you are serious about your life, you need to think about your beliefs. Most people don't -- they simply accumulate them like postcards on a pinboard. But accumulated, unevaluated beliefs will inevitably lead to failure and pain.

  • Identify your foundational beliefs (here are some of mine: logic is valid, my mind is capable of thinking logically and recognising reality with some degree of accuracy, reality exists independently of me, other humans are independent agents, God exists and is an agent who has revealed himself through the Bible)
  • Evaluate how confident you are in these beliefs, and why
  • Work on building your confidence in beliefs that you don't have much confidence in (note: this may involve discarding those beliefs and replacing them with alternatives that you can have more confidence in -- this is painful, but critical)
  • Identify beliefs that are important to your current life situation (for example, my job is the right one for me, I should spend such and such an amount of time at work, my hobbies are productive and compatible with my family, the way I treat my family is constructive, and so on)
  • Evaluate how confident you are in these beliefs, and why
  • Work on building your confidence in these beliefs (once again, this may involve discarding them and replacing them with more accurate beliefs -- indeed, it is more likely at this level to do so)
  • Start work on evaluating your whole framework of beliefs. Every time you make a statement, whether it be out loud or in your thoughts, think about why that is true -- how much confidence can you have in that, and why? A consistent worldview that reflects reality is the single best attribute that you can have. (And I can say that as a Christian because I believe that such a worldview includes obedience to God.)
  • Realise that you can never be 100% confident in any of your beliefs, so be humble, and be gentle with others.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Irreligion poisons everything - more from Hitchens

Well, The Weekend Australian of May 19-20, 2007, has another extract from Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and this one, while mostly consisting of ridiculous assertions, actually has an argument or two in it. Are they good arguments? Let's take a quick look.

He starts off with some silly assertions that aren't even worth addressing, they're so clearly invalid. He throws in a nice bit of double standards (criticising religious people for not leaving him alone in a book that viciously attacks religious people), and moves on to a vicious attack.

"As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of hard-won human attainments. Religion poisons everything."

That's a pretty strong assertion. The way he expresses it, "people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction," makes it sound like "people of faith" are simply inimical, by their very nature, towards people of non-faith. He casts his net very wide. Don't believe me? Well, read on, he presents evidence for his claim:

"Take a single example, from one of the most revered figures that modern religion has produced." He then goes on to explain how in a 1996 referendum in Ireland, to decide whether to remove a constitutional prohibition against divorce, the evil Roman Catholic church rolled out its big guns: Mother Teresa.

Good grief! Why didn't I see it? Mother Teresa is just plain evil, and campaigning against divorce is bringing about the destruction of people of non-faith. It all makes sense now!

I don't think so.

Hitchens seems completely ignorant of reality on almost every count here:
  • He gives "two excellent reasons" for the referendum: "It was no longer thought right that the Catholic Church should legislate its morality for all citizens, and it was obviously impossible even to hope for eventual Irish reunification if the large Protestant minority in the north was continually repelled by the possibility of clerical rule."

    Neither of these are sufficient reasons to change something in a constitution, since, if they were, they would apply to anything. Imagine that the Irish constitution had a prohibition against slavery, and the referendum were attempting to overturn that prohibition. Would those two reasons still be good reasons? Sure, the Catholic church is against slavery, but should it not attempt to legislate its morality? Even if the north were pro-slavery, would that be a sufficient reason for the south to accept it? The answers are clearly, "no", since we know that slavery is a bad thing, independent of what the Roman Catholic church or Northern Ireland think about it.
  • Hitchens has smuggled a (huge) assumption in here: prohibiting divorce is destructive, allowing divorce is good. His "two excellent reasons" only make sense if his assumption is correct (but it still won't make them excellent reasons, merely pragmatic ones). The question is, is Hitchens's assumption correct? The answer is, once again, no. See discussion and links here, this website, or just do a google search yourself. The evidence is well and truly in, and it speaks strongly: liberalised divorce laws hurt the divorcees, but more profoundly, the children.
  • Mother Teresa and the Catholic church weren't the only ones trying to impose their morality on others here. Those who believe it is immoral to limit divorce were trying to impose their morality on the whole country (and they succeeded). In fact, Hitchens gives a moral argument for why divorce should be allowed, and he clearly thinks that his morality has precedence over the Catholic morality. At the same time, he is (with breathtakingly ignorant hypocrisy) criticising the Catholic church for imposing its morality. Quite extraordinary. (And very sad, especially when the church turns out, unsurprisingly, to have been right.)
  • Hitchens seems to think that people can live in a country where morality is up to the individual, he says, "There was not even the suggestion that Catholics could follow their own church's commandments while not imposing them on all other citizens." It's pretty obvious that there are some things that are simply so destructive that they need to be legislated against. As it turns out (and as almost every society in history has understood), divorce is one of those things. In Australia we have legislation against preparing food for strangers with your bare hands. Yet we allow the massive destructive impact of divorce to continue unabated. This is the twisted illogic of Hitchens and co.

