Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Butler Society talk - Oxford


I'm speaking at Oxford University's Joseph Butler Society (devoted to philosophy of religion) this Monday, 4th Feb.

I'll be reading a paper that develops my "evil god hypothesis" in some detail (it's a work in progress, so the discussion will be useful).

For a brief and breezy intro to the main idea, see my The God of Eth.

The event is open to all. Be at Oriel College 8.15pm for 8.30pm

religion - and arguments from authority

William Hawthorne comments here:

I did not argue from

(1)Many of the brightest philosophers believe in God

to

(2) Therefore, God exists,

or even to

(2*) Therefore, belief in God is reasonable.

What I suggested is this. The fact that many of the brightest philosophers believe in God should give us pause before we join atheist apologists (like Dawkins) in dismissing theism as delusional.

And in general, I would argue that if many extremely brilliant people have thought about p carefully, subjected p to rigorous logical analysis, and have come to believe that p, this should give us reason to refrain from lazily dismissing p as childish or delusional. A more thorough investigation would be called for.

So I have not committed a fallacious appeal to authority.

For evidence that many of the brightest philosophers reject naturalism and endorse theism, visit the following webpage:

http://rationalperspective.wordpress.com/theistic-philosophers/

In fact, when it comes to Christian philosophers in particular, Leiter made the following observation:

"...while Robert Adams and Alvin Plantinga and William Alston were something of anomalies in their generation, the large number of overtly Christian philosophers, who are fairly prominent philosophers as well, in the younger generation (e.g., those under 50 roughly) is quite large, and includes, among others, John Hawthorne (Oxford & Rutgers), Dean Zimmerman (Rutgers), Keith DeRose (Yale), Michael Rea and Fritz Warfield (Notre Dame), Robert Koons (Texas), Michael Bergmann (Purdue), and Mark Murphy (Georgetown)--and that's just off the top of my head. To be sure, religious philosophers are probably still a minority in academic philosophy in the U.S., but my sense is they are less of a minority than 25 years ago."

Stephen Law responds:

I inclined to agree with William that we ought not to dismiss Christian religious belief as childish or silly out of hand (though I imagine he himself probably rejects belief in the ancient Norse pantheon more or less out of hand, despite the fact that many smart Norse people believed in it).

Mind you, that doesn't mean we are not justified in dismissing religious belief as childish or silly after fairly careful thought. My view is that we are, in fact (though I won't attempt to justify that claim here).

Against this, some (not William, though) might argue - "But the fact that many leading philosophers believe immediately gives us good grounds for supposing it's not that childish or silly. If they believe, well, there must be something to it, surely?"

I don't accept this. There's something weird about religion - something that imbues it with the power to convince even very smart people to believe ridiculous things. The spectacular rise of young earth creationism over the last half century or so (which has spread from a tiny band of crackpots to 100 million Americans - many college educated) illustrates my point. Indeed, it illustrates how religion has the power to convince even contemporary PhD-qualified scientists that the theory that the entire universe is 6k years old is both rational and scientific.

Just what explains this extraordinary power is open to question. But that religion possesses it is surely not.

There doesn't appear to be any corresponding, equally strong, non-truth-sensitive power residing in other scientific belief systems, or indeed, in atheism (though you might want to argue otherwise).

I do realize of course that within science etc. there are non-truth-sensitive belief-forming factors in play - e.g. ego, research funding, etc. My point is there is nothing of remotely comparable scale: religion stands head-and-shoulders above these other factors in getting smart people to believe stupid things.

If that's true, then there's an important asymmetry here: the credibility lent by a leading philosopher or scientist who signs up to an atheistic or non-religious scientific theory is greater than the credibility they would thereby lend to a religious belief.

[I should stress, though, that I am not fond of arguments from authority in this context, and am not offering one here.]

William Hawthorne suggests that many leading philosophers etc. are religious, and that the percentage is going up. That's not my impression, nor that of Colin McGinn, who, in this interview, suggests that very few leading philosophers are religious, and that their numbers are declining.

Hard to know who's right here. McGinn suggests the claim that many leading philosophers are religious is just "good PR" by the religious. A half page list of names, some of which we recognise, might look impressive, until you remember just how many professional philosophers there are in the UK and US.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Frustrating bloody copy-editors

Just want to get something off my chest.

I have just received a hard copy of my forthcoming book The Great Philosophers. I always receive these new books with trepidation, because I know I'll quickly stumble on something that' s slipped through the editorial net.

The problem with writing philosophy books for trade publishers is the copy-editing.

Philosophy text is extremely easy to screw up. Miss out a quotation mark, change "a" to "the" etc. and you turn very carefully written philosophical prose into gibberish.

Copy editors make literally hundreds of such little changes (I guess more than 500 in this one). And they don't flag them up.

In both the DK book and, to a lesser extent, this one, the copy editor, by trying to "improve" my writing, has turned it into embarrassing crap. Most of the crap I spot in the short time I am given to proof read the text (in this case, a week, while on family holiday in foreign country).

Inevitably some of the crap slips through.

