Saturday, May 30, 2009
Last night Linda and I went to Westfield Mall in Toledo. She was looking for a new dress. I brought a book to read while she tried on the dresses. I got a lot of good reading in - the book is Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind, and Language, by neuroscientist Maxwell Bennett and philosophers Peter Hacker, Daniel Dennett, and John Searle. Dennett and Searle critique the thesis Bennett and Hacker put forth in their previous book, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience.
I have long been fascinated by this subject, for the following reasons:
- as an undergraduate in philosophy I was interested in what is called "the problem of religious language." My reading was filled up with J.L. Austin, Wittgenstein, Searle, Antony Flew, A.J. Ayer, and various philosophers of language and theistic analytic philosophers.
- my doctoral thesis was on metaphor theory and religious language - Max Black's new non-Aristotelian metaphor theory (metaphor is not an "elliptical simile"), Paul Ricoeur, Wolfhart Pannenberg, linguist Andrew Ortony, and many others that totalled 50 pages of footnotes.
- my current, ongoing interest in "the hard problem" of first-person subjective consciousness (qualia) and the various responses to this problem (David Chalmers et. al.).
It seems to me that if persons have a "mind" in a Cartesian sense (or something akin to it; viz. not fully reducible to the physical brain) then we have evidence for super-naturalism. If this is not true then we have a possibly intractable problem that comes with physicalism; viz., the "hard problem" of first-person subjective consciousness. Issues of free will come in to play, as does the coherence of even theorizing about such matters.
This morning I read Jane O'Grady's essay "Can a Machine Change Your Mind?" O'Grady argues that "the mind is not the brain. Confusing the two, as much neuro-social-science does, leads to a dehumanised world and a controlling politics." She's challenging a growing view that it's "just a matter of time before the gap between physical brain-stuff and consciousness is bridged."
O'Grady is concerned that physicialist theory will reduce moral actions entirely to scientific explanations of behavior. Here's where the strange, intractable loop comes in, since if moral actions are entirely reducible to the physical brain then arguing for this theory is but the epiphenomenon of someone's physical brain. In this light O'Grady asks, "Even more ridiculous, by the same token, is the idea that we could be taught about, and discuss, brain states. Why would we ever dream of doing so?" I especially like O'Grady's definition of epiphenomenalism: "the view that, with any neural event, there is also a mental, causally inactive, spin-off."
O'Grady asks: "How do we get rid of the sense that there always seems to be something left over from the straightforward conflation of brain state activity into mental state occurrence? In The Blue Book, Wittgenstein imagines a scenario in which scientists open someone’s head and observe his functioning brain, while he, by means of mirrors, observes it at the same time, all observers equally able to watch neurones firing, synapses opening, etc. In principle, why not? But, as Wittgenstein says, the brain-owner, unlike the scientists clustering round him, is observing, or experiencing, two things rather than one. He can observe that when he feels, or thinks about, certain things, certain activities occur in his brain at the same time. He experiences feeling or thinking in certain ways, and also he experiences observing his brain working in certain ways. The scientists only experience observing the brain working. What one could add to this is that if, at some time in the future, the subject whose brain has been observed were to see a video of what had happened during the brain-inspection, he (unless his memory were perfect or the experiment very brief) would be in the same position as the observing scientists were at the time – he would have to deduce what he had been thinking about or feeling then from what he now observes of his brain in the video."
She concludes: "Given the brain’s material object status, it wouldn’t, and, for identity theorists, shouldn’t, matter whose brain is being observed, and by whom, owner or non-owner, when it comes to ‘recognising’ mental states as brain states, and vice versa. But of course, it does matter – it makes all the difference."
"... of course in some way consciousness may be caused by, or correlated with, the brain's microscopic properties. But (as Nagel hardly needed to remind us) what it feels like to be conscious of something, or to be in a particular state of pain or serenity, surely goes beyond those brain properties. A scientific description of what happens in the brain when someone has a certain thought or experience seems inevitably to leave out what the thought is about or the experience is like. Once again, there’s something left over, something which, if the person were observing their own brain states, they would be having in addition to seeing neurons fire and synapses wiggling."
O'Grady concludes: "Hard-line identity theorists, and eliminativists above all, don’t appreciate how much they would change things if indeed we could come to believe and implement their theories. Our world would increasingly be leeched of meaning, morality, dignity and freedom, and if we rejected folk psychology in favour of scientific terminology about brain states, not only would we know less, not more, about ourselves; we would also have less to know about, because we would be less." ("Eliminative materialism (or eliminativism) is the radical claim that our ordinary, common-sense understanding of the mind is deeply wrong and that some or all of the mental states posited by common-sense do not actually exist.")
Right. The social sciences are in jeopardy. What is the meaning of moral responsibillity if the identity theorists are correct? And, how could identity theorists themselves meaningfully arguer that identity theory is "true?" O'Grady's essay is a good one that serves as an entree into the brain-mind discussion. There's much more in it than I've here written about.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
The Bible is not primarily about presenting ‘timeless truths’ or giving us answers to our most pressing theological questions, although there are timeless truths in the Bible.
