Sunday, 27 June 2010

How does Christianity fit with reason? (6)

We're now at the end of our look at how Christianity fits with reason. I've hopefully demonstrated that the Bible describes faith in a way that accords with our sense that we should have evidence for the beliefs we hold. In fact, Biblical faith is "loyalty to God based on the evidence of his trustworthiness." In this entry, for the sake of completion, I want to say a little bit about how belief in God can be rational without evidence.

The limits of evidentialism

The idea that we should have appropriate evidence for all our beliefs is called 'evidentialism'. It is a massively influential belief but taken in its strictest sense, it cannot be entirely true. Consider your belief that you are reading a blog at this moment. Your only evidence that there really is a blog that you're reading is that you seem to be seeing one. But it does not follow that because you think you're seeing one, that you actually are seeing one. You could reason that "because I think I'm seeing a blog, probably I am seeing a blog," but you don't really think it's only probable, you believe it quite certainly and surely nobody would fault you for that. Your belief that you are reading a real blog is rational even though you don't have proper evidence for it. Surely the standards of a strict evidentialism would be too demanding here?

The biggest problem with a strict evidentialism is that it is actually self-defeating. After all what evidence do we have that evidentialism itself is true? It is hard to imagine what such evidence would look like. Philosophers generally recognise that not all of our beliefs require evidence to be held rationally. Some of our beliefs are just 'basic'. Such beliefs include those we form through the use of our senses, like your belief that you are reading a blog because you can see a blog. That is a basic belief.

Belief in God as a basic belief

The other day I was reading a transcript of a debate between a Christian philosopher and a non-Christian philosopher. The Christian assumed that the non-Christian was an atheist but in fact he wasn't. He rejected the Christian idea of God but he still believed in a God of some sort. In a question and answer session afterwards in which the audience got to give the two participants a grilling, one person asked why the non-Christian believed in God. His response was very interesting, especially for a philosopher! He said that he had no evidence or argument to support his belief that God existed, rather he couldn't help but believe in God. He described it as something he just saw as being true, like when he observed certain wonders the belief just came naturally. Many people claim to have a similar belief experience. Might there be reason to think that belief in God is a basic belief?

I think so although to properly elaborate and explain this position would require a lot more time and engagement with some deeper philosophical issues. If you're interested in reading more about this position, I invite you to read Alvin Plantinga's 'Warranted Christian Belief' which, amazingly, is online for free over here. It is a long and more technical read but it is very rewarding. While the Bible certainly describes faith as being tied up with evidence, there is no reason to think that Christianity therefore excludes belief in God in a basic way, and in fact there is reason to think that Christianity entails both.

In the next few entries I'll be looking at Bible passages that are quoted by Christians and skeptics when they aim to show that Christianity is in some manner anti-rational. I'll hopefully show you that those passages have been misunderstood! I hope also that any non-Christian readers won't be put off by looking at the Bible a bit! It's an interesting read ;)

Monday, 21 June 2010

How does Christianity fit with reason? (5)

We're looking at the moment at how a Christian ought to deal with objections to their faith. In the last entry we saw that a Christian shouldn't abandon their faith at the first sign of contrary evidence. We also considered that it would not be responsible to just ignore allegedly contrary evidence either. So how should a Christian go about tackling this so-called evidence? It is likely that the correct course of action will vary depending on the person.

Ought I go looking for counter-arguments?

In the last entry I remarked that it would be irrational to believe in a flat earth while ignoring any evidence that would suggest that the earth is spherical. Likely you agree. This suggests that when we consider whether or not a belief is true, we should examine what arguments are made against it as well as for it. This is certainly true enough to some extent, but it isn't clear as to exactly what extent we should pursue this. After all, especially with Christianity, there isn't enough time in your life to examine every argument ever made for and against it. As finite beings we are forced to make decisions without maximal information. We can still make sufficiently informed decisions, just not exhaustively informed decisions. As such it will likely be down to the individual as to what amount of objective consideration they feel comfortable with before committing to a belief. But we need to strike a balance between ignoring all counter arguments, and being obsessive over counter-arguments to the point that we never commit to a belief!

Ought I examine every counter-argument myself?

Some objections to Christianity require technical expertise to understand and critically examine. It would likely be quite foolish for a Christian without the relevant expertise to try and confront certain arguments themselves. For instance there are people who claim that archeological evidence has demonstrated that the Exodus account in the Bible never happened. If I was going to try and answer this objection I'd have to learn about acheological methodology and become familiar with all the facts relevant to the argument. This could potentially take a very long time, and perhaps I wouldn't be a very competent archeologist anyway. It would be more reasonable for me to concede that I just don't have the expertise to deal with the objection myself. It would be more wise to see what a Christian archeologist says about the matter. Although it can be frustrating, Christians and atheists alike often have to depend on experts because we could never learn everything there is to know ourselves.