So, in summary, Hitchens claims the church is "planning your destruction" by trying to limit divorce, which imposes a restriction on the freedom of adults to do what they want when they feel like it without thought of any consequences (help, I'm being destroyed!). The reality is that the church was attempting to prevent the wholesale destruction of many relationships, and the incredible harm it causes to children. So, rather than a monster, Mother Teresa turns out to have been someone who was very concerned for the most defenceless members of society: children. Who would have thought! Mother Teresa concerned for defenseless members of society -- that's just so out of character, isn't it? (BTW, Hitchens has written a whole book attempting to portray Mother Teresa in as bad a light as possible. There is an agenda here, which doesn't mean he's wrong, but is worth bearing in mind.)

Hitchens follows this lamentable attempt at an argument with more silly assertions about the origin of religion, thus committing the genetic fallacy -- the incorrect attempt to argue that an idea is wrong because of where it comes from. He then displays his bizarre reading of the Bible. He claims that the gospels are out of sync on the Sermon on the Mount (despite the fact that one of them is actually a different sermon: the Sermon on the Plain), as well as passion week (neglecting that a synthesis of the gospels has been around for, oh, almost 2000 years). He also shows how carefully he reads his assumptions into the Bible with his discussion of Jesus' fulfilment of prophecy.

Even his criticism of Islam, which centres around the idea that the Koran only makes sense in Arabic, misses the mark. If God had chosen to express himself in Arabic alone, that hardly implies that he's a monoglot, which is Hitchens's ludicrous claim.

He shows a complete lack of historical knowledge by talking about the Protestant reformation's struggle to "have the Bible rendered into 'the Vulgate'". The Vulgate was actually the Latin translation that had been around since the fifth century, as even a quick Google search will show. Perhaps he means "the vernacular", or the local language.

Hitchens then, bravely, attempts to address the counterpoint Christians give when atheists point to the terrible wars and persecutions performed in the name of religion, namely the criticism of the terrible destruction wrought by the atheist nations on their own people. (This point is more strongly made by pointing out that Christian wars are against the character of Christianity as represented in the Bible, while the atheist purges were a natural outcome of that worldview -- Hitchens doesn't even bother mentioning the stronger form of the argument.) He attempts to deflect this by arguing that these leaders claim the role of god, and therefore it's still actually religion that's the cause of the problem (although he never says it that succinctly -- succinctness is not one of Hitchens's strengths, it seems). However, this doesn't address the fact that the governments of the USSR and China were explicitly atheistic. The rulers did not set themselves up as gods (unlike the Roman Emperors) or as divinely appointed (unlike the medieval courts of Spain, France and Russia, which Hitchens' attempts to use as a diversion).

In fact, it seems clear that, unless Hitchens answers this counter-criticism in the book and the editor of this extract neglected to include that answer and instead included all the sleights and dodging and weaving, he has no answer to this criticism. Since I find it hard to believe that an editor would allow the counter-criticism to be raised, and then fail to include the refutation of it, it seems very likely that Hitchens can only raise bluff and bluster in his defence against atheism's inherent destructiveness.

The extract finishes with further assertions about science invalidating religion, and further straw men of religion. For example, "religion offers either annihilation in the name of God or else the false promise that if we take a knife to our foreskins, or pray in the right direction, or ingest pieces of wafer, we shall be saved." Christianity makes none of those claims, though Hitchens is clearly trying to misrepresent it with that last one (ingesting pieces of wafer to be saved).

So, with a further, independent extract from God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, it is even clearer that God is Not Great is not great, and furthermore, that anti-theism appears to have poisoned Hitchens's reasoning capabilities.