Sunday, 8 February 2015

A Defence of Two Basic Principles (Part II)

Sorry that it's been so long, you can partly blame health and partly my lack of focus.

Last time I blogged, I made an introductory post on the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) and Principle of Causality (PC) and outlined where I intended to go. I said that my approach would be to start by considering the nature of axioms and then to attempt to establish that the PSR and PC should be considered axioms. For this post, I will attempt the first of these tasks (explaining what axioms are); my next post will attempt to make the case that the PSR and PC are axiomatic.

What are Axioms?

The basic function of logic and argument is to get from premises to conclusions. For example, if we start with the premises "All men are mortal" and "Socrates is a man" we can reach the conclusion "Socrates is mortal." Often, in a complex argument, our premises will be the conclusions from an earlier set premises. This process raises the question of where our first and original set of premises comes from.

These first premises are, in logic and maths, commonly called 'axioms'. Some philosophers use the term 'properly basic beliefs'. Axioms can't be proven in the ordinary way because, as I said, they are the original premises which all subsequent arguments depend on.

Common examples of what are often considered axioms, certainly things treated as axioms by Thomists, include the three laws of logic famously formulated by Aristotle ie. The laws of Identity, Non-Contradiction and the Excluded Middle.

Are Axioms Reliable?

Since axioms can't, in the ordinary sense, be proven, it might appear that they are arbitrary and that we can't have good reason for believing them true. I disagree. My position (I claim no originality here) is that there are axioms which we can know are true.

Thomists and other Aristotelians have traditionally argued that certain axioms are self evident. However, since many people have asserted that all sorts of things are self evident, there is an argument that helps establish the reliability of genuine axioms.  Put simply a principle can be regarded as axiomatic and true if that principle is such that it needs to be presumed for any knowledge to be possible and/or if the principle must be invoked to argue against it.

An example will illustrate my point. I once got into an argument with someone who argued that the basic laws of logic have no objective basis. His argument went as follows: "If the laws of logic had objective basis the development that we have seen in the sciences would not have happened. The development that we have seen in the sciences has, however, obviously happened, therefore the laws of logic have no objective basis."

Obviously his opening premise is highly debatable, but his argument has a more serious flaw than that. In making his argument, he was himself invoking the Law of Non-Contradiction. This is a basic point commonly found with Aristotle's basic laws, any attempt to argue against them necessarily invokes these laws, thus assuming their validity. This, for Thomists, helps to underscore the self evidence truth of these laws.

Some, of course, will object that while this demonstrates the necessity of such axioms for human thought, it proves nothing about their objective validity. The argument may go that, yes, for human thinking to work, we must assume these axioms are true, but that gives no reason to think they correspond to any objective reality.

On this view, mathematics, logic, and the like, which all depend on these basic laws, are not necessarily connected to anything objectively verifiable but simply the working out of what follows necessarily from these axioms which are, as it happens, necessary for human thought.

I would point out, in response, that if these laws have no objective validity, then we can't even know what follows from them. We might say that "If the Law of Non Contradiction is True then it follows that 2+2 = 4 can't be both true and false." But in saying this we assume the validity of that Law. If these basic axioms are not true, then the whole edifice must collapse, being built on sand.

If these axioms are not reliable, we can't even know that we have no good reason to believe them because that conclusion is it's self based on reasoning based on these axioms; the argument "We only have good reason to believe the things for which evidence can be put forward, but no evidence can be put forward for these axioms" is based on the laws of identity and non-contradiction.

Put simply, these axioms are self evidently true and ought to be believed.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

A Defence of Two Basic Principles (Part I)

Last year, I had the honour of debating Travis McKenna of the University of Sydney Atheist Society on the question of whether God exists. I had nothing particularly original to offer, I defended the argument, which St. Thomas calls the most evident, namely the argument from motion. Travis responded in a way which, I'll admit, caught me somewhat by surprise, in that he directed most of his criticism on a single point, namely the Principle of Causality. Since then, I've been intending to write a series of blog posts on Causality, and it's related principle, the Principle of Sufficient Reason.

The Principle of Causality (PC) and Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) were once generally accepted as basic rules of metaphysics. Since the time of the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) however, they've been highly controversial. I shall be arguing, however, that they are reliable principles from which knowledge can be derived.


St. Thomas defined the PC: "nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality." While I like this definition, it has a certain amount of baggage in that it's tied to some Aristotelian views on potentiality and actuality. Since I want to keep the discussion here relatively focused, for the purposes of this series, my definition of the PC shall be "Whatever is changed in any way is changed by something other than its self."

