POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

The Epidemic

A Poem by Kayla Monaghan

He laughs at a short ten seconds

They at the bug eyed bats from a far away land

I stare around at the distracted faces

All of them forgetting...

Forgetting how it feels to hear

How to speak with beauty

How to stand up and lead with civility

Language looks at us sadly and says:

“Humanity loves screens more than me.

Why should I remain, only mocked to be?”

 

Stay! I want to cry

But my tongue has gone mute

And there is only a small sigh

Because why would Eloquence and Grace

Want to come and play

When nobody can say more than “hey”

How sad we have become

Cute cats and big stars suck our time

Through a smoothie straw

Giving us the brain freeze

 

Letters, watches, and eyes

Have been tantalized

Lured in, a moth to a flame

A buzz, a ring, a distant call

Have become far too near

Patience has been kicked to the curb

“We don’t need you anymore”

A tear falls from my eye

As the world becomes individualized

The idea of family stamped in the mud, left years behind

 

I will dig, fingers scraping

Hands frozen as my heart grows warm

I must find that beautiful feeling

Of unity and gentleness

That is only found when we open our mouths

Our eyes must connect

Not just through a text

For a person’s voice can be as tight as a hug

Sweetness seeping in between each syllable

See what beauty comes from a flower like love?

 

The fever is growing worse

Youngsters’ hands are glued to touchscreens

Eyes locked tight and if they can’t have,they scream

Teens have their hearts shattered

In less time than it takes to breathe

Not all evil intents has Technology

Yet still we grow sicker and sicker

Imagination leaking out faster than

The water in a faucet of an old sink

Ears loose the ability to hear hidden messages

Found in those around them

 

What can we do?

It races by at the speed of light

Is wifi crucial to survive?

Identify the temptation

So we can find a vaccination

A dose of smiles and human contact might do the trick

Look around and notice the blue sky

A sight we take for granted because it resides in our minds

But its arms can help those in a fix

And we must be careful not to feed this epidemic

The timidity of truth in our time

I am in a class this week that is touching on the epistemological issues involved in doing theology and pretty much believing anything.  This morning’s discussion reminded me of a quote from my favorite dead Brittish author GK Chesterton:

We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance.

GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1908.

I do think that things have gotten a bit worse since Chesterton’s day some 100 years ago. I think the big fella, if alive today, would rend his garments to see a generation so passive and timid about the mere possibility of truth. I wonder if he knew that this gangrenous passivity would come to so infect those who claim to follow the one who once prayed “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” John 17:17-19 ESV

Truth as a categorical reality is indispensable to all of life, without it we perish in a thousand unqualified ways. 

Finding God Dialogues

On the POCBlog we wrote a series of dialogues between two friends traveling through life as university students.  One of them, Richard, is a philosophy undergraduate student with ambitions towards a career in jurisprudence. He likes banter and debating but can be impatient and at times unsympathetic to the questions of God. The other, Sundar, is a student in electrical engineering with hopes of working in the field of wireless communications. Both young men enjoy each others company and discussion even though one is an atheist and the other a committed follower of Jesus and the Christian way.

The following is a list of each of the dialogues:

  1. What’s all this then? A discussion of created world
  2. Why are we building alters? A discussion of the religious nature of people
  3. Nobody’s Perfect? A discussion of the perfect and the good
  4. Why do mean people suck? A discussion of the reality of suffering
  5. What of love? A discussion of love, the brain and God
  6. What of death? A discussion of death and eternity
  7. Jesus? Always comes back to him

What of Death? Richard and Sundar Discuss Eternity

Richard is a philosophy undergraduate student with ambition toward a career in jurisprudence. He likes banter and debating but can be impatient and at times unsympathetic to the questions of God. Sundar is a student in electrical engineering with hopes of working in the field of wireless communications. Both young men enjoy each others company and discussion even though one is an atheist and the other a committed follower of Jesus and the Christian way.

Death and Eternity?

Richard: He’s dead

Sundar: What, who? What are you talking about? Are you OK?

Richard: No, I’m really not OK…he’s dead, my Dad died yesterday and I just got word from my brother. Nobody saw it coming, he’s just gone.

Sundar: I’m so sorry man. Can I do anything for you and your family.

Richard: I don’t even know Sundar – I wasn’t ready for this. He was only forty-eight years old. I thought we would have more time. I didn’t think this would happen so soon.

Sundar: yeah, I guess [Richard interrupts him]

Richard: Why does it hit me like this? Why is death so disturbing to us? I mean, it is the most normal thing on earth. Every single one of us will die at some point. Yet it doesn’t seem right. Why don’t we expect it? It should be the most normal thing ever, but I hate this. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to him. I didn’t even get to tell him how pissed I was at him. I didn’t get to…[expletive] - I don’t know. [heavy exhale] This just sucks man, what do I do with this!?

Sundar: I don’t know Richard – I’m just glad you are talking about it. I really want to be here for you man, help you make any arrangements you need, just do whatever. I hate it too.

Richard: It’s like all of sudden everything just crashes down and it’s gone.  Everything we work for, everything we think is important, everything we think makes life meaningful is just gone, gone in a moment. We are so helpless to it.

Sundar: Do you mind me asking what happened?

Richard: [speaking quickly] He had a massive heart attack and died in his office. Nobody even knew for like six hours – he was by himself – and they just found him there. [long pause] I wish someone could have been there…I wonder if he was afraid.

Sundar: Man, hard to even think about what that must have been like.

Richard: I wonder if his tough guy, I don’t need anyone but God shtick was going through his head. I never believed that mess but it sure seemed he did. I never believed it. I always thought we would have it out big and really understand each other. I really didn’t hate the guy – that was my own front. I really just didn’t get why he was that way – why he didn’t want to know me. [gets choked up] – ah this is stupid man, I just don’t know what to think. Just feeling it all too much.

Sundar: You wanna get drunk? [awkward silence]

Richard: Do you mean that? [Richard starts to laugh] Are you messing with me?

Sundar: Sorry, I just wanted to lighten things a bit. No we don’t need to get drunk – that would not be good right about now but I thought it might have crossed your mind. [laugh together]

Richard: Has anyone close to you ever died?

Sundar: Yeah, my grandparents. But they were older so it was sort of expected.  

Richard: I think that is why this is hitting me so hard – totally not expected. I don’t know why we don’t think about this stuff more. I mean, do we know when we will die? I think we would live differently if we knew we just had a few more weeks or something.

Sundar: Yeah, I don’t think I think about dying enough. It is easy just to fill life with work, jobs, having fun, going through life. Sometimes I think as if I have all the time in the world and none of us really knows when our days will be up. I think we would use our time with more wisdom if we knew we soon would tap out of this world.

Richard: I know I would have had that big shake down with my Dad. Now, it’s too late now I guess.

Sundar: Who knows man, maybe you’ll get another shot to see him. It is at least possible.

Richard: Remember, I’m going to hell [sarcastically].

Sundar: I don’t think this is the right time Richard.

Richard: No, No. What better time is there? [slightly miffed] You think my Dad is with Jesus now and probably want me to go there. I think death is the end. Click. You are out.  Ball game. Game over.

Sundar: Well, I hope not. I think your reaction to all this should tell you something. Death is not a good thing man. It isn’t just nature’s way of taking out the trash. It is devastating, real and an enemy to life. You said it yourself a few minutes ago “death should be the most normal thing.”  But it isn’t – we know it is not. It feels bad because it is bad.

Richard: I know that nobody can live forever. I understand that Sundar. What bugs me is that it seems to wreck everything and feels so bad. I just wish I didn’t have to experience this. Why is it?

Sundar: Because death is a part of the brokenness of our world. We were not meant for it – so we feel it that way as well. You ever see a baby born?

Richard: No, not yet.

Sundar: It is one of the craziest things to see. I watched the video of my aunt’s kid being born and the joy, natural joy was just crazy.

Richard: You watched that?

Sundar: Not the details man. But Mom weeping for joy, holding the baby for the first time, my uncle acting like an idiot behind the camera. We see the flip side of this when we encounter death. It’s like everything comes crashing down.

Richard: Life and death – are you saying they are two sides of the same coin?

Sundar: No, that is precisely what I’m not saying…some of my relatives might say that. What I am saying is that we know that death is a problem, not simply “the other side of the coin.”  I’m saying death feels bad because it IS BAD.

Richard: I agree man.

Sundar: After my baby cousin was born, he had a lot of complications. Couldn’t breathe on his own, couldn’t digest food and turned all yellow.  They had to put him in neonatal intensive care unit. I remember going in there to see him and being overwhelmed with the beauty and fragility of life. I also had the odd feeling that all the kids in the NICU may not make it. It was like a small picture of what life is really like – fragile, beautiful and needing help. I’ll never forget it. In there, things were a lot clearer.  Life and death were real and had to be considered. I think people probably thought a lot more about God in there.  Have you ever read that book in the Bible I asked you to read?

Richard: A little of it – Ecclesiastes right?

Sundar: Yeah, can I read something out of that?

Richard: Sure, I actually wouldn’t mind at all.

Sundar: [finds a passage on his smartphone] A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity.

Richard: where is that? Sundar: Ecclesiastes 7

Richard: So is that saying that dying is better than birth?  Sounds like you were positive on birth a minute ago.

Sundar: This isn’t talking about our experience but about the soul being open to learning. That you learn more about wisdom and meaning in life at a funeral than giggling life away like a fool…that we need to face the emptiness, the shortness, the ridiculous ways we waste away our lives not realizing we are all heading towards the grave. It is telling us to really face the coming of our own death in some way before it overtakes us.

Richard: I hear you – I know I was not ready for this. So this would be “the house of mourning” and Jersey Shore would be the “house of mirth”.

Sundar: Something like that. I don’t want to press you on anything now Richard – your family needs you, there is probably a lot of things you need to tend to.

Richard: Well, I’m in the house of mourning so I might as well learn something. I want you to tell me what you think about death, life and if anything is ahead of us after this world. I know I said I don’t believe in an afterlife but I sort of wish there was something. Reincarnation, heaven, nirvana or something.  I mean it is a nice thought to think of seeing loved ones again. 

Sundar: To be honest those are really different ideas. Reincarnation means your soul migrates into other existences and nirvana would be the freeing of oneself from the cycle of suffering, reaching full enlightenment and escaping the trap of reincarnation. These are not ideas about YOU being YOU after your death. Seeing your loved ones again would not quite be part of those ideas. The idea of heaven though is different. That would have to do with you living again as you.

Richard:  Yeah, I heard about that in Catholic school – where you float in the clouds with angels or something like a ghost right.

Sundar: Uh, not exactly. That sounds weird. What Jesus taught was actually about the defeat of death itself and being resurrected from the dead.

Richard: Where did he teach that?

Sundar: To some friends in the “house of mourning” – we actually see what Jesus said and did at the funeral of a good friend named Lazarus in the New Testament book of John.

Richard: He gave the funeral speech?

Sundar: Not exactly, he interacted with some people who were hurting because of death. They were feeling the pain of it and in confusion were asking Jesus some questions. They wondered why he didn’t help.

Richard: Yeah, I do wonder why God doesn’t help. Why he doesn’t just get rid of death and suffering. It sucks you know. He ought to know that too.

Sundar: Indeed. I think he does. Jesus does a few things when his friend died. He wept with the people – God does really care.  He taught them through some hard questions – he wanted them to know the truth about death.  He raised a man from the dead – he wanted to show us what the future could be. [a long silence from both men]

Richard: Well, what did he say, what were the questions he asked?

Sundar: [reading again] Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

Sundar: So Jesus wants us to trust him, believe him in the face of death. Afterall, he is the one who died and came back again to speak of it. He promises resurrection and life to all who believe. So his question was simple “Do you believe this?” His followers are certain that death itself has been defeated and they do not fear it any longer. They do not fear God’s just judgment, nor do they fear their current bodies passing away.

Richard: You always come back to Jesus.

Sundar: I don’t know of anyone else I would turn to when looking at the face of death.

Richard: Why does Jesus get so lost in all the religious mumbo jumbo?

Sundar: I don’t know man… [Richard’s phone rings]

Richard: Hi Mom, yeah, I’m doing OK…lots to think about. I have my flight booked…yes, I know. I know. Love you too.

What of Love? Richard and Sundar discuss love, the brain and God

Richard is a philosophy undergraduate student with ambition toward a career in jurisprudence. He likes banter and debating but can be impatient and at times unsympathetic to the questions of God. Sundar is a student in electrical engineering with hopes of working in the field of wireless communications. Both young men enjoy each other’s company and discussion even though one is an atheist and the other a committed follower of Jesus and the Christian way.

What of Love?

Richard: Another day, another step closer to the dollas

Sundar: What are you all giddy about?

Richard: Got into NYU law school!!!

Sundar: Oh my, now you are really going to be insufferable

Richard: Unstoppable!  Don’t worry, I won’t forget the little guys who helped me along the way [laughs]

Sundar: Oh good for me. What did your Dad think?

Richard: I don’t care what he thinks – he is just pissed I don’t say hail Mary any more. We don’t connect much and to be honest I don’t really care.

Sundar: Isn’t he paying for school?

Richard: Was, I’ve been on my own for a couple of years. He cut me off after I told him what I thought of him.

Sundar: Man, I didn’t know.

Richard: Its ok, I don’t really care

Sundar: You have to care a little – I mean, who wants to be estranged from family. That has to bum you out a little, no?

Richard: No, I sort of hate the guy to be honest. Not trying to sound like a jerk or anything but I pretty much feel only contempt there. But stop all this noise and lets go get a beer and celebrate! NYU and Columbia were my top two and I’m in!!!

Sundar: Aight, give me a half an hour to finish up this digital electronics homework and we’ll head out. Nothing crazy though; I don’t want to tuck you in again like spring break your freshman year. We’ll hang but I don’t want you getting all sloppy drunk OK? I’m not your momma.

Richard: Ok, but hey, I’m not a freshman any more, I’ve matured a bit you know. But we need to have some fun – our time here is coming to a close quickly. We’ve had some good times. We need to soak this in.

[Richard drumming fingers on table, Sundar giving him an angry look…Sundar finally finishes up his last schematic]

Sundar: Aight, lets hit it

Richard: Finally

Sundar: Why don’t you ever talk about your Dad – I mean, I had no idea what was up there.

Richard: Nothing to say.

Sundar: Don’t you love the guy?

Richard: I got no need for love. And that man is the ultimate object of my disaffection. I’m not sure I believe in that whole love business any way.

Sundar: Seems pretty central to being human.

Richard: Love is just input and outputs Sundar. It’s a feeling in the brain – neuroscience has demonstrated that love is nothing but your brain getting all jazzed up in a certain area. We have located the way the brain reacts when people feel love. All just chemistry man…I have not use for that game.