If we aren't appropriately equipped to deal with an objection and yet we try and deal with it anyway, we risk being persuaded by a bad argument. If I don't know about correct archeological methodology, how could I know whether the objection is a valid one or not? Sometimes you hear stories about Christians who study say, philosophy, and then loose their faith. I suspect that in many of these cases, Christians who weren't used to thinking philosophically took things to be problematic for their faith which actually aren't, and can be demonstrated as such with proper understanding.

The Christian community should value its experts and seek to support them so that they can in turn help the Christian community as a whole by defending the faith and helping Christians work through their intellectual doubts.

Dealing with doubt

On the subject of doubt, the last few entries have covered a lot of ground which is relevant for Christians dealing with intellectual doubts about their faith. If you're a Christian struggling with doubt and you'd like to know a bit more about how to understand it and deal with it, I highly recommend reading this free online book, Dealing With Doubt by Gary Habermas. In addition please feel free to contact me via the form at the bottom of the page should you want to discuss your struggles with doubt. I'm no stranger to it!

How does Christianity fit with reason? (4)

We've been looking at how Christian belief and rational thought co-exist and we've established that faith as the Bible defines it is "loyalty to God based on the evidence of his trustworthiness." We've seen that if we have a reasonable evidence for the truth of the core basis of Christianity, we can have a reasonable trust in the truth of Christian teachings where we perhaps don't have direct evidence for their truth. Today we've going to look at how a Christian ought to respond to evidence and arguments which allegedly go against Christian teachings.

Don't throw it all away!

Imagine being in Benny's shoes...

Jimbo: Hey Benny! You know that Christian guff you believe in? Well the deductive argument from evil disproves it.
Benny: Oh?
Jimbo: 'Fraid so mate. You see, a loving and all powerful God would always have the desire and ability to eliminate evil. Yet evil exists! So your God doesn't exist.

How should Benny deal with this challenge to his faith? What if he responded like this:

Benny: Well Jimbo old pal the jig is up. I don't know how to respond to your argument. I'm not a Christian any more.

Would that response not be too hasty? I think so. For one, if you're a Christian, you believe that God is a person. In our relationships with people it is not virtuous to automatically distrust someone at the first signs of something awry. It would not be virtuous to automatically accuse your spouse of having an affair just because some things could be interpreted that way. Generally, at first we give the people we trust the benefit of the doubt. The same with our trust in God. While if Jimbo's argument is sound, Christianity couldn't be true, Benny should give God the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while, that a good refutation of the argument exists.

Even if Benny cannot locate any such refutation it doesn't follow that he ought to give up his Christianity. After all, in scientific practise, a theory is not abandoned as soon as some data seems to be unexplainable. Seeing as the theory still has some good explanatory power with most of the data, it is reasonable to think that a solution might present itself in the future. Similarly, a Christian faced with an unresolved objection to his/her faith will have to make a choice about how problematic this objection really is. Some questions to consider might be: is this objection something which might be resolved in the future? If this objection is valid, must I abandon Christianity as a whole or only a certain way that I've looked at it? Do I still think Christianity is generally persuasive? Obviously if 90% of Christianity's claims faced such objections it would be hard to believe in it with intellectual integrity. It is down to each person and their conscience to determine at what point a particular belief would be intellectually irresponsible to hold on to.

Don't stick your head in the sand!

Imagine if Benny responded to Jimbo's challenge like this instead:

Benny: Well Jimbo, that's a persuasive sounding argument, but I know I'm right so I needn't bother answering it. It's definitely wrong.

This is another inappropriate response! Now Benny, having a trust in God, will generally believe that at some point in his reasoning, Jimbo's argument fails but this does not mean that he shouldn't seek to identify exactly where this failure occurs. For instance if Jimbo is himself to come to a place of trusting God, he might need this intellectual objection answered. If Benny ignores the question, he won't be helping him much.