The PSR, like the PC has been formulated in a variety of different ways. For  the purposes of this series, however, we can define the PSR as this: "Whatever exists has an explanation for its existence either in its own necessity or in some external cause."

For some these two principles may seem simple common sense after all, in our common experience, things don't generally pop into existence without explanation.  Philosophically, however, simple common sense  is not enough. Even if we could, simply accept these principles as matters of common sense in describing interactions between things in our world, that would be insufficient to  justify the use of such principles in arguments for God's existence. After all, the fact of these principles holding good in this universe wouldn't prove that they hold in relation to something outside of the universe.

This Series

What I hope to show with this series, however, is that the PC and PSR have more than just common sense and empirical data behind them but are necessary truths about all possible existence. My plan is to start by looking at the nature of an  axiom, then by examining why the PC and PSR should be considered axioms, then by looking at some common objection.


Wednesday, 31 December 2014

I'm Sorry to Play Grinch, But...

Today is the seventh day of Christmas, the day on which my true love gave me seven swans a-swimming. Did you know, however, that those swans represent the seven sacraments?

If you are Catholic, you may well have heard this story before. From the reign of Elizabeth I until the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829, Catholicism was supressed in England. During this time Catholics couldn't practice the faith openly so they couldn't openly teach the faith to their children. As a result of this they developed various coded ways of passing on the faith. This is where "The Twelve Days of Christmas" comes from, a coded way of passing on certain Catholic beliefs. So the true love represents God the Father and His gifts are various gifts of God to humanity, eg. the partridge represents Jesus, the two turtle doves represent and Old and New Testaments, all the way through to the twelve lords a-leapin' who represent the twelve articles of the Apostles' Creed.

So, what you may have thought was just a pretty childrens' song is both a source of rich theological symbolism and a link to our brave brothers and sister in Christ. It is, I think you will agree, a lovely story. There is, I fear, only one small problem; it isn't true.

Perhaps I should modify that last statement. I can't prove the story isn't true any more than I can prove for certain that there are no fairies at the bottom of my garden. What I can say is that the truth of the story and the existence of the fairies have about as much evidence in their favour.

The theory was first put forward in 1979 by Canadian hymnologist Hugh McKellar. McKellar later admitted that he had no evidence for his theory and that it was based on pure conjecture. Consider the following facts that stand against the theory:

* While we have evidence for the popularity of the song going back as far as 1870, almost 50 years prior to Catholic emancipation, we have no evidence of the song ever being more popular among English Catholics than among Protestants.

* There is no mention of the link in any of the many writing by, for, and/or about English Catholics in the decades following Catholic Emancipation. Indeed, nothing to suggest the link in any Catholic literature prior to McKellar putting forward the theory a century and a half afterwards.

* Of the supposed symbolic meaning, eleven of the twelve refer to beliefs which Catholics and Protestants share. The sole exception is the seven swans, which supposedly represent the sacraments. Aside from these, all eleven 'codes' refer to things that there would be no need for Catholics to teach secretly because the Anglican Church agreed with them. There is, for example, no mention of purgatory, Mary, the saints or the Papacy.

Now, I know some will say, as I've already had it said to me, that, even if this is right, I shouldn't be a spoil sport, if people get joy or comfort for believing this, what harm does it do? Well, I think it does do some harm. Don't misunderstand me, no, I don't think the sky is going to fall because people have a mistaken belief about the history of a Christmas carol. I do see, however, two bits of harm being done:

First, we Christians protest, rightly in my view, when myths about history are promoted by our opponents. When atheists, for example, promote rubbish about Jesus being only one of a long line of pagan deities whose mother was a virgin and who was born on December 25th, we object. Well, if we are going to object when our opponents do it, we need to not do it ourselves.

Second, God gave us intellects to follow the evidence and to know the truth. Believing something which goes against the evidence because that something sounds nice or makes us feel good helps to build the bad habit of misusing the intellect. It is a vice. It is, I will grant, a very small vice in the grand scheme of things, but still a vice.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A Reply to Eight Myths

This past September, Richard Hagenston, an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church wrote an article entitled "8 Things Your Pastor Will Never Tell You About the Bible". I've since seen the article cited by critics of the Christianity ranging from atheists to Muslims, so I thought it worth a response. I should add that Rev. Hagenston insists that he is "still a Christian" although I'll leave it to the individual reader to determine how compatible his beliefs are with Christianity.

1) "The Apostles of Jesus Seem to Have Known Nothing About a Virgin Birth."

