November 18, 2013

Atheism vs. Agnosticism

One of the interesting tendencies that I have noticed with the New Atheists is the penchant for using the term "Atheism" to mean "Agnosticism". Mind you, I don't mind this since I see little difference between the terms, but I think it is worthy of comment.

Classically, the term Atheism strictly meant that someone believed that God does not exist. It is synonymous with Naturalism or Materialism which are denials of the supernatural (only the natural or material exist). It was not understood as an absence of a belief, but as a belief.

Agnosticism by contrast was the recognition that we lack sufficient evidence for the non-existence of God or the supernatural, but that we also lacked sufficient evidence for God's existence as well. Therefore it is best to stay open minded, but assume non-existence until more evidence comes in.

However, lately I have seen very few true Atheists. Most who use the term now are technically Agnostics. Personally, I think this that Agnosticism is both rhetorically and logically a superior stance to Atheism (which is probably why it is now more popular). That said, I used the word 'technically' for a reason. Classically, Agnostics argued, "Since I can't know for sure, then I won't believe it." However, these modern day Atheist/Agnostic hybrids are saying, "Since we can't know for sure, then you shouldn't believe it." Thus they have the aggressiveness of the Atheist, but the epistemology of the Agnostic. This leads to some very special pleading. I plan on writing more about that later.

But why did this happen? I think it came about because of the public abuse of the word "Agnostic". Agnosticism (and Atheism for that matter) is not a non-stance. It is in fact an epistemology stance (one with many problems for that matter). This is to be compared with Atheism which is a cosmological stance. However, many began to use the word "Agnostic" for someone who is unsure what to believe or simply apathetic. That's not Agnosticism, but I believe this rampant abuse of the term has lead many to believe that it is unsalvageable. To be honest they may be right about that.

But this leaves us with this rather nebulous group who believe in the contradictory hybridization of Agnostic epistemology and aloofness with Atheist cosmology and passion.  Indeed, I would say that many of these are indeed Atheists, but use Agnostic epistemology as a rhetorical tool. But then there are others who seem to be legitimate Agnostics. As I said: nebulous.

To me, I just find this annoying. When ever you try to discuss anything with someone like this, they switch back and forth between the two positions as the need arises. I'm reminded of William Lane Craig's debate with the late Christopher Hitchens. Dr. Craig kept trying to pin down Hitchens's position, and Hitchens kept dodging, or he didn't fully grasp the distinction being made. What's more, it is just so silly. They clearly believe in something, but they pretend like they don't. I don't know if it is immaturity or rhetorical genius. Maybe a bit of both.

November 11, 2013

Human Consciousness and the Transcendental Argument

I was watching a video earlier in the week featuring Alvin Plantinga (which is always a pleasure). In it, he constructs an argument as to why he believes that the human consciousness exists. Unsurprisingly it is a modal based argument, but I'll attempt to summarize as best I can (Please refer to the above link if you think what I said doesn't make any sense).

His basic point is that one's consciousness is distinct from one's body. The fundamental premise of the argument is that if A is the same as B, and what is true for A is true for B. Likewise, if something can be shown to be true for A and shown to be not true for B, then this proves that A and B are not the same thing. He does this by way of the property of existence. Naturally, if A can exist while B doesn't, than A is different than B. This doesn't include a corpse, since one could argue that a corpse isn't really a body anymore. However, it does seem possible to have one's mind within a different body. He uses the example of a story where a man wakes up one morning to find himself in a beetle's body. This seems to be a perfectly feasible world to him.

All of that said, I think the example of the beetle actually undermines his point. He isn't really saying that there exists a possible world where someone can go to bed as a human and just wake up as a beetle, but because this is so fantastic, it is difficult to accept his point of it being a possible world.

I think a better allegory would be the transference of one's mind into either a computer or another's brain. If the naturalist is correct in terms of the nature of our consciousness, that is that it is essentially a really sophisticated computer program, then it should be perfectly feasible to download that program into a computer, assuming sufficient memory, computational abilities, and that the program was translated into a language the computer can read. However, if this is true, then my consciousness can exist apart from my body and is not simply reducible to my brain.