Sundar: Did you get dumped in high school? [laughing]

Richard: Shut up you tool, I mean I like some people and certainly enjoy women, I’m just saying I’m not into all that sappy, “you should love your Dad” stuff you want to bring up.

Sundar: Whether you should love your Dad is another question. I think love is central to who we are. That we are made for relationship.

Richard: Social creatures, yes. But love I can see through that stuff.

Sundar: Hey, just a question about what you said a minute ago about neuroscience. Isn’t that a bit reductionist to say that love equals a certain brain function?

Richard: Not at all, you just have someone think fuzzy thoughts about their Mom or husband or wife or kid or something and watch the brain. When they are feeling love; the brain lights up. It’s pretty simple actually.

Sundar: Yes, but that is my point, there is a person who is thinking and feeling something. How do you know they are not thinking about MMA and beating someone down?

Richard: Well, you tell them what to think about dumb dumb.

Sundar: And how do you know they are thinking about their puppy or girlfriend they love?

Richard: They tell you!

Sundar: What if they are lying? You’d never know.

Richard: [Pauses for a second] I guess you have to take their word for it. But why would they lie?

Sundar: I’m not saying they would or did in the experiment you referred to. I am saying that we must rely on a real person to explain what they are thinking/feeling and then your sensors can perceive the corresponding brain function.  But the love is not the brain function, the brain function is a correlated result of feeling the love.

Richard: But this would imply the person is more than their brain. Which I don’t believe.

Sundar: Well, maybe we are more than our brains.  We both like neuroscience – fascinating stuff – but materialism is a philosophical claim and is not something science can prove. The existence of other minds we may believe, and be right to believe, but we cannot prove this scientifically. It is a truth of philosophy and of experience.

Richard: Yet we have demonstrated clearly that the most important aspect about us is our brains. Our higher and lower brain function dictate everything in our conscious and subconscious experience.

Sundar: I agree that our brains are indispensable – I’m not saying that we are ghosts operating without our bodies. But the mind is something immaterial which is causally and uniquely correlated to our brains.  The brain is the bodily organ where the drama of minds takes place.  Think of it this way [whips out his smartphone and launches a YouTube app].

Richard:  Oh I love that “Guy on a Buffalo” video – so stupid and funny

Sundar: Ok, we’ll watch it – I like it too [they watch a 2 min clip]. Now, if I were to ask you what is the movie we just watched, what would you say?

Richard: “He’s on a buffalo!” [laughing] I would say it’s a story about a guy riding a buffalo in the wilderness and some crazy dudes writing some funny songs to go around it.

Sundar: Right, you would not say that the movie was “just some glass, an AMOLED display, electrons turning on and off in a machine.”

Richard: No, who would talk like that

Sundar: You would. You realize that the movie is a plot, some characters, in this case a buffalo and a guy riding on it, [both laugh] it has people interacting and we have an understanding of these interactions.  Only a goofball would reduce the movie to “physical electronic parts.” And you, being a goofball, do that to a human being. Our brains are the medium of the mind but the mind is not the medium.

Richard: I see what you are saying. Hard to prove that though – especially when we can see so much can be reduced to the brain.

Sundar: Well, as a future NYU law dog, you should think about these things. After all, if we are simply matter bumping around due to the previous states of matter there is no “real” volition, ethics, spirituality or possibility of “changing oneself” as you so often like to say “you” did.  You don’t get credit for your LSAT score as the bumping of matter that is you simply and necessarily had to do this because of the laws of physics.

Richard: Well, if I have to give credit to MY LSAT score to physics maybe I’ll believe I’m more than my brain. I’ve just built my brain so awesomely you know. [laughs]

Sundar: I really just wanted to ask about your Dad. How did we get on all that schmack?

Richard: I said love is just brain chemistry and off you went

Sundar: Sorry man, you must get sick of me doing all that 

Richard: No, I love it. No pun intended.

Sundar: I think you know love is important and central to being human. Otherwise, why would you be so disappointed with your Dad.

Richard: Because he’s a piece of crap – you don’t know what it was like Sundar, you parents, pujas and all – are nice people. Pops…not so much.  Just disappointing.

Sundar: Naw dog, it is just the bumping of atoms bro, your Dad’s brain is what it is. No reason to be disappointed. C’est la vie.

Richard: Stop it [laughs subtely]

Sundar: The central nature of love to our existence is why it’s so disappointing. You had hopes and expectations – the stuff of relationship – that didn’t work out with your Dad. So your hope of love and friendship with Pops is why it hurts so much. You won’t convince me otherwise.

Richard: OK, Dr. Freud, Ok, maybe I wish things were different. To be honest, I’m really thankful for a friend like you. Most people don’t put up with my BS – for some reason you hang around. Probably just want to convert me.

Sundar: No, Richard we are friends, you know that. Whether or not you convert, I like you anyway man. Even in your crusty arrogance and LSAT dominance. [laughs] But for sure, you know I want you to believe in Jesus.

Richard: Sappy bro, let’s get another beer.

Sundar: I’m about done. You should slow it down after that one as well. 

Richard: I have thought more about Jesus in a serious way since meeting you. My Dad and his church friends seem so stupid to me. I couldn’t even look at Jesus as anything but silly…but you messed that up for me Sundar. I’ve realized there are thoughtful and caring believers out there and certainly Jesus is an enigmatic figure.  Maybe after law school I’ll pick back up some religious reading and have some questions for you.

Sundar: I’d really rather you not just put down your wrestle with God and faith in Jesus.  It is more important than law school you know.

Richard: Blasphemy!!! [laughs boisterously]

Sundar: I know, but hear me out. Afterall, your Dad is going to die soon.

Richard: What does THAT have to do with anything!? [a little agitated]

Sundar: Death is a serious thing and that end is coming to us all. Sorry to be so blunt but you shouldn’t put off stuff that is important. Like your jacked up relationship with your Pops or the destiny of your own soul.

Richard: Is this where you tell me why I’m going to hell again?

Sundar: No, we’ve had that discussion – and God knows on that one – but I will say that before our current brainwaves cease, we should care about our own destiny.

Richard: Indeed – I hear you man. Can we just hang now?

Sundar: Never. [both laugh]

Why do mean people suck? Richard and Sundar discuss the reality of suffering

Richard is a philosophy undergraduate student with ambition toward a career in jurisprudence. He likes banter and debating but can be impatient and at times unsympathetic to the questions of God. Sundar is a student in electrical engineering with hopes of working in the field of wireless communications. Both young men enjoy each other’s company and discussion even though one is an atheist and the other a committed follower of Jesus and the Christian way.

Why do mean people suck?

Sundar – Duuude, you wouldn’t believe what happened last night in the parking lot at Houlihans!

Richard – What happened, did a girl talk to you?

Sundar  – Shut up man, it’s crazy what happened.

Richard – Oh boy, here we go.

Sundar  So I’m standing outside in the parking lot talking to a friend. We are standing there and we watch this car back up full speed and smash into a parked car.  We were like: Did you see that!?  But then the guy just tries to drive off. The owner of the car comes out goes crazy, beating on the other guy’s car. So the guy trying to get away almost runs him over getting out of there. Nobody got his license plate number or anything.

Richard – People suck man.

Sundar – Yeah, you think when you hit someone’s car you apologize, not try to run them over!

Richard – You act surprised. Doesn’t your religion teach you that other people are evil doers?  

Sundar – Well, yes and no

Richard – Wow, you trying to sound all eastern on me now? What do you mean “yes” AND “no” – Either your faith teaches you that people are inherently good or that they suck…right?

Sundar – Well, my faith teaches that “we” are evil doers but also that we shouldn’t be…so it’s not just other people. I am assuming that you would not include yourself in “people who suck.”

Richard – Of course not, I’m awesome. Everyone else is the problem. [laughs]

Sundar – Do you really believe that?

Richard – A little…no, not really. All the suffering and junk in the world does tend to bum me out about the state of the world. I mean look around – some good, lots of evil doing. Really makes it hard for me to believe in God. Sometimes I want to – when talking to a guy like you – but then I see all the evil and senseless suffering and I just can’t believe anyone is behind all this noise.

Sundar – But when you say something is “evil” or that people “suck” doesn’t this assume something really important?

Richard – What do you mean?

Sundar – I mean isn’t saying something is evil making the assumption that there is such a thing as good?  Really good, not simply people’s opinions?  To say something is evil, we are saying that it is not the way it should be. Right?

Richard – I suppose so, but I don’t see your point.

Sundar – Well, if we say something is evil and not good don’t we have a standard by which we can make such judgments between things? Doesn’t this assume that we have some sort of moral compass or even a moral law by which we can make such judgments?

Richard – Sure, human beings make such judgments all the time. That guy driving the car – he sucks. [laughing]

Sundar – Well, I agree with that, but how are you making that judgment? Afterall, maybe that guy likes running into other people’s cars and smashing up their property? Who are you to judge that he is wrong, or an evildoer?

Richard – I’m going to law school so I can be a judge you know [smiling]. Oh, by the way, I smoked my LSAT. Can almost pick my school now.

Sundar – I knew you would.  Get back to my question. By what standard do you judge something good or evil? If you have no other standard other that the almighty opinions of Richard the future judge of the universe, I think I’m a little nervous.  Are you familiar with the 1948 BBC debate between Bertrand Russell and Frederick Copleston?

Richard – Yes, I listened to a portion once with you dumb-dumb.

Sundar – Oh yeah, I forgot. [laughing] In that debate Copleston presses Russell on this issue and I don’t think Russell ever answers. He simply says he tells the difference between good and evil by “his feelings.” Without an objective standard we are stuck in a bog of cultural relativism. Afterall, you might say forcing women to wear Burkas in Afghanistan is oppressive and evil while the Taliban says that it is right and even holy.

Richard – But they are wrong Sundar!

Sundar – Says who? I agree with you by the way, but who are we to say? Unless there is a real standard, outside of human opinion, we are stuck in moral and cultural relativism. I think you believe there is a moral law to which we can appeal Richard. How you find that without the existence of God is quite difficult.

Richard – Ok, maybe I do think there is such a standard, but why does it have to come from God? Why can it not simply be the rational thing is the good thing?

Sundar – Yeah, evvvveryone agrees on what is rational. If something is right or wrong whether anyone believes it or not, if something is actually evil then this is something outside of ourselves and even our rationality.  We might recognize it rationally but it is not a creation of our rational processes.  We recognize the evil and the good because they are real and they transcend us. These are not the subject of mere human opinions or popularity of vote or force of the powerful. Might does not make right, nor does a popularity contest.

Richard – Well when I see evil in the world I know it is real, it is more real to me than the good on most days. And as I said, suffering causes me to disbelieve in God. I do acknowledge that I am sort of mad at God or at the idea of God when I see so much suffering.

Sundar – Being that mad at an idea sounds a bit psychotic. [laughs] Just admit it you are mad at God but you know that God is real.

Richard – Man, just leave that alone bro.

Sundar – Ok, not trying to be pushy, but all of us have to deal with the suckiness or the world and even the suckiness of ourselves.

Richard – I work really hard on my own crap man, you know that.

Sundar – I actually respect that about you. But you also aren’t winning that battle [both laugh].  No, what I mean is that everyone, no matter what their philosophy or view of the world, has to come face to face with suffering and God. Atheists deny that God is real and forfeit any sort of ontological goodness outside of ourselves. They only focus on their frustration with suffering. Suffering is bigger to God to those who choose to disbelieve in God. It also leaves them in a relativist bog that they don’t even believe in. Pantheists, like my uncle, believe that suffering is either an illusion (maya)  or simply the other side of the same coin as goodness – you know that yin-yang tattoo you white dudes love to get.

Richard -  Hahahahahahaha…white girls too. I vote we outlaw all lower back yin-yang tattoos!

Sundar – I have a really hard time believing that good and evil are part of the same divine oneness and that if I get enlightened I’ll be like Yoda and see past good and evil. 

Richard – Maybe you are just not worthy Daniel-son. But I see what you mean; I can’t go with “evil is an illusion” either – no way man.

Sundar - Those who believe in God try to hold suffering, God and humanity together somehow. It is tough to do but it might surprise you that those who suffer can cling closely to God in those times. The Christian story is unique though.

Richard – How so?

Sundar – In the story of Scripture, the suffering and evil of the world is taken on by God himself.  Jesus, who is God become man, actually bears suffering on behalf of suffering people. Jesus was called Immanuel, God with us. He is also God suffering with and for us. Jesus’ death for sin is the ultimate sacrifice where God himself takes the sting of evil and death to forgive us and transform us.  Jesus’ resurrection displays that the ultimate enemy and bringer of pain, death itself, is and will be defeated by Jesus. The cross reflects God’s judgment upon sin and his reconciliation of people to himself. In Jesus we find grace, love and relationship.  In relationship with Jesus we have one that is familiar with suffering, who can sympathize with his people and who is present with us in our grief. The gospel places Jesus in the middle of suffering to redeem a sucky world through his own sacrifice and pain.

Richard – You are preaching again.

Sundar – Sorry man, when I first heard that God would suffer with and for us…it kinda answered a whole lot of questions for me. It really makes me thankful.

Richard – So when I see suffering and evil I shouldn’t be mad at God, I should be thankful to God for it? That makes noooo sense.

Sundar – Not exactly, but I am saying that suffering is not meaningless; it does have some purpose in our lives. The gospel is wonderful to me because it brings good news to those who suffer. In the gospel we see that we need not deny the existence of God, or the existence of suffering. We face both. The gospel tells us that we can be saved. This means we can be rescued and spared from the disaster of this world. Plus, you are forgetting an important thing. The evil and suffering isn’t just caused by some cosmic goo “out there” – it is in us. Remember what you said “people suck.”

Richard – Well, we do bad things from time to time, but some people are worse than others. Hitler, Osama and Yo Mama! [laughing]

Sundar – Don’t you say nothin about my Moma! [laughing as well]. Sure, I’m not saying that all people’s actions are the same, or even that all sins are the same. Only that we are all guilty of sin and evil doing to some degree. Really guilty…guilty before God.

Richard – So Jesus must take our sins away?

Sundar – And your guilt and his right judgment for our sins. Do you think God is happy about the evil we do here to one another and against him?

Richard – If I were God, I would be pissed.

Sundar – Jesus’ teaching is devastating. He said that the junk people do actually comes from the heart and the intention of the heart is what matters.  He also taught that out of the heart flow all matter of evil stuff. So WE are kind of the problem, and he is about forgiving and changing US. If God is pissed, he is pissed at us taking all he has given us and turning away from him and doing evil with it.

Richard – I really think you should consider being a preacher and not an engineer.

Sundar – But I love packet switching, information transmission and reducing signal noise! [haha]

Richard –Nerd. But I wouldn’t mind a little less noise in this world.

Sundar – I really think you should consider following Jesus.

Richard – I like him and some of his teaching. I just don’t get the whole worship God thing. So the idea of forgiveness and change is cool. But I don’t get why a god demands to be worshipped.