His main piece of evidence for this claim is that St. Paul's letters make no mention of the virgin birth. While this is certainly true, to conclude from this that St. Paul knew nothing of the virgin birth seems a bit of a stretch. St. Paul never sat down and wrote out his beliefs in a systematic way. His letters are directed to churches or individuals either answering specific questions or dealing with specific problems in those bodies. The fact that no mention of Christ's virgin birth is made seems to me to be adequately explained by the assumption that it wasn't relevant to any of the questions he needed to deal with.

2) "Jesus Said He Wanted to Offer Nothing to Gentiles"

True, up to a point. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, sent originally to the House of Israel. Therefore, during his earthly mission Jesus  focused his attention on His fellow Jews and only occasionally (and reluctantly cf. Matt 15:21-28) helped gentiles. After His death and resurrection, however, Jesus commands His apostles to go and baptise all nations (Matt 28:16-20).

I imagine Rev. Hagenston would reply that this is something the historical Jesus never said, and we can know this because it contradicts his earlier stance. I see no reason to assume this however. During Jesus' lifetime, the Old Covenant was still in effect and the Jewish priesthood was still God's means for the sanctification of His people. It is entirely consistent that Jesus' earthly mission would be to His own people while, after His death and resurrection, and thus the inauguration of the New Covenant, the command would be given to preach to all nations.

3) "Jesus Tells Everyone Not to Think of Him as God in the First Three Gospels"

This claim is based on Mark 10:18, Matt 19:17 and Luke 18:19. The context is this: a rich young man comes to Jesus, addresses him as 'good teacher' and asks what he must do to be saved. Jesus replies "why do you call me good, only God is good."

Critics of Christianity like to point to this story as Jesus denying His divinity. It seems to me, however, that the story can be equally well read as Jesus attempting to open the young man's eyes to who He really is. The young is coming to Jesus with the mindset that He is a rabbi and nothing more. Jesus attempts to challenge this by asking, in effect, "when you call me good, don't you realise what that implies?"

4) "The Resurrection Appearances in the Gospel Have Irreconcilable Contradictions"

The four resurrection accounts certainly differ. The fact that they different, however, does not mean that they are irreconcilable. Several attempts have been made to harmonise them and some, like this one, seem to me to be at least plausible.

5) "Jesus Was Against Public Prayer"

The justification for this statement is Matt 6:1-5. Read in context, this passage is a condemnation, not of public prayer its self, but of those who publicly pray with the aim of showing off in front of others how pious they are. To read this as per. se. opposing public prayer one would need to assume that, on all the occasions Jesus is depicted as praying in the synagogues or the temple, or in front of a crowd, that He was engaging in some fairly rank hypocrisy.

As a side note, Rev. Hagenston has told us that his article is about things "your pastor won't tell you." Does he really think that pastors the world over are not regularly preaching and teaching the Sermon on the Mount?

6) "Some Books of the Bible are Forgeries"

Rev. Hagenston writes: "My seminary professors mentioned that some books of the Bible, notably some letters attributed to Paul, were probably written by people who lied about who they were to gain Paul’s authority for their own ideas. But they never put it that bluntly."

I don't know where he went to seminary so I don't know his teachers and can't say for sure, but I suspect they never "put it that bluntly" because they don't believe that.

Now, lets be clear, most New Testament scholars don't believe that St. Paul wrote some of the letters attributed to him. For the record, I never found the arguments for the majority view very convincing and am inclined to side with the minority who think St. Paul wrote all thirteen of the letters that bear his name. For the sake of argument, however, let's accept the majority view, St. Paul did not write, for example, the Pastoral Epistles.

It is unwarranted, however, to go from "not written by Paul" to "written by people who lied about who they were." In the ancient world, there was a common custom of writing letters in the name of some revered leader, normally a dead one saying, in effect "this is what the great teacher would have said if he'd been alive." The recipients of such letters would have been well aware that the letter was not actually written by the person writing it. This is the understanding most scholars hold of the Pastoral Epistles.

7) "Parts of the Bible Were Intentionally Written to Contradict Other Parts"

The primary example here is Psalm 51 vv 18 & 19, which, we are told, were written to contradict vv 16 & 17. The earlier verses tell us that God does not need burnt offerings but that the sacrifice but that the sacrifice acceptable to Him is a humble and contrite heart. The later verses call on God to restore Jerusalem so that sacrifice, which God will be pleased with, may be offered in the temple.

Rev. Hagenston sees this as evidence that a later scribe, disagreeing with the theology of the original author, added these verses to contradict him. Why, if this scribe had the power to alter the text, he didn't simply remove the offending lines is not explained. Perhaps because, so far from being written to contradict one another, the verses actually form a whole, making the point that sacrifice is something God commands but is only truly pleasing to God if done in a proper spirit.

