Friday, May 28, 2010

TGD: Chapter Three - Degree and Design

Last week I said I would talk about the rest of Aquinas' proofs and the ontological argument for God's existence. Unfortunately, I seem to have bit off more than I can chew. I've managed to cover Aquinas' last two proofs but the post is already getting long. I will have to write about the ontological argument next week. I'm sorry for the delay.

Last week I had just finished discussing the first three of Aquinas' proofs for God's existence. Today I'm going to pick up right where we left off.

Aquinas' fourth proof is the argument from degree. This argument states that things vary in how perfect or how good they are. He argues that there must be a being which is the most good, which is the source of all things good and of all that exists. This being we call God.

This is Dawkins' reply to the argument from degree: "You might as well say, people vary in smelliness but we can make the comparison only by reference to a perfect maximum of conceivable smelliness. Therefore, there must be a pre-eminently peerless stinker, and we call him God."

Not only is Dawkins' reply funny, but it gets at the main problem with the argument from degree. Aquinas makes the assumption that existence is a form of perfection. From this he is able to conclude that the source of all that exists is the source of all things good and perfect. This is the same sort of dodgy logic that the ontological argument relies upon.

So I don't think the argument from degree works as a proof of God's existence. However, I think it raises some impportant questions. How did humans first learn to be good? What is the ultimate source of moral goodness? These are questions that need to be addressed.

At last we come to Aquinas' fifth proof. This is the teleological argument, or the argument from design. Before I write about what Dawkins has to say, I want to describe the argument and give some background.

In this argument Aquinas argues that inanimate objects act according to a purpose, because they always behave according to the same pattern. He argues that this did not come about by chance. He argues that there must be an intelligence behind the universe that guides inanimate objects to behave in predictable patterns.

Aquinas' argument relies upon the idea, common in his time, that objects behave according to a purpose. These days we don't think of objects as having a purpose. It may seem silly to say that objects have a purpose but does it make any more sense to say that inanimate objects behave according to natural laws? Doesn't the existence of natural laws imply the existence of a supernatural lawgiver?

Still, so long as those natural laws seem arbitrary most people are willing to accept that they exist. If we argue that God exists because some arbitrary set of natural laws exist that's just a rehash of the cosmological argument, which I talked about last week. However, if the natural laws seem contrived; if the natural laws appear to have been carefully set with a particular purpose in mind; then that would be evidence for an intelligence guiding the universe.

This is the summary Dawkins' gives of the argument from design: "Things in the world, especially living things, look as though they have been designed. Nothing that we know looks designed unless it is designed. Therefore there must have been a designer, and we call him God." Dawkins points out that the theory of evolution blows this argument out of the water completely.

Of course, Dawkins' version of the argument is very different from Aquinas' original argument. I would accuse Dawkins of deliberately constructing a straw man, but I know exactly where he got this version of the argument. This form comes from creationists who stubbornly refuse to accept the theory of evolution. Dawkins has spent much of his career debating against creationism.

On the (relatively) small scale, evolutionary theory works as an explanation for the complex, seemingly designed, nature of life. But on the cosmic scale evolution doesn't solve the problem of design, it just moves it. In order for evolution to work, the laws of the universe have to be just right. The cosmological constant has to allow for the slow, steady expansion of the universe, in order to allow stars to form and generate the elements required for life. Similarly, if the force of gravity were stronger or weaker then it becomes impossible for life-sustaining stars to exist, making it impossible for life as we know it to exist.

So we see that the laws which govern our universe were not chosen arbitrarily. Instead it seems that they were finely tuned to allow life to form. This gives us reason to believe that there is an intelligence guiding the universe. This argument doesn't prove the existence of any specific deity but it demolishes the claim that God doesn't exist.

Next week: Saint Anselm makes his appearance.

Monday, May 24, 2010


Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday, which is the anniversary of the date when the Holy Spirit first fell upon Jesus' disciples, just as he had promised it would. It seems like as good a time as any to talk about the Holy Spirit.

Awhile back I was talking with someone about this blog. He said that if I wanted to try to connect with people who think in modern, secular terms, I shouldn't talk about the Holy Spirit. It's good advice, but I just can't follow it. I can't explain what Christianity is, what Christianity is all about, without talking about the Holy Spirit.