Secondly, while Benny might have good reasons for his faith in God, these reasons (mostly likely) do not equate to a definite 100% logical proof that Christianity is true. (This isn't itself problematic, hardly any of our beliefs are logically certain. Consider your belief that the blog you are reading exists. It may be the case that an alien has removed your brain and is stimulating it so that you merely believe you are reading a blog, when actually no such blog exists. This is a genuinely possibility but that doesn't make your belief that this blog exists irrational). What this means is that it is possible that Benny is mistaken in his beliefs. From my experience, this isn't a topic most Christians like to talk about, but it is a genuine possibility that we must address. I am a Christian and I consider it a possibility that I am wrong about Christianity being true. I do not believe that I actually am wrong, but I recognise that it is not impossible that I am wrong. As such there may be genuine refutations of Christianity that exist. If I ignore everything that claims to be such a refutation then I risk blindly following a false belief. If I believe the earth is flat but I ignore all evidence to the contrary I am being irrational. To maintain intellectual integrity we have to in some way consider the objections that come to us.

This acknowledgment can be confusing to some Christians who aren't familiar with the nature of logical certainty so let me say straight away that what I am NOT suggesting is a rampant skepticism regarding one's own Christian belief. As I said, hardly any of our beliefs are logically certain, and it is irrational to doubt them just because they aren't. And as I've already shown above, it is irrational to abandon Christianity at the first sign of contrary evidence.

The question then is how does one act with integrity, confronting opposing ideas, but with faith and wisdom? This is the topic of our next entry.

How does Christianity fit with reason? (3)

In the last few entries we've been looking at how Christian belief and our rational faculties ought to intermingle. Particularly we've tried to spell out what the Biblical definition of 'faith' is. In the last entry we concluded that Biblical faith is "loyalty to God based on the evidence of his trustworthiness." In this entry we're going to start to see what that faith looks like in a Christian's intellectual life.

The evidence

Ask any Christian why they believe as they do and they'll likely have an answer in their mind even if it's not well formulated or they don't feel it's a particularly impressive one. Some Christians find their way to God because they see evidence of his working in the lives of their believing friends and family. This certainly contributed to my own conversion. Some have perhaps believed Christianity since they were very young and so find it hard to articulate a precise reason; they just see that it fits with the world and what happens in their life. Others take a more overtly intellectual route and say, examine the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection, find it compelling and then subsequently commit themselves to follow him. There are of course many varied reasons why a person may come to a Biblical faith in God, and I think the reasons given above are actually more credible then some grant, but the point to take here is that each Christian has at least one initial reason for making his/her commitment. This is the evidence that one's loyalty to God starts to spring from.

For those whose initial reason for belief was based on more personal and experiential factors, it is wise to supplement that faith with some more objective factual reasons. This doesn't mean that every Christian ought to be well versed in the most recent formulations of the Ontological argument, rather each Christian ought to have just some awareness of the basic facts upon which Christianity is based. This factual basis is of course the resurrection of Jesus as an actual historical event, the very thing Christianity is centred around, and the very thing the early Christian leaders proclaimed as evidence of God's really being involved in what Jesus did during his life and crucifixion. You can read a very good defence of the resurrection's actuality here. If you're a Christian why not memorise just a few of the 17 factors JP Holding gives that makes a fictional account of the resurrection unlikely?

Paul, a great early Christian leader instructs his churches to grow in knowledge, such as in Colossians 1:9-11. I think such instruction still applies to us! In addition when hard times come, and your personal experience is one of hardship, we need some grounded truths to cling to and excercise faith from. This is what C. S. Lewis meant when he said "faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods (Mere Christianity)." You might also add, "in spite of your changing circumstances."

The trust

You might, even if it's just for the sake of argument, concede that the Christian might have good grounds for believing in the truth of the resurrection, but what about all the other things that Christianity entails? What about the existence of an afterlife for example? Whether or not there is independant evidence for the existence of an afterlife, it is certainly true that not every Christian will have access to such evidence. Are such Christians being irrational when they believe in the afterlife without direct evidence? I'd have to say 'no'. If a Christian has a reasonable belief that say, God really rose Jesus from the dead and so most probably, Jesus' teachings were true, it seems to me that the Christian can reasonably trust those teachings as they pertain to the afterlife. In the same way we do not have independent evidence directly available to us for all the things our friends and family tell us. But we have evidence that they are generally trustworthy people and so we have a reasonable trust in them.

But what if I have a reasonable trust in God, but I encounter some contrary evidence or argument which seems to falsify one of those beliefs I've held in trust? Should I abandon my belief in those teachings, or Christianity all together? Or should I ignore such contrary evidence? Is there some sort of middle ground I can take? It is these concerns that we'll look at next time.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

How does Christianity fit with reason? (2)

In the last couple of entries we've been looking at Christianity and examining whether it is against logic and reason in principle. I've argued that it is not opposed to logic, and right now we're in the middle of seeing whether it is against reason. In particular, we're looking to see whether 'faith' is a sort of wishful thinking held without, or contrary to, evidence. In the last entry we looked at some Biblical clues to suggest that faith is not meant to be this sort of belief. In this entry we'll try and flesh out exactly what faith is, as the Bible describes it.

