Saturday, March 26, 2011

William James: Lecture 1

As would be expected, the first lecture is an introduction to the material and outlines aspects of his approach and also explains why the subject matter is important. He also spends some time thanking his hosts in a self deprecating manner. At the time, America (even in Harvard) was not the center of intellectual thought, so William James talks about the great honor given to him to share his thoughts to a European audience.

To start with, he outlines two methods of inquiry; the first attempts to determine the what and the second tries to answer why it is significant or valuable. For example, in Biblical studies, Historical Criticism tries to determine the history of the Bible and how it came together. Who were the original authors and how were the individual writings compiled together into a single document? However Historical Criticism can never determine value by itself. If your definition of value is that the document has to be perfect, consistent, and without error, then the Bible would not fare to well. I found it interesting how much has not changed in the last 100 plus years. He could have written the same words today and it still is very applicable.

He spent some time criticizing over simplistic determinations of causal links, for example a link to religion from human sexuality. But he was also concerned that religious experience was being dismissed because of their physical origin. He argues that you can't dismiss an experience because it was likely caused by epileptic seizures. The true measure of the value our its results; not where it came from. Of course that means we will never be able to immediately know the answer, but will have to wait. This goes against our human desires for easy answers.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Blogging through the Varieties of Religious Experience

I will admit that I had lived for over 30 years before I heard about William James. He was a psychologist/philosopher in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He is most famous for his book, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," which was an edited transcript of a lecture series that he gave in Scotland, called the Gifford Lectures. I first heard of him while listening to a program called "In Our Time". By the way, I love listening to "In our Time." They have discussed everything from obscure battles from a thousand years ago to artificial intelligence to the dawn of the iron age to the age of the universe. Here is a link to the program on William James.

If you are interested in reading this book it is quite easy to find a copy. I got mine from Project Gutenberg for the grand price of free. It was preformatted to my e-reader which is even better. I will be taking a chapter at a time and highlighting sections that I particularly liked.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book Review: Sense and Goodness without God

"Yet our very lives are a joyous occasion. By existing, and making of ourselves something good, we give ourselves and each other value, we create purpose and meaning. Neither existing by accident nor existing only a short while changes anything about the value of existing, the value of getting to be, to behold and to know the universe, to create something."
-- Richard Carrier

Richard Carrier's book "Sense and Goodness without God" is a fairly comprehensive presentation of a world view based on Metaphysical Naturalism. Even if you are an atheist, you will not agree with every point he makes and he isn't expecting agreement. The book could be thought of as a case study. Richard Carrier takes his own assumptions and shows how to validate and verify the assumptions as best as possible and from those assumptions create a world view.

He starts out with an overview of the purpose of his book and a brief biographical sketch. Next he launches into a discussion of how we know, starting with a very concept of what is language. He takes the reader through different methods of knowing and discusses there relative strengths and weaknesses of each method. Of course scientific investigation and logic is ranked highly, personal experience is less trusted, and faith the least trusted method of all.

After establishing method he takes the reader through a tour of the current state of scientific thought and his implications. Next he uses this basis to argue against positions that contradict the evidence. He basically points out that all investigation of supernatural claims when investigated using more trusted methods turn out to be incorrect.

Lastly he takes his foundation and builds on it. He presents a naturalistic case for morality, feelings of beauty, and how society should be structured.

High points. Richard carrier does well during his discussion of language and knowledge. Also his background as a historian shows when he is discussing historical material (especially ancient Rome). Also he makes a good case for morality and beauty.

Low points. When arguing against specific positions, I feel that he overstates his case. Typical argument would take an opponent's position and discuss its undesired implications. However the implications did not seem to logically follow from his opponent's position. His section on politics is very idealistic (no taxation, legislature determined by lottery, ..)

Overall I found the book engaging and I enjoyed reading it. It will challenge your thought and hopefully prod you in to developing your own world view.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Free Will?

So I have listened to a couple of podcasts recently that got me thinking about free will. Do we really have free will? Or is it something we imagine that we have? The first was a debate between an atheist and a Christian on Reasonable Doubts. The interview/debate appeared on the Don Johnson Radio show, but a fuller, unedited version is available here. The second was an excellent interview on Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot with Tom Clark. I used to strongly defend a notion of free will, but lately I have begun to have doubts about the whole concept.

I especially appreciate the Tom Clark interview. In the interview they mentioned that when we really say that we have free will, we have some "unmoved-mover" power. This is typically an attribute in theism that is reserved for God. Now maybe a theist could say that this is one of those "we were made in God's image" things. God has given some of his attributes to humanity. Additionally I think Tom separates out the concepts of determinism and being fully caused (no free will.) This makes sense to me. Randomness is one of the fundamental attributes of the universe (pick up a book on quantum mechanics if you don’t believe me.) This randomness does not mean that we have free will, but I think it might help to muddy the waters in the debate.

There has been quite a bit of evidence in neurological studies that support the notion that we don’t have free will. For example we know that brain trauma (either due to injury or stroke) can dramatically change a person and how they make their decisions. Probably the most interesting evidence is related to neurological studies of how humans do moral reasoning. Check out this write up on Neurologica for more information.

