An Article to Irritate Republicans

Despite the fact that I warned you my next two posts would be intentionally irritating, I’d guess that some of you thought I was just being hyperbolic.  Wrong!

In case you missed it, I’m the idiot who decided to ruin his blog by talking about religion and politics.  If you want to see some reasonable thoughts on the subject, try my last post.  This post and next, I’m going beyond reasonable to offer intentionally-irritating opinions about how we might translate the Bible into a political program.  I’m going to start by irritating Republicans because that’s the least stereotypical thing to do.  But don’t worry – next week I’m going to irritate Democrats.  Stay tuned!  Let’s jump right in.

I think my Republican friends might be surprised to learn that:

(1)  Capitalism? Invisible hand?  I think not.  With apologies to Adam Smith, Jesus talked a whole lot against the pursuit of material wealth.  In fact, he never said a single recorded word against gay people, but said quite a load against rich people (e.g., Matthew 19:16-30), greed (e.g., Matthew 6:25-34), and money (e.g., Matthew 6:24).  In other words, it’s not really particularly Christian to be in favor of capitalism as such (and that is why many major Christian groups, such as Catholics, have historically opposed capitalism).  Jesus also had a lot of bad stuff to say about the conservative religious establishment which might apply today, but I digress.  (It’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but not much of one, to say that the only people Jesus really directly attacked vigorously during his time on earth were the self-righteous religious establishment who seemed more interested in pointing figures and making money than in loving people.  Does this ring any bells to anyone besides me?)

(2)  Republicans might be alarmed at the fact that the main creed in the uber-liberal Communist Manifesto – “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” – is almost taken word-for-word from the Bible (the New Testament, no less!  Right in the book of Acts):

All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need (Acts 2:44-45).

No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had…there were no needy persons among them.  For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostle’s feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need (Acts 4:32-25).

(3)  One of the primary ways that God judges societies in the Bible is by whether or not they take care of the poor and less fortunate (see, e.g., Isaiah 1:7-26; Jeremiah 7:5-7; Exodus 22:22).  It’s not by whether they believe in gun ownership or oppose gay marriage.

(4)  Republicans might also be quite taken aback if they actually fully read the only legal system that God is recorded as having given in the Bible – in the Old Testament.  For example, it might surprise them to find that rich people are often required to allow poor people to take grain, grapes, and olives from them (Exodus 23:10-11) and that a large part of taxes were specifically set aside for the less fortunate (Deuteronomy 14:29). It might similarly surprise them to know that every seventh year, rich people were required to forgive the debt poor people had acquired (Deuteronomy 15:1-6).

Now I’m not saying, for the record, that we should design our legal system around theirs – there are a lot of seemingly-arbitrary (e.g., things about burying one’s dung at night) and super-difficult (e.g., making allowances for slavery) things in that system, and many of those things seem not-so-good to me.  The New Testament directly contradicts some of those things.  My point is rather that, if we are going to read messages from the Bible at all, one of the clearest political themes in the Bible seems to me to be a pro-poor and anti-rich theme, one that explicitly includes commands of rich people to give their stuff to poor people.  Jesus’ own teachings ring loud and clear with that message – and the legal system discussed in the Old Testament includes that theme, too.

In other words, there is a lot in the Bible that is consistent with a liberal agenda focused on helping poor people by (gasp!) re-distributing income in a very, very Un-American sort of way.

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The Relationship Between Religion and Politics

I know pufferfish look cute and all.  I’ve seen Finding Nemo.  I’m a big pufferfish fan, I really am.  So imagine my surprise to learn, what they don’t apparently tell you on Finding Nemo, that it turns out they are poisonous to humans.  I mean deadly poisonous.

Now that was alarming enough.  But it gets worse.  My daughter told me that, in spite of this, in some overseas country, they actually eat them anyway.  Apparently it takes a really, really great chef to correctly prepare the fish so that all the poison is cooked out.  If it’s not prepared just so…you die.  This is why a pufferfish chef is one of the highest-paid positions in the world.

Now, call me crazy, but I’m not overly fond of the idea of eating a meal where my very existence depends on my chef’s expertise.   What if my highly-paid chef is slightly distracted?  When this happens at Jaker’s, my Cajun pasta is merely poorly flavored.  When it happens at a pufferfish restaurant, I squirm uncomfortably, foam at the mouth, and die.