In this book, for example, the section on Wittgenstein talks about 'the way in which "pain" functions'. i.e. the way the word 'pain' functions. Talking about a word requires putting it in quotation marks. The copy editor obviously thought there were too many quotations marks, so just randomly took out half of them. Including from headings.

So here's my new year's resolution - from now on I am going to insist that copy editors flag every single last bloody change they make. Even cutting a quotation mark. I recommend anyone writing similar books do the same.

(Having said that, I'm otherwise quite pleased with the book)

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Ibrahim Lawson correspondence

I have had a long dialogue with Ibrahim Lawson, head of an Islamic school, about faith schools.

Ibrahim had said on Radio 4 that in any good Islamic school "Islam is a given and never challenged". I said that such schools (Islamic, Christian, or indeed, atheist) should no longer be tolerated. He got in touch...

Here are links to the correspondence so far (which has become very spread out).

Nov 27th My Original Post, which provoked Ibrahim into getting in touch.

Ibrahim's original email to me, which I then posted.

The correspondence that followed this initial exchange can be scrolled through here (in reverse order). Note that some of Ibrahim's responses appear not as posts, but as comments on posts. To see the comments on a post, click on "comments" at end of post, or click on the orange title of the post. Scrolling backwards through these posts will give you the gist of the dialogue to date.

My latest response to Ibrahim is here.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Latest response to Ibrahim Lawson

[this is part of an ongoing dialogue I am having with the head of an Islamic school].

Ibrahim has recently responded to my last post to him. He thinks our dialogue is running out of steam, and wants to try to move things on…

“One last attempt to move things along (or move the goalposts, I am sure some people will think). I am absolutely prepared to admit that I know very little and am wrong about everything I think. With the exception of a sole domain: against all human reason and experience, I know as an absolute, incontrovertible certainty that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet and messenger. This CLEARLY puts the whole thing on a totally different basis. How to understand this? Well, that’s precisely the task Islam puts to me. In this, I have found thinking based solely on induction and deduction to be singularly useless, except, via negtiva, in showing where the answer does not lie. Instead, I find this sort of thing a useful place to start:
“If thinking is not philosophy, if it thinks upon that to which philosophy can in principle have no access, what is it? How are we to regard it?”

I have two responses.

First, Ibrahim, can you answer those questions that I asked at the end of my last post about faith schooling (I can’t see that your unwavering commitment to Islam prohibits you from answering them). Seems to me your views on this topic are something well worth clarifying, given our original discussion was specifically on faith schools.

Second, the discussion has also kind of moved onto Islam generally (which wasn't my intention). You claim you know as an absolute incontrovertible certainty that Islam is true. Also, you suggest above that reason cannot usefully be applied to Islam. Indeed, you maintain, without argument, that this is an area “to which philosophy can in principle have no access.”

But still, you want to engage in a dialogue about Islam. So do I. But I am puzzled as to what form it should take.

Here’s an analogy to explain my puzzlement.

Suppose Bert is raised from birth to accept uncritically that the memoirs of a rather opinionated, deluded, and occasionally bigoted Victorian politician are in fact THE TRUTH. He supposes everything in this Victorian moralist's book is absolutely, incontrovertibly certain. Why? Because the book says so!

Bert is also raising his own kids to have the same unwavering certainty in the contents of his book.

Understandably, that concerns you.

Now Bert is a nice guy, and otherwise entirely reasonable. Indeed, he is happy to have a dialogue with you about what’s in his book. Only he’s not interested in applying reason or listening to any arguments you might have to offer, because, he says, the book is something to which reason and philosophy don’t apply. He wants a different sort of "dialogue".

What would you say to Bert? What kind of dialogue could you usefully have with him? Wouldn't you feel that Bert has, in effect, restricted the scope of any "dialogue" you might have with him in a wholly unjustified and unfair way?

That's more or less how I feel about the way this dialogue is going...

It's not that I am not very interested in your beliefs, or unwilling to explore new ideas, or that I think you are a bad person or anything like that - I am just not sure what's left for me to say in response to you once I've agreed to your ground rules.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

NEWS FLASH: The Resurrection of L. Ron Hubbard!

I want to share some evidence with you today. I am a scientologist. And (like St Paul) I offer you this personal eye-witness testimony: that I saw L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the movement, with my own eyes, and spoke with him, recently (he died in 1986).

In addition, I can provide documents, written by scientologists (I don't know who they are exactly but let's call them Maurice, Mick, Louise and Jane) which report not only Ron's life, but also that he was seen and spoken to by many scientologists shortly after his death. And these documents agree perfectly.

I think you have to agree that this is pretty good evidence that L. Ron Hubbard was resurrected, right?

Of course, I guess you don't. But if you don't - if you think my evidence is something of a joke - yet you do consider the evidence for Jesus' resurrection provided by St Paul and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to be pretty good, can you explain why?

