Archive | February 2014

True Scotsmen and True Christians

“No True Scotsman” is a rhetorical trick where you modify the definition of something on-the-fly to rebut someone’s claim of an exception.

  • Let’s say I proclaim, “All Scotsmen love haggis.”
  • A person might say, “I’m a Scotsman, and I hate haggis.”
  • I could then claim, “Well, then you aren’t a true Scotsman. True Scotsmen love haggis.”

Some Christians pull a version of this maneuver when confronted with the deplorable and regretful actions of various historical Christians.

It works a bit like this:

  • Dave says, “Christians always do good things.”
  • Jill says, “How can you say that? What about the forced conversions, burning of heretics, and wars of religion we see perpetuated by Christians throughout history?”
  • Dave replies, “The people who did those awful things weren’t true Christians.”

This isn’t to say that this is always a trick. Sometimes, the intent isn’t to perform a rhetorical evasion, but to clarify the particular sense of the word they were originally employing.

In the above, it may be that there are two definitions at play:

  • Jill’s definition of “Christian” is probably in the sense of outward and visible declarations of belief and/or allegiance. In this way, many people responsible for unimaginable atrocities have declared belief in Christ and themselves to be Christians.
  • Dave’s definition of “Christian” is probably in the sense of an inward and relatively invisible state of an individual and her genuine relationship with Christ, which ostensibly prompts her to act charitably as she is being sanctified by his Grace. When a person commits an atrocity, then, it is a spike of evidence that they are not a Christian in this sense.

I believe that Jill’s approach is much better than Dave’s; Dave’s hinges on “unclear genuineness” which is toxic for communication.

Bibliopsychology: Why the Servant Did Nothing

  • “You were just trying to help. But you ended up doing more harm than good.”
  • “Your heart was in the right place, but you just made things worse.”

There’s something uniquely depressing about these sentences. It turns out, it’s the same mechanism that makes you feel sad when an opportunity is lost, or when your reputation is damaged.

You depend on yourself to have a decent understanding of the world — the state of the world, and how it works. When something unexpected and bad happens as a result of something you thought you were doing right, it throws into question those things on which you were depending.

The result is confusion, anxiety, and a desperate retrospective evaluation of what went wrong, or what you could have done differently.

Needless to say, that process usually isn’t very pleasant. And thus, undergoing that process is a “loss” in and of itself. You don’t want to feel that way.

You’re sitting on a bus, riding to work, when a moaning young man falls out of his seat. He pulls himself up, kneeling on one knee, eyes closed, and holds the bar in front of him. He doesn’t look so well.

A part of you wants to go to him, lean down next to him, and ask him if he’s alright, maybe help him back into his seat. But what if he yells, “Get your hands off of me!”? What if he says, “I don’t need your help!”?

There are so many people watching. He’ll probably be okay.

“I’d sure be an idiot if I went to help, only to come across as patronizing in front of everyone.”

“I’d sure be an idiot…” is the beginning of a sentence that indicates loss aversion is at play.

Loss aversion is a psychological phenomenon where we are doubly afraid of perceived losses than we are eager for perceived gains.

Gambling games leverage this by using various tricks to flip loss/gain perceptions upside-down, and make you be loss aversive about future hopes, e.g., “I better not walk away from the slot machine… I’d sure be an idiot if the very next pull was the jackpot.”

You’re afraid of being embarrassed.

You’re afraid of the anxiety.

You’re afraid of the unpleasantness of dwelling over and over again on the incident if it goes badly, for days or weeks.

By “you,” I really mean “me,” since that bus incident happened to me a few years ago.

After a few minutes, the bus driver found place to pull over, got up, and came back herself to check on the young man. He simply moaned, allowed her to help him up, and got back into his seat.

I was closer to him. I wasn’t busy. I was just loss aversive — I was afraid. And I allowed myself to be the “priest” who “passed by on the other side.”

Everybody else on the bus was guilty of the same negligence. But, privately, I was more embarrassed with myself than I would ever have been if the young man had reacted badly. My critical faculties were appalled at what my lower-order faculties — those selfish, “now”-driven impulses to which we feel enslaved — had allowed to occur.

I was completely ashamed. How on Earth could I let that happen? The Good Samaritan story is one of the most resonant and famous of Jesus’s teachings. What kind of Christian am I? What kind of human?

I dwelt over and over again on that incident. I was anxious about its implications. I was confused about how I could have failed so plainly.

But wait.

Isn’t that I was afraid of in the first place?

The unpleasantness of dwelling on a bad memory, anxiety, and confusion?

