Top 10 uncogitated posts of 2013, part II

Here are the final five posts that should have been in 2013.

5.  Neuroscience and the Soul.  This year I mentioned a peer-reviewed philosophical journal put out out by the Evangelical Philosophical Society, Philosophia Christi.  If you have ever felt uneasy about the certitude with which neuroscientists, naturalist philosophers, and science populizers have pronounced the nonexistence of the soul, the irrelevance of essences, or the fully deterministic nature of human behavior, then the Summer 2013 issue of Philosophia Christi is for you.  It features ten or so excellent articles, by contributors who take time to interact with the work of prominent philosophers of science and mind, including Jaegwon Kim, John Searle and Daniel Dennett.

Mouse neurons, or Piers Morgan’s? (Wikimedia)

Eric La Rock draws deeply from scientific facts to propose a fuller account of consciousness called “emergent subject dualism.”   J.P. Moreland undermines the foundation of naturalistic top-down causation, and commends interactionist-dualism.  Daniel Robinson situates the stakes of neuroscience well within contemporary culture.  Be warned though, this is heavy reading!  If you proceed, it will acquaint you with the top Christian thinkers who are addressing metaphysical naturalism, materialism, and all those ideas which have subjected people alternately to despotism, decadence, or despair.

4.  Two posts from 13.7:  Cosmos and Culture.  This NPR-hosted forum is my favorite popular science blog to “pick on,” so to speak.  I discovered it this spring while googling in the aftermath of the epic William Lane Craig versus Alex Rosenberg debate.  Any references to substantive Christian metaphysics or perspectives on science are pretty scarce.  Some contributors are self-professed atheists, but all I think are at least deeply committed to keeping science divorced from traditional theism, even if they flirt all the time with spirituality.

Adam Frank wrote a post called, “Let’s Get Creative And Redefine The Meaning Of Religion.”  Reflecting on it, I realized that Thomistic ontology can be overlaid onto anyone’s worldview.  If one thinks that “science,” Captain Crunch, the material world, or any other thing is the maximally greatest being (MGB) in all possible worlds, then I would suggest that that is their conception of “God.”  Then, I would commend adding the quality of agency, that is the capacity for intentionality, to that MGB.  Then we’re having a discussion about theology.

Digging back to 2012, I discovered that Alva Noe reviewed Alvin Plantinga’s book Where the Conflict Really Lies.  And while I haven’t read the book, I have a sense enough from other reviews and interviews to say that Noe didn’t engage it adequately.  Particularly, he offered an illustration comparing the necessity of an epistemic warrant for science to the need to justify improbable theories as to why a “check engine” light is on.  Basically he’s saying there is no need.  This dodge falls flat.  The facts that the mechanic exists, that the car exists, and that the mechanic knows how to go about fixing the care are in need of explanation!  The dismissal seems to be another instance of equivocating “I don’t need God to do X,” where it’s not clear whether Noe intends the need to be epistemic or ontological.

Despite the disappointment, writers like Frank and Noe offer provocative reflections on the nature and limits of science.  I’m still hoping they will one day successfully engage with thoughtful theism.

3.  Francis Beckwith’s Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft.  I read this book in the first half of the year, and writer and apologist Kurt Jaros has reviewed it chapter by chapter at Values and Capitalism.  The big take away for me comes from Beckwith’s brief discourse on moral ecology, the idea that a citizen of a democracy has a vested interest in policy that shapes her surrounding culture’s morality.  This is because even if she is able to model good morals to her children, an overwhelming presence of moral degeneracy among her neighbors will still adversely impact her and her children.  It’s the kind of rousing call like in The Lord of the Rings film, where Merry and Pippin convince the apathetic Ents to go to war, because their fate is tied to the world around them.

One chapter provides an invaluable reference on the origin of the idea of the separation of church and state.  That phrase itself is not explicitly in the Constitution; rather it comes from a private correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists, that was conscripted for jurisprudence in the 1940s.  Every proponent of religious freedom should learn the facts contained therein, given that groups like Freedom From Religion Foundation use the wall of separation to intimidate and silence public exercise of religious freedom.

Another chapter, detailing the history of religious freedom in America, draws heavily on the Catholic experience.  There is an analogy between Catholics in the past and evangelicals, broadly defined, today.  Each have been persecuted minorities in their respective times.  Lovers of freedom would be wise to learn from the relevant history Beckwith provides.