8) "Apostles Who Had Been Taught By Jesus Himself Insisted that Paul Was Wrong About the Gospel"

The only piece of evidence provided for this claim is 2 Corinthians 11:5 where St. Paul labels his critics "Super Apostles". Even though, Rev. Hagenston acknowledges that the label is 'sarcastic' he none the less asserts that: "In that time, “super-apostles” could have meant only one thing: the original apostles."

An alternative meaning is suggested by context where Paul, contrasting himself to the "Super Apostles" (which makes me think of the Avengers) says that he may not be as eloquent as them although he does have knowledge. With this in mind "Super Apostles" may well refer to individuals who consider themselves super because of their education and debating skills.


Friday, 26 December 2014

Happy Feast of St. John

Today, in addition to being the third day of Christmas, is the feast of St. John the Apostle, the disciple whom Jesus loved. There is so much we could learn from this humble man, the importance of personal friendship with Christ, the need to be faithful under the most difficult of circumstances, charity and patience. I was most struck, however, by a point which occurred to me as a I meditated on the prologue to St. John's Gospel, the importance of revelation.

St. John's prologue, the first 18 verses of his Gospel, is a literary masterpiece. More importantly, it is one of the great scriptural foundations of the central Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. As a philosophy student and budding apologist, I'm frequently drawn to study, write about and talk about those truths of the faith which can be demonstrated by reason. St. John reminds me, however, that the greatest and most important of truths about God, the truths that enable us to know Him as He truly is, the truths that enable us to be friends with God are truths that could not be proven by reason alone. I can know these truths because God, motivated solely by love, has taken the initiative to reveal them.

The collect for today's feast in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite sums up this lesson beautifully:

O Lord, in Your goodness, shine upon Your Church, that, enlightened by the teachings of Blessed John, Your Apostle and Evangelist, she may attain to everlasting gifts.


Call it What You Want, This is Murder.

As write this, the great State of Texas is making plans to murder a man named Scott Panetti. Of course, if this murder is accomplished, it won't officially be called that; legally it will be an execution. Legal niceties, however, don't effect moral realities and if Scott Panetti dies at the hands of the state, it will be murder, whatever the law calls it.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I'm not of the view that every execution is murder. While I personally hold the opinion that capital punishment should be abolished, I recognise, as does the Catholic Church, that the state has the right to punish sufficiently heinous crimes with the death penalty. In the case of Scott Panetti, however, I fail to see how any person could regard the execution as morally justifiable.

Panetti has been sentenced to die for the 1992 murder of his in laws. There is no real doubt that Panetti did kill them. The reason his execution is so obviously unjust, however, is first, there is good reason to doubt his sanity at the time, and second, because his 1995 trial was a clear travesty.

Scott Panetti is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. In the years leading up to the 1992 killing he had no fewer than three compulsory admissions to mental hospitals, all on the same diagnosis. At his 1995 trial, he chose to represent himself, giving as his reason for doing so that he believed his appointed lawyer was part of a conspiracy against him. At the trial he dressed in a purple cowboy suit, called himself 'Sarge' and attempted to subpoena the then Pope, the late President John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ.

So, this ought to be the end of the matter, there is good reason to doubt his sanity at the time of the killings and he clearly wasn't fit to defend himself at his trial, he should be locked up for his own and others' protection but should not be put to death. Some, however, don't see it that way. Texas' governor, Rick Perry, has repeatedly refused to intervene in the case. Perry was candidate for the Republican Party's presidential nomination in 2012 and has flagged the possibility of running again in 2016. He likes to put himself forward as pro-life and a defender of Christian moral values.

In similar manner, one of those defending Panetti's death sentence in the federal courts has been Ted Cruz. Cruz, who defended the sentence in his capacity as the state's attorney general, is now a US Senator and darling of the 'Tea Party'. He also presents himself as a champion of pro-life values.

For anyone with a basic understanding of Christian moral philosophy or even basic humanity, understanding this should not be difficult. For Christians, one of the great glories of humanity is our freedom of the will. Our moral responsibility grows out of that freedom. For this reason, while we generally want humans punished when they do something wrong, we don't demand to see the tools they used or the clothes they wore punished, because we recognise that these things don't have free will. For the same reasons, people are not generally held accountable for what they do accidentally because they did not freely will it. (They are punished for the results of their negligence, but the negligence was freely chosen, even if the consequence wasn't.)