The vast majority of Scripture consists not in a list of rules or doctrines, but in narrative. The Bible tells a remarkably consistent story about God’s plan to restore the world back to God. Wright holds that the Bible, despite its many literary genres, can as a whole be described as “story,” or narrative. It is neither a “list of rules” nor a “compendium of true doctrines,” though the texts do include rules and doctrines.
· Stories have a unique power to change people – all the more when we are talking about the story of God as ‘the immanent lover of the human race’.
· In Scripture, the story is about God’s kingdom coming in power. Jesus’ teaching and healings carry the authority of the kingdom. So God’s authority “is his sovereign power accomplishing the renewal of all creation.”
· The authority of Scripture is an aspect of this kingdom power, and therefore, Wright reiterates, not merely the authority of doctrine or commands. So it is insufficient to think of Scripture merely as “revelation” or as a “devotional manual.” Rather, Scripture is God’s kingdom instrument for bringing us divine speech, transformation of mind, and power for mission.
· Wright says: ‘all authority belongs to God,’
· Thus the Bible’s authority must be derivative.
· Biblical authority, then, is shorthand for God’s authority vested in Scripture.
o Wright’s thesis is “that the phrase ‘authority of Scripture’ can make Christian sense only if it is shorthand for ‘the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.’”
o Scripture itself points away from itself and to the fact that final and true authority belongs to God himself, now delegated to Jesus Christ. It is Jesus, according to John 8:39-40, who speaks the truth because he has heard from God.
· The Bible gives us a story that has various parts. Certain parts or “acts” of this story no longer have relevance for us today.
· It is here that Wright introduces his well-known” five act play,” which he claims is not only found in Scripture but also helps us to interpret Scripture.
Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.
· The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted ‘authority’ for the task in hand.
· That is, anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that this or that character was now behaving inconsistently, or that this or that sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution.
· This ‘authority’ of the first four acts would not consist in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier pans of the play over and over again. It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, which contained its own impetus, its own forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in the proper manner but which required of the actors a responsible entering in to the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together, and then to put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency. [In other words, you and I and the whole world are part of this grand narrative.]
It was not the church that gave authority to Scripture. To Wright, this view is a mistake like “that of a soldier who, receiving orders through the mail, concludes that the letter carrier is his commanding officer.”
Uh-oh - Wright believes that in the early centuries there was in the church a “diminishing focus” on narrative, corresponding to an increasing use of Scripture as a “court of appeal,” or rule book, and as a “lectio divina,” a book of private devotions.
THE LOSS OF THE BIBLE AS NARRATIVE: In the debates between Protestant and Catholic, both parties, Wright says, devalued the narrative character of Scripture, thinking of authority as “the place where you could go to find an authoritative ruling.”
Some studies have shown that animals experience hormonal changes that lead them to "crave" social interaction. Biologists have also observed a female Rodrigues fruit-eating bat in Gainesville, Florida, helping another female to give birth by showing the pregnant female the correct birthing position – with head up and feet down." Perhaps: beware of anthropomorphism here? See also Thomas Nagel's very famous "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" Here Nagel suggests that the subjective aspect of the mind may not ever be sufficiently accounted for by the objective methods of objective science.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Next week in my apologetics class at RMS I'll present the "divine hiddenness" ("culpable nonbelief") argument against God's existence. I especially use the essays collected in the book Divine Hiddenness (Howard-Snyder & Moser). I'll also use Michael Murray's essay "Why Doesn't God Make His Existence More Obvious to Us?" in Passionate Conviction: Contemporary Discourses on Christian Apologetics. The entire Murray essay can be read at googlebooks here. See also Murray's "Deus Absconditus" here.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Monday, May 18, 2009
A number of people responded in disagreement to Stanley Fish's recent nytimes essay on Terry Eagleton's new book on God. Many who disagreed did so believing that “religion is a fairy tale, hogwash, balderdash, nonsense and a device for rationalizing horrible deeds.” The most common argument in support of this is based on “a sharp distinction between religion and science, or, alternatively, between faith and reason.”
The problem is that a lot of people think “facts” are to be distinguiished from matters of “faith.” Supposedly, “facts” are just there for all to see; faith deals with murky unseen things. Fish thinks such reasoning goes astray. He writes: “Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions… that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence.” Or, as I learned a long time ago, all facts are theory-laden. There simply is no such thing as an “uninterpreted fact.”
Fish puts it this way: “There is no such thing as “common observation” or simply reporting the facts. To be sure, there is observation and observation can indeed serve to support or challenge hypotheses. But the act of observing can itself only take place within hypotheses (about the way the world is) that cannot be observation’s objects because it is within them that observation and reasoning occur.”Christopher Hitchens has written, "You will feel better . . . once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.” Fish thinks there are no "chainless minds," and it's good there aren't.
Fish writes: "A mind without chains – a better word would be “constraints” – would be free and open in a way that made motivated (as opposed to random) movement impossible. Thought itself — the consideration of problems with a view to arriving at their solutions — requires chains, requires stipulated definitions, requires limits it did not choose but which enable and structure its operations." One of Fish's respondents wrote: “Why is it not possible to reason simply as a gratuitous exercise.”" To which Fish responds: "Why, in other words, is it not possible to reason without anything in mind? Just try it; you can’t even imagine what it would be like."