2.  Ryan T Anderson withstands Pierce Morgan and Susie Orman’s bigotry.

From Merriam Webster:

Bigot : a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially :  one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance

I discovered this phenomenal YouTube video months after it first aired in the spring.  For an extended segment of The Piers Morgan Show, Ryan Anderson, editor of The Public Discourse and co-author of an academic and a popular work defending traditional marriage, endures lame challenge after lame challenge, and booing from the audience to boot.  Susie Orman serves as an unfortunate prop to make the same sex marriage issue personal.

Toward the end, Morgan accuses Anderson of being on the wrong side of his age demographic.  At the tender age of 31, he is in the minority among his peers in his opposition to government recognition of same sex marriage.  All told, Anderson’s appearance is a perfect study in composure and sticking to the facts in the face of ad hominems and vitriol.  Mr. Anderson, you are the real deal.  I salute you!

1.  William Lane Craig featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Dr. Craig garnered unprecedented attention in the world of academia when he was highlighted in a major story in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The piece opened by introducing him as the man who at the mere mention of his name makes New Atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, snarly and defensive.  “Why are you publicizing him?” Dawkins demands.  The story goes on to detail, in a fairly balanced way, the ambitious long range intellectual project first undertaken at Biola University to disseminate scores of thoughtful, committed, first-rate Christian scholars into the ranks of universities around the world.  The author notes that this kind of effort is simply unparalleled by other communities.

*****

And so it is with great excitement, as we head into 2014, that I myself will be partaking in some of that Biola goodness as I start earning a Master of Arts in Christian Apologetics.  I’ll be busier come January, and I can’t say for sure what things will look like at this blog.  Dear reader, God bless you in the new year!

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Faith and reason: on predication, rationality, and charity

Predication can be bruising at venues like Parliamentary Question Time. | UK Parliament / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Last month, I posted a critique of Dr. Tania Lombrozo’s interlinked think pieces at Boston Review and 13.7.  I was gratified but slightly apprehensive when she linked back with a post titled, Science Vs. Religion: A Heated Debate Fueled By Disrespect.  To boot, a photo of a South Asian firebreather accompanied the text!  Granted, editors sometimes make decisions not always in accord with the writer’s wishes.  Still, I wondered, what kind of splash did I make on the inner life of this cognitive scientist?  From what Dr. Lombrozo wrote of my critique, I think I acquitted myself well.

Before I comment further on this interaction, I must congratulate Dr. Lombrozo for undertaking a couple of posts on charitable discourse.  In her aforementioned post, I got to serve as a counterweight to biologist Jerry Coyne, one of the staunchest defenders of evolution.  A comment on his blog accused her of being an “accomodationalist,” a scientific Nevil Chamberlain, an appeaser.  Needless to say, her post generated hundreds more heated comments by the clamorous content consumers at 13.7.

But then with her subsequent blog entry, Dr. Lombrozo came back with a real shocker.  She shared an academic paper authored by Lara Buchak, a Berkeley philosopher of religion.  Buchak asked, “Can it be rational to have faith?”  I particularly enjoyed the explication, because Buchak’s theory of decision making is based on a general assumption that human persons are more or less rational.  Quite possibly, that could even apply to nomadic Iron Age sheep herders!  I can see religious epistemologists–philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, Paul Moser, and Richard Swinburne–having fun engaging with Buchak’s work.

The assumption that humans are innately, even unconsciously and unwittingly, reasonable is a counter-intuitive antidote to the popular belief that today, we’re somehow automatically smarter than our ancestors.  It also matches the underlying premises of my college two majors, international relations and economics.  If you want to know what a rational actor or a utility-maximizing agent is, crack open the textbooks of those disciplines.  As I received them at UC Davis a decade ago, the operative principles of those fields were still firmly rooted in mid- to late Enlightenment thought.  No special taint of phenomenologies, Higher Criticisms, or other products of Teutonic intellectual degeneracy.

That being said, my interest in Continental philosophy, the brainchild of Kant, Hegel, Marx, et al. has grown over the years.  Perhaps the best place for common, “charitable ground” as Lombrozo tagged it, is to be found there.  Recently, I discovered that Dallas Willard, a widely admired evangelical teacher and popular author, cut his philosophical teeth on the work of logician Edmund Husserl.  Dr. Willard even drew upon him when contributing to a collection of essays on Derrida!  There, he critiqued Derrida’s conception of “Predication as Originary Violence.” Are you totally lost yet?