So since then I've been wondering, "How do I talk about the Holy Spirit with a modernist?" So far I haven't had much luck. The Holy Spirit doesn't fit easily or comfortably into such a world-view. If you're committed to thinking about the world in scientific terms, then the Holy Spirit is always going to seem absurd and a little silly.

Still, it's not just modernists who have this problem. This has been an issue since the beginning. You see, as I was thinking about the day of Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit made its grand entrance, I was reminded that those first witnesses had a hard time understanding what was going on as well.

In Acts 2, we read about how the Holy Spirit fell on that first group of Christians and enabled them to speak in many different languages from all over the ancient world. Most people are, understandably, amazed and confused by what is going on, but some people have a different response.

They think that these Christians are drunk.

But the real kicker is what happens next. When Peter hears people in the crowd claiming that he and his friends are drunk his response is, (paraphrasing) "We're not drunk; it's only nine AM."

Actually, I think I've just found a way to explain to non-Christians what it's like to be filled with the Holy Spirit. It's like being drunk, except it's only nine o'clock in the morning, and you haven't had anything to drink yet.

That's a joke of course, but the thing is, I don't know that I can give a better explanation than that. I could talk about all the wonderful things that the Holy Spirit has done in my life, but most people would just be confused and a lot of people would probably assume I'm a little bit kooky.

In the future I plan to talk about the role the Holy Spirit plays in God's Kingdom. I will try to lay the groundwork for a theological understanding of what the Holy Spirit is. But the simple truth is that the Holy Spirit is strange and, often times, people who are filled with the Spirit are a little strange themselves.

Friday, May 21, 2010

TGD: Chapter Three - Cosmology and Omnipotence

In Chapter Three of "The God Delusion" Dawkins begins to address the arguments for God's existence. The first section concerns Aquinas' five proofs for God's existence.

Not surprisingly, Dawkins isn't impressed with Aquinas' arguments. I can understand why. Dawkins and Aquinas are working from different assumptions. They both understand the universe in radically different ways. Dawkins is a student of modern science, biology in particular, and Aquinas was a student of Aristotelian metaphysics.

So it will be my task to try and bridge the gulf that separates these two great minds and see if we can find some common ground. Let's get started.

Aquinas' first three proofs are the argument of the unmoved mover, the argument of the first cause, and the argument from contingency. Dawkins groups these arguments together, since they have a similar form. I will focus on the argument from contingency, sometimes called the cosmological argument, because it is the strongest.

This is Dawkins' summary of the argument: "There must have been a time when no physical things existed. But, since physical things exist now, there must have been something non-physical to bring them into existence, and that something we call God."

It's worth pointing out that modern science actually strengthens this argument. According to the Big Bang Theory, the universe has a definite beginning in time. This suggests that the universe isn't self sustaining, but was brought into existence by some outside force.

Moreover, even if the Big Bang Theory turned out to be incorrect (even though there is some very solid evidence for the theory), it is impossible for the universe to be infinitely old. If it were, then according to the second law of thermodynamics the universe would have reached a state of maximum entropy by now, which would make it impossible for life to exist.

So the cosmological argument effectively proves that the natural universe was created by an external force, which Aquinas calls God. Unfortunately, this is as far as the cosmological argument takes us. Dawkins rightly points out that, based on these arguments alone, there is no reason to assume that this "God" is a being with all the attributes we normally associate with God.

At this point, Dawkins has a brief digression where he talks about God's attributes. He claims God's omniscience contradicts his omnipotence since, if God already knows what he is going to do in the future he cannot change his mind. This is a silly argument, similar to asking if God, being omnipotent, can make a boulder so heavy he can't lift it. Both assume that there is a contradiction in the will of God.

In the example of God making a boulder so heavy he can't lift it, the contradiction is obvious. God wants the boulder to stay on the ground while at the same time wanting to lift the boulder. The argument assumes a contradiction to prove a contradiction. I'm not impressed by it.

The argument about God changing his mind is more subtle, but is basically the same. God wants to do something in the future, but when the time comes he wants to do something else. However, if God is omniscient, his knowledge doesn't change over time. So God has no reason to change his mind, if we assume that God's will is consistent. We only get a contradiction if we assume that God's will is contradictory.

What this really boils down to is, can God do something that is logically impossible? As many theologians have pointed out, not being able to do things that are logically impossible isn't really a limit on omnipotence. Contradictions are, by definition, nonsense. Saying that God cannot perform nonsensical actions doesn't place any meaningful constraints on God's power.