Sundar – Do you get love?

Richard – No I don’t get love.  And I’m NOT talkin about that. At least not today. Gotta go to class.

Nobody's Perfect - Richard and Sundar Discuss the Perfect and the Good

Richard is a philosophy undergraduate student with ambition toward a career in jurisprudence. He likes banter and debating but can be impatient and at times unsympathetic to the questions of God. Sundar is a student in electrical engineering with hopes of working in the field of wireless communications. Both young men enjoy each other’s company and discussion even though one is an atheist and the other a committed follower of Jesus and the Christian way.

Nobody’s Perfect?

Sundar: What’s good today Dick?

Richard: Not much. And don’t call me that. It’s what my Mom calls my Dad so cut that out. Not in a good mood. I’m really stressing out about law school and getting ready for my LSATs.

Sundar: You’ll do fine man, you’re the smart guy remember?

Richard: But if I don’t get in to the right school, it could affect everything. I worked my butt off for the last eight years to get to this point. I’m just a little stressed.

Sundar: What if you screw it all up now?

Richard: Not an option man. My dream has always been to become an attorney. All my focus on grades these past few years, learning how to think clearly and make good arguments was for getting into law school. If I don’t get in… [Sundar interrupts]

Sundar: What? What then? You are worthless? I mean, I think you’ll smoke the LSAT and have your choice of schools. But you need to chill out or this sort of thing is going to ruin you.

Richard: What, wanting to be the best? Not a thing wrong with that.

Sundar: Not what I’m saying. I’m trying to do the best I can do as well. This idea that you can’t make mistakes, mess up at anything.

Richard: It keeps us going though…the striving for perfection is part of what makes us human.

Sundar: But what does “perfection” even mean?  I don’t know anyone who thinks they are perfect. Do you?

Richard: [After a long pause] No, not really…I mean, who could claim that…to err is to be human

Sundar: And what is “perfect”?

Richard – I’ve actually thought about this some when I was taking early modern [philosophy] It seems dumb to say nobody IS perfect if there is no perfect to be found.

Sundar: Agree, but we are not saying nonsense here. It seems we all know we fall short of something.

Richard: I’m not really sure. Maybe. What if by “perfect” we mean qualities we know about in people that are good and we just see them maximized. A “perfect” person need not exist for us to imagine one. For instance, unicorns are simply combinations of known realities but the totality of a horse with a horn does not exist. I actually think people create the idea of a god as a bundle of known human qualities. We just say a being possesses love, goodness, happiness, etc. in an “infinite and perfect” manner…and presto, you have a God.

Sundar – You are kind of missing something. Imagining a perfect being is an exercise of conceiving something/someone who is good, but in every way. If this does not exist we are imagining no-thing. Plus, just to say that goodness can be discussed in varying degrees means that there must be a sort of “goodness scale”, some reality by which we could judge such so called progress. Of course we can create imaginary things like unicorns but saying “I’m not a unicorn” has meaning. I’m not an animal with horse-like and rhino-like qualities. Of course, we only know horse-like and horns because they are real.

Sundar – My point is the infinite and the good are real concepts. If they are not real we sure speak of them as they are.  When someone says “Nobody is perfect” they are saying something rational and coherent, it is not a meaningless statement. My contention is the concept and category of “perfect” is not empty – there is someone who actually is infinitely good.

Richard – couldn’t we simply mean by saying that “I know I could be better” and ditch all this “perfect” talk as nonsense?

Sundar – No, because it is not nonsense at all. You just demonstrated that.

Richard – Wha? How? I just said “better.”

Sundar – Right. But what do we mean by “better.” You ever read Nietzsche?

Richard – Of course, it is required reading for guys like me! We love us some Nietzsche in the free thought club.

Sundar - Remember his parable The Madman? He asks: Is there any up or or down? What is better if you are not moving towards some sort of limit? If we wipe away the perfect and deny that it is real, we then have no way of knowing how anything is “better” than another. Not objectively any sense. It would only be a manner of preference to say Hitler or Osama are worse than someone else. This is why Nietzsche had to say timid and cowardly things like “we must move beyond good and evil”

Richard – How is that cowardly, some say it is very bold, you know step outside of the herd of dumb humanity and live your own way, on your terms, with your own idea of morality? I think he means we can be courageous to live the way we want and not be bound by society and its dogmas; particularly the arbitrary assignment by those in power of what is “good.”

Sundar - But isn’t that all a bunch of junk Richard? Just hiding behind metaphors? Listen to what my man GK Chesterton said on this [Sundar pulls out his iPhone and does a search]

Richard – You love that dude…ease up on that man crush…

Sundar – Here it is [begins reading]: Nietzsche, whom some are representing as a bold and strong thinker. No one will deny that he was a poetical and suggestive thinker; but he was quite the reverse of strong. He was not at all bold. He never put his own meaning before himself in bald abstract words: as did Aristotle and Calvin, and even Karl Marx, the hard, fearless men of thought. Nietzsche always escaped a question by a physical metaphor, like a cheery minor poet. He said, “beyond good and evil,” because he had not the courage to say, “more good than good and evil,” or, “more evil than good and evil.” Had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it was nonsense. So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say, “the purer man,” or “the happier man,” or “the sadder man,” for all these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says “the upper man,” or “over man,” a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers. Nietzsche is truly a very timid thinker. He does not really know in the least what sort of man he wants evolution to produce. And if he does not know, certainly the ordinary evolutionists, who talk about things being “higher,” do not know either.

Richard – But can’t we get better without having an upper limit like “perfect.”

Sundar – How do we know we are not getting worse?

Richard – Why can’t we be moving towards a mean or balance? Even as far back as Aristotle we have known that in terms of human virtue that there seems to be a golden mean…we neither love or hate too much, we find a balance to the force in the middle, in moderation.

Sundar – Because we are talking about “better” not “average” unless you want to say “average” is somehow the same thing as good and getting more average means you are getting better

Richard – My logic prof doesn’t think so, but you see what I’m saying right? Virtue is found being balanced not in going to extremes.

Sundar – On some things yes, I do agree, but on other things, no.  We might say moderation is good on some things but not on others.  Moderation in evil would not be good at all. We would not want a balanced approach to abusing people would we?

Richard: Of course not, but that person would not be balanced. She would be extreme in anger, or selfishness or lack of temperance in her basic impulses.

Sundar: But it seems we do not simply want a balanced view of justice and injustice right? Or love? Or truth telling? And this still doesn’t tell us why we think we can actually improve or even more interesting, that we fall short or why such falling short is actually lacking/flawed, even bad.

Richard – If we are honest, we can all agree that we fall short of our own ideals.

Sundar – Agree my friend, agreed.  The only thing I want to add is that we fall short of something, or more accurately, someone, that is real, a standard of good we did not invent, and who transcends us.

Richard – What if that standard was among us? In the human community? That the virtuous man defines goodness for us? I think Aristotle got this right. We see and experience virtue in people and we can aspire to that.

Sundar – Yeah, I really like that as well. Except for one thing, it is kind of like saying “What is good?” and then answering “The good man is good.” It still leaves the question at hand undefined. I do believe we see and recognize goodness in others as we have a conscience that allows us to “see” good and evil. And if you take the concept of “perfect” would we have to say “The perfect man is perfect?” We both agree we have never seen one of those amongst our college buddies. [both laugh]

Richard: I suppose this is what makes Jesus a really interesting figure. If he is who you say he is then we might have Aristotle’s virtue man on the scene in actuality. It is just that someone claiming to be all that on earth is a bit much. Hi, I’m Jesus, I’m perfect, I’m god. That sounds like a guy that wouldn’t be much fun to hang with.

Sundar: But what we see of Jesus in the gospels is profoundly this. He is super present with people. People loved to hang with him. He loves folks, serves others, teaches patiently, hangs at the parties and makes people feel completely at home with him. Part of perfection we see in Jesus is that he was not arrogant, but humble. He was not looking down on people who were far from perfect. He loved and forgave them. In fact, because he embodies goodness and perfection, people around him knew they did not have to fake anything with him. They knew in one sense that they were OK to not be OK. They knew if they flunked out on the LSATs that he would not just kick them to the curb.

Richard:  Hey, don’t get personal man [laughs] – I think we all want to know that we are enough so that we can actually be free to live without all that pressure and burden. To do what we love to do without feeling guilty, without feeling we suck, without some external pressure to make ourselves perfect in the eyes of society or friends or parents…even god.

Sundar: But we do suck. We are not perfect and do some really jacked up mess to one another. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [Richard abruptly interrupts].

Richard: Christians can have such a low view of humanity. I really don’t like all that sin talk.

Sundar: I really don’t like sin. You didn’t let me finish – and I really don’t like how you jump on me when you get pissed about something.

Richard: Ok, apologies, finish your thought.

Sundar: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified by his grace as a gift. The message about Jesus is that you don’t have to be perfect…he is…and our own suckiness can be forgiven and we can be made right with God. Because he is perfect he’s not down with us sucking – we were made for more. We can be more. Because of his love and grace he forgives us and then begins to transform us; to be more like him.

Richard: I will think I really suck if I don’t do well on that LSAT.

Sundar:  And then what?

Why are we building Altars? Richard and Sundar Discuss Religion

Richard is a philosophy undergraduate student with ambitions towards a career in jurisprudence. He likes banter and debating but can be impatient and at times unsympathetic to the question of God. Sundar is a student in electrical engineering with hopes of working in the field of wireless communications. Both young men enjoy each other’s company and discussion even though one is an atheist and the other a committed follower of Jesus and the Christian way.

Richard: hey man, you get a good workout in?

Sundar: yeah, working stuff out by hitting the Muay Thai pads a bit

Richard: Man, what’s with that face, did someone do something bad in your corn flakes?

Sundar: My Mom is wearing me out again.

Richard: What’s going on? Man you are in college, she needs to chill and realize you are not her little boy any more. 

Sundar: No, my mom is cool, she really does treat me like a grown up for the most part [smiles thoughtfully]. It’s actually a little complicated.

Richard: Well, my next class is in an hour and a half. I mean, I don’t want to hear you whine for an hour but if it helps to talk about it, I’m good to listen.

Sundar:  She is wanting me to do some Diwali celebrations with the family.

Richard: Nice!!! Bollywood dancing!?! [awkwardly stands, screws in light bulb and pets the cat]

Sundar: no, Hinduism…it kinda creates some tension for me. I mean, I love my family but they worship before these statues and get so superstitious about everything, and…[Richard interrupts him]

Richard: so chill out, can’t you just join in for the food and dancing [laughs a bit]

Sundar: yes and no…I told you it is sort of complicated…especially after becoming a follower of Jesus. I can hang, enjoy the festiveness but my Mom really wants me to join in with all the pujas

Richard: poojawhat?

Sundar: it’s an act of honor or devotion to a deity or a person of honor. I’m not really down with that anymore and my Mom thinks I’m rejecting her and the whole family. I love them but they just don’t get why I no longer jump in to worshiping avatars and Hindu deities.

Richard: your family is really religious

Sundar: we are Indian bro [moment of silence and both break out in laughter] Even studying for school is expected to be an act of devotion.

Richard: religion just divides people, I’m sorry this sucks so bad for you.

Sundar: I kinda think religion connects all people in a common humanity on one level…but divides on another.

Richard: you mean all religions teach basically the same things - be good, make the gods happy, be nice to your fellow monkeys?

Sundar: I wouldn’t say something ignorant like that - the major religions are actually nothing alike.

Richard: Well, they might disagree on some minor stuff but say similar things about the big stuff.

Sundar: it’s actually the exact opposite…they disagree on things like: god, the problem with the world, humanity’s role in it, what solutions we need, what happens when we die, and our eternal destiny…

Richard: [Smiles] These are sort of biggies in god-world aren’t they?

Sundar: Yeah…it is usually secular people who say “all religions teach the same thing.” A devout Muslim wouldn’t say that. It is also imperialistic for secular people to define the religions of other people for them. Don’t you think? Buddhists don’t claim to be orthodox in Jewish faith you know. The truth claims of the religions actually make them distinct not the same.

Richard: Well, I think people in the West just want to try and point out some unity in religion so religious people will stop finding reasons to blow each other up.

Sundar: It’s more than religious people blowing stuff up. I don’t think it was First Baptist Church fighting the Vietnam War or filling Stalin’s camps, creating the killing fields of the Khamir Rouge, or creating cultural revolutions that slaughtered millions.

Richard: fair enough, can we say that it seems a human tendency is to want to blow each other up?

Sundar: man is sinful and separated from God

Richard: ok…don’t go preaching…get back to why you think there is a common humanity found due to religion. I can’t wait to hear this one [laughs in a dismissive way]

Sundar: Well, I’m not going to make some fantastic claim. I do want to simply say to be human, IS to be religious. We cannot help ourselves.

Richard: I’m not religious at all

Sundar: Except for when the political season comes around, or when your week is ruined because the NY Giants loose to the Cowboys or when you wanted to smash that guy who was saying Foo Fighters were a greater band than Pearl Jam, or when you declare your atheism superior to all views of life heaping condemnation upon religious people.

Richard: [Sheepishly] Am I that bad?

Sundar: Dude, you don’t make friends easily. But you are deeply religious – you can’t help to worship stuff either. It IS human to worship.

Richard: But I don’t worship dumb stuff like you and your parents…not meaning to offend

Sundar: Yeah, worshipping young men playing football is soooo sophisticated.

Sundar: Human beings throughout time have been very religious in every culture and every time. They seem to want to transcend themselves and circumstances, have minds that seem to be able to do so and create gods and goddesses like it’s going out of style.

Richard: Katy Perry is a goddess.

Sundar: And you’re an idiot [the two laugh, Richard stops and has a serious look on his face]

Richard: I actually get what you are saying man. The very nature of homo sapiens seems to be this way. It is hard to deny that.

Sundar: You could name the species homo adorans. Worshipping man. The really interesting question for me is WHY we are this way.

Richard: Haven’t recent brain scan studies shown that god-stuff happens in a certain region of the brain. 

Sundar: Actually other research has shown that several regions of the brain get activated by questions about god(s). That isn’t my point. My question is WHY are we this way? We don’t have to be this way you know. According to your beliefs we are only a biological monkey that evolved to survive and propagate our DNA to the next generation. But we have a species that in every environment and every time is profoundly religious.

Richard: Well, religion must have had an evolutionary advantage to our ancestors to help them make it through the day. Those creatures with this sort of tendency survived and here we are.

Sundar: But you say religious people are stupid, should get Darwin awards and are less fit than those like yourselves. The books you give me to read by the Rev Sam Harris and his posse all talk about religion as it is evil, worthless and dangerous to people. But now you say it must be awesome because evolution selected it?

Richard: We are smarter now then then so we no longer need it.