Of course there are important differences between this evidence and the evidence for Jesus's resurrection, e.g.:

(i) we have very solid, independent evidence that at least L. Ron Hubbard really existed and died in a certain way. That's debatable in the case of Jesus (we've got Josephus and Tacitus, who are perhaps only reporting what Christians told them - in which case their evidence is not "independent" at all).
(ii) the evidence is very recent, and presented in person, not by thousands of years old documents, as in the case of Jesus.
(iii) in the case of Jesus, we know many more gospels were written (if in at least some cases rather later) and that they tell rather different stories - so we know that gospel-writers at about that time could be, shall we say, "creative".
(iv) Koranic "scholars" similarly insist the Koran is reliable, and, er, the Koran says explicitly that Jesus was not crucified (so I guess a great many textual "scholars" must be wrong - um, which of these expert textual "scholars" should I listen to: the Christian ones or the Muslim ones?)

I don't want to make anything at all hang on these four points, however.

Biblical "scholars" often say: we have as much evidence for Jesus's existence, crucifixion and resurrection as we do for other historical figures and events that we readily accept were real.

The trouble is, as the great Carl Sagan puts it, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". If I say I met L. Ron Hubbard before he died, hey, that's pretty good evidence that I did. If I say I met him after he died - well, my saying that I did is no longer nearly enough, is it? Indeed, anything else I claim about him is now immediately thrown into serious doubt.

Of course I am no Biblical scholar (but then I bet you lot casually chucking out my L. Ron Hubbard story aren't scholars of Scientology, are you?). No doubt I will now told by such scholars that the evidence for Jesus's resurrection provided by St. Paul and the four Gospels is much better than this evidence for Hubbard's resurrection. I look forward to that...

P.S. Incidentally, I was asked to do a debate with Gary Habermas (see preceding post) at Edinburgh University, but was told I had to restrict myself to the historicity of Jesus's resurrection (a topic to which Gary has apparently devoted much of his life). Of course, that entirely clipped my wings, so I declined (also, I am no historian).


N.B. Image is of Tom Cruise with L. Ron Hubbard.

POST SCRIPT: This post is partly in response to Chris bringing up historical evidence for Jesus's crucifixion [see comments on preceding post. Here is what Chris said:

There are many good reasons to believe that the historical Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.

Firstly, it is recorded in all four gospels, with remarkable agreement. The pericope appears to have been handed down in whole, and is as such more reliable.

Secondly, the crucifixion is mentioned by Tacitus, a Roman historian who is known to be greatly reliable.

Thirdly, crucifixion was considered a horrible death by people generally at the time. It is extremely unlikely that those who followed Jesus would invent such a horrific death for him.

Fourthly, for Jews, crucifixion showed Jesus to be cursed of God (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). As the Evangelists believed Jesus to be the Messiah, it is historically ridiculous to say that they invented a crucifixion story. It presented a barrier to belief in Jesus, so would not have been fabricated.

Fiftly, no competing death story exists. If the crucifixion were a legend, we would expect other conflicting legends.

For these reasons among others, New Testament scholarship is universally agreed that Jesus of Nazareth died by crucifixion.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

"But many leading philosophers/Biblical scholars believe!"

I said a while ago that we'd discuss arguments from authority regarding religious belief.

For example, you often hear people say "Many leading philosophers are believers, so it can't be that unreasonable, can it?" William Hawthorne earlier made this sort of move (correct me if I am wrong, William).

Another example I heard from philosopher Gary Habermas (paraphrasing) "The vast majority of Biblical scholars agree that the historical evidence for the crucifixion of Jesus is strong" (he then proceeds to argue that what they agree on then provides ample evidence that Jesus was resurrected. I am reading his "The Case For The Resurrection of Jesus" at the moment.

My view is these arguments from authority are very weak. But at this point I merely invite comments...

Go here for examples of fallacious appeals to authority. Are the above fallacious appeals?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Question re secularism

Here is a question for you relating to the dialogue we are having with Ibrahim.

Justification always has to come to an end somewhere. So, there will be basic beliefs or principles for which no further justification can be given. Why make these foundational principles secular rather than religious?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Reply to Ibrahim Lawson

This is part of an ongoing discussion with the head of an Islamic school, Ibrahim Lawson, focusing on his suggestion that in any good Islamic school "Islam is a given and never challenged".

Apologies to Ibrahim for delay in responding.

I think this has been a very interesting and useful exchange, myself, and am very pleased Ibrahim has contributed. Certainly I have a somewhat clearer idea of what he believes.

Ibrahim says:

“I have been trying to suggest that the total chaos of his ‘nuclear option’ might be avoided by appeal to some other criteria of justification than those of the ‘techno-rationality’ (or ‘calculative thinking’ or whatever it might be) of the rational-empirical intellectual tradition characteristic particularly of the European enlightenment up to modern times. Within that tradition, I see no room for religion: it becomes absurd. And I think this cannot be stressed enough.”

As I see it, I am not applying some modern Western phenomenon - “techno-rationality”, whatever that is.

I am just applying bog-standard rationality – the same sort of rationality that people have been applying to practical and other problems and questions since the dawn of time.

[Incidentally, I have been reading Amartya Sen’s book The Argumentative Indian, which makes very clear that in C16th India, for example, the Muslim ruler Akbar was very keen on applying reason and encouraging individuals to think and question rather than uncritically accept Islam. His subjects were even free to reject Islam if they so wished (this at the time the European Inquisition was burning Giordano Bruno for heresy – so much for the idea that the European Enlightenment invented the tolerant secular society). The idea that “reason”, and indeed secularism, is essentially some sort of modern European invention is post-modern cobblers, I suspect.]