Or what if I do something that is unintentionally insensitive to the chef’s culture?  When I used to work at Little Caesar’s Pizza, we had these guys who would hock loogeys into the pizzas of anyone that irritated them.  I thought that was pretty bad (although it turns out that eating a properly-cooked loogey will not kill you, or even cause mild irritation…who knew?).  But imagine if my chef says “I do not like the look of that guy in table 4b. Seriously, a mullet?  In Japan?  This guy’s pufferfish is going to get just slightly undercooked tonight.  Maybe he dies and maybe he just writhes in pain for a few hours singing Achy-Breaky Heart over and over, but either way, he’ll learn not to bring his attitude and his mullet to this part of the world, buster.”

I bring this up at this moment because I’m about to try and bring out the metaphorical pufferfish blogging dinner – I’m about to try and write about politics and religion at the same time.  If the ingredients aren’t just right…well, this could turn bad really quickly…for all of us.

So keep that fair warning in mind, dear readers.  I’m not sure if I’m the chef or the diner or both in my unwieldly analogy, but you should yourself digest cautiously the next three posts.

In forthcoming posts, I have written separate articles designed to irritate Republicans and Democrats. I don’t mean that metaphorically or figuratively: That’s actually what the articles are called (“An Article to Irritate Republicans” is the next post; then after that is “An Article to Irritate Democrats”).  Today, I only want to make a couple of hopefully-less-irritating-stage-setting points about the larger relationship between Christianity and politics.

(1) First, and least importantly, is this: When considering the relationship between religion and politics, religion mostly provides the larger principles, the aims, that society should grasp for.  It does not necessarily provide the formula for how best to get there.  For example, it tells us that any decent society should involve a lot of “loving one’s neighbor” – but it doesn’t tell us what sort of laws, exactly, might encourage that the best.  It thus leaves a lot of wiggle room for how to accomplish those general principles.

In commenting on the relationship between religion and society, C. S. Lewis once said:

“Christianity has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed program for applying ‘do as you would be done by’ to a particular society at a particular moment.  It could not have.  It is meant for all men at all times and the particular program which suited one place of time would not suit another. And, anyhow, that is not how Christianity works.  When it tells you to feed the hungry, it does not give you lessons on cookery.  When it tells you to read the Scriptures, it does not give you lessons in Hebrew and Greek, or even in English grammar.  It was never intended to supersede or replace the ordinary human arts and sciences: It is rather a director that will set them all to their right jobs, and a source of energy which will give them all new life.”

And I think that’s about right.

Lewis’ quote also highlights that there are two stupid errors we can make in talking about how politics and religion fit together.  One of those errors is to assume they should be the same thing, that religion necessarily dictates politics.  Obviously the gap between, say, Christianity and government is too big for that.

However, it is equally stupid to say that religion has no implications for politics.  Obviously it does.  But the implications are just that – implications.  Does religion provide energy and life to political agendas?  Yes.  Drive? Sure.  Principles?  Absolutely.  But absolute belief in a particular political program? No.  In reality, Christianity itself isn’t overtly political, it doesn’t directly offer many political imperatives, it rarely discusses politics directly at all.  And yet, it offers principles which do suggest some political implications, and offers a motivation for carrying out those implications.  It gives us the things we should aim at, and animates and inspires us to achieve those aims.

[Editor’s note: It is not unique in those aims.  Atheists and Christians and Muslims and Hindus largely agree about basic human morality, about the principles.  But as I’m uniquely considering the relationship between Christianity and Politics here, I’m of course focusing on implications directly drawn from Christian teaching].

Over the next two posts, I’m going to explore briefly some of those political implications, based solely on my own study of the Bible.

(2) But the main political implication I’d like to state up front, and that is this: Who you vote for is less important than how you treat your neighbor.  How you treat your neighbor requires sacrifice, love, hope, relationship.  Who you vote for requires very little sacrifice at all, essentially nothing but a piece of paper.  Not all political acts are like that – some of them do require sacrifice and duty and the rest, and I am aware of that and completely respect that – but Jesus clearly did not come to found a political movement.  He came to save souls and change lives.  So it is important that everything I say in the next two blog posts is taken with that in mind.  Because, dear reader, did I mention that those next two posts are intentionally irritating?