Sundar: You should record and listen to yourself sometime. In your view the religious nature of human beings is a historical accident of DNA that was AWESOME and now it is not awesome to our genes any longer? That totally makes no sense at all.

Sundar: The religious sense that we all have, this desire to worship, can be explained by an accident of biochemistry or it could be that we are worshippers by nature, by our very make up and design. We were made to worship.  One of the leaders of the European Protestant Reformation called this the sensus divinitatis, the sense of the divine.  It seems to me that this sense can either correspond to something real or it is an illusion without any sort of explanation.

Richard: OK, let me grant that for a second. There is something real “out there” that we were made to worship. Man, it seems like we don’t have a clue what that is.  Look at how many gods there are just in Hinduism let alone all the world’s religions. Then you add to that all the other religions and their deities: Jesus, Allah, Tom Cruise.

Sundar: hahahaha – don’t even get me started on Scientology – I’m reading a great book on that right now – had it on my iPhone while hitting the pads just a few minutes ago. Have you seen that song “Tom Cruise, is Tom Cruise crazy” – classic.

Richard: [laughing]  Don’t change the subject though, it seems that this religious sense only gets you so far. It launches you into a loony world of gods, goddesses, demi-gods, weirdos and confusion. So if I grant you this religious sense in us, for whatever its cause, you still don’t get to “I believe in God the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth?”

Sundar: Well, I did say it unites us in a common humanity as worshippers…but I never said that “all religions are the same” or “all are equally true in all aspects” or “all gods worshipped are real.” I consider much religion a misguided fiction because we seem to have bad aim in our religious devotion and worship. I mean, you mentioned Katy Perry, there are better things to worship.

Richard: I’m not so sure about that [goofing off again]

Sundar: I believe that we are made by our creator to know and worship him. Yet we choose to worship everything but him. The biblical terminology is idolatry.  This is precisely why I have this dilemma with my Mom. I love her; I want to be with her. But I think it is wrong to worship avatars and statues and concocted deities.  I think it is as misguided as you would think and more because I do believe we should worship God.

Richard: Well, you could just fake it, go through the motions of the…what did you call it

Sundar: Puja

Richard: Just cross yourself and light some candles like we do when we go to Mass with grandma.

Sundar: There is too much faking in the world already Richard. I really don’t want to put on a show, particularly falsely posing to worship idols. Come on, I want to have integrity – we have too much lying and fake crap in the world for me to join in that dance. Plus, I really believe the gospel and I’m not down with religion.

Richard: You just tried to convince me that we are all religious! Just about worked too. Now you say religion ain’t no good? Hey, welcome to my team!  [laughing]

Sundar: No, I think religion is a human creation to try to please god, gods or connect with ultimate reality. It depends upon our effort, typically depends on the ability to keep some rule and it usually crushes the human spirit

Richard: You are on my team!

Sundar: There is a third option between my Mom’s worship of the gods and your atheism. A couple of years ago I became a follower of Jesus. He did not claim to bring a religion to the world but to bring good news. He taught that God loves and pursues people, forgives their sin and rebellion…[pause]…even our idolatry. He died for our sin to bring us into relationship with God and rightly fulfill our desire for worship. One theologian said this way long ago “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find rest in thee” Jesus said he came to seek and save people and bring them into a living relationship with God. He makes them worshippers in spirit and in truth.  So the desire to worship can be aimed not at Katy Perry but the one who created and sustains all things.

Richard: [long pause] – that’s not the thing I heard from Father Joe growing up. He was always telling me about how sinful I am and how I needed to make up for that by doing good stuff. I got sick of that and wanted to be free of that noise.  

Sundar: Sin is real, but there is more than one sort of way to be free…

Richard: Dang, I gotta go get some food and get to class.  I sort of miss Aquinas after gargling on Kant for a few weeks now. Seriously man, I understand why you feel in a pickle with your family. If I was a praying dude I’d pray for you. But, since I ain’t, hang in there [gives a man hug to Sundar]

Richard and Sundar discuss creation

Over the course of this series we will be writing a series of dialogues between two friends traveling through life as university students.  One of them, Richard, is a philosophy undergraduate student with ambitions towards a career in jurisprudence. He likes banter and debating but can be impatient and at times unsympathetic to the questions of God. The other, Sundar, is a student in electrical engineering with hopes of working in the field of wireless communications. Both young men enjoy each other’s company and discussion even though one is an atheist and the other a committed follower of Jesus and the Christian way.

What’s All This Then?

Sundar [texting] - hey man, sup, you want to hit up the football game @ bw3?

Richard [texting] – I free up in an hour or so once i get out of this phil class.

Sundar [texting] – Which class?

Richard [texting] – medieval philosophy? yawn, 2 much god talk for me. u would luuv it

Sundar [texting] – I did – took it two years ago – lol. except none of the profs want 2 teach it so I had a grad student who just went thru the motions

Richard [texting] well, I have the world famous prof that got hired last year – he’s on your team and is all jumpy for aquinas

Sundar [texting]  - jealous

Richard [texting] – don’t be…cya at 9 for wings, beer and football – something we both agree on! Haha!

Sundar [texting]  - I’ll head ovr now – that place gets mad busy for MNF

Richard: Sweet seats, thanks for hooking this up. Man, long day glad to chill a bit. How is your fantasy squad doing

Sundar: suuucks man, Chris Johnson is garbage so far this year…but he got his money no doubt though. How was class?

Richard: You couldn’t resist could you?

Sundar: Well, you were likely discussing something that IS of interest to me

Richard: We were talking about arguments for the existence of your God

Sundar: My god? Not just mine

Richard: Well sure as hell ain’t mine.

Sundar: Anything convincing?

Richard: Uhh, no.

Sundar: Not even going to listen with an open mind?

Richard: Easy killer, we didn’t get to the arguments yet, we were talking about the social historical setting in which these guys did their work. You know, the rediscovery of Aristotle through Islamic thinkers, the church-state cartel etc. I’ll listen once they start making cases for the unseen wizard in the sky. But you know there isn’t any evidence for any sort of God

Sundar: ello, what’s all this then!??!

Richard: Uhhhm…beer and wings? And what’s with the Monty Python bit? [both laugh]

Sundar: No, I mean everything, everything that is around us – not simply flat screen TVs, good food and drinks – but everything that is. It does require some sort of explanation. It’s one of the oldest questions we have as humans beings…every culture has stories to try and explain our existence, no?

Richard: Yeah, we are silly primates that ask dumb questions

Sundar: You do too Richard – you have an explanation story as well – it’s just a bit narrow, boring and doesn’t say anything. [Laughs]

Richard: Hey, what the? I just think the universe simply is a brute fact, it is the only reality and that “where everything is from” is a non-question. 

Sundar: Yeah, I used to believe it. The universe sprang into existence, uncaused out of nothing and now I’m here – and I’m not supposed to ask any more questions!!! And then think that everyone throughout all history asks the question of origins and because you can’t give any sort of answer, you just say the question is dumb? That seems dumb.

Richard: Or smart, or wise or saves me a bunch of headaches and existential crises. [laughs] I just think we don’t know and so nobody knows.

Sundar: So because you are ignorant, everyone has to be!?!?

Richard: Ok, Ok, what I mean is there are no physical explanations for the physical world. How could there be? It IS reality.

Sundar:  What about meta-phyiscal realties and metaphysical explanations for the universe? You will likely encounter some in your medieval class.

Richard: Don’t remind me. [Laughs] No, I don’t think we can accept any such answers because they are not verifiable by reason and science.

Sundar: Reason might weigh in a bit more than you think but science has zip to say here – and believe me, I’m studying engineering and I know the glories of science.  But it also is quite limited.

Richard: Tell me one thing science cannot answer or will not someday answer? I think it does a pretty fantastic job

Sundar: Uh, doesn’t answer THIS question. And you saying the question is bad because it has a different kind of answer is really biased.  Think of it this way Richard – science studies cause and effect relationships between aspects of THIS UNIVERSE. So of course the cause of this universe would not be a subject of scientific experiment. You could put the cause of all things in a lab made of things. So I think we can use reason and science but the scientific method could not be used on the cause of science. Where science is awesome is studying the effects and interactions of the universe and seeing some of the wonderful things that are here.  Why all things exist are here is a question for reason and a question about God.

Richard: But why can’t things just exist and not have a cause at all – like Carl Sagan would say “the cosmos is all there is, all there ever was and all there ever will be”

Sundar: We can’t say that because it is simply not true…philosophically or scientifically. There are really good reasons to think there must be more than the universe.

Richard: Ok, I’m all ears my guru friend [sighs, laughs and grabs a chicken wing]

Sundar:  A simple idea – anything that “begins” to exist has a cause. If there were to be a new bottle of Yeungling show up at the table while you were in the bathroom you would not say “this bottle is all there is, all there ever was, all there ever will be” or “this must have been here forever and eternally” – no, you would ask “who brought the beer” – if something comes into existence, and we know this – it is the reasonable question, not a dumb question to ask, what caused this?

Richard: But that’s easy to say with beer bottles. We are talking about EVERYTHING here.

Sundar: But the principles we know from easy things many times help us with hard things – that’s why we learn arithmetic before differential calculus bro.  If there are good reasons to think the universe “began to exist” then we should ask what caused this.

Richard: Fair enough, but this is precisely what we don’t know – that anything like the totality of the universe “began to exist” – none of us were around at t=0 of the big bang.

Sundar:  But the fact that there WAS at t=0, a time when time began if you will, that we know that it began.  Look, today is Sept 19th 2011, this date is in reference to some other date no?

Richard: Are you going to tell me about how the western calendar is based upon Jesus again? [both laugh]

Sundar: No, not talking “common eras” – I’m just saying that today, and time today, is in reference to the beginning of time.  Time, in other words is finite in the past. There is not an actual infinite amount of time between today and the first movements of matter-energy.  So I think there is a good scientific reason to believe in a beginning of things – so the question of why it began is not dumb after all.

Richard: But if we can’t prove a beginning then you are sort of screwed, no?  And I’m sure there are lots of folks denying the beginning or at least wanting to. I know I would want to.

Sundar: Even if we could not scientifically prove a beginning beyond a shadow of a doubt, there is still reason and medieval philosophy.

Richard: I know, I have it again on Wednesday.

Sundar: The guy your prof is really into, Thomas Aquinas, considered the eternality of the world or whether there was a beginning hard to prove. But he didn’t need to demonstrate the universe has a cause. Following other thinkers from your medieval class he realized that certain things are “contingent” – they don’t have to exist. In fact, they come in and out of existence. Contingency simply means that the existence of something is dependent upon something else.  Our lives are dependent upon our parents, which his contingent upon theirs, ad infinitum…which is all contingent upon the universe. Everything in our world is contingent.

Richard: So something is necessary, I know, remember I’m studying philosophy– I probably know this stuff better than you do bro. My point here would be that which is necessary is only the universe itself. Something must explain everything else…the universe is all that we need. It is simpler than suggesting something else. You remember, Ockham’s Razor right?

Sundar: Yes, I’m sure you guys will hit up William of Ockham in class – we did when I took it.

Richard: It is a principle that teaches us not to multiply answers and entities beyond their necessity. We should save a step of explanation if a simpler one will work. We don’t need to posit any other necessary entity when the universe itself will do. I think this is where Sagan was right – why conjure up a god if the universe is all there is?

Sundar: I would agree Richard, except the universe itself is not necessary; it is fully contingent as everything in the universe IS contingent.

Richard: Well, just because some things make up a bigger thing does not mean that the bigger thing has the same property as the smaller things. This is a logical fallacy Sundar – you can take 100% triangular shingles and make a roof. It doesn’t mean that the entire roof is a triangle. Fallacy of composition.

Sundar: OK, I did forget you were a philosophy major [laughs and grabs a chicken wing]. But contingency and triangleness is a bit different? 

Richard: Maybe, haha, yeah a little different

Sundar: I don’t think you can manufacture necessity out of a bag of contingency, let’s get back to watching the game

Richard: No, no, by all means finish

Sundar: All talk about this world needing a cause aside…we study the univerese all the time. I’m in electrical engineering where we use complex mathematical expressions to describe the way physical reality works. I have always been blown away that there is this electromagnetic spectrum that was just waiting for us to discover. It was always there, part of the fabric of our world, that makes it possible for us to watch these flat panel TVs, for us to check our scores on our phones, to make it possible for us to even see each other. The world had a built in communications network ready for us to use. We didn’t make it, we didn’t invent it, we learned and knew how to use it.  The fact that this, and other marvels of reality, are just “there” always amaze me. Fills me with a sense of awe – even gratitude.  I don’t think it’s all “just here” without explanation, without cause, without reason. All the intelligence we see in the world does not seem to be in any way accidental.  This world was made for us, and us for this world – and I think we know it.  But saying the word “God” can make people uncomfortable…because this is much more personal than talking science and philosophy. I know when Jesus actually changed my life it was the most comfortable and uncomfortable thing for me.

Richard: I do know that…I do think there could be something to it all – I just don’t know…and when you start talking that God schmack I get a little nervous. That would require much more of me to believe that sort of thing.

Sundar: Well, people are very religious you know.

Richard: Oh, believe me, that  I do know…

Hiding in semantics

I just recently finished watching a debate which recently took place between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig on whether or atheism gives ground for “objective” moral values. Objective in the sense of moral values being true beyond the mere opinions, decisions, and consensus of humans and their societies. Craig’s classic example is that objective moral values would say that the holocaust was wrong even if the Nazi’s had won WWII and brainwashed every human to believe that it was right. Craig’s argument is that without God, moral values are not “objective” but rather subjective or relative. You can see Craig’s excellent paper on these matters here.

In other places, Craig presents an argument for belief in God from the existence of objective moral values which rolls out like this.

  • If God does not exist then objective moral values do not exist
  • Objective moral values do exist (ie some things are objective good or evil)
  • Therefore God exists.

Those familiar with basic syllogistic logic and philosophical form who note that this is a valid deductive argument. It is deductive in that if you accept its premises as true the conclusion necessarily follows. The form is simply…

If P, then Q.
Not Q.
Therefore, not P

…with P = God does not exist and Q = objective moral values do not exist. It is of note that most atheistic thinkers do not believe that there are such things as objective moral values, but rather ethics/morality are simply evolved conventions of the human animal that suits the survival and propagation of the species. As such, many thinkers, have called “morality” a power game or an imposition of one group of people’s values upon others. Nietzsche called this herd morality and did not think brave and courageous atheists should be bound by any morality other than their own desires or will (and of course what you could get away with around the herd - or by simply ruling the herd). Enter Sam Harris.

Harris is a punchy atheist whose main strength is rhetorical ranting against Christian theology in front of people who have no background and understanding of those issues. He loves to create straw men and smack them down. He loves to make caricatures of faith and smear them with his calm, witty moral outrage. Harris’s recent work is a book which claims that morality is objective but needs no other foundation than science to show this to be the case.