Context, context, context!

You'll likely notice before too long that whenever I talk about the Bible, I stress the importance of understanding the proper context surrounding it. Imagine if you said the following to an English speaking foreigner: "you got beef?" A local would understand that you are asking something equivalent to "you got a problem with me?" Without the knowledge of what that phrase means in a certain context, the foreigner might drastically misunderstand and respond with something like "Urm, no. I don't have any dead cow on me."

Without a correct understanding of the context of certain Biblical phrases and circumstances we are similarly prone to misinterpret what the text is saying. That often happens when we read the word 'faith' in the Biblical text. We import a modern 'wishful thinking' meaning of faith into the text rather than understanding what faith meant in the time the text was written. To uncover this original meaning we need to learn something of the context and language of Jesus' time. Our source for this little expedition, which I highly recommend reading, is the essay found here by JP Holding (this entry will basically be a very reduced version of the essay).

Loyalty and evidence

The Christian Bible is split into two main sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The NT describes the events of Jesus' life as well as his first followers', including some letters that they wrote amongst other things. The NT was originally written mostly in Greek and so having a look at the Greek word for faith will do us well in our search for the Biblical meaning. In Greek the word for faith as a thing (the noun) is "pistis" and it means a sort of proof or assurance. This was the sense in which it was used in a passage we looked at in the last entry, Acts 17:31. Most of the time in the NT, faith is used in a different form to speak of loyalty, much as we use it today where to be loyal to one's spouse is to be 'faithful' to one's spouse. But when we use the 'pistis' faith - proof - to inform us of how the 'loyalty' faith is to be understood, much of the NT starts to make a lot more sense. Faith is loyalty to God based on the evidence of his trustworthiness.

That is why when the early Christian leaders proclaimed their message there was an emphasis on evidence and reason, not on feelings and personal experience like you might find in a modern sermon. You might dispute the validity of the evidence, but the point in context is that faith is meant to be undergirded by fact. C. S. Lewis explained the application of it quite well; "faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods (Mere Christianity)." In the next entry we will have a further look at how this properly defined Biblical faith ought to function in the intellectual life of a Christian so that we can continue to see how Christianity fits with reason.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

How does Christianity fit with reason? (1)


Last time we looked at logic and saw that there is nothing in Christianity that commits a believer to abandoning it! We had to recognise however, that even if the beliefs a Christian holds are logically compatible, it doesn’t mean they are rational to hold. After all I could believe that there are iron monkeys living on a distant planet and this wouldn’t contradict anything else I believe, but it would probably be irrational for me to believe it without any evidence or other qualifying factor. So today’s task is to see whether Christianity can be not only a logical belief, but also a rational one.

Let me tell you now that this is an incredibly huge task for a couple blog entries! Not because Christianity is so hard to defend as rational but because the very criteria of what it means for a belief to be rationally held is hugely debated within philosophy. As such I’m not going to get very precise in this entry. We have a roughly intuitive sense of what makes a belief rational or not, and I’ll try and appeal to this.

Hang on ... isn’t Christianity just faith?

We sense that someone is being irrational if they are being careless in the beliefs they adopt or if in some way their mental faculties aren’t functioning properly. Often we think that a person isn’t being careful enough with the beliefs they hold if they adopt them without evidence or reason. As in my example with the iron monkeys, it would probably be careless of me to hold that belief without reason.

Here is where the skeptic (and sometimes the Christian) chimes in with the charge that “Christianity is about faith, and faith isn’t about reason and evidence.” Richard Dawkins, a prominent skeptic in recent times, makes these sorts of accusations – that a belief held by faith is a belief without, or even contrary to, evidence. Perhaps some Christians today do have such a faith, but if we want to examine Christianity, we ought to see what the Bible itself says about faith. Christians regard the Bible as the authority for Christian teachings, so if we want an authentic look at what Christianity really teaches, we need to have a look at the Bible and figure out what its saying.

Genuine faith!

You might be surprised to learn that genuine faith, as the Bible depicts it, is built on evidence. Imagine again Richard Dawkins’ idea of faith - as some sort of blind wishful thinking - and see how it gels with the following passages.