"Simple observation" or "simple reporting of some 'fact'" is a fiction. Therefore to use this fiction to defeat faith is fundamentally misguided. "Religious thought may be vulnerable on any number of fronts, but it is not vulnerable to the criticism that in contrast to scientific or empirical thought, it rests on mere faith."
Fish, finally: "So to sum up, the epistemological critique of religion — it is an inferior way of knowing — is the flip side of a naïve and untenable positivism. And the critique of religion’s content — it’s cotton-candy fluff — is the product of incredible ignorance."
One more point, re. Hitchens. Hitchens was intellectually demolished in his recent debate with William Lane Craig. I concljude, after seeing this, that if one could have an unchained mind and the result was the mind of Hitchens I think I will pass.
Bethel Redding Church in Redding, California (where Bill Johnson is pastor) brings its Bethel School of Supernatural Evangelism to Redeemer Fellowship Church this week, beginning Wednesday evening.
For details, schedule, speakers, go to Bethel’s website here.
Wed - 7 PM
Thurs - 7 PM
Fri - 1-5 PM; 7 PM
Sat - 1-5 PM; 7 PM
Sun morning - 10:30 - Chris Overstreet preaches
Sun. evening - 6 PM - Chris Overstreet preaches
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Saturday, May 09, 2009
As a new follower of Jesus Jim Rayburn found legalistic “Christianity” lifeless, boring, and joyless. One day he picked up a book by Lewis Sperry Chafer called He That Is Spiritual. Chafer wrote:
“How misleading is the theory that to be spiritual one must abandon play, diversion, and helpful amusement. Such a conception is born of a morbid Christian conscience. It is foreign to the Word of God. It is a device of Satan to make the blessings of God seem abhorrent to people who are overflowing with physical life and energy. There are many who in blindness are emphasizing negatives, giving the impression that spirituality is opposed to joy, liberty, and naturalness of expression. True spirituality is not a pious pose. it is not a ‘Thou shall not,” it is a ‘Thou shall.’ We cannot be normal physically, mentally, or spiritually if we neglect this vital factor in human life. God has provided that our joy shall be full.” (In From Bondage to Liberty, 18)
I smoked 2 packs of cigarettes a day from ages 18-21. I smoked when I awoke, after every meal, when I drank, while playing golf, while playing in various bands, and so on. I’m glad I stopped because I meet a lot of people who are now suffering with health issues because they smoked all their lives.
I have friends who smoke but want to stop, for three reasons: 1) it costs a lot; 2) health issues; and 3) the shame laid on them from legalistic religious people. These friends of mine are addicted to cigarettes. They need compassion more than judgment. If you’re reading this, just remember that you’ve got your own addictions, so we all won’t need to be pointing fingers.
Now - something about Jim Rayburn, founder of an enormously effective outreach ministry to teens called Young Life, and which we have right here in our high schools in Monroe County. Billy Graham once said this of Rayburn: “Jim Rayburn was one of the greatest Christians I ever knew, and he had a profound influence on my life.” And, by the way, Rayburn smoked cigarettes all his life.
In Rayburn’s biography his son writes: “In his heart, Jim didn’t feel such things were important spiritual issues, but he couldn’t step free from the guilt of breaking the many rules learned in church. He smoked his whole life, but never felt the freedom to do so in public. In essence, he feared the rejection and judgment of his Christian peers.”
Rayburn lived in a time when the health risks of smoking were not well-known. Perhaps had he lived today he might see that it’s not a good thing to smoke. But let’s add this also - it’s not a good thing to stuff our faces with chips and mashed potatoes and pop and cinnabons either. If you are a glutton and reading this I now free you from pointing your finger at someone who smokes cigarettes.
I think Rayburn was correct. Satan’s goal is not to get people to smoke. And Jesus didn’t die on the Cross so we could all eat correctly, exercise every day, and stop inhaling toxins. Legalistic forms of Christianity judge people for things like smoking while enjoying pot luck suppers in the church building. Jim Rayburn chose to “major on life’s majors” and not engage in gnat-straining Pharisaisms. The result is that many, many, many young people have been introduced to the Real Jesus and have lived lives producing lasting fruit. (Check out Young Life’s website here.)
Monday, May 04, 2009
Stanley Fish here comments on Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections On the God Debate. Fish is quite a writer, as is Eagleton. Fish explains Eagleton's near-NOMA thesis, except that for Eagleton the magisteria are intertwined.Fish: "Science, says Eagleton, “does not start far back enough”; it can run its operations, but it can’t tell you what they ultimately mean or provide a corrective to its own excesses. Likewise, reason is “too skin deep a creed to tackle what is at stake”; its laws — the laws of entailment and evidence — cannot get going without some substantive proposition from which they proceed but which they cannot contain; reason is a non-starter in the absence of an a prior specification of what is real and important, and where is that going to come from? Only from some kind of faith."
I agree. Science qua science says nothing about value.
Fish writes that Eagleston is "angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. I know just how he feels."