This got me thinking again about the transcendental argument. This argument is as follows:

  • Naturalism believes that there exists nothing that transcends physical reality (N -> ~t)
  • There exists some object t which transcends physical reality (t)
  • Therefore Naturalism is false (~N)
We can refer to many possible object "t"s as transcendentals. Many such instances have been suggested, including math, logic and morality. I also suggested information and thoughts as a transcendental some months back.

Now I believe that Plantinga's argument enhances my point about thoughts being a transcendental, especially since it would move it beyond mere thoughts to specifically consciousness itself. After all, Plantinga's intention is to demonstrate the logical possibility of the soul, and the soul is the ultimately what the transcendental is trying to demonstrate to begin with: the existence of the ultimate soul, God. Once one establishes the possible existence of the mind apart from the body, then the possible existence of a mind with no body at all becomes obvious.

A comparison of the mind/consciousness to a transferable program has another important philosophical ramification as well: the need of the body. All information requires a medium to influence the physical word. I may have a mediumless thought in my own mind, but in order for me to but that thought out into the world, it requires some kind of physical medium. An algorithm after all is not tied to a computer, but needs a computer for it to be executed. Likewise, our minds may require a physical medium to be present in the physical world, and rather than our minds being reducible to our brains, it is better to think of our brains as such a medium.

Indeed, I have often found it strange, upon historical reflection, when an atheist claims that our minds relationship to our brains disproves the biblical account of the soul. However, in ancient Mesopotamia which the the context of the ancient Hebrews, it was believed that the soul was part of the heart. While the Hebrews connected our consciousness to the wrong organ, they still connected it to an organ. Thus such a relationship is perfectly consistent with the Hebraic understanding of the soul (anatomy? No. Soul? Yes).

In conclusion, I think that the Transcendental Argument is a powerful argument for the Christian, and recognizing that one can demonstrate the reasonableness of a belief in the soul strengthens the argument even more. 

November 1, 2013

Happy All Saints Day!!!

Happy All Saints Day! Today is the first Christian holiday, the day that the church remembers those who sacrificed their lives for the sake of the gospel. We remember our fallen brothers in the Lord who are clothed in white robes (Revelation 6:9-11). As is my custom I offer you a story of martyrdom, this year from the book Jesus Freaks:

Seven Chinese guards surrounded Gao Feng, who was handcuffed to a chair. The guards took turns shocking him with cattle prods. "Eat!" they commanded. "And we will stop.
Feng had gone on a hunger strike to get back his copy of the Scriptures which the guards had taken from him. They were torturing him to get him to stop the hunger strike. At times, he thought he could no longer stand the pain, but he didn't give up. They never broke his spirit...  
Gao Feng, a 30-year-old worker at Chrysler's Jeep plant in Beijing, had tried to work within the Communist government system to get a Protestant church registered. Only government-sanctified churches are legal in China. All  others are illegal, their services are often disrupted by the police, and the pastors and congregations are beaten and imprisoned.  
Feng collected signatures for a petition seeking government registration for his church so they could meet legally,. For this "crime" he was arrested and sent to prison without a trial, his home and possessions confiscated.  
As a result of his hunger strike, Feng was sent to a northern province for "re-education through labor." While there, he lived in a 12 by 20 foot cell with sixteen other prisoners. They spent twelve hours each day working in the fields. At night, with so many in such a small cell, they had to arrange themselves a certain way so that everyone could lay down.  
When he was transferred back to Beijing, he refused to chant the pro-government slogans with the other prisoners, so his "re-education" was continued. This time, his brainwashing included being forced to watch the news every evening on government controlled TV. Finally, after more than two years in prison and in re-education camps, Feng was released on February 7th, 1998.  
To Feng, it was all worth it, and he would happily go to prison again. "I would prefer to be in prison for two years than to do nothing for God," he said. In fact, he feels lucky. As people wrote to the Chinese govenment demanding his release. Feng says the international attention focused on his case earned him better treatment from the Chinese authorities. "Others who are less well known are simply executed."