"... he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." (Acts 17:31)

Here Paul, an early Christian leader who spread Jesus’ message to many people, has been discussing the nature of God with some pagan Greeks. He says that the resurrection of Jesus constitutes a proof that God endorsed Jesus and will use him to judge the world (I know, not a popular topic, right? Will discuss in the furure!)

While Paul was waiting ... in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. (Acts 17:16-17)

Paul certainly thought reasoning was an appropriate way to communicate ideas. We even read in the next verse that he debated with some philosophers.

But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect... (1 Peter 3:15)

This statement was written by Peter, the leader of the early Christian movement. He encourages Christians to be able to give a reason for their Christian belief.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37)

Jesus himself said this when he was asked what he thought the greatest and most important commandment of God was. The intellect is not to be ignored.

I’ve picked just a handful of verses I could have used. It seems the Bible itself resists the idea that faith is meant to be evidence-less blind belief (I’ll deal with alleged counter examples a bit later). Next entry we’ll try and hone in on what exactly faith is meant to be, if not groundless hoping.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

How does Christianity fit with logic?

We've come to the end of our series on relativism and hopefully you've agreed with my conclusion that it is most rational to believe that what is true about things does not vary from person to person, that we should consider that there may be actually existing moral laws, and that not every interpretation of a text is valid. With all this achieved we can now begin to have a look at beliefs about what all these truths are. As I am a practising Christian, Christianity and its main ideological opponents will be the focus of the blog's activities.

Now particularly in Britain, Christianity doesn't receive much respect as a candidate for what is true. It is largely believed to be contrary to the available evidence and just a bit backwards. Where these objections fall within my ability to examine, I'll have a go at tackling them. Firstly however we need to have a look at the popular belief that Christianity is opposed even to logic itself. Or that if it isn't opposed to logic, it claims that logic only goes so far. This belief is often held both by non-Christians and Christians too. I want to say that I think this belief is deeply mistaken and arises out of a misunderstanding of what logic actually is.

What is logic?

It's common to see both skeptics and Christians express a misunderstanding of what logic is. You might have encountered these sorts of claims:

Skeptic: "Christians say that God rose Jesus from the dead. But I think there must be a logical explanation for what happened."
Christian: "Skeptics say that Christianity isn't logical. But God transcends mere human reason."

But what exactly is logic? The laws of logic are rules that govern how to correctly reason. In and of themselves they do not tell you what is true. In a similar way the rules of Tennis tell you how Tennis correctly works but do not tell you the truth of what happened in a particular match. If the rules of Tennis in a match were broken, a person wouldn't be playing properly. If the laws of logic are broken, a person wouldn't be reasoning properly. Have a look at this argument.

1. All snakes are elephants.
2. Frank is a snake.
3. Therefore, Frank is an elephant.

Is this argument logical? It may surprise you that the answer is actually "yes". It is logically valid because if points 1 and 2 were true, 3 would also be true. An argument is logically valid if all the different points (philosophers call them 'premises') connect properly to form the conclusion. An argument is logically valid and 'sound' if the points not only correctly connect properly but are true too. Here is an example of an argument that is logically valid and sound,

1. All snakes eventually die.
2. Frank is a snake.
3. Therefore, Frank will eventually die.

If we ignored the laws of logic we would make all kinds of errors in our reasoning. We could produce an argument like this,

1. All snakes eventually die.
2. Tesco is evil.
3. Therefore Bruce Willis is my mum.

This is problematic because if we ignore the laws of logic we will find it very hard to arrive at correct conclusions! As a Christian I believe God expects me to pursue truth. I better make sure I pay attention to logic then! As it is we often find ourselves making errors even when we do try and adhere to the laws of logic. Logical errors are called logical fallacies; you can read about them here. Logic doesn't just deal with the structure of arguments. It also deals with how compatible certain ideas are. We should be careful to make sure our beliefs don't break the Law of Non-Contradiction. If two ideas are contradictory, necessarily they cannot both be true. Look at these:

1. The universe is made up exclusively of matter.
2. The universe is made up exclusively of spiritual substance.

If one of these beliefs were true it would logically entail that the other could not be. A person then should not hold both of these beliefs at the same time. Often the skeptic will try and show that some of the ideas that the Christian holds are logically incompatible. They might try and argue for instance that it cannot be true that both an all-powerful, all-loving God can exist alongside evil. The Christian should not be happy to just accept this judgment. If there really was a logical contradiction, either God could not be both all-power and all-loving or evil could not exist. The Christian should examine the skeptic's claims and see whether the beliefs in question really do entail a logical contradiction (I will do so in a later entry).