Also: lots of people who apply reason (including Western philosophers) think religious belief is reasonable. Perhaps you are too pessimistic?

Certainly you reach for rational argument whenever you think it will support your case. But when the argument starts to run against you, you reach for the skepticism-about-reason button. That's what I call "going nuclear".

But what I REALLY want to know is: what are these other "criteria of justification" by which Islam might be justified? If you respond to anything in this post, do please respond to this.

Ibrahim continues:

“So, for example, I have not said that religion and morality cannot be thought about critically, only that there are limitations in the scope of ‘criticality’, at least as usually understood, especially when it comes to foundational principles.”

We can all agree that their are limits to what reason can show (which is not to say it cannot show religion is false - perhaps it can).

Ibrahim says:

If you think that Islam is about teaching blind acceptance of a whole worldview, as many of you seem to, then come into any Islamic school in the country and see for yourself that this is not true.”


Frankly, I don’t believe this.

I have a great deal of anecdotal evidence that many Muslims - and even Muslim teachers, do indeed want uncritical acceptance from kids.

Including evidence from a member of one of the SACREs, who has been into many such schools, and was "horrified".

I could also quote a few Muslims at you, including a headmaster who doesn't even want his kids mixing with those of unbelievers lest they be "corrupted". Hard to believe he's encouraging much independent critical thought in his school.

There's also the not unrelated statistic that 36% of young British Muslims think the appropriate penalty for any adult Muslim that leaves the faith is... death. Doesn't sound like they've been raised to think and question, does it?

I also note that when I offer to come into your school to offer your kids some arguments against theism, you turn me down flat.

But, hey, if you really do think young Muslims should be encouraged to think and question about their own faith, then perhaps you won't object to the Government introducing statutory requirements so far as getting children to think critically about morality and religion is concerned? Which is what I am after.

"On the other hand, if you are looking for imperfectly critical thinkers doing their best to teach to teach critical thinking then you will not be disappointed, either in Islamic or any other kinds of school.

 The point, though, is that someone has to accept the task of thinking things right through to the end, to the point where critical thinking turns, reflexively, on its own first principles. Very few have the inclination or ability to do this. At this point, thinking starts to throw up some very peculiar results. Perhaps there is an analogy here with nuclear physics, where common sense understanding begins to fail as we are introduced to such concepts as ‘space/time’, multiple dimensions beyond the usual three, the uncertainty principle and so on, in order to explain what is ‘really’ going on. Clearly this is not going to happen in the school classroom, but this is the sort of thing I have been trying to talk about in my contributions to this blog.
"


Yes but this is not a reason for discouraging children from asking fundamental questions about morality and religion.

Bbut you say you don't discourage it, so fine. Or, are you saying that? Perhaps you are saying: "Yes kids can think critically about Islam (about e.g. whether Mohummad meant this, or that), but not when it comes to the fundamentals of faith". See - I am not sure. Can you clarify?

“Next, your point about each of us being our own ‘ultimate moral authority’. What I said was that I did not see that you had actually argued for this belief, only asserted it; I see no argument to deal with here yet. I tried to argue that the concept of total personal moral autonomy breaks down upon examination and I suggested that that was why you had been unable to provide a supporting argument.”

There was an argument, in fact. It was based on the premise that while it would be wrong to blame someone for doing something chemical that the chemistry prof. told them to do, it would not be wrong to blame someone for doing something immoral that their religious authority told them to do. Morality is not like chemistry. When it comes to morality, the buck stops with you. It won’t do to say: “But they told me to do it” and point to an “expert”. The argument is here. If you reject it, then I don’t see how you avoid excusing the mass murderer who murders on the instructions of their moral/religious authority. Do you excuse that?

“I have no problem with teaching children to think critically, including about religion and morality and critical thinking itself (in fact I insist on it) and I too believe that a better society would be the result.”

Good (though I need some clarification on what this means - see above) But then it’s hard to reconcile this with your original statement that in any good Islamic school “Islam is a given and never challenged”.

That, of course, is what this entire debate has been about. Or at least I thought it was.

“What appears to me to be irrelevant, because non-existent, is your response to the serious questions I have repeatedly raised about the extent of the remit of rational-empirical thinking in determining how we understand our existence and our consequent decisions as to how to lead our lives and organise our societies, including our education system.”

My view is, we should apply reason as best we can. I don’t say it can necessarily answer all our questions about life, the universe and everything. I also acknowledge there are classic skeptical worries even about reason itself. However, I also pointed out why I thought that sort of general skeptical worry was rather beside the point to the debate I thought we were having.

“And there was me thinking we would be having a philosophical discussion about the warrantability of religious belief from the perspective of hermeneutic phenomenology.”

That would be a very interesting discussion to have, but it’s not the one I thought we were having. I thought we were discussing whether children should be encouraged uncritically to accept Islam.