It was!

What this realization meant was this: Like in a casino game’s design, I can flip my loss aversion upside-down as it suits my higher-order interests. I resolved that when a similar situation happens again, instead of fearing the riskiness of commission, I would fear the riskiness of omission.

And fearing the riskiness of omission is another way to say, “Be doubly eager to commit your charity.”

I’m talking about psychology, loss aversion, dopamine stimulation — but Jesus was onto it the whole time.

We’re not called to sit there and bank on the supposed “amorality” of omission.

That earns a justified “You lazy servant!”

Why Isn’t “Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner” Totally Working?

“Hate the sin, love the sinner,” is pretty catchy. But it doesn’t seem to be “working” in terms of certain goals.

You’d think it would be the perfect harmony of both tolerance and moral steadfastness. But it’s not really “hooking flies with honey” like one would hope. Gosh darnit, why does it appear to be struggling on these fronts?

The answer is boring, but simple:

  • It’s because “love” in the above is commonly shorthand for “rebuke” or “repair.”
  • And when “love” is shorthand for “rebuke” or “repair,” it naturally prompts ultimatums which, in turn, naturally catalyze rifts and/or insoluability.

(This natural procession is accelerated when the controversial sin is highly “visible” — like whether it’s sinful for women to do their hair, or whether it’s immoral to wear a fuchsia fez, or whether it’s improper to sing with instrumental accompaniment. Denominations have broken up for less!)

Thus, for the reasons above, in the real world, the quoted imperative is bad in terms of the goals of community, unity, and fellowship.

Of course, some folks are aiming for other goals. You can have whatever goals you want. Which goals you actually have — or “should” have — is irrelevant to the above point, and I am not making such a statement here.

The Relentless Robot: Methodological Naturalism and NOMA

Methodologically naturalism is the idea that it’s imprudent to invoke supernatural intervention as an explanation when such miraculous intervention may not be necessary. This is a pillar of mainstream science.

And how do you determine whether supernatural intervention was necessary for some observation?

By assuming, for the sake of argument, that something supernatural did not intervene, and then genuinely attempting to find a sufficient natural (that is, mechanistic) explanation.

The Relentless Robot Thought Experiment

You live on planet Chalybos, and you’ve been taught from birth that the core of the planet is made of an indestructible substance. You begin an endeavor to search for that indestructible substance.

You’re not the first Chalyban to have this idea. Many people have before begun similar digging adventures.

The first such explorer hit a really tough substance 50 meters down. He was convinced that this was the indestructible core. He wailed on the substance for weeks, but it wouldn’t break. Finally, after failing to dig any deeper, he proclaimed that he had, indeed, found the core.

Later, a different explorer brought a team along with him. After months of working at the stubborn material, they broke through. The material wasn’t indestructible at all; the core had not been reached.

This happened again and again in the history of Chalybos. A team would reach a layer seemingly invulnerable, and proclaim their victory in terms of having discovered the planet’s core. But then a subsequent team would work a little harder and longer and break through what before was claimed to be the core.

And then, the cycle would repeat.

To deal with this, you decide to build a robot that is programmed to dig downward. Even if the robot hits a surface that he has trouble with, he never gives up. He always treats anything he encounters as if he can break through.

robot

  • In some ways, this robot has a weakness: He is stuck in full-throttle dig-mode. He has no perceptions and no decisionmaking faculties. Furthermore, if indeed he does hit the true core one day, he’ll continue digging into it, fruitlessly, forever.
  • In other ways, this robot has a strength: He will never give up too soon and falsely proclaim victory, as so many explorers before you had done.

Here are a few opinions of fellow Chalybans:

  • Seeing this repetitive pattern of false victories and deeper digs, some conclude that there is no indestructible core at all. There is only an “indestructible core of the gaps,” shrinking every time a team breaks through and digs deeper.
  • Eventually, the robot hits a surface that he spends years working against with no success. Some, at this point, say, “We believe the robot has finally arrived at the core — but we must keep him powered, forever, because there is a chance that we’re wrong.”
  • Others say, “He has certainly arrived at the core. We should save our energy and shut the robot off. His job is finished.”
  • Etc.

No Obvious Answer

Can you see the reasoning behind the skeptics who reject the idea of an indestructible core? Can you see the reasoning behind those who believe the core has been found, but refuse to disconnect the robot? And can you see the reasoning behind those who believe the core has been found, and thus the robot should be disconnected?

I can see the reasoning behind all of these perspectives. None of them are completely meritless nor certainly meritorious.