So what of that tangle between Lombrozo and myself?  In “Science Vs. Religion,” she observes that my reading of her piece as “‘a rational argument discounting a certain strain of creationism’ . . . suggests an antecedent assumption of hostility.”  I would agree with this!  But only in a limited sense.  I think “hostility” is best understood as a state of affairs between persons proper.  But a close reading of both my critique and her response will show careful wording that produces not interpersonal hostility, but sets up an adversarial contest between ideas.  William Lane Craig observed recently at Reasonable Faith (Are Debates too Polarizing?) that in academia, the relationship between two different theses apprehending the same object is inherently “agonistic,” or competitive.

If predication is an assignment or affirmation about an antecedent object–the possible intent behind a person’s words–then it is only the mind of the reader that can predicate hostility.  Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder.  To practice charity in discussion, then, is to refrain, if possible, from assigning malevolence to the author’s intent.

I suspect that awareness of the nature of intent is something Dr. Willard took away from his reading of the Biblical Jesus.  In the gospel of John, again and again Jesus masterfully avoids the snares of his questioners, whether his disciples, the Pharisees, or Pontius Pilate.  The question is answered with another question; inquiry is turned back on itself.  Is there a more radical skepticism than that?  “Who do you say that I am?”  On Christianity, the divine nature–perhaps the goodness of freedom of the will–is of such weight that the answer to Jesus’ question is only found in one’s own predication.

And so it might be for us.  To avoid violence against the other as she actually is, we judge the merit of the idea, not the motive of the person.  Is there any better way to collaborate in reconciling our disparate ideas to objective reality?

Chick-Fil-A and the language of (in)tolerance

A few days ago, Boston mayor Thomas Menino told burgeoning restaurant chain Chick-Fil-A it was not welcome in his city.  Responding to chain president Dan Cathy’s personal opinions–on city letterhead, no less–he decried the restauranteur as “prejudiced,” insisting there’s no room in Boston for “discrimination.”  He concluded that to allow Chick-Fil-A in his city would be an “insult” to gay couples whose marriage ceremonies he proudly presided over.  Fellow mayor Rahm Emanuel soon tried to one up Menino by appealing to “Chicago values,” an incredible claim for a place which, politically speaking, is a values wasteland.

Menino’s letter in particular is unwarranted in its use of charged language.  He and his allies have read base motives into Dan Cathy’s recent comments, which were issued earnestly in a radio interview.  If you listen, it’s clear he’s not hopped up on hate, or motivated by bigotry; his words flow from a reasoned, sincere conviction.  Neither has his company been yet charged of legally-actionable discrimination.  The mayors and their fellow critics are free to dislike Cathy and his firm, but while their claims of prejudice and discrimination go unsubstantiated, they cannot be taken seriously.

Some have justified their indignation by pointing to Chick-Fil-A’s past charitable contributions.  Media reports (here, here, and here) have alternately labeled Cathy, the company, and the donation recipients as “anti-gay” for ultimately opposing same-sex marriage initiatives.  But within these reports, the label goes unexplained and unchallenged.  The reader must naturally take it to be descriptive of one who is against gay people themselves, an utter slander that people of good will ought to reject.

In a similar fashion, the broad, vague charge of “homophobia” came with coverage of Google’s recent “Legalize love” campaign.  To call one homophobic is just as destructive to discourse, as it imparts a motive of irrational fear to the one being described.  In popular usage it is synonymous with hate.

These words ought not to be bandied about by press claiming fairness and objectivity.  Yet, media have a long, bad habit of describing conservatives as phobic and painting them in “anti” terms, as in anti-abortion or anti-spending.  Pro-choice advocates are never referred to as anti-unborn or anti-child.  Deficit spenders are never called anti-frugal.  This is a function of the Orwellian intersection of the tolerance paradigm and positive rights.  Tolerance as presently understood never allows us to question the ever-expanding field of rights, even though reason assures that absurdity must ensue at some point.

Those who want real tolerance have to abandon these loaded terms that implicitly judge the hearts and inner motivations of other individuals.  The hypocrisy of using such labels hurts one’s own cause as much as the conversational climate at large.

Fortunately, the mayors have backed off a bit from their testy declarations.  As the controversy continues to roil, may more people become cognizant of the language used, and realize that same-sex marriage opponents should not be automatically equated with bigots.  We all carry our own personal experiences, shadowboxing with traumas of the past.  Let’s not allow these to cloud an important and necessary conversation.

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