I'm afraid this post is getting long, so I'll stop here for now. Next week I'll write about the rest of Aquinas' proofs as well as the ontological argument for God's existence.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Society and the Kingdom of God

Awhile back I wrote about the Kingdom of God. I talked about five different ways to answer that question. Since then, I've written about how the Kingdom of God relates to politics and religion. Today I'm going to talk about how the Kingdom of God relates to society.

I've written before about how important it is for Christians to try to create a just society. Social justice is one of the defining characteristics of the Kingdom of God. Today I'm going to talk about what justice looks like in the Kingdom of God.

First of all, in a just society people treat each other fairly. They don't murder, steal from, or lie to one another. Even more than that, they don't deal deceptively with one another. They don't rip people off by buying things for less than they're worth or by selling things for far more than they're worth. In other words, they obey the golden rule.

Additionally, in a just society people get along with one another. They don't hold grudges toward other people. They aren't envious of other people's status, relationships, or possessions. People live peacefully with one another.

Finally, in a just society people show mercy to others. They love and have compassion for people who are less fortunate than themselves. They do not exploit or oppress people who are weaker or are less fortunate than themselves. Instead the strong protect the weak and the rich care for the poor so that no one is in need and no one is taken advantage of.

This idea of a just society is central to the Kingdom of God. It may seem like a lofty, Utopian ideal, but it is something that Christians are called to pursue in our own lives, in our communities, and in the world at large.

Friday, May 14, 2010

TGD: Imagine a World Without Religion

Before moving on to chapter three, I wanted to take a moment to talk about how Dawkins uses hypothetical scenarios to further his argument. In a few places he uses hypotheticals to paint a picture and support his argument. They are powerful illustrations, but they depend a number of questionable assumptions.

The hypothetical scenario I want to talk about appears in the preface. He describes an advertisement for a documentary he presented. The advertisement had the words, "Imagine a world without religion," beneath a picture of the Manhattan skyline; in which the twin towers were still standing.

As an American, I feel the impact of that argument. It feels like a blow to the solar plexus. I'm sure we all wish that those towers were still standing and I'm sure we all wish the 3,000 people who died when they collapsed were still with us.

It's also a damning argument. Everyone knows, on a deep level, that the ideology of the 9/11 hijackers was deeply perverse and destructive; and everyone knows that their ideology was undoubtedly religious.

Still, we need to take a step back and ask, is religion to blame for the attacks of 9/11? Certainly, religion was a factor, but was it the cause?

To give an example, what if the slogan had read, "Imagine a world without airplanes?" This message is far more accurate. The 9/11 attacks would have been impossible without commercial airlines, yet no one blames the Wright brothers or their infernal invention for destroying the world trade center.

Additionally, the first slogan ignores any other affects that religion has had on the Manhattan skyline. Like, for example, bringing European immigrants to the Manhattan island in the first place.

Religion has been a major factor throughout all of history. It is literally impossible to imagine what the world would be like today if religion had never existed. Instead, I'm going to stick to a very simple rule. I'm only going to consider those cases where religion has a direct role in the creation or destruction of individual buildings.

Obviously, all the religious buildings wouldn't exist, including the great cathedrals of Europe as well as most of Vatican city. The Wailing Wall wouldn't exist and neither would the Sacred Mosque or the Dome of the Rock.

So far we've lost all the places of worship, but since there's no religion, no one will miss those. We might miss the artwork that went into those buildings, especially the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Still, so far we haven't lost much.

But it doesn't stop there. Medieval universities, including the universities of Paris, Cambridge and Oxford, all started as Christian schools based out of cathedrals or monasteries. They received their official support from the Vatican. Additionally, all of the Ivy league schools, except Cornell, were founded during the colonial period by various Christian groups.

As an aside, Richard Dawkins graduated from the University of Oxford. One wonders where Dawkins would have received his education from in this hypothetical scenario, but, as I said earlier, we're only going to concern ourselves with the affects of religion on buildings, not people.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point (and allowed myself to make a cheap shot at Dawkins' expense). I've shown that these kinds of hypothetical situations are very contrived. One cannot surgically remove religion from human history and make a realistic estimate of whether humanity would be better or worse without it. Even if someone could produce such an estimate, we have no way of testing it.