"Philoso-babble aside, it is clear in retrospect that what most of the contributors to this discussion have wanted is to share their scorn, dislike, fear or hatred of Islam."

Personally, I seriously dislike Authoritarian religion. The kind that requires uncritical acceptance. Seems to me, many Muslims go for that. Others (15thC Akbar) don’t. The same is true of the other major religions, as well. They too have their Authoritarian wings. My dislike is not for all Islam, and indeed it extends far beyond Islam. It even extends to Authoritarian atheism, in fact!"

Let me finish with some questions:

You say you encourage critical thinking in class, even about Islam. But:

(i) is this restricted to e.g. what Mohammad meant by this remark, or what that passage of the Koran means? etc. Or can kids ask more fundamental questions, such as why they should even believe the Koran is true?
(ii) Even if the latter question is one they are permitted to ask, would it be taken seriously and answered - or just met with unjustified insistence ("It just is true!")
(iv) Would such questions be not just permitted, but positively encouraged? If so, how?
(iv) Could a child say in class, "Frankly, I don't believe this is the word of God", and face no sanction?

I don't see how your statement that in any good Muslim school, "Islam is a given and never challenged" can be squared with positive answers to these questions.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Wittgenstein Summer School at Oxford University


I am running a week on Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations for Oxford University Depart. of Continuing Education. 12th-19th July. Details available here.

There are lots of excellent courses available. Go here.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Debate on faith schools - on BBC World Service

You can hear me on "Reporting Religion" on BBC World Service this week - here. I am quoted at the beginning of the programme, but the relevant bit is toward the end.

The programme has me debating faith schools with the education officer of the British Council of Muslims.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Ibrahim Lawson' last post

Here's the last response from Ibrahim Lawson. He is responding to this. See link to left for the thread.

Dear Stephen et al,

I have been away on holiday, but in any case thought that this discussion had petered out. However, since you have replied then I will make one last effort to respond.

I have been quite disappointed with the way the discussion has turned out, confirming my doubts about the usefulness of this kind of cyber-conversation as an act of genuine communication. This is partly because the issues are extremely complex to unpack so we end up shouting at each other from our respective entrenched positions. The other reason is the regrettable prevalence of the kind of point-scoring mentality which I suggested characterises debate as distinct from dialogue; perhaps I have been as much to blame as anyone else.

I have, though, learned from some of the contributions that my view of religion is evidently even more esoteric than I had previously realised; as such, it is not really my business either to represent ‘Muslim’ opinion or to defend it and you may have to look for others to argue with; they will not be hard to find.

Briefly to address Stephen’s last points: I have been trying to suggest that the total chaos of his ‘nuclear option’ might be avoided by appeal to some other criteria of justification than those of the ‘techno-rationality’ (or ‘calculative thinking’ or whatever it might be) of the rational-empirical intellectual tradition characteristic particularly of the European enlightenment up to modern times. Within that tradition, I see no room for religion: it becomes absurd. And I think this cannot be stressed enough. From this point of view, training children to believe in God becomes indoctrination – the inculcation of irrational beliefs by non-rational methods of persuasion.

But this is not a position I have been defending. My original comment on Radio 4 was more to the effect of ‘I can see that that’s how you would see it’.

So it seems to me that while I understand where my various critics are coming from, and even agree with them, they do not grasp what it is I am actually trying to say but rather keep attacking positions that they mistakenly attribute to me instead. I might be wrong. It might also be that I am so confused about what I am trying to say that I consistently fail to explain myself properly, or even at all.

What I am nevertheless trying to suggest is that we suffer from an intellectual tradition which has developed a relatively narrow idea of what makes sense and then rejects any other way of thinking about things. The consequences have been disastrous in just about every respect. Of course we now have all the benefits of modern technology, but who can avoid the suspicion that something has not quite turned out right there either and that yet more technology may not be the answer?

And if there were indeed another way of thinking about the world, how would we recognise it when we are stuck with one way of seeing which cannot acknowledge any other? To step outside a paradigm is not easy – “ the eye cannot see the limits of vision”, Wittgenstein observes somewhere.

But some of the criticism levelled at what I have been saying is not attributable to category errors at the paradigm level, but to rather more mundane failures (deliberate or not) to pay attention. So, for example, I have not said that religion and morality cannot be thought about critically, only that there are limitations in the scope of ‘criticality’, at least as usually understood, especially when it comes to foundational principles. This is the point about Rawls (who states the liberal position as well as it can be, so why beat around the bush?) I am talking ‘ultimately’ here, and perhaps this is the problem: we switch backwards and forwards from highly abstract principles to common sense matters of observation. If you think that Islam is about teaching blind acceptance of a whole worldview, as many of you seem to, then come into any Islamic school in the country and see for yourself that this is not true. On the other hand, if you are looking for imperfectly critical thinkers doing their best to teach to teach critical thinking then you will not be disappointed, either in Islamic or any other kinds of school.