Obviously, he does not like the theist grounding God’s existence in the reality of objective values so he is trying to take this away from the realm of theism. Of course, the reviews of Harris efforts from both atheists (who do not see ethics as objective, supra-cultural realities) and theists (who think Harris is dancing in mid air)

One of things noted in the debate with Bill Craig was Harris, by faith (or “axiomatically”) defining “good” and “evil” out of mid air with the only reference point being the suffering of sentient beings. Such “sentient suffering” is always bad and alleviating it and moving towards “flourishing” always “good.” To be honest, I find his moral reasoning to be rather sophomoric in nature and Craig rightly called him for just playing word games and not dealing at all with grounding “good” in anything but other terminology. Ironically, in the Q&A portion, Harris said this fascinating statement in reply to a question as to whether “this world” was the “worst possible world having the most sentient suffering.” Harris made the remark that since this is the only world we know of (to our current knowledge) it is both the worst and the best possible world and everything in between (I believe around the 1:11 mark). This of course is an exercise in saying nothing. Harris, due to atheism, is left trying to hang ideas such as “worst” and “best” on things in the world without having these things grounded in any sort of purpose for life, reason for our being, etc. He is trying to talk of values without talking about meaning. So he simply rubbishes Islam, Christianity and any other narratives that are not “I’m smart, scientific and don’t believe in all that dumb dumb stuff” while waving his hands, swapping synonyms to give definitions. From what I heard from him, Harris is hiding in semantics. It reminded me of GK Chesterton’s thoughts about the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, another confident atheist whose views were popularized a century ago. Chesterton wrote the following:

This, incidentally, is almost the whole weakness of Nietzsche, whom some are representing as a bold and strong thinker. No one will deny that he was a poetical and suggestive thinker; but he was quite the reverse of strong. He was not at all bold. He never put his own meaning before himself in bald abstract words: as did Aristotle and Calvin, and even Karl Marx, the hard, fearless men of thought. Nietzsche always escaped a question by a physical metaphor, like a cheery minor poet. He said, “beyond good and evil,” because he had not the courage to say, “more good than good and evil,” or, “more evil than good and evil.” Had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it was nonsense. So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say, “the purer man,” or “the happier man,” or “the sadder man,” for all these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says “the upper man,” or “over man,” a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers. Nietzsche is truly a very timid thinker. He does not really know in the least what sort of man he wants evolution to produce. And if he does not know, certainly the ordinary evolutionists, who talk about things being “higher,” do not know either.

GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy, chapter 7

Is not Harris doing the same thing with morality today? By saying the “good” is the most amount of flourishing (aka good) for people is he not merely hiding among his vocabulary? We still seem lost in Wittgenstein’s word games. Whereas Nietzsche lived prior to WWI, WWII, Cold War and the fears of the 20th century, Harris lives after them. The former was bold enough to declare morality irrelevant, relative and great men should transcend it by hiding in their words. The latter, thank the invisible God, seems to have a concern for the harmony of the world community and wants to declare morality “objective” but without foundations. I prefer Harris’s version of semantic hiding to that of Nietzsche but for one rejoinder. When reading them or hearing them you realize how extremely arrogant they are. Harris’s high opinion of his own thinking is something to behold and his utter disdain (and complete misunderstanding of) theological thought is revealing.

Harris may speak of tolerance and love except for the case of the billions of religious believers of various faiths. These are idiots and scorned. Even Jesus - even in Harris we have someone willing to call Abraham, Moses…and even Jesus an idiotic simpleton in comparison to the wonderful geniuses who live today.

Though Harris attempts to play nice in this debate, his condescension towards faith and religion is quite breathtaking. One can tell he has zero doubts that he is smarter (and seems to think - “better”) than any people of faith. Harris seems to revel in all his talk of our current superiority to all peoples, all religious thinking, all people who have lived in times before he arrived on the planet. Now we have confident, moral, do gooding, smart scientist people like Sam Harris who can show us the way. The funny thing is that similar things have been said in the past by others. It does not end well when such ideas end up power - either in the name of religion or irreligion. For in such men and their ideas, there is no humility.

Hence, even in light of the myriad of self proclaimed good men and super men of history, I still find Jesus a much more preferable master than the Messiahs of our age. 

On Human Anthropology

I have written a couple of times over the course my long journey in graduate school dealing with the subject of human anthropology. I have had particular interest in the are of mind-brain identity and various flavors of dualistic anthropology.

For those interested in these subjects the following are posted for that tremendous horde…

  • Are Human Beings Constituted of one, two or three substances? Link to pdf
  • The Implications of Nancey Murphy’s Non Reductive Physicalism on Confessional Christian Theology - Link to pdf

Is there Evidence for the Existence of God?

Dr. William Lane Craig is one of the preeminent theistic philosophers of our time and he is also an excellent debater. He is clear, intelligent and focused in debate. 

Recently he debated Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss on the subject “Is there evidence for the existence of God” at North Carolina State University (booo! OK, NC State should exist…but booo! Go Heels!) Ok, I’m back now. The debate is online now and can be found here

Just be warned, the video is all sorts of weird at the beginning - I really felt like singing “Somewhere over the rainbow” when waiting for the debate to begin.  Do yourself a favor and drag that video slider over to 16:30 min mark where a North Carolina Supreme Court Judge guy gives the greeting and introduction to the debate. Thank me later.

Enjoy

Nonsense from a nontheist?

I ran across this video today by the late Carl Sagan on a blog by an atheist technology enthusiast. First, I want to say that I mean no disrespect to the dead, but I’m really unsure how such thinking is thought to be profound by those who should know better. This post is in no way meant as disrespect for Sagan the man - though I don’t understand why anyone would sue a company as perfect as Apple Computer or say some of the silly things he says in this video. 

Take a look:

The first short section (up until 1:09) is the only serious reflection and I found here with the final seven minutes dedicated towards Sagan’s seeming enthrallment with Hinduism. I do not intend to interact with Hindu thought here, but I will say that Sagan uses this jaunt to the east in order to arrive subtly where he begins - God(s) do not exist and they are the creation of the minds of humanity. 

Throughout this piece, Sagan acknowledges the universal human desire to find an explanation for our existence and the existence of all things.  He then, sadly, seems to dismiss this quest for an answer with a bit of philosophical hand waving. 

After acknowledging inflationary big bang theory, he goes on to recognize the question as to what existed before the beginning of matter/space/time.  As many societies in culture have posited at this point some sort of supernatural explanation (God or gods created it) Sagan then puts on a courageous hat and begins to discuss this answer.  In summary form his reasoning is as follows.

  • The universe appears by observation to have begun in the past at an event we call the big bang and has been expanding since that time. 
  • What was before this? This is our question. What caused our world? 
  • Theists answer - God(s) created it
  • Sagan then questions - if you are “courageous” you will ask “Where then did God come from” 

Let me stop us here for a moment.  This is a great question.  For indeed if there is an infinite regress of causes then we actually explain nothing.  What caused the universe? god! What caused that god? Another god! Ad infinitum, ad nauseum.  I quite heartily agree with him at this point.  

At this point Sagan makes a move that I find quite strange and not very brights. He asks “Why not save a step” and just assume that the universe, not God(s), was always there eternal and uncaused. In other words, something seems to need to be eternal and uncaused, so why multiply entities beyond need. We need no God, we have an eternal, uncaused universe.  In philosophy, the eternal and uncaused would be seen as a necessary entity, something that is not contingent. Something whose existence does not depend on anything else…it just IS. 

Now, my simple question is this: Did he not begin this quest with a desire to understand our universe and its origin?  Saving a step is a wise principle in philosophy that was put forth by the Christian skeptic William of Ockham. Also known as the principle of parsimony, or Ockham’s razor, this teaches us that we do not need to provide complex explanations when a simpler one will do. We need not posit something else to explain the origin of the universe if the universe itself IS the answer. The problem with Sagan’s thought here is that we can actually study this universe and conclude several things.  

  • If the universe had origin, i.e., it began to exist, then we must not assume it’s eternal existence. This is why we ask: What caused the universe?
  • What exists before (logically prior) space-time requires a different sort of answer. An explanation that actually IS eternal (not based in time - which began at the beginning)
  • If the universe is made up completely of contingent things, it is therefore must be a contingent thing and not a necessary one. And no, this is not a fallacy of composition as contingency is an expansive property.
  • If matter/space-time/energy did not always exist, we know that it is not necessary. There has to be something else that IS necessary that provides its explanation. 
  • If we can infer from science (even big bang theory, ie there was a t=0 of the big bang) and philosophy that the universe is indeed finite in time, then it is not only wise to posit other explanations, reason would compel us to do so. After-all, Sagan admits in this video that the entire human species has been, is and will continue to be obsessed with this question - not simply dismiss it.

My question back to the disciples of men like Carl Sagan is this. Why are you avoiding the question with which you begin? The answer to the explanation of all things cannot be a contingent thing in itself - it must be eternal, uncaused and necessary. If we are courageous we will ask this question and not “save that step” for that is indeed how this game was started in the first place.  

So to answer Dr. Sagan’s initial questions directly:

  • Why not save a step and assume the origin of the universe is an unanswerable question? Because it is not unanswerable - it is only unanswerable to those who do not like certain kinds of answers. Such closed mindedness is not good philosophy.
  • Why not save a step and conclude the universe always existed? Because we can study the universe and see that it has not always existed. 

For those who hold to many forms of theism, the answer is “God created the universe” and we stop at the eternal, uncaused, necessary being that by his own will created all things. We do not posit an infinite regress of gods or universes; we do save our steps. We also do not create all the unnecessary steps of positing an infinite number of universes (as many do today) or an infinite number of gods (as many have and will continue to do). To do so would simply create some bushes to hide in from our most fundamental questions.  What we will do, however, is give metaphysical and theological answers to describe the nature of the one who creates nature.  A natural explanation is not and could not be coming at this point. Why? God is not creation. God is of a different category than the universe that we can indeed study with empirical science. God is other. God is God. 

For those who do not like such answers, for whatever tendentious reasons, I give you back to the philosophical sophisms given by Sagan. Bon appetit!

Determinisms

Is the future an open ended book or is history in some way predetermined? Is there such a thing as destiny? Such questions have been on the minds of women and men since the beginning of recorded history. One thing is certain: we seem to want life to have some meaning, purpose and direction to it.  In this essay, I want us to think a little about the idea of determinism.  To do so I will first define the word and then look closely at a specific species of it.  I will then discuss the problems with the future being under determined and certain views of free will.  In closing, I will look at various theological views associated with God’s sovereignty and knowledge of the future and how this affects our own choices in space and time.  So, am I determined to write this today or shall I put down the pen? Well, either way, I trudge forward.

Determinism—Its Only Natural

Philosophically, determinism can be defined as follows: Determinism is the view that holds that events in the future are determined ahead of time by an intelligence, other events in the past and/or the current state of affairs. It might but a surprise to some, but the materialistic worldview of atheism is highly deterministic. In fact, the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy has just such a definition for determinism: 

“[Causal Determinism is defined as] The world is governed by (or is under the sway of) determinism if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.1

Unlike my definition, here we have no room for an intelligence guiding life and history. In this view, determinism means that the universe and all that transpires in it is predetermined by the causal chain of the interaction of matter based upon the laws of nature.

In the spring of 2002 I was in campus ministry taking a course in medieval philosophy which surveyed thinkers and their works from a period of time spanning from Augustine to just prior to Descartes.  The professor asked a rather simple question of the class: “Who does not believe in free will?” Several students, who were philosophy majors of an atheistic orientation, raisee their hands.  Why? They believe in determinism because they hold that everything is just matter/energy and therefore the result  of natural forces. In this view, there are simply no supernatural entities such as human souls, God, angels or demons who make real choices. The universe starts going at some time in the distant past and then based upon some initial conditions all things simply unfold over time.  In my mind, this harsh determinism, is true if a naturalistic/materialistic philosophy is true. In this view of the world, the universe is a closed system of cause and effect without any outside influence. This, of course, includes all your choices based upon the droning forward of the chemical processes of your brain. I find this one of the horrible weaknesses of such philosophy. It simply does not account for our experience as human beings.

As such, it has always amazed me that atheists write books trying to get people to “change their minds” about their beliefs when in fact they believe our brains are already predetermined and any free choice is an illusion. Your beliefs are simply the results of matter interacting; it is physics all the way down. In fact, in this view, there really isn’t any “you” that could change “your mind.” Christian thinker GK Chesterton saw this clearly when he wrote of this kind of determinism.  In his typical wit, he reflects as follows:

The determinist does not believe in appealing to the will, but he does believe in changing the environment. He must not say to the sinner, “Go and sin no more,” because the sinner cannot help it. But he can put him in boiling oil; for boiling oil is an environment.2

This sort of categorization of the naturalistic worldview (a view which is anti-theistic) is not at all uncharitable.  For example, the “Center for Naturalism” quite openly affirms this view of life under the sun. Forgive the longish quotation but I want you to see this thinking in its own terms.

Naturalism as a guiding philosophy can help create a better world by illuminating more precisely the conditions under which individuals and societies flourish, and by providing a tangible, real basis for connection and community. It holds that doctrines and policies which assume the existence of a freely willing agent, and which therefore ignore the actual causes of behavior, are unfounded and counter-productive. To the extent to which we suppose persons act out of their uncaused free will, to that extent will we be blind to those factors which produce criminality and other social pathologies, or, on the positive side, the factors which make for well-adjusted, productive individuals and societies. By holding that human behavior arises entirely within a causal context, naturalism also affects fundamental attitudes about ourselves and others. Naturalism undercuts retributive, punitive, and fawning attitudes based on the belief that human agents are first causes, as well other responses amplified by the supposition of free will, such as excessive pride, shame, and guilt. Since individuals are not, on a naturalistic understanding, the ultimate originators of their faults and virtues, they are not deserving, in the traditional metaphysical sense, of praise and blame. Although we will continue to feel gratitude and regret for the good and bad consequences of actions, understanding the full causal picture behind behavior shifts the focus of our emotional, reactive responses from the individual to the wider context. This change in attitudes lends support for social policies based on a fully causal view of human behavior. 3

If this seems to you a bit unnerving it ought to. Think for a moment about what is being said here. Apparently a certain group of people thinks they can and should set “social policies” to control the “environments” of other people. Why? To control the behavior of others who cannot make real choices but only respond to environments. Wow.  Yet before we throw to the wind every form of determinism let’s look at the other extreme.

On the other end of the spectrum is the view that nothing in the future is determined and nothing is supposed to happen based upon current reality. This is problematic as well as certain things today surely seem influenced and even caused by events which happened before.  Our choices are never purely “out of the blue” as they are always shaped by many things.  Our upbringing, prior choices, the choices of others, education, things that happened to us, and most importantly our character influence how we act today and in some sense shape tomorrow. Furthermore, if God is God and knows the future, is it not in some way “going to happen”?  It seems that we can also take a view of “free will” that is indeed “too free” as there is some reason for actions taken in the world even when you consider individual intelligences acting. Is there a middle ground?  The Christian view has always held that there indeed is another way.