I'm not going to deny that many terrible atrocities have been committed in the name of God, but we shouldn't forget about the massive amount of good that has also been done in God's name. Would the world would be better off without religion? That's a question that no human can answer, not even Richard Dawkins.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Upside-Down Cross

Lies have an interesting way of revealing the truth.

Confused? I'll explain.

When a lie spreads through a large group of people, it often reveals a lot about what those people really believe. As an example, I'll talk about a lie that is pervasive through large sections of the American evangelical church.

The lie is this: the peace sign is actually the sign of Nero; a broken, upside-down cross.

In actuality, the peace sign is based on the semaphore signals for N and D, which stand for "Nuclear Disarmament".

What does this lie reveal about the American evangelical church? First, the obvious, it reveals the conservative nature of American evangelicalism. It reveals how deeply rooted their opposition to liberal politics is. They have no problem believing that the peace sign, a common symbol of the anti-war movement in the 60's and 70's, as actually the symbol of the most hated persecutor of Christianity in history.

But it also reveals something else. It reveals that they believe that the message of the cross is diametrically opposed to the message of peace.

So we see that the lie reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the meaning of the cross. The message of the cross is fundamentally a message of peace. Peace, first of all, between God and humanity, and secondarily, peace among men. (If you don't believe me, consider what Paul said about Jesus.)

Of course, the lie is even more revealing than that. Why would conservative evangelicals feel the need to slander peace activists like this?

The answer is simple, if they don't, then their congregations might consider the fact that Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers." They might consider the fact that the call for nuclear disarmament sounds a lot like Jesus' call to turn the other cheek. In other words, they use this lie to make sure that their followers' eyes remain blind to the truth.

The truth is that there is another symbol, one that is easily recognizable, which more accurately fits the label of "upside-down cross". That symbol is the crusader's sword.

First of all, cruciform swords, when held upright, bear a clear resemblance to an upside-down cross. More importantly, however, the crusaders inverted the message of Christ. They took a message of peace of love and used it as a justification for violence and bloodshed. When they drew their swords, they turned the cross upside down, both literally and metaphorically.

This perversion is still alive and well in the church. Men spread the lie that the peace sign is an upside-down cross to obscure the fact that they themselves have turned the cross upside-down. In the words of Greg Boyd, they have fused the cross and the sword.

In my experience, nothing combats a lie more effectively than the truth. If you hear someone calling the peace sign an upside-down cross, please correct them. Also, consider telling people about the true upside-down cross.

Friday, May 7, 2010

TGD: Chapter Two - Science, Religion and Little Green Men

Today I'm going to finish chapter two of "The God Delusion". Most of the rest of the chapter talks about the idea that theology and science represent two separate areas of study. Dawkins refers to this idea by the acronym NOMA, and that is the title of the next section.

NOMA stands for non-overlapping magisteria. The idea behind NOMA is that religion cannot speak on scientific matters and science cannot speak on religious matters. Dawkins rightly points out that this is a poorly thought out compromise that simply does not work in practice.

If you don't agree, consider this question, "Did Jesus of Nazareth rise from the dead?" This is the central truth claim of Christianity. It is a question about our physical universe. It is a question that, in principle at least, science should be able to answer. And Christianity isn't the only religion that makes such claims.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you might be surprised that I agree with Dawkins on this point. After all, I don't believe, as Dawkins does, that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. I do believe that we can have a compromise between science and religion, I just don't think that NOMA is the way to go.

The reason I don't like NOMA is, ultimately, because I'm a monotheist and not a deist. If you're a deist, if you believe that God merely created the universe and doesn't interfere in its operation, then NOMA might seem like a good idea. However, as I said earlier, monotheists believe that God is actively in control of the whole universe. If God has control over everything, then every area of study is, in some sense, theological.

So why do I believe science works? Why do I allow scientific truths to influence theological beliefs? Why don't I insist that every scientific principle be related in theological terms?

The simple answer is, because science works. Science provides many useful explanations that help us make sense of the world around us. It provides truths that can be empirically verified.

So, even though science and religion clearly do overlap, religious people should respect science's ability to discover truths about nature. I would argue, as many theologians throughout history have argued, that if our theological opinions contradict observable facts about nature, then it is our theological opinions that are in error.