The point, though, is that someone has to accept the task of thinking things right through to the end, to the point where critical thinking turns, reflexively, on its own first principles. Very few have the inclination or ability to do this. At this point, thinking starts to throw up some very peculiar results. Perhaps there is an analogy here with nuclear physics, where common sense understanding begins to fail as we are introduced to such concepts as ‘space/time’, multiple dimensions beyond the usual three, the uncertainty principle and so on, in order to explain what is ‘really’ going on. Clearly this is not going to happen in the school classroom, but this is the sort of thing I have been trying to talk about in my contributions to this blog.

Next, your point about each of us being our own ‘ultimate moral authority’. What I said was that I did not see that you had actually argued for this belief, only asserted it; I see no argument to deal with here yet. I tried to argue that the concept of total personal moral autonomy breaks down upon examination and I suggested that that was why you had been unable to provide a supporting argument. In fact, I did my best, extremely telegraphically, to explain my belief that morality as we commonly understand it is not rationally defensible and that we therefore need another way of thinking about this issue (another reason for my scepticism about our intellectual tradition). You dismiss these issues as irrelevant.

So to repeat (again!), I have no problem with teaching children to think critically, including about religion and morality and critical thinking itself (in fact I insist on it) and I too believe that a better society would be the result. What appears to me to be irrelevant, because non-existent, is your response to the serious questions I have repeatedly raised about the extent of the remit of rational-empirical thinking in determining how we understand our existence and our consequent decisions as to how to lead our lives and organise our societies, including our education system.

However, since writing the above I have realised that I have completely been missing the point of this blog. Stephen alerted us to what was really going on, and set the tone, in his original posting, which was not addressed to me:

There are nevertheless SPECIAL DANGERS attaching to the use of religion as a tool.

[for example] the GOBSMACKING POWER of religion to get even very smart people to believe PALPABLY STUPID things.

[in using religion] something probably will GO WRONG, and when it does, you have an EXTREMELY TOXIC situation on your hands. A religious Chernobyl.

It [nuclear power] is potentially HUGELY DANGEROUS. The same, I'd suggest, is true of religion.

He regularly goes into [faith] schools and is HORRIFIED by what he sees. And he's a Christian.

If you're not WORRIED about what's going on in some religious schools, you should be.

My own view is schools like Ibrahim Lawson's should NO LONGER BE TOLERATED.


And there was me thinking we would be having a philosophical discussion about the warrantability of religious belief from the perspective of hermeneutic phenomenology.

Philoso-babble aside, it is clear in retrospect that what most of the contributors to this discussion have wanted is to share their scorn, dislike, fear or hatred of Islam. This is why the philosophical discussion has gone nowhere and why the blog as a whole (see above excerpts) and many of the contributions have the journalistic flavour of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph (surely not coincidentally the only two media sources referred to, more than once, in these threads).

What has been at issue all along is the belief that Islam is an ideology based on incoherent and just plain false assumptions that predisposes its adherents to irrational violence (‘honour’ killings, suicide bombing, mutilation punishments, oppression of women, execution of apostates, jihad against unbelievers etc etc).

Now either this is necessarily true of Islam and there is no need or evidence, or it is an empirical claim which depends on some facts to support it.

I suspect that this is where things get mixed up in some peoples’ minds. For many, it seems to go without saying that OF COURSE Islam trains its victims to be irrational and violent, it is self-evident, you only have to read the books to see that.

But, of course, this won’t do for anyone who has any respect for rationality – which I actually do, in certain contexts (Barefoot Bum – I don’t accept your theory of leakages, either way: allowing a little non-rationality does not necessarily destroy rationality and vice versa).

So we need some evidence that Islam inevitably results in all the horrible things people expect. What evidence is there? What research has been done? All I see is anecdotes about the behaviour of very specific categories of people from which particular examples people like to generalise, quite weakly, in my view.

To take two examples that have been proposed as proof of the evil of Islam: a man kills his daughter for not wearing a headscarf and a women acts the role of a suicide bomber in a video for children.

Is that it? Is there no further need for analysis? QED – Islam is dangerous?

Add some more examples, as many as you like, of humans beings’ tendency to inhumanity (though let’s avoid getting too medieval in our search for religious villainy, many ideologies suffer from the foolishness of the past).

Now ask the question – what do all these damaged people have in common? And are all of them Muslims?- or even religiously motivated in any way?

My point is, and I’m not going to spell it out, that Muslims are not the only people who, having been traumatised themselves, act out that trauma in destructive and violent ways. I feel desperately sorry for the victims and the victimisers, but I refuse to accept that Islam is to blame in those situations that involve ‘Muslims’ – even when they appeal to ‘Islam’ for their justification – because there are always other, more immediate and compelling psychological explanations of why such behaviour occurs. At the same time, there is a lot of evidence, from my own and others’ experience, that Muslims are peace-loving people who would never dream of hurting another human being any more than anyone else and who are just as shocked and horrified as anyone else by the violence that a tiny minority of human beings are capable of inflicting on others, including members of their own family, for whatever espoused reason.

I am fairly sure that this will not satisfy some readers as it is not a new argument, and I can already hear Anticant typing the words ‘no true Scotsman’ as he accuses me of defining Islam out of blame. But I have already said far too much in my previous posts, though perhaps more thickly veiled that I imagined at the time, and I am not prepared to be drawn on the kind of contentious issues which might force me to be more explicit than is advisable in a world where many people look at each other with daggers in their eyes.