Now the question I have is how does free will and dualism relate. Much of the evidence against free will is also evidence against some sort of immortal soul. So I could see how free will and dualism can be a coherent belief, but what about holism and freewill? Typically Adventists have held onto both concepts, but I am not sure if it is a coherent set of assumptions. I may or may not try to more fully flesh out why, but I was curious what others thought.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

So are Adventists Anti-Creedal or Creedal?

Once, a long time ago, Seventh Day Adventists were very suspicious of creeds. They believed in present truth and progressive revelation. This allowed for some movement and discussion about what it is we actually believed. It allowed for diversity of opinion among members.

In 1980 the General Conference decided to publish a list of "fundamental" beliefs. It is my understanding that it was originally conceived as documentation of the concensus views among members what were the beliefs of the church. Lately there seems to be more and more people attempting to marginalize voices in the church who dissent from the fundamental beliefs. It could be called small tent adventism. This has been combined with attempts to more precisely define the beliefs to allow for less room for interpretation and to shut down internal debate.

The latest evidence for this is the latest General Conference session (meets every five years to approve officers and changes to church operations, but mostly it is a huge cheerleading and networking type of event.) I've been concerned by the tone of some of Ted Wilson's (the new President) comments. Additionally they have decided to affirm the traditional understanding of origins that has been held by the church and request a committee to look at strengthening the wording of the 6th fundamental belief that is concerned with creation and origins. Spectrum Magazine has some good articles about this if you are interested in more details. I particularly liked this segment that discusses statemetns from Ben Clausen of the Geo Science Research Institute.

Quoting from the statement, Dr. Clausen said that "it is impossible," to teach students "scientifically rigorous exposure to and affirmation of our historic belief in a literal, recent six-day creation."

He added: "There are no available models."

"There are no available models." This is a striking admission from somebody who works in an Adventist Apologetics Organization. As a church, we can decide that the earth was created 6000 years ago. But not only is there no evidence for it, but that viewpoint is contradicted by the evidence. "There are no available models." There is no explanation that can adequately deal with the evidence while maintaining a young earth view.

This is a position that basically shuts down any outreach efforts to educated professionals. I once tried to explain the whole La Sierra controversy and young earth creationism to a coworker. Her immediate response was, "who would be stupid enough to believe that!!" I've had several lunch conversations with coworkers. Whenever the topic of creationism versus science is brought up, creationism is thouroughly ridiculed. I am told at church that I should invite my coworkers to church. But why would I invite them to a place that wants them to discard 15 to 20+ years of education in order to fit in?

Of course the people I feel the most sorry for are the professors who work for the church. These are the people who are trying to have this discussion while also maintain their jobs. But as Adventists move more toward making the foundamental beliefs a creed, discussion is becoming more difficult. Talk about a tight rope!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The New Atheists

I find it interesting that when people discuss the “New Atheists,” they seem to be of the opinion that this is some sort of new phenomenon. Usually the term is applied to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and others that have similar views. Some have even maintained that this is just a passing fad that will lose steam (example: David Bentley Hart.) Every time I heard such discussions, I have always wondered “but what about Bertrand Russell?” At that point I had only read one of his essays, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, otherwise known as college.

During my last trip to Powell’s, I found a compilation of essays by Russell, including “Why I am Not a Christian.” I will have a fuller review later, but I did want to say that the ideas expressed in his essays are very similar to the “New Atheists.” Religion hasn’t changed much in the past hundred years and many of those arguments are still valid today. Most of those articles could have just as easily been written by a Dawkins and I think the main difference between them is not tone or anything that they are actually saying. There are minor differences because Russell was a man of his time and didn’t have access to the latest scientific advancements and some of his predictions on societal directions have been proven inaccurate. However publishers are more willing to distribute such books and it is very easy to find numerous copies of Dawkin’s, Harris’s, or Dennett’s latest works and they have reached a wider audience.

So the New Atheists are not new by my definition and I don’t see them going away anytime soon. In fact every indication is that they are a growing movement.

Book Review: Atheist Delusions

I must admit that I had high hopes for this book by David Bentley Hart; however I found his argument to be mostly emotional. He was writing as a man who was offended and was lashing out. This aspect of his book can be found in an essay that we wrote for First Things. This essay has been thoroughly discussed on Pharyngula, Kevin Drum’s blog, and by Grad Student.

The other aspect of his book, mostly in the body of the work, is an overview of Christian history. He attempts to counter several narratives that are common today: The War Between Science and Religion, Christianity has a violent history, etc. However he seems to set up a straw man argument based on views of historians over a hundred years ago. He undercuts his own argument by stating up front that he is not a historian and what he is presenting is biased. But worse than that, even if everything was factual, I don’t think it supports his argument against atheists.

He attempts to minimize the involvement of the church in various atrocities. For example he tries to argue that Hypatia was not brutally murdered because Christians were intolerant of science, but because she caught up in the political undercurrents of a decaying society. Of course that doesn’t change that she was murdered by Christian monks. This episode is dramatized in a movie called Agora with Rachel Weisz, which may be less historically accurate then David Hart, however the trailers are quite chilling. The logical pretzels were quite contorted when he tried to minimize the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades were completely glossed over. His argument is that the church actually had a tempering role on the Inquisition and that it is the fault of secular powers.

The good news, is I was able to sell this book back to Powell’s and I was able to reinvest the money into a better book.