Throughout history orthodox Christians who follow the teachings of the Bible have agreed on a few principle things here. First, God indeed knows the future and there are some things that WILL happen because God wants them to. (Isaiah 46:8-11, Ephesians 1:11) Second, human beings are responsible to God for their choices and their decisions do matter in shaping our future (Deuteronomy 30;19,20 ) Where there has been divergence it has been related to how much one of these principles holds sway over the other in our theology. One focuses heavily on God’s sovereignty and meticulous providence while the other focuses heavily on our choices and responsibility.  The first view can be viewed as a sort of theological determinism4 and the latter a theological libertinism. What we must not do is think that God is not involved in all the transpires during life under the sun. Nor should we think, as in materialistic determinism, that we have no choices that are real.  What I want to put forth is a view that highly esteems God’s rule and purposes in all of life while at the same time calling us to live wisely in dependence upon our sovereign God. 

God is God and We are Human

Several passages of Scripture teach that God is in control of quite literally everything. Here is a survey of a few ways in which Scripture teaches us that God is in control.

Furthermore, Ecclesiastes 3 teaches us that there is a time and purpose for every season under heaven both good and bad.  This is never meant to lead us to some sort of fatalism that we have no choices in life and we are just puppets on a string.  What we must acknowledge is that we do not control destiny. God does.  What we must see is that we are human and finite and God is infinite and knows all things.  When we see this, knowing God is in control helps us respond to his actions in history with trust and hope.  If you forgive me, I want to spend the rest of my space here with you working to persuade you that God’s sovereignty is a great thing for us to know and then willfully live in light of.

God’s Sovereignty in Bad Times

The questions pour out when thinking of the complex realities of good and evil in our world. Philosophers have discussed these issues for ages. Believers and unbelievers see the very same circumstances often in very different lights. One man suffers immensely and meets God right there, while another curses God for the pain that he experiences and sees all around him.  The Scriptures record many reasons God has for allowing suffering in our world. For our purposes here I will just refer you to my recent essay about suffering for reflection upon this.5

God’s Sovereignty in Good Times

God’s nature and character are directly reflected in all that is true, good and beautiful in our world. We call such kind providences “blessings” as we see God’s kindness and favor in so much of life.  The creation itself speaks to us (Psalm 19) and we see in our own design the goodness of God’s laws and purposes.6

God is God in All Things

If you are like me, you tend to see quickly the hand of God in the good times yet struggle to see his hand in the terrible sufferings of life. Ecclesiastes 3 teaches us that God has a purpose for every time and season under heaven and the he quite literally makes “all things beautiful in its time.”  It is never that all things are good, but the overarching plan of God for all of history is breathtakingly so. The thing that frustrates us as human beings is that we have but a finite view of things.  We cannot see all that will be tomorrow let alone see across the horizons of eternity like our God. Without a godlike view of the world we must trust the one who is indeed working all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes (See Romans 8:26-37).

Conclusion

In closing, we are not the victims of blind time+matter+chance as in the view of atheism.  Yet neither are we the ultimate captains of our ships as some would want us to believe. The truth is much deeper.  God is captain of his world and is working all things towards his purposes. He is weaving his story through history and we only see but a small part that we play. We follow him in the fog and trust his good hand in times of pain and trial. Similarly we rejoice with God in times of immense happiness and blessing. In the end, we might sleep better at night knowing life is on his shoulders. We are free to weep deeply in our pain knowing God cares and will some day wipe away the tears.  We can rejoice triumphantly in hope that even death is not the end and an eternal glory is coming. There is nothing more frustrating and impossible that to pretend to know all things.  There is nothing more vexing than to claim to see every reason behind each ray of sunlight and the many shadows of this age.  There is nothing more comforting than to know and trust the one who does.  He is our Father, he is our Lord, he is our King…and he is with us each step of the way.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.  1 Peter 5:6, 7 ESV

Walking together,

Reid S. Monaghan

Notes

1. Causal Determinism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/ accessed September 30th, 2010. Emphasis in original.

2. GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: NY, Image books, 1959) 20. Originally published: New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1908. Emphasis Added.

3. Center for Naturalism Internet Site, http://www.naturalism.org/center_for_naturalism.htm accessed September 30, 2010. Emphasis Added.

4. By Theological determinism I simply mean that history is  in some mysterious way “determined by God” - It is a determinism that has God choosing and acting and humans responding and acting as well.  It is not the closed system universe of naturalistic/materialistic determinism as it has intelligent agents involved and not simply blind matter. It is also not “fatalism” as God is working out his good plan and we take part in the working it out.

5. Reid S. Monaghan, Thoughts on Suffering, http://www.powerofchange.org/blog/2010/7/24/thoughts-on-suffering.html.

6. See J. Budzizewski’s What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, for a treatment of  God’s designs in us and our world.

Thoughts on Suffering

When one arrives into the world we  are quite helpless, small without much thought to the whens, whys or wheres of our existence.  As we grow and learn we realize that the world is a puzzling place.  It is filled with great joys and goodness, kindness and love.  It is also filled with great pain and evil, malevolence and suffering.  Our world is quite mingled with good and evil and any worldview or philosophy which does not deal with this is either forgetting to smell the roses or has their head buried deep in proverbial sands.  In this essay I want to address the issue of suffering in a few ways.  First, as a human being traveling life and wrestling with this question. Second, as a follower of Jesus looking to the Scriptures for teaching about suffering.  Finally, I want to write as a pastor who has seen much and walked through suffering with many over the years.  The structure of the essay will proceed along these lines.  I will first treat the experiential and existential nature of suffering.  I will then mention various theological and philosophical ways of dealing with suffering.  Then we will look, in an abbreviated fashion, at the teaching of the Bible regarding this.  Finally, we will look at our own hearts and give some counsel in walking with God through a suffering world on the way to his Kingdom.

A Universal Experience

Chronic pain wracks someone’s body day after day.  A young woman has her heart mistreated by a selfish little boy masquerading as a man. A young family goes into the nursery of their fragile new born only to find out their precious one is not breathing.  A family watching a loved one decay to a painful disease. An aging parent looses their mental faculty as the erosion of time destroys the body. A storm of nature arises suddenly dismembering lives and property. A young girl is kidnapped and abused in the most unimaginable ways by other human beings. A mob murders a young pastor and then terrorizes his family. Warring nations and their powerful rulers create realities that destroy the lives of millions.  Whether small or large suffering is a part of our world.  It is at times minor, at times severe and always constant.  While we must never overlook the massive floods of goodness, grace, kindness, love and beauty abounding every day, suffering will visit our lives and it does need an answer. When the sun remains shining upon us we may not fully come to terms with the storms raging upon the seas of someone else’s life.  Yet the harsh realities of our world will bring the darker specter of suffering upon us and bring a need to seek answers. Many different answers are given and they are not all created equal.

Philosophical and Theological Answers

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The amount of reasoning and philosophizing given around the reality of suffering is quite astounding and the answers are variegated.  Some say suffering is because of ignorance and lack of enlightenment . Some may ignorantly accuse God of sleeping on the job. Others see it arise for the evil and sin of human beings.  Others say that it, like poo, just happens.  Most who wrestle with this question deal with three things: God, humanity and the reality of suffering.  What follows is but a small sample of what some major worldviews teach about suffering.1

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Pantheistic views of life teach all is one and all is divine or ultimate. Furthermore, any distinctions seen in reality between things is called maya, or illusion.  You and me are not different beings, but part of one great being or reality.  As such, good and evil are simply illusory as well, two sides of the same coin as it were.  Various flavors of eastern philosophy share this view (flavors of Buddhism, Hinduism) and many represent these ideas with the yin/yang symbol.  You have probably seen it in tattoos.  Pantheism solution is to say  that enlightenment comes when you realize all suffering is illusion and you escape it through various paths of meditation. You realize that you are part of the one reality and suffering no longer holds mastery over you.  So Pantheism, in effect, denies the reality of suffering. This is puzzling to me for several reasons.  First, suffering seems very real to me and not something we can meditate away. Second, it can lead to a passive acceptance of suffering particularly when coupled with doctrines such as reincarnation and karma.  If someone is suffering in this life, they have “earned it” through bad karma in a previous life and as such deserve to be in the position assigned to them.2

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Rather than removing the reality of suffering there are those who in the face of human suffering deny the existence of the divine.  It is not uncommon for certain atheists to rant against God for the suffering he allows while anger is aimed at the idea of a God they do not think is real.3Agnosticism is the position that finds no good reason to believe in God but cannot state definitively that God does not exist.  Most in the face of suffering get more specific and deny the existence of a good and powerful God as described in the Bible.  I have always been a bit puzzled by agnostics who claim that others cannot know things about God while stating to not know for sure themselves.  It is like stating everyone is NOT right even though you yourself claim to not know. To me this is not a humble position but rather arrogant. In any fashion, atheists and agnostics typically deal with the problem of suffering by saying God does not exist.  In the denial of God what then is left of reality?  In western unbelief matter is supreme and all that is.  Our lives and the entire universe are simply the result of a blind and amoral universe where time, chance and the laws of physics are sovereign.  There is no answer to suffering in this view and even more tragic good/evil are simply arbitrary assignments by arbitrary bits of matter called you and me.  CS Lewis made the classic argument here that in claiming something to be “evil, wrong” with suffering we are assuming there is standard by which to really judge such things.4  Atheism has no such standard to offer yet uses it to critique God. I find empathy with people who have such objections about life and suffering; suffering is real and it is pervasive. What I do not understand is the intellectual inconsistency in this point of view.

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There are various points of view which hold God, humanity and suffering in tension.  The three large monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all treated the subject of suffering in various ways.  Islam teaches that suffering is according to the will of God, is the result of disobedience, lack of submission to God’s purposes or divine judgment.  Judaism teaches that suffering is mysterious and at times is God’s discipline of his people for breaking covenant. In some cases it is taught that God is unable to do anything about the suffering in the world.5  Various Christian teachings see suffering as the result of sin, God’s judgment/discipline of people, existing for redemptive purposes and only represent a temporary state.  In a moment we will look at a summary of this from Old and New Testaments but for now let us just say that flavors of theism hold in tension belief in a good God and the reality of human suffering.

Much more can be said about dealing with the philosophical compatibility of evil, suffering and the existence of a good and loving creator God.  Philosophers and Theologians such as Alvin Plantinga, Ron Nash, CS Lewis and John Feinberg have provided excellent work in this area which are compatible with various Christian theological points of view.6Yet as Christians we stand in the biblical as well as a philosophical tradition.  In fact, the Scripture has much to say about suffering God’s relationship to his creatures.

The Biblical Narrative

The question “Why is there suffering?” is not a simple issue in the Bible and we have many writings which speak to us about the mystery of evil and suffering. One thing that must be done is to see suffering and evil in the larger biblical story line of a good creation, human sin and the fall, God’s redemption in Jesus and the coming Kingdom of God/Heaven. Seeing and understanding suffering must happen within this story. The biblical literature provides many reasons for suffering. The writings compliment one another and provide a broad panoramic view of the purposes of God. God creates all good things and allows suffering in the world and the reasons are many.

The ultimate origins of suffering is in volitional creatures (beings that can choose following God or otherwise) both angels and human beings.  Scripture and Christian teachings hold that God created angels, many of which became evil in rebellion against God.  The foremost being called Satan, the accuser. In the initial teachings of the Bible, Satan is a being intent on evil who calls humanity away from joyful fellowship with God into their own disobedience and sin (Genesis 3). As a result of human rebellion the world is quite literally cursed and not the way it is supposed to be.7We now live in a world that the late British author GK Chesterton once described as a shipwreck.8  It has great good strewn about but very much in the midst of a wreckage. Ultimately all suffering and evil is the result of sin and rebellion. The creation itself is in a state that is both beautiful and chaotic displaying to us the condition of our world (See Romans 8:18-25). It is in the context that the goodness of God and the evil of this world must be understood.  A very quick and necessarily abbreviated summary of the biblical teaching regarding suffering is as follows:

  • Suffering can be the direct result of human choices. This is self evident to all and taught throughout Scripture.
  • God speaks to us in our suffering. He is not uninvolved and it is not without purposes even when unknown to us.  Our call is faithfulness to God whether in times of ease or times of extreme difficulty. The book of Job teaches us this.
  • Some suffering is the result of the discipline and judgment of God. This is the message of the Prophets and sections of the book of Hebrews, particularly chapter 12.
  • Suffering plays a part in God redeeming us from the curse of sin and death. God has purposes for suffering and uses it for good ends. See Romans 8 and the latter part of 2 Corinthians chapter 4.
  • Suffering gets our attention and creates in us a longing for redemption and for God to act. Many of the Psalms and the Prophets show this, we see this particularly in the biblical cry “How Long O Lord.”9  CS Lewis said this well: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”10
  • Suffering is also used by God to shape and transform us and help us identify with Jesus himself. The early part of James and 1 Peter 2 teach us this.
  • Suffering exists temporarily to glorify God for his work to overcome it through Jesus—John 9 teaches us that some situations exist so that God would be glorified.  Further, as we will see in a moment, the suffering of God himself in Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of the glory of God. 

Due to the fact that Scripture does not give “one reason” for each instance of human pain, some have declared the Bible gives contradictory reasons for suffering. Most recently, Bart Ehrman’s book God’s Problem

11

comes to mind. In reading Ehrman, it seems he fails to see that there could be many possible biblical reasons for a particular instance suffering. The precise point we must remember is that God knows the true reason behind each instance while we, at times, do not. As such because of unbelief, some people stumble to understand and explain every bit of suffering while others believe and relate deeply to God in the midst of it. I like to say it this way: Suffering does not always lead to unbelief, but unbelief will find no answer in the face of suffering.

We desire love, relationship, peace, safety and permanence yet in this present age these elude us and result in our suffering. Sin has racked life, separated relationships, created calamity and death and we wander the earth fearful and longing for a home. The truth is that in dealing with our suffering love and relationship are central. A truthful system of intellectual answers is important but is incomplete without love. In the gospel of Jesus Christ we find both truth and relationship, hope in the midst of suffering through the love of God.

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In the story of Scripture, the suffering of the world is taken on by God himself.  Jesus, who is God become man, actually bears suffering on behalf of suffering people.  Immanuel, God with us, is also God suffering with and for us.  Jesus’ death for sin is the ultimate sacrifice where God himself takes the sting of sin and death to forgive us and transform us.  Jesus’ resurrection displays that the ultimate enemy and bringing of pain, death itself, is and will be defeated by Jesus. The cross reflects God’s judgment upon sin and his reconciliation of people to himself. In Jesus we find grace, love and relationship.  In relationship with Jesus we have one that is familiar with suffering (Isaiah 53), who can sympathize with his people (Hebrews 4) and who is present with us in our grief (John 11). The gospel places Jesus in the middle of suffering to redeem a broken world through his own sacrifice and pain.