It is very important that the Christian defends the logical consistency of God. If God does not adhere to the laws of logic then he can both exist and not-exist at the same time. If he isn't logically consistent then how could he be trusted to judge fairly? Only a logical God is worthy of worship.

Where's the mystery?

If you're a Christian reading this you might be concerned that I'm trying to squeeze God into my limited human understanding. I'm actually not. The claim that God is logical is not the same as the claim that God is completely comprehendable. For instance I do not understand all there is to know about genetics or computer programming, although I believe things about them, and recognise that they do not entail any logical contradictions. In the same way it is possible to believe that the existence of an all-power, all-loving God, and evil, do not entail a logical contradiction, even if you don't know why God allows evil.

Let's understand logic!

Let's return to the two claims we saw at the start and see where they went wrong.

Skeptic: "Christians say that God rose Jesus from the dead. But I think there must be a logical explanation for what happened."

The skeptic is likely confusing a logical belief for a 'materialistic' belief. Materialism is the belief that matter and energy is all that there is. This skeptic then, wants to explain Jesus' resurrection by purely material or "natural" means, i.e. without the involvement of any divine being. Fair play, but as we've seen, logic is only concerned with the structure of our thought, not its contents. A materialistic belief is not more logical than a non-materialistic belief just by virtue of being materialistic. It would be more correct for the skeptic to say this;

Skeptic: "Christians say that God rose Jesus from the dead. But I think there must be a materialistic explanation for what happened."

As for the Christian claim,

Christian: "Skeptics say that Christianity isn't logical. But God transcends mere human reason."

We have seen that the Christian should defend God's logical nature, not abandon it. The attitude of the Christian should more resemble this;

Christian: "Skeptics say that Christianity isn't logical. But if Christianity is true, God must be logical. I need to try and refute these skeptics' claims."

Christianity then, is not opposed to logic, although we have yet to examine some of the claims that it is logically contradictory. It still doesn't follow however that Christianity is a rational belief to hold. Afterall I might have some logically compatible beliefs that I still ought not to hold. If I believe that there is a giant crab-horse living on a moon millions of light-years away, that belief does not contradict anything else I believe, but I would be irrational to hold it because I have no reason to. We should see then how Christianity fits with rationality.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

There is no one true interpretation?

Having completed our look at moral relativism we are today going to examine another kind of relativism. This kind relates to how we interpret the things we read. It is the belief that there is no one true interpretation of a text. Although it's a bit wordy we will refer to this form of relativism as 'Hermeneutical relativism'. Often you will hear this belief expressed when the Bible or another important text is being discussed. The following sort of exchange is quite common, at least in Britain...

Benny: The Bible is really cool. It says that Jesus was the Son of God.
Jimbo: Well that's just your interpretation. Many people interpret it differently.
Benny: My interpretation is correct. Let me show you how I reached this conclusion.
Jimbo: Please! Every interpretation is just as valid as another.

Hermeneutical relativism claims that a text doesn't have one true meaning, but many meanings depending on who reads it. So I can read the Bible, and you can read the Bible, and we can come to different conclusions about what the text says, and neither of us will be more right than the other. Is this belief really compelling? I'm going to argue 'no', and to do so I think it'll be helpful to make a distinction between "what the text says" and "the personal significance of a text." It may not be automatically clear as to what that distinction is so I'll have a go at clarifying.

Personal significance

Often when we use the word "meaning" we use it to signify that something has value for us. You might say "this picture means a lot to me!" or "thanks for doing that, it really means a lot." This might happen when we read a book, especially stuff like poetry. We find a way to 'connect' with it and grow attached to it so that the poem has personal significance and ends up "meaning a lot to us". Perhaps it reminds us of particular memories or feelings. Someone else could read that same poem and find personal significance in it in a wholly different way. Whereas the poem might remind you of your first love, to the other person, it may remind them of a special holiday. In this sense, it is correct to say that no one meaning is right and others wrong. This kind of meaning is particular to each person and no-one's personal significance can be more correct than another's. Although this is a valid way of thinking about meaning, hermeneutical relativism confuses the boundaries between personal significance and what the text says.