One last word on the nuclear option though: which, in fact, is the only political discourse that has ever actually used nuclear weapons to silence its opponents? And what does that tell you about human nature?

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Incarnation


I promised Chris something on the incarnation. This is from The Xmas Files.

Are we, at Christmas, celebrating the birth of an entity as contradictory as a round square?

Christmas is a celebration of the incarnation. Jesus of Nazareth is supposed to be God incarnate: both God and man. That might seem a fairly straightforward sort of claim. People may argue over whether it is true, of course. But that what is being claimed is clear and coherent is largely taken for granted on both sides. Which is odd, because the dispute over exactly how divinity and humanity are combined in the person of Jesus is actually one of deepest and most-ill-tempered in Christian history. Philosophers and theologians have been struggling to make sense of the incarnation for over two thousand years. The early church fathers fought bitterly over the issue and it remains a source of contention to this day.

So what, exactly, is the difficulty? Here’s an analogy. Suppose I tell you that I have drawn a circle on a sheet of paper. I then tell you that not only is what I have drawn a circle, it is also a square. How would you respond? With great bewilderment, I would imagine. To claim that my circle is also a square is not like claiming that, say, that Charles Dickens was also Prime Minister of England. That Dickens was Prime Minister is of course false. But we can at least make sense of the suggestion that he might have been. The claim may be false, but least it’s coherent. When it comes to the suggestion that my circle is also a square, on the other hand, what I claim is not so much false as nonsensical.

Why nonsensical? Because there are certain properties which something must possess if it is to be a circle that it cannot possess if it is also to be square. A circle, by definition, cannot have any straight sides. A square, on the other hand, must have straight sides. But then nothing can be both a circle and a square on pain of contradiction: a square circle would have both straight sides and yet no straight sides.

That is, of course, why you know that there can be no square circles. You don’t need to look and see whether I have succeeded in drawing a square circle. You can know, just by thinking it through, that my claim to have drawn a square circle cannot be true.

The same, some argue, is true of the claim that Jesus is both God and man. The claim that such a being exists is involves a contradict6ion. So again, we can know, just by thinking about it, that no such person exists. There is no point looking for historical evidence that Jesus was both God and man. We know in advance that he wasn’t.

But what is contradictory about the claim that Jesus is both a man and God? Many things, it seems. Here are three examples.

To begin with, let’s remind ourselves of a few of God’s properties. God is of course omnipotent and omniscient: all-powerful and all-knowing. There is nothing God cannot do; nor is there anything he does not know. God is also eternal: he was not created and he is not the kind of thing that can die. All these properties possessed by God are, of course, essential properties of him. A being that lacked any one of these features would not be God.

But now what of Jesus, the man? Jesus, being a human being, had only a limited sort of knowledge. The Bible says that he grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52), which implies that at one time he knew less than he did later. And Jesus himself admits that there are things he does not know, such as the time when heaven and earth will pass away. (Mark 13:32). So we have discovered a property: omniscience, that God has to possess, but that Jesus, if scripture is to be believed, lacks. But then we are in a position to argue as follows:

God is omniscient
Jesus is not omniscient
Therefore Jesus is not God

Here is second apparent contradiction generated by the doctrine of incarnation. We know that Jesus had certain weaknesses. He was subject to temptation, for example. That Jesus was tempted is, again, fundamental to Christian belief. But God being omnipotent, has no weaknesses, and is beyond temptation. But then the following argument holds:

God is omnipotent
Jesus is not omnipotent
Therefore Jesus is not God

Third, we know that Jesus died. That he died is an essential part of Christian belief. But God necessarily cannot die. So, again, it follows that Jesus is not God:

God cannot die
Jesus died
Therefore Jesus is not God

These three arguments are merely examples. Many other contradictions also appear to be generated by the suggestion that Jesus is both God and a man.

How to prove that things are not identical

The three arguments presented above all make use of a very famous logical principle called Leibniz’s law (after the philosopher Leibniz, who formulated it). Leibniz’s law says that if two things are identical - if they are one and the same entity - then whatever properties one has, the other should have, and vice versa. So, for example, if John Wayne is one and the same person as Marion Morrison (which he was: “John Wayne” is actually the stage name of the actor Marion Morrision), then any property possessed by John Wayne must be possessed by Marion Morrison, and vice verse. If John Wayne is six-foot-three, then so is Marion Morrison. If John Wayne rode a horse, then so did Marion Morrison. If John Wayne could throw a mean punch, then so could Marion Morrison.

Leibniz’s law comes in handy if you want to test whether two things that might appear to be one and the same thing really are the same thing. Suppose, for example, that a friend tells you that they recently met someone called “John Smith” down the supermarket. You also happen to know someone by that name, but of course it’s a common name, so you wonder whether it really can be one and the same John Smith that your friend met. How might you test the claim that they are the very same John Smith?