The first chapter of Peter’s first epistle summarizes the gospel view of suffering in light of the bigger picture. I will allow the Scriptures the last word for our encouragement:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Notes

1.

See discussion in chapter four of Randy Alcorn,

If God is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil

(Sisters, Multnomah Books, 2009). Alcorn’s book is popularly accessible yet handles the issue of suffering biblically, faithfully , intellectually and practically.

2. For more on the idea of Karma, see my A Comparison of Karma and Divine Judgment

3. Case in point are the recent writings of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens

4. See C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity, 25. “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust.  But how had I got this idea of just and unjust?  A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other.  But the standard that measures two things is something different from either.”

5. The classic popular work here is from Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

6. See Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil; Ron Nash, Faith and Reason; CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain; John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil.

7. An excellent book on the Scriptures teaching on sin goes by this name. See Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be : A Breviary of Sin for a good treatment on the doctrine of sin.

8. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Image Books ed. (New York: Image Books, 1959), 80.

9. CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 83.

10. DA Carson’s excellent work How Long O Lord, Reflections on Suffering and Evil  (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006) has this phrase as its title

11. Bart Ehrman, God’s Problem, How the Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question-Why we Suffer, (New York: HarperOne, 2008)

Our Desires and Living out Priorities

Most Americans would say they are either busy or feel busy.  This is particularly true on the east coast where Forbes magazine listed New York, NY as the third most stressed area in America1.  We can just assume some of that stressed out love reaches far into the NYC metro area as well. There are many who would give advice on life management and getting things done2 but sometimes having the right priorities and system just doesn’t solve the problem.  There is a long running human struggle with sticking to the things we say are our priorities. A good plan on paper might be a good first step, but it provides no guarantee you are going to change your own life. It is not uncommon for someone to say their priorities are God, their relationships, family and then work or play. In that order. Yet it is also not uncommon for the same people to spend all their hours and energy working and recreating with little time on their spiritual growth or with their people. We realize that intentions are one thing, but living is another. 

In this short essay I want to explore a simple question which has been wrestled with over the centuries: Why don’t we always do what we say we want to do? To do so we will first look at some discussions in philosophy about a concept the Greeks called akrasia—the weakness of the will. We will then look at a view of human freedom found in the works of New England theologian/philosopher Jonathan Edwards which will shed greater light on why we sometimes fail to do what we intellectually know is right. Finally, we will close with a discussion of a controversial and important biblical text which deals with human nature and its effects on our “want to” and how we might find help with following through with our desires.

On Akrasia

The ancient Greek philosophers discussed a concept known as akrasia, the weakness of the will.  The word literally means to lack command over oneself. In Plato’s dialogue Protagoras, Socrates dismisses the idea that anyone, knowing the good thing to do, would ever do otherwise. A person might not do the right thing or act according to what is good, but this only because he does not rightly understand it. If you know what is truly good, you do it by way of reason.  Aristotle, a couple of philosophical generations later, chose a less rigid understanding of a person finding weakness when choosing to do what is right. In his section VII.1-10 of his Ethics, Aristotle, describes times when people act in a way that is contrary to reason because they are overcome by some passion which they do not master rationally.3 The Greeks saw the good person as always acting in accordance with reason but they, like everyone else, were surrounded by people doing things they ought to have judgment about. Ultimately, Aristotle is more charitable than Socrates acknowledging the reality of akrasia, but only that people are mastered by their passions rather than mastering them. He does return to rationality in the end thinking that an akratic person will eventually see the errors in his thinking after some time and experience. He does think, like Socrates, that a truly wise person can never experience akrasia as he rightly sees it is a vice.4 To boil it down, Socrates thought that those who claim to have weakness of will to simply be stupid; Aristotle, thought that they were perhaps temporarily stupid but could recover their way.  The Greeks felt if you know right, you do right. However, they were still writing about this issue because people seem to fail in follow through quite often.  The Greek answer, and I would say the modern secular answer, was to become wiser and wiser and then you would always do the good. Of course they could never quite define, or agree upon a definition of “wise” and “good” so the philosophizing continues until this day. Over the years, many Christians have thought differently about why we often fail. We will look at the views of one such thinker before we discuss the biblical text.

Freedom of Inclination

Unfortunately, many only know of the 18th century theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards from a sermon in which he sought to vividly present the teaching of Revelation 19:15 which read: He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. This sermon, entitled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, is many times the only work contemporary Americans read of Edwards. Various historians and scholars know a fuller picture of the man that some have called the greatest mind of the American colonial period. The recent renewed interest in Edwards studies in theological, historical and philosophical circles is both encouraging and warranted.5  

One of his more influential works was entitled, in typical Edwards fashion, A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of the Will, Which Is Supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency, Vertue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame. Thank God it is known by its more popular and short title The Freedom of the Will.  Edwards had many reasons to write about human freedom and choice and what sort of freedom humans had.  Whereas the Greeks typically assumed that human beings naturally should choose the good and were puzzled why they most often did not, Edwards was a Christian who firmly believed that the human will was bent towards sin, not toward doing good.  Edwards was no pessimist, but he was realistic about the strength of human desires regarding their choices.

Rather than simply talk about freedom of the will in terms of seeing the good and then doing it, Edwards argued that human beings do what they are most inclined towards. People always act according to their deepest desires.6  The problem with not doing what we ought is with our want to, not simply with our knowledge. This gives a much better understanding to why humans often know their duty and fail to follow through.  Our desires can lead us away from what we even know to be the right path.  This does not alleviate us of moral responsibility for our actions, but it does mean that we need new desires, new inclinations towards what is good, right and true.

As an aside, Christian thinkers in every age have understood that what is good is related to who God IS. Furthermore, what he wills for human beings according is always in accord with his own good, unchanging character.7 The character and nature of God grounds that which is good ontologically so that we might see our lives conform to his character ethically. The Christian tradition differed from that of the Greeks in that it saw human fallibility not simply in terms of wisdom or knowledge but in terms of deepest desires and inclinations.  We needed to have our desires changed and set free from the law of sin and death so that we might be able to be changed to be more like God.  We would do the good when we become more like the one that is good.  The internal struggle of human beings, their wrestling with the weakness of will and the fallibility of our nature comes through clearly in the writings of St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans.

Romans 7

For the sake of brevity, I want to quote a portion of the seventh chapter of the book of Romans  from a paraphrase of the New Testament. It brings to light quickly the human struggle we have been discussing here:

I can anticipate the response that is coming: “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?” Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary. But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.

Though a complete explanation of this text is beyond the scope of this essay, I want you to see the internal struggle described.  Here we find a human being struggling to do the good he sees revealed in the law of God (for simplicity think of the 10 commandments) but yet he sees another power at work within him. Indwelling sin has made him a prisoner to his own desires so that even when he wants to do the good he often falls short.  Rather than a better education he feels he needs to be set free, he needs help from outside of himself.  This insight is offensive to those who have their minds set on fixing themselves.  Pride in human beings will not face the truth that they need to be rescued, forgiven and changed.  Yet the human struggle and internal wrestling with sin is real as is its power.

The insight of Jesus and his followers was simple yet profound. It is from the heart that sin flows in our lives. When we do what is contrary to what we know is right, we are choosing that path because we want to. The problem is that our “want to” is precisely the problem; it is not our heads that let us down, it is our hearts. Jesus said it this way in Mark 7:14-23:

And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

So, do we do what we want to do in life? I would say for the most part yes. The problem we have is that our desires are contorted and greatly in need of reformation. Sin affects the mind so we don’t always think to do what is right, so we do need moral instruction and education.  Sin also affects the will in that it twists the desires of our heart.  What we need is a new mind and a new heart so that we can both see what is good and actually want to live it.

Being Able to Keep Priorities

So let’s revisit our busyness and priorities.  We are prone to fill our lives with all manner of things while neglecting that which we claim to be our priorities. Saying that God, our families and relationships is a priority while other pursuits are secondary is quaint.  Actually desiring to love God and your neighbor is a work of grace in us and through us. If we want our priorities to shift, we actually need a renovation of our hearts.  We need to be set free from sin and death to live a life of freedom and faith. 

Jesus died to lift the curse of sin from us to give us new inclinations to love God and walk in his ways.  He now enables us to do so — even when we feel stressed out and busy.  We need to sit at the feet of Jesus as his disciples so that we learn a new way and then follow with the new hearts he gives to us.  Even making the time to read Scripture, spend time with God in thoughtful prayer and to be a disciple is a choice that he empowers us to make.  When he calls, we follow and a new life awaits.  The strength of love overpowers the weakness of will when the heart has been turned around by God himself.  

In Luke 10:38-42 Martha bustles with activity and Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. Jesus tells us that it was Mary who chose the better path.  To come to the one who has to power to make us new is what we must learn as we travel through life.  Coming to him is a discipline but one he enables day by day.  As one wrote long ago, “give what you command, and command what you will. You enjoin continence [self restraint].”8   He has not left us to our own desires, he is giving us new ones each day.  We have our abiding hope in his power to help us live out his priorities in our lives today.

At his feet with you,

Reid S. Monaghan

Notes

1. America’s Most Stressed Out Cities, Forbes.com—http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32588942/ns/business-forbescom/, accessed 11/20/2009.

2. David Allen’s best selling book Getting Things Done is a must in my opinion.  If you like technology the web site LifeHacker.com can be a great help as well.

3. For a discussion of Aristotle’s Ethics see the excellent summation in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/index.html accessed 11/21/2009.

4. See Alternate Readings of Aristotle on Akrasia at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/supplement1.html accessed 11/21/2009.

5. For a wonderful treatment of Edwards’ Life see the works of George Marsden.  His unabridged Jonathan Edwards, A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) is in my opinion the best work on Edwards’ life and writings.  Also the works Gerald R. McDermott and Mark Noll are also of note.  John Piper and Sam Storms (to a lesser extent) have also brought the thought of Edwards forward in our day.  See John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998) and Sam Storms, Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’s “Religious Affections” (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007) are of particular interest.

6. See treatment of Edwards view of Freedom in Bruce Ware, God’s Greater Glory (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004) 79-81.

7. See William P. Alston ‘What Euthyphro Should Have Said’ in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide edited by William Lane Craig, Rutgers University Press, 2002.

8. Augustine, Confessions, Book 10, Chapter 29.

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A Comparison of Karma and Judgment

There are several views of the world which populate the human landscape.  Each of these views wrestle with the various questions we face in our existence. One of the most perplexing issues is that of our own mortality. In fact, death has been said to be the great equalizer, the fate of the rich and powerful and the poor and destitute alike. One of the great mysteries is what happens when we die. Various beliefs have been held throughout time regarding life after death, but none greater than the big two. The eastern philosophy of karma/reincarnation and the widely believed philosophy of divine judgment. People in our culture today are fixated with the idea of Karma. You see it in the obsession of a regular guy named Earl on television, in the writings of Oprah Winfrey show superstar Gary Zukov, and it even appears in a line of Ben and Jerry’s low carb ice-cream.1 In our culture Karma has become kool and divine judgment is well, too judgmental for many. In this little essay, I want to compare the two and actually show that judgment is much more humane and coherent, though the consequences perhaps more serious.

Karma 101

Karma is one of the main tenants interwoven in the diversity of philosophical views from the east. Eastern philosophy is a literal smorgasbord of ideas, practices, and religious concepts, but there are a few ideas which are universal in the various systems. The Law of Karma, the endless cycle of reincarnation, and the oneness of all things are common threads throughout the various genres of eastern thought. The law of Karma will sound familiar in part to people in the west. At its most basic level it is a teaching that says that all our actions, whether good or bad, have consequences. These consequences form a chain creating your reality into the future. What you do, the choices you make literally “create” your future. The idea of Karma goes beyond a mere understanding that “whatever a man sows, he also reaps” for Karma extends between subsequent lives and existences. Each person builds up positive or negative Karma over the course of this life which then determines their subsequent lives after being reincarnated. A person moves “up” through a succession of being in the lives they live with the hope of escaping the endless cycle of birth and rebirth, which is known by the term samsara. If you have bad Karma you may come back as a dung beetle, good karma may have you return as an upper class Brahman. So judgment is seen in the movement “upward” and “downward” in this chain of existence. Many western people fail to see that reincarnation is not a good thing to the eastern mind, but a cycle from which the soul desires to escape, to be absolved into the oneness of the universe finally eliminating the illusion of individual existence. I find the karmic view offers true insights on several fronts. First, it acknowledges that we do indeed reap what we sow and our actions do have consequences. Second, it realizes that our actions and choices are moral in nature. Though the eastern view sees good and evil as two sides of the same coin, part of one reality, it is in the view of Karma that eastern philosophy is a bit more honest. Good is good and bad is bad and you better work towards the good or your Karma gauges will be spinning in the wrong direction. Though many put forth the view of Karma as a pathway towards moral living without any view of judgment, Karma has some serious bad Karma of its own.

Problems with Karma

There are several major philosophical and theological problems with Karma but I will only elaborate here on a very short list. First, Karma is a sort of score card for your life, where your good and bad tally up against each other. The problem I see in this is that there is literally “no one” there to keep score. Who is watching your life? Usually the answer is that the universe has a built in law that regulates these things, but there is no discussion on how this could be the case. If your good and bad “add up” it seems that somewhere this reality must be “known” by someone. This makes sense in a world in which God himself is taking our lives into account. Second, the law of Karma knows absolutely no grace. It is an unforgiving brutal taskmaster by which your life is determined by your previous lives. If you have a bad run now, it could be the result of previous incarnations where you were a real jerk. The problem is you know nothing of your former lives and are sort of screwed by them. There is no grace extended to sinners by Karma, sin becomes a millstone around your neck forever and ever through perhaps infinite reincarnations. Finally, there is an unexpected, but inevitable unjust result of Karmic thinking. You would think that this view only holds one responsible for our actions, but in fact it has unbelievably unjust societal consequences. Think about it. Who are the good guys in this life? The ones who had good Karma in previous lives. Who are these people? The upper classes, the “successful” people, the wealthy and the rulers are in their stations in life because they were good in past lives. So it is no coincidence that the system of caste, where the poor and low caste “deserve” their station in life and should not aspire better, arose from a Karmic philosophical tradition. They are working out bad Karma; these are the views that made the high caste Brahman in India, oppose the work of Mother Teresa with Indian low caste untouchables. She was interfering with them paying for their karma by serving them and helping them. The god of Karma, is the god of caste, which is a system of long term systemic oppression of those who were bad in “previous lives” nobody knows anything about.