What the text says

If you and I are talking over MSN or Facebook and I think I haven't understood something you've said, I will ask you something like "what did you mean when you said that?" I will be asking you for the meaning you intended to convey. No doubt you intended to say something in particular and not just anything. If I interpret your message without regard to your intent I won't understand you. Imagine the following conversation on Facebook,

Jimbo: Hey Benny did you hear that Nick Clegg and David Cameron formed a coalition government?
Benny: That's wicked!
Jimbo: Wicked? Urm, that's not evil at all. I mean, I voted labour but this ain't all that bad.
Benny: No I meant "wicked" as in "that's good!"
Jimbo: I interpreted what you were saying to mean that you thought it was bad. And every interpretation is equally valid so don't try and correct me.
Benny: But that's not what I meant! Argh.

In this context the meaning of a message refers to the author's intent for the message. And it is simply not true that every account of what the author's intent is can be equally valid. Jimbo's interpretation of Benny's message did not accurately reflect Benny's intent. True, the word "wicked" can be used to represent goodness or badness, but Benny's intent in using the word was for it to express goodness. The meaning of his message was equivalent to saying "that's very good!" Any interpretation of the message which does not reflect that, has misunderstood the message and is wrong. In an earlier entry we saw that 'truth' is about how ideas and reality match up. When we are talking about what a text says, the interpretation is the idea and the reality it matches up to is the author's intent. An interpretation must adequately reflect the author's intent to be true.

It doesn't mean what you want it to mean!

There is clearly a distinction then, between the personal significance of a text and what the text says. Perhaps there is a poem I love and I know the author's intent for it was to recount a bad experience with drug abuse (I read an interview where the author said so). When I read the poem however, it has the personal significance of reminding me of a past break-up. I feel that the personal significance of the poem is meaningful to me, but at the same time I recognise that what the poem is saying is about drug abuse. Everyone's personal significance for the poem is equally valid but not everyone's interpretation of what the poem is saying is equally valid. If there is more than one correct way to interpret a text it is only because the author intended there to be more than one way.

To return to the Bible then, while it is true that there are lots of interpretations of it around, the only ones which are true are those which match up to the authors' intent. How we can know that we have a correct interpretation is a matter that will likely be developed in detail later on through the blog. For now note that the more attention you pay to the context of a message, the more likely you'll arrive at the correct interpretation. For such considerations we should ask questions like the following:

What kind of person is the author?
Who is the intended audience of the message?
What literary genre is the message composed in?
What is the historical/social context?

Saturday, 5 June 2010

What's moral for me IS moral for you. Objection (4)

We've spent the last few entries looking at moral relativism in its most popular form today. Moral relativism is the belief that we create our own moral codes and as such what is moral for me may not be moral for you. In the first entry on this topic we saw that if we acted consistently in believing moral relativism we’d have to accept that every moral belief is equally worthy – even those that promote cruelty of the highest order. Right now we are looking at common arguments used to defend moral relativism or to attack the opposite position: moral realism. Moral realism is the belief that some sort of universally binding moral law actually exists independently of the human mind (in the same way DNA or elephants exist whether or not we believe in them). We're looking at one last objection before we look at another form of relativism.

But we aren't moral monsters!

When it has been pointed out to the moral relativist that the logical conclusion of their belief is the equal status of every moral belief they sometimes object that they and other moral relativists do not go around saying things like "genocide is as good as donating to Oxfam".

Benny: You're a moral relativist aren't you?
Jimbo: Sure am.
Benny: You realise that if what you believed were true, murder would be no less virtuous than kindliness? Maybe you should admit that there might be some actually existing moral laws.
Jimbo:
Please, I don't need to believe in any universal standard to behave morally.

Is this a valid objection? Absolutely not! The relativist has mistaken the nature of the complaint made against him. The moral realist is not saying that the relativist is actually unable to judge one moral belief as better than another, he is saying that the relativist is being inconsistent when he does so. The relativist's response is as absurd as this,

Benny: You believe in a flat earth right?
Jimbo: Sure do.

Benny: You realise that if what you believed were true, you wouldn't be able to fly from one place, stay in the same direction and eventually return to that same place?

Jimbo: Please, I don't need to believe in a spherical earth to travel around it.

Jimbo is right, he doesn't need to believe in a spherical earth to travel around it. He does though if he wants his behaviour and his beliefs to be logically consistent! Similarly he doesn't need to believe that moral laws actually exist to judge one moral belief as better than another. But he does if he wants to be consistent. So ends our look at common defences of moral relativism. If you know of any others that you think should be looked at, drop me an email using the contact form at the bottom of the page.