Methodological naturalism is like the relentless robot. It chews through superstition and baseless supernatural conjecture. Layer after layer, it refuses to quit. To some, this is evidence that there’s no indestructible core at all, that is, there is nothing in existence that does lacks an mechanistic and explanatory underpinning. But I don’t think that necessarily follows. Methodological naturalism is a preference heuristic, not dogma.

I say, “keep the robot going,” while simultaneously putting faith in a God who I believe has interacted with my life in a meaningful, powerful, and efficacious way. This is what Stephen Jay Gould meant by “non-overlapping magisteria.” My beliefs about the core are orthogonal to the activity and revelations of the robot, though they are updated if and when the robot forces it.

 

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“Orthodox” Confusion

“Quiet theology” means practicing theology through philosophical quietism, where philosophy is meant to be more remedial than exciting. As such, it is about treating conjecture like conjecture, being willing to say “Nobody actually knows,” and finding and tackling language problems that have been causing confusion and miscommunication.

The word “orthodox” represents one such confusing language problem.

Note: This is about the semantic difficulties with the word “orthodox,” and not an attack on the Orthodox Church, and not intended as a specific doctrinal indictment.

Five Questions

When determining truth or falsehood of a doctrine, there are roughly 5 big questions we can ask:

  1. Does it have logically coherent premises and does it proceed from those premises?
  2. If it has one or more naturalistic premises, are those premises consonant with science?
  3. Does it have historicity?
  4. Is or was it popular among acknowledged authorities?
  5. Is or was it popular within the Church generally?

These are in priority order. For example, its historicity is unimportant if its apparent cogency was based on bad science. Its popularity, even among the respected intellectuals, is unimportant if it can be shown the doctrine does not logically follow from coherent premises.

Notice that we’re trying to determine orthodoxy, or “straight doctrine,” meaning “true doctrine” by figure. When some doctrine fails 3+, the Fathers call it heterodoxy — something different than what ‘we all believe and have been believing.’

A False Dichotomy

But we’ve just put questions of logical validity and — if science is invoked in the claim — scientific consonance above questions of historicity and popularity (that is, tradition).

In other words, it is quite possible that there are various doctrines that are orthodox but heterodox. I’m confident that we can all agree: It’s not impossible for this to be the case for some doctrines.

doxy3

And we know that, as language is mutating, more problematic nomenclature is developing. “Unorthodox,” for example, means “breaking with tradition, often with overtones of creativity and new insight.” Good gravy!

If we were to fix this language problem, we’d add a second qualifying dimension, and perhaps come up with a couple of new terms.

doxy2So we’d have “orthodoxy,” true doctrine, as opposed to “pseudodoxy,” false doctrine. And we’d have “heterodoxy,” different than our tradition, as opposed to “plesiodoxy,” near to our tradition.

The problem is that this remedy cannot be administered retroactively. The Church Fathers did indeed consider orthodoxy and heterodoxy dichotomous and single-dimensioned. Tradition was extraordinarily vital for preservation of the faith.

Why was it vital? The Fathers were dealing with three issues: Antiquated philosophy, false science, and logistical challenges.

The Fathers’ Strategy

Here are two uncomfortable facts to admit as Christians:

  • Early theologians were not that great at answering question #1.
  • Early theologians were really bad at answering question #2.

This isn’t to prop ourselves up as superior giants. It’s to merely admit the fact that when we stand on the shoulders of giants, we are net-taller than giants. We have post-Enlightenment philosophy. We have pivotal scientific discoveries from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries that have eliminated mistaken assumptions about how organisms operate. And so on.

Listen. Aristotle was smarter than you or I will ever be. But he also thought air, fire, water, and earth were elements.

We’re not boasting; we just have better tools. And it’s not like we built those tools ourselves. We received them as Christmas presents, for heaven’s sake.

Lacking those better tools, the ingenious progenitors of our theology did their best with what tools they had. Questions #3, #4, and #5 had primacy. “Don’t tolerate teachings other than the ones you received!” was the constant refrain from Fathers like Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch.

But tradition is notoriously dynamic and volatile, especially given the logistical difficulties of the era. So the early Fathers — even up to the Apostles — came up with a way to settle it down.

doxy4By metaphor, the Hat of Approval is the deference given to the hierarchical authority of the Church, especially that which is expressed in Council decisions. We see the roots of “pleisodox/orthodox” conflation take root as a product of this logistical necessity.

doxy5

It’s not perfect, but it was almost certainly necessary. And that appears to be the seed that, down the road, blossomed into our current semantic confusion.