On Divine Judgment

Temporal and Eternal Justice

Before moving to a biblical understanding of divine judgment I want to make a few things clear.  When we speak of the judgment of God we are talking about a judgment that has finality to it.  We realize that during our time on earth it can temporally seem as if injustice triumphs and the wicked prosper. In fact, the biblical authors wrestle with this reality (Jeremiah 12:1-4, Habakkuk 1:1-4, Psalm 73:1-3, Psalm 94:1-5).  Even though this age is mingled with justice and evil we trust and know that when all is said and done, the creator will judge the world with equity.  This judgment will be altogether righteous and all the failures of justice in the courts of men will be set right for eternity. The following description is a succinct summary of the biblical teaching on final judgment.

The biblical concept is that at the end of history Jesus Christ will return in glory to earth, the dead will be raised, and they, together with all the living, will be finally judged by Christ and assigned their eternal destiny in heaven or hell. This great eschatological event will be a visible, public, and universal judgment; Christ’s glory and His victory over sin, death, and Satan will be fully manifest; righteousness will be exalted; the perplexing discrepancies of history will be removed, and the mediatorial reign of Christ will reach its ultimate triumph as believers inherit the kingdom prepared for them.2

With this in view let’s compare the view of divine judgment with that of Karma/Reincarnation.

Divine Judgment 101

The biblical view of life after death is a very different than the view of Karma. Like the view of Karma, our actions, both good and evil have consequences, but in our view God is the observer and judge of our lives. He treats us as responsible moral agents in relationship to Him, creation, and other people. We are responsible to God and others for our actions and their consequences. All persons, rich or poor, “successful” or not, powerful or not, are all completely equal and responsible for their lives. We live this life before God and when we die our lives will be judged by God and his appointed one, his own Son Jesus Christ (Acts 17:30-31). God does not show favoritism in that he will take our sins into account and does not turn a blind eye towards the sin done on the earth.

Wonderfully, the God who is our judge chose to take our place and receive the judgment we deserve for our sins.  It is in the gospel that God extends to us the hand of mercy and grace.  The very one who will judge our wrongful deeds, against whom we have committed sin, is the one who pays our debt and freely forgives. This is the view of the Bible. God treats us as responsible human beings but willingly provides payment for our sins, atonement is the biblical word, so that we can be reconciled with God and be judged as righteous because of the work of Christ.

The book of Hebrews teaches us that it is appointed for us to live and die once and then be judged with impartiality (Hebrews 9:27). We either face God in our sin or with an advocate and substitute for our sin. Jesus is the one who delivers us from just wrath and judgment of God and all glory and honor goes to him.

The path of Karma makes you the one who receives glory for your good and blames everything bad that happens to you directly on you. In the gospel we see that God works by the law of the Spirit of life to set us free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. You might even say he sets us free from the tyranny of the taskmaster of Karma. 3

Notes

  1. See Karb Karma at http://www.benjerry.com/our_company/press_center/press/bfyfactsheet.html
  2. Geoffrey  W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988; 2002), 2:1162.
  3. For more on Eastern philosophy you can read the sections by LT Jeyachandran in Norman Geisler and Ravi Zacharias, Who Made God? And Answers to Over 100 Tough Questions on Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003). Additionally, though I heartily disagree with his views of election and predestination, Paul Copan’s Chapter Why Not Believe in Reincarnation from That’s Just Your Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001) is an excellent treatment of some problems in Eastern philosophy.

 

Three Tough Questions

As we look to find an enduring hope there are many questions that human beings must face in order to build a foundation in a relationship with God. First, we must know that God is real; this is the metaphysical question. Second, we must know how we might be in relationship with God and to know God in our own experience; this is the existential question. Finally, we must face a massive problem in our own nature. Even if we know that God exists and that he loves and desires relationship with us we still resist and turn away. This is the anthropological question. Human beings by nature are rebels and sinners; we do what we want with our lives rather than that which for God has made us. This is reflected by either active rebellion or passive indifference towards God in our attitudes in actions. In today’s essay we will wrestle with these three questions and marvel together how God has graciously answered them all in his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ.

The Metaphysical Question

From the beginning of history until now, human beings have been asking about the nature and reality of the universe. We probe the outer world and the inner world of our own souls searching for what is good, right, true, just and ultimate. Various cultures and peoples seem to all be called towards some transcendent reality as a cacophony of voices echo the names of various goddesses and gods throughout the ages. Yet our search seems to prove futile for many and some retreat into a blasé agnosticism being content to only say “I don’t know what is out there.” Such frustration is warranted for to be able to ascend the heights to look upon the face of God seems to be a daunting task. I once remember hearing one teacher describe the difficulty of describing God when someone posed to him a rather strange challenge: “define God and give two examples.” God is utterly unique so there simply are no examples of what God is—there is only God. So in order for us to wrestle with the metaphysical question we must ask if there is any help given from above. As such many traditions have held that we need God to self-define or self-reveal in order for us to know him.

Our Scriptures teach that God has been kind to human beings to do just this, to reveal himself to us in many ways. The first way God reveals himself is what we call general revelation. In some simple ways we can all know that God exists from looking at nature and conscience. The apostle Paul in the book of Romans teaches us that God can be clearly seen from what has been made (Romans 1:18-24) and that we know our moral responsibility to God from the moral law written on the heart (Romans 2:12-16). The skeptical German philosopher Immanuel Kant even realized nature and conscience as a place of profound reflection in describing his awe at the starry hosts above and the moral law within.1

Furthermore, both the every day person and philosophers have inferred from our world and conscience that there is indeed a God. Over the years I have done informal surveys with college students and other adults as to why they believe in God. The answers usually fall along these lines:

  • We are here—there must be an explanation for the existence of the universe
  • We are unique—the universe and human life gives evidence of design
  • We are moral creatures—the universe and ourselves have a moral nature
  • There must be justice—many seem to believe that there is a higher court of appeals
  • I just know—personal religious experience of God

Interesting enough philosophers for years have developed intellectual arguments along many of the same lines.2 God reveals his existence and our moral responsibility to him to all through what he has made and by impressing his law on our hearts. Yet this sort of general revelation3 only gives us a knowledge that God is real, but many still suppress this knowledge. Though all can know something of God through nature and conscience this is still not enough to definitively answer the metaphysical question.

The Existential Question

Even when we come to the conclusion that there is a God, there is still the question as to how we relate to God. Is God personal? Is God loving? Does God relate to people at all or is God a distant deity or force lurking behind the curtains in the universe. We long for there to be a path shown to us, a way demonstrated and a connection with God made. The existential question is ultimately related to how we might know God personally, rather than simply know about him.

In our experience we find life to be a mixture of good times and bad, joys and pains, struggling to find meaning and purpose. Many times life can just leave us numb, longing to be more alive than our current experiences. Most of the time we just medicate our emptiness with shopping, substances, relationships, food, drinks and toys. In doing so we place things other than God at the center of our lives and build the foundation of our hope on things which do not last.

In the ancient world, the Hebrew King Solomon had more money, power, women and influence than anyone. He would make the finances of a Bill Gates and the activities of Hugh Heffner look smallish. He had tried everything in life and all that money and power could afford. Yet his conclusion after doing it all was that life was quite empty, quite meaningless all together. The book of Ecclesiastes in our Old Testament records his meditations and reflections on the emptiness and vanities of life lived apart from our creator.

Our modern world is filled with example after example of the very rich and very successful making it “to the top” only to realize emptiness still pervaded life. The existential question longs for meaning and relationship that is stable; it reveals the longing of the human heart for a connection with the divine. Whereas the metaphysical question wrestles with the question of God’s existence and identify, the existential question is the soul begging to be connected to God in meaningfully, loving relationship.

The Anthropological Question

If we think for a minute about the human struggle, we will realize something quite strange. If someone knows God is real and knows it is possible to relate to God in loving communion and worship, why doesn’t everyone jump in. Why are people still resistant to the idea of God?

The Scriptures teach that we are not honest seekers of God and his goodness and truth. In fact, human beings rebel against God’s rule in their lives and choose to live apart from him. Even if intellectual answers to God’s reality are given to solve the metaphysical question people still will not love God. Even if a person hears of God’s love for them they may not drawn near to him. The most massive problem that needs to be overcome is the problem of our own sinful resistance to God. The anthropological problem demands that forgiveness for sin and reconciliation must happen before someone really becomes a follower of the living god.

Jesus Christ—Revelation, Relationship and Reconciliation

I have always found it fascinating that in the incarnation of Jesus, God answers deeply the longings of the human heart and overcomes our deepest problem of sin. Let me explain.

Jesus—The Revelation of God

As we wrestle with the existence of God, he chose to give very specific evidence of his nature by becoming one of us. God gives a special and detailed revelation of himself by becoming a human being and actually showing us what he is like. Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), God become a human (John 1:1-14) and the imprint of God’s nature (Hebrews 1:3). His apostles and prophets have told his story, conveyed his teaching and explained his message to us in authoritative Scripture. God could have written in lasers across the heavens “I am like this and I am like that” but instead he became one of us to show us his love for us in a form we most easily understand. His portrait is painted for us in the gospels of the New Testament.

Jesus—The Way to Relationship with the Father

The gospel according to John tells us that God is actually seeking out worshippers and desires to be known by them. John 17:3 declares And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. Jesus came to show to us the Father (John 14:9) and to connect us in a real relationship with our creator. Our longing for significance and purpose is fulfilled in a love relationship with God. God himself, in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, becomes the answer to all our existential longings.

Jesus—Reconciliation and Pardon with Him

Finally, and most importantly, Jesus over comes our sin by dying for us so that we can find peace and reconciliation with God. Whereas the metaphysical question is answered by the revelation of God in Christ and the existential questions is answer in knowing him, Jesus death actually makes it all possible. In Christ’s death on the cross God reconciles us with him providing full pardon and forgiveness for our sin. Our resistance to God is removed and we are given a deep desire for God that only finds culmination in worship. Former archbishop of Canterbury William Temple described the fulfillment of the human soul in worship as follows:

Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness, nourishment of mind by His truth, purifying of imagination by His beauty, opening of the heart to His love, and submission of will to His purpose. And all this gathered up in adoration is the greatest of human expressions of which we are capable.

Conclusion

So it is in the incarnation that God became human so that we might see a revelation of God. It is also in the incarnation that we come to know God face to face. Finally, it is through the work of the incarnate Son that we are reconciled to the Father. The late British journalist Malcom Muggeridge so eloquently described the marvelous effects of the incarnation of Jesus:

Thereby [by the incarnation], He set a window into the tiny dark dungeon of the ego in which we all languish, letting in a light, providing a vista, and offering a way of release from the servitude of the flesh and the fury of the will into what St. Paul called the glorious liberty of the children of God.4

The question of God’s existence was answered fully when God put his feet on planet earth. The knowability of God was established fully when God stretched out hands and feet to die for us. As Scripture teaches us, God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

I will close with a small stanza of a hymn written by the 18th century song writer Charles Wesley.5 It’s words describe the amazing depth of the gospel whereby God would reveal himself, lovingly encounter us and set us free into a relationship of joy and worship.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Following with you,

Reid S. Monaghan

Notes

  1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 1788. This was also the phrase inscribed on his tombstone.
  2. For those interested see “The Five Ways” of Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica, CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity and the modern philosophical arguments of Alvin Plantinga—Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Proofs found here—http://bit.ly/14bimm and William Lane Craig in Reasonable Faith-Christian Truth and Apologetics 3rd Edition (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008)
  3. J. Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Spence Publishing, 2004)
  4. Malcolm Muggeridge and Cecil Kuhne, Seeing through the Eye : Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 5-6. Emphasis in original.
  5. Charles Wesley, Psalms and Hymns, 1738.

On Terminators - Why we fear our Robots...

There is a literal avalanche of literature and film treating the subject of robots, robot wars and the rise of the machines.  There are technologists, philosophers and futurists who love to talk about our “mind children” and how we will evolve into our own creations.  The most recent Terminator installment seems to carry on this long tradition of wondering just when our toasters will tire of their carbon based masters and rise up against us.  The Cylons chasing the Battlestar, the machines plugging us into the Matrix and the machines chasing around Sarah and John Connor all reveal something quite insightful about our relationship to machines.  We are afraid.  Why is this?

We present ourselves in modern technological society as intelligent world shapers who through our technology will solve problems…even save the world. If we let Science run free and unhindered by luddite concerns or ancient ethical systems, we’ll create wonders with our ingenuity.  Yet we are still afraid.  Futuristic technology has its optimists and pessimists for sure. For examples, one only has to look as far as Ray Kurzweil’s wonderful immortality or Bill Joy’s fear of the gray goo

Apparently, a philosopher right here at Rutgers University, has been musing about whether robot warriors (aka terminators) will be our salvation.  H+ magazine recently interviewed said philosopher about the promises of robot based warfare, which is very much a reality today in some sense.  The interview is quite interesting in that it discusses how robots might make the  military more moral in its warfare.  One particularly interesting section is commentary on the work of Georgia Tech’s Ron Arkin in making super-moral, or more moral robot soldiers:

Robots might be better at distinguishing civilians from combatants; or at choosing targets with lower risk of collateral damage, or understanding the implications of their actions. Or they might even be programmed with cultural or linguistic knowledge that is impractical to train every human soldier to understand.

Ron Arkin thinks we can design machines like this. He also thinks that because robots can be programmed to be more inclined to self-sacrifice, they will also be able to avoid making overly hasty decisions without enough information. Ron also designed architecture for robots to override their orders when they see them as being in conflict with humanitarian laws or the rules of engagement. I think this is possible in principle, but only if we really invest time and effort into ensuring that robots really do act this way. So the question is how to get the military to do this.

So here is a scenario where our terminators could be programmed to “turn on us” if they don’t think the people are acting according to “humanitarian laws” (whatever those are and whatever side defines them). Interesting enough the famous laws of Robotics created by Issac Asimov read as follows:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Many of you may remember that these laws were the subject of the film, iRobot (the book also contains the laws, but the film does not represent the book).  The movie gives an interesting view on machine consciousness and how the three laws just might lead the robots to take over…for our own good of course.  Mechanized warfare is here and here to stay.  There will be robot warriors of some form or another, but the moment we think they can improve on human beings is the moment we forget that we are their creators.  As such, we are afraid - for bad gods we will make.

Mankind once feared its capricious pantheon of gods, now we fear ourselves and the work of our own hands.  We fear someday that they will be like us and rise up against us like our ancestor Cain.  We know our sins will follow us into them and even John Conner may be unable to save us.

Is this inevitable, no.  Is the pride of man such that we will likely create technologies which will continue to bring carnage and destruction on the earth - yes, very likely. Humanity has been telling itself that it needs to shake free of sophomoric ideas of sin and depravity, yet they remain in us. Checks and balances are needed because humanity is wicked. I am by no means a Luddite, but I do think we should give more care to that which we create. 

We are not gods and we know it, so we remain afraid.