Friday, 4 June 2010

What's moral for me IS moral for you. Objection (3)

We've spent the last few entries looking at moral relativism in its most popular form today. Moral relativism is the belief that we create our own moral codes and as such what is moral for me may not be moral for you. In the first entry on this topic we saw that if we acted consistently in believing moral relativism we’d have to accept that every moral belief is equally worthy – even those that promote cruelty of the highest order. Right now we are looking at common arguments used to defend moral relativism or to attack the opposite position: moral realism. Moral realism is the belief that some sort of universally binding moral law actually exists independently of the human mind (in the same way cars or mountains exist whether or not we believe in them). The objection we are looking at today is the objection that moral relativism has been misrepresented by the kind of argument I've made against it. Let's have a look at this claim.

So long as you're not harming anyone ...

In Britain at least, it is quite common to hear the relativist express their belief like this, "it's all up to us to decide what morals we live by so long as we don't hurt one another." They would then object to the idea that relativism entails the equal worth of every moral belief like I have argued. This objection fails because it makes a moral claim that looks something like this; "one should not create a moral code that permits causing harm to another person." But if the relativist asserts that all moralities are just human inventions and there is no truth to moral matters, then that moral claim is itself just a human invention. If no such moral law actually exists then we have no obligation to follow it and the relativist is being inconsistent when he claims that we are bound by it. We'll look at another objection in the next entry.



Thursday, 3 June 2010

What’s moral for me IS moral for you. Objection (2)

A couple entries ago we looked at moral relativism in its most popular form today. Moral relativism is the belief that we create our own moral codes and as such what is moral for me may not be moral for you. We saw that if we acted consistently in believing moral relativism we’d have to accept that every moral belief is equally worthy – even those that promote cruelty of the highest order. We are in the process of looking at some commonly made arguments defending moral relativism. Today we are looking at the charge that the alternative, “moral realism”, which I’ve been arguing in favour of in this blog, is just arrogance. Moral realism is the belief that some sort of universally binding moral law actually exists independently of the human mind (in the same way rocks or dolphins exist whether or not we believe in them). So let’s look at this objection.

How dare you say that your standards alone are right!


The following exchange illustrates the nature of this complaint,


Benny: Y’know in some cultures they permit men and women to have multiple husbands or wives.
Jimbo: Oh yeah?
Benny: Uh-huh. I think it’s pretty morally wrong.
Jimbo: Um, don’t be such a bigot! Their culture just has different standards of right and wrong.

The idea is that to say that one set of beliefs about right and wrong is correct, and all others false, is arrogant and irrational. There are in fact a few problems with this objection when it is used against moral realism. Firstly it assumes that morality – matters of right and wrong – are just human constructs and that because of this, to judge one culture’s morality as ‘wrong’ is like saying that one culture’s choice of cuisine is wrong; it is just a matter of taste and you should respect the other culture’s choices. But the moral realist doesn’t believe that right and wrong are just cultural inventions. That issue is in fact the very thing being debated. So there’s no reason for the moral realist to accept that objection at all. Imagine if a Christian tried to persuade you he was right by just assuming he was; you wouldn’t be too impressed! The objector has committed what’s called the fallacy of “begging the question”. He has already assumed something important about the very issue being discussed.

The next problem is that the objector is making a moral claim that looks something like this; “one ought to not say that a culture’s moral beliefs are wrong.” But as we’ve already seen in the first entry on this topic, the logical conclusion of moral relativism is that any moral belief is as valid as any other. So if the objector was being consistent he wouldn’t believe that you have any obligation to follow this moral command at all. Whoops!

Okay but it’s still arrogant!

Perhaps, when the moral relativist’s objection has been countered with the above observations, he begins to accept that moral laws aren’t just human inventions, but he still thinks it is arrogant to claim that one set of moral beliefs is right and another wrong. What can be said to ease him fully over to the realist side of the fence? As we did when we looked at the objection in the previous entry, let’s compare this issue of belief in moral laws with belief in scientific or “natural” laws. Imagine this conversation,

Benny: Y’know in some cultures they think the sun orbits the earth.
Jimbo: Oh yeah?
Benny: Uh-huh. I think it’s pretty scientifically wrong.
Jimbo: Um, don’t be such a bigot! Their culture just has different standards of scientific truth.

Has Benny fallen into foul play here? I hope there are few of us who would say he has! There is nothing wrong about saying that a particular scientific belief is incorrect if you know it is. After all if there is a truth to the matter, not everyone can be right if their views differ. Similarly, if there is a truth to moral matters as the moral realist claims, there is nothing wrong about saying that a particular moral belief is incorrect if you know it is. How can we know that our moral beliefs are correct? This is indeed a good question and it’s one I hope to explore later on through the blog. Right now we have done enough to show that the objection examined today fails.