In the case of the mentally ill, however, that free will is impaired. In the case of someone as clearly insane and delusional as Panetti, that freedom is impaired to such a great degree that he can reasonably be deemed no more morally responsible that one of the weapons he used. In such circumstances, the state has no moral right to execute him and, should it do so, his death will morally be a murder, whatever the great State of Texas shall call it.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Fighting Ignorance With More Ignorance

It seems to be an established tradition. Every Christmas and Easter, certain new outlets compete to outdo one another in making uninformed attacks on Christian belief. This year's winner has to be an article entitled "The Bible: So Misunderstood It's a Sin." The article appears in Newsweek Magazine and was written by one Kurt Eichenwald. Mr. Eichenwald sets out to explain how us Christian dummies don't know the real facts about the history and contents of the Bible. This is fair up to a point, there is a lot of ignorance, even among professing Christians about the book we hold sacred. If Mr. Eichenwald wants to correct this ignorance, however, it would be nice of him to get his own facts straight, something he clearly could not be bothered to do.

There are many gaping errors of fact in this article, more than I'm going to be able to cover in one blog post. The biggest errors, however, lie in the fact that Mr. Eichenwald is apparently unable to distinguish between three important but separate issues. These issues all need to be understood, so I'll spell them out separately:

1) The issue of the transmission of the text, that is to say, we don't have the original bits of paper that St. Matthew, St. Paul, etc. wrote. What we have is copies, of copies of copies, and so on. This creates a challenge for the science of textual criticism to work out exactly what the originals said.

2) The issue of translation, once we've worked out what the apostles wrote, it's another question to translate their writings from the Greek of the New Testament and the (mostly) Hebrew of the Old Testament into the various modern languages.

3) The issue of canonicity, the question of which of the various ancient documents actually make up the New Testament.

All three of these are important issues and all three have an interesting history which the average Christian ought to know more about. To understand them, however, we need to be aware that they are separate issues, Mr. Eichenwald seems determined to confuse them. Early on in the article, for example, he tells us that nobody alive has read the Bible, all anyone has read is translations of translations of translations. This is not true, plenty of scholars have read the Bible in its original languages and those of us who read it in English usually read it in direct translitions from the originals. Eventually, the light dawns, Mr. Eichenwald has confused translation, with transmission; when he says "translations of translations" he means "copies of copies". In the next paragraph, he talks about the fact that which books belong in the New Testament wasn't agreed until the fourth century (actually debate continued until the fifth) but somehow confuses this with the issue of transmission. To be clear, it is a fact that, for example, the position of the Book of Revelation in the New Testament was debated until the late fourth century however this has no impact on manuscripts of the book that predate that period and nothing much to do with the question of whether or not we can know what Revelations originally said.

Now, lest there be misunderstanding, let me be clear, it is a fact that we don't have the original manuscript of any New Testament book. It is also true that the copies of copies that we do have contain numerous errors. This is a real issue about which Christians should do more to educate ourselves. However this education won't be helped by repeating the sort of basic errors that Mr. Eichenwald makes.

Mr. Eichenwald tells us that "None of this mattered for centuries because Christians were certain God had guided that hand not only of the originals but of all the later copyists." This is rubbish, divine inspiration of the copyists has never been a Christian doctrine. It is also false to suggest that Christians have only recently become aware of these issues. Textual problems were, for example, discussed at length by the third century work, the Hexapola, by Origen of Alexandria.

For those wishing to get an idea of how, in spite of existing textual problems, we can still claim good confidence that our bibles say what the original authors wrote, I would recommend The King James Controversy, by James White (yes, the same James White I recently took aim at for his comments on Rick Warren). If you want to get both sides of the issue at once, the same James White has an excellent debate with agnostic critic Bart Erhman (whom Eichenwald references in his article) on the question "Does the Bible Misquote Jesus".

As I said, it would take far too long to mention all of Mr. Eichenwald's errors but let me list a few:
He claims that the famous incident of the woman taken in adultery from John Chapters 7&8 was added by scribes in the middles ages. While it is almost certainly true that this story was not part of the original Gospel, it is very early, dating back to at least the fourth century (and probably earlier).

He also claims that the King James Bible is considered the "gold standard" for translations into English (it isn't, at least not by any mainstream Christian scholar) he claims that the KJV translation was made not from the original Greek but from a Latin translation (indicating he knows nothing about the KJVs actual history) and he claims that, at the Council of Constantinople, Jesus was proclaimed to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit (no, that wasn't meant as a joke.)

In short, Mr. Eichenwald is correct; a lot of ignorance does exist about the Bible. Christians should make an effort to better educate ourselves about the history of the Bible, we should be better aware than we are about the many issues related to the transmission, translation and canon of our Sacred Scriptures. Mr. Eichenwald, however, is simply seeking to replace ignorance with more ignorance.