One way would be to enquire about the supermarket John Smith to see if his properties match those of your John Smith. Does he have dark hair? Is he tall? Does he speak with a Northern accent? If you can find a property that one John Smith possesses but not the other, then it follows, by Leibniz’s law, that they’re not one and the same person.

Notice that the three arguments outlined above that appear to show that Jesus is not God all rely on this same familiar, everday form of reasoning. Each points out that God has a property that Jesus lacks, and then concludes that Jesus cannot be God. The doctrine of the incarnation runs up against Leibniz’s law

It seems, then, that the attempt to get full humanity and full divinity into a single person is like trying to draw a square circle. The claim that Jesus is both God and man generates contradictions. But then we can know, just by thinking about it, that the claim cannot be true. Yet that it is true is precisely what most Christians believe.

That is the puzzle of the incarnation.

The Council of Chalcedon

The debate over Christ’s divinity raged heatedly for several centuries after his death. Christians disagreed about to what extent and in what way Jesus was human and divine.

Some, such as Apollinaris, struck by the problem outlined above, insisted that Jesus was not a human being at all. Jesus took on a human body. But he did not become a human, for he did not possess a human soul. So while Jesus might appear to have various human characteristics incompatible with him also being divine, that appearance illusory.

Apollinaris’s view neatly solves the puzzle of how Jesus could be both human and divine ― Apollonaris simply denies Jesus is human. He merely seems human. But most Christians have been unable to accept this solution to the puzzle. For them, it is essential that Jesus be both fully God and fully man. His full humanity and solidarity with the human race, in particular, is usually held to be essential if Jesus is to be our redeemer.

Others – the Nestorians – also struck by the difficulties explained above, insisted that Jesus was, in effect, two individuals: one human and one divine. That, again, would remove the appearance of contradiction – there is no single individual that is both omniscient and ignorant, for example. But again, most Christians find the two-individuals suggestion rather repellent, in part because it again raises seemingly impossible obstacles to redemption.
As I say, the debate aged for centuries, often descending into acrimony, until finally, in AD 451 the various warring churches met at Chalcedon and agreed on a common position. The council of Chalcedon decreed that Jesus had two natures: he is both truly human and truly divine. But these two natures have come together and are both preserved within in a single person. The Chalcedonian council rejected both the Nestorian view that Jesus was not a single person, and also the Apolliarian position that Jesus was not fully human.

Is Jesus’ divinity merely metaphorical?

But of course, the Council of Chalcedon’s definition confronts us with precisely the problem with which we started: that of explaining how Jesus’s two natures – human and divine – can be reconciled without contradiction within a single person.

Some contemporary Christians, including John Hick (whose analogy of the square circle I have borrowed), have argued that Chalcedon simply got it wrong. The Chalcedon doctrine of two natures combined within a single individual is a confused attempt to make literal sense of what should be understood metaphorically. Jesus is not, literally, God. He is God “incarnate” only in a metaphorical sense, that’s to say, only in the sense that he is a “human being extraordinarily open to God’s influence and thus living to an extraordinary extent as God’s agent on earth, ‘incarnating’ the divine purpose for human life” (XXHick 1993. p 12.) There have been a great many religious figures that have ‘incarnated’ God’s purpose in this metaphorical sense. So they are all God “incarnate”. There is, in this respect, nothing exceptional about Jesus ― he is just another important holy man.

This modern take on the incarnation is obviously unorthodox, and does not fit entirely comfortably with scripture which repeatedly states, quite unambiguously, that Jesus is God.

Jesus’ ‘two minds’

Others believe Chalcedon can be salvaged. The philosopher Richard Swinburne provides a rather ingenious explanation of Jesus’s apparent ignorance by maintaining, not the Nestorian position that there are, in effect, two individuals in Christ (which, as we saw above, would be contrary to Chalcedon), but a single individual possessing two minds.

Swinburne points out that, post-Freud, we now have a better understanding of how a single person can possess a divided mind. A mother, for example, might consciously believe that her son is alive, and yet unconsciously believe he is dead. When she is asked whether her son is still alive, she answers, quite sincerely, “yes”. Yet in another, unconscious part of her mind she clearly recognizes that he is dead – as indicated by the fact that she throws his possessions away. A belief can happily exist in one part of someone’s mind without being accessible to another part of it.

Similarly, explains Swinburne, we can suppose that Jesus’s mind was divided. His divine mind is omniscient and knows everything. But within this divine all-knowing consciousness resides a human consciousness that is partitioned off from the rest. Jesus’ human mind cannot access the rest of his larger, divine mind. That is why, despite the fact that Jesus is God, and thus omniscient, his human mind could be ignorant of various things, and could grow in wisdom.

A puzzle

At Christmas Christians celebrate the incarnation, an extremely mystifying event. Indeed, the doctrine of the incarnation seems, on the face of it, not even to make sense. While philosophers and theologians have strived to explain how full humanity and full divinity can be combined within a single person, the incarnation remains, for many, a deep and seemingly intractable puzzle.

Jonathan Bennett's site

The philosopher Jonathan Bennett has produced a great site containing very usefully edited/annotated versions of classic philosophy texts. Particularly handy for students and as teaching aids. Go here.