Sad Ending

When discussing how to “fix” problematic nomenclature, there are roughly three routes you can take:

  1. Keep the existing nomenclature, but refine the definition (e.g., “‘Orthodox’ now means traditional doctrine, not true doctrine.”) This has partially happened already, just not “officially.”
  2. Create new nomenclature completely (like in the four-pronged diagram above).
  3. Abandon the remedial project and stick with what we have, and wherever it’s going.

All three options will catalyze all sorts of communication problems, but of different kinds.

I apologize for the sad ending. Confident, “100% upside” direction is often preferred by folks in general, even if it’s untrue.

Wars of the Absurdums

An argumentum ad absurdum I’ll call them “absurdums” for short — is when you argue against someone’s claim X by showing that, if X was true, something obviously absurd would also be true.

In other words, as illustrated in the above image, “If the premise was true, the logical implications would be crazy.”

Lisa and George’s Thermometer Collection

Lisa and George are watching it rain.

“Gross, rainy weather lately,” says Lisa. “How cold do you think it is out there?” asks Lisa.

“Maybe 25, 30,” replies George, speaking Fahrenheit.

“What!?” Lisa exclaims. “If it were that cold, it’d be snowing, and we’d be hallucinating! And that’s absurd!

Pretty straightforward, right? It’s absurd that they’re both hallucinating the rain, and so it mustn’t be 25-30 degrees; 32 is the freezing point in Fahrenheit.

“Alright, let’s check,” says George. They walk out to the back porch and look at the thermometer outside. “See?”

Just as George guessed, it was 29 degrees outside.

“The thermometer must be broken,” said Lisa. “Let’s check the one we have on the front porch.” But, sure enough, the front porch thermometer said 29, too.

Same with the thermometer just outside the kitchen window.

“They can’t all be broken in exactly the same way,” says George. “That’d be absurd.”

Absurdum-Breakers

It turns out that, from the outset, Lisa was unaware of the fact that temperature can vary in different layers of atmosphere. If it’s warmer above the surface, rainfall may not have time to freeze before hitting the ground, even though it’s passing through a sub-freezing layer.

absurdum2

In other words, learning more about how the world works and doesn’t work can make the difference between an absurdum being thought false versus true.

Furthermore, sometimes absurdums are just “non sequiturs,” which means that they don’t logically follow, e.g., “If it was 25-30 degrees outside, all morality would be invalid.”

absurdum3

That’s an obvious one, but non sequiturs are often very subtle. Recognizing non sequiturs where they exist can also make the difference between an absurdum being thought false versus true. My permanent record contains many infractions for criminally using non sequitur absurdums and then repenting therefor!

Earlier, I wrote about a specific kind of non sequitur — where you think the world is “too rocked” by a world-rocking revelation — and called it “Kochab’s Error.” Check it out! Kochab’s Error is often used in an attempt to argue ad absurdum.

Little Sermon Sunday: Polycarp to the Prosperity-Gospelites

Okay, okay, we’re actually going to be reading excerpts from Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians. But his words reach through death and time and culture, giving us advice today about avoiding the [g]ospel of “money, prestige, image, security,” and how [G]ospel-followers ought react to this [g]ospel and the followers thereof.

Polycarp writes:

‘But the love of money is the beginning of all troubles.’ Knowing, therefore, that ‘we brought nothing into the world, nor can we take anything out,’ let us arm ourselves with ‘the weapons of righteousness,’ and let us first teach ourselves to follow the commandment of the Lord.

I have been deeply grieved for Valens, who once was an elder among you, because he so fails to understand the office that was entrusted to him. I warn you, therefore: avoid love of money, and be pure and truthful. ‘Avoid every kind of evil.’ But how can a man who is unable to control himself in these matters preach self-control to someone else? If a man does not avoid love of money, he will be polluted by idolatry, and will be judged as [those] who are ignorant of the Lord’s judgment.

Therefore, brothers, I am deeply grieved for [Valens] and for his wife; may the Lord grant them true repentance. You, therefore, for your part must be reasonable in this matter, and do not regard such people as enemies, but as sick and straying members, restore them, in order that you may save your body in its entirety. For by doing this you build up one another.

For I am convinced that you are all well trained in the sacred Scriptures and that nothing is hidden from you (something not granted to me). Only, as it is said in these Scriptures, ‘be angry but do not sin,’ and ‘do not let the sun set on your anger.’ Blessed is the one who remembers this, which I believe to be the case with you.