In the next section Dawkins talks about a study on the affects of prayer on patient health. Long story short, a recent double blind study on the affects of intercessory prayer on patient health and recovery found no connection. I will admit to being disappointed by the results of the study, but I'm not going to stop praying for people. I've seen a lot of good things happen in the course of prayer*.

In the next section, Dawkins suggests that the main reason why scientists espouse NOMA is to convince religious moderates that science isn't a threat to their faith. These religious moderates are valuable allies in the fight to teach evolution in public schools. Dawkins is very critical of this tactic. In his view, science's real enemy isn't creationism; it's religion.

It is unfortunate that Dawkins holds this view. There is a need, now more than ever, for a positive dialogue between scientists and theologians. I'm enjoying reading Dawkins' scathing critique of religion, but I'd prefer to read a book with fewer rhetorical attacks and more constructive criticisms.

The final section of chapter two is about extra-terrestrials, about the difference between super advanced aliens and gods, and about why he thinks the aliens are at least theoretically possible, whereas God is not. Unfortunately, we will have to wait until chapter four to discover why Dawkins thinks God can't possibly exist.

* This touches on the issue of the validity of personal experience vs. scientific fact. I'm not going to ignore this issue. I will address it when it comes up again in chapter three. For now I will just say that this is only a single study, which addressed a specific kind of prayer and looked for a particular affect. From this one study, we can't draw the conclusion that prayer never works.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Are Videogames Art?

Instead of doing my usual rant about God or religion or politics I'm going to write something fun and lighthearted. I hope you enjoy.

There's been a lot of conversation recently about whether or not videogames are, or can ever be, art. I happen to believe that videogames should be considered art, but I understand why some people disagree. Today I'm going to talk about some of the more common reasons why videogames aren't considered art.

1) It's interactive, so it can't be art.

This is one of the most basic objections. I like it because it cuts right to the underlying question: How do we define art? For some people, anything that requires interaction beyond just passive observation is, by definition, not art.

Of course, not all artists agree to this definition. A quick video search for "interactive art" on google turns up some interesting results. I don't know if they truly are "art" but they certainly are interesting.

I've seen a lot of people argue that it's obvious that games are art. Great games have well written stories, beautiful scenery, interesting characters, an engaging plot and beautiful animation. How can they not be art?

The answer usually has something to do with interactivity. Those qualities I mentioned above, writing, scenery, characters, they are nice, but they're not interactive.

Interactivity is what makes a game a game. Without interactivity that's designed to challenge the player, it isn't a game. If the interactivity doesn't have some artistic value, then the game isn't really art. It's an artistic movie that won't play correctly until the user presses the right button sequences.

So in order for games to be art, the interactivity has to heighten the artistic experience somehow.

2) I don't appreciate what's going on, so it's not art.

The fact that games are interactive is also the main reason why a lot of people, like Roger Ebert, will never accept that games can be art. In order to grok how games can be art, they have to play the darn things.

As I said above, it's not just that games are interactive, they're interactive in a way that's meant to challenge the player. Most games require a considerable amount of skill in order to be fully appreciated. Someone who's new to videogames can't just sit down and play, let's say, half-life and become immersed in the story. They're going to need a few hours to get used to using the wasd keys to move and the mouse to look around.

For this reason, it's hard for outsiders to get into games. They don't know how to interface with the medium, so they can't appreciate it.

This challenge is not unique to games, but it is more severe with videogames than with other mediums. Plays and movies require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief in order to be appreciated, but they don't require a whole new skill set.

3) Games and Art are two different things.

This is also related to the issue of interactivity. Part of the difficulty games face in being accepted as a legitimate medium is that they're trying to be two things at once.

Multiplayer games like Starcraft or Modern Warfare provide an opportunity for players to compete with one another to test their skills. They're similar to traditional games like chess or football. Most people don't consider chess to be a work of art, despite the fact that it is an elegantly simple game that is extremely challenging to master.

To make matters worse, we can't neatly sort games into those two categories. Starcraft and Modern Warfare both have single player portions that tell a story. They're trying to be "art" while at the same time still trying to be a "game".

These are the major reasons why videogames often aren't considered art. At some point in the future I'll write some more about why I think games can and should be considered art. In the meantime, can you think of any arguments I missed? Or maybe you just want to share your own opinion on whether or not games are art.