Again, C.S. Lewis sums up this idea nicely (not the idea that I’m irritating, of course; Lewis was very prescient but not that prescient – I mean the idea that politics is somewhat overrated):

“You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society.”

“A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about digestion: the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind—if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else—then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease.”

With all those caveats, hang on!  This could get ugly; undercooked-pufferfish ugly.

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The Top 5 Worst Christmas Songs of All Time

I absolutely love Christmas music.  In fact, I love it so much that I’ve always restricted the times I listen to it, in a very, very high need for structure way that generally crosses the line from “endearing” to “please-help-me-this-guy-is-super-annoying” – as I was saying, I’ve always endearingly restricted the times that I and the people around me can listen to it, because I want to savor it the way I would savor, say, a maple-covered donut.  You don’t just swallow that like a Mars Bar, man – you gotta enjoy it.

Yet, like all glorious things, even Christmas music has its low points.  The Beatles had Ringo; Justin Bieber had the spikey attack hair (“please don’t point that at me”) phase; the glory of professional basketball is sullied by the 76ers; and Christmas music is sullied by a small reindeer.  Thus, to cheer your heart and wish you a merry Christmas, I bring you: The top 5 worst Christmas songs ever.  We start with what is unquestionably the worst holiday-related item humanity has ever produced.

1.  Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  This song is a cacophony of un-Christmassy badness.  Bullying?  In there.  Social exclusion?  Oh, it’s got it.  Liking someone only after they experience material success?  Check.  I mean, where was Santa when all the reindeer were mean to Rudolf before he was the light-em-up-nose guy who saved him from the fog?  Nowhere to be seen, I tell you.  Nice work, Santa.  Way to stand up for the guy when he needed you most.  The “Rudolf” Santa is like some kind of banker who smiles at you when you have money and leaves you to be taunted by short IRS agents with Napoleon complexes the moment you hit hard times.  And this is what we want our kids listening to at Christmas?  I half expect “Fat Tony” to show up in the second verse and say:

“It’s a foggy Christmas eve, yo

I’ll offer youze some dough

If youze turn your boss man in

I’ll breaka his knees and go”

 

Oh, how Rudolf remembered

That Santa had a lot of dough

So when Santa begged to be saved

Rudolf said to Santa, @#$#@ no!

But honestly, my hatred of this song has less to do with the bizarre and other-worldly words than with the fact that (a) it is arguably the worst-written tune in tune-writing history, and (b) my daughter sings it…repeatedly…over…and over…and over…again.  (My daughter says: That is SO not true.  Her mom says: Actually, it’s pretty true.)  I hate you, Rudolf!

2.  Santa Claus is Coming to Town.  In some Nordic cultures, this is actually called The Stalking Song.  “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake.” Really.  One of my good friend’s youngest sons told me that, on account of this song, he used to cry at night in abject fear that Santa would be creepily spying on him.  True story.

3. Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.  Grandma…got…run…over…by…a…reindeer.  Ohhh….kaaaay.

4.  Jingle Bells.  This song won the International Award for Most Creative Use of Repeatedly Playing Middle C. There are other notes on the piano, James Lord Pierpont! I’m going to need you to focus the next time you write a song that millions of people will be forced to listen to whether they want to or not.

Fortunately, its lack of musical complexity is saved by its lyrical depth.  I note the repeated focus on the one-horse open sleigh (yeah, we got it, buddy, but this is America, and we like two or more horses on our sleighs – and Fresca…we like Fresca, too) and the particularly moving use of the word “hey!”

5. The Little Drummer Boy.  In the words of my daughter, go buy a guitar and get back to me.

The best thing you can say about this song is that it has excellent use of the onomatopoeia: “Pa rum pa pum pum” really does sound like a drum.  Of course, “caw caw” really does sound like a bird, but I don’t want to hear it repeated in a Christmas song a million times.  Call me crazy.

Honorable Mention goes to my daughter’s least favorite Christmas song We Wish You a Merry ChristmasIn addition to the fact that it has the lyrical depth of a half-eaten molecule (whatever that means), talking about figgy pudding just…ain’t natural.

Merry Christmas all!  I know I’ve been promising this for a while, but I really am going to post those political musings (three blog posts’ full, already written!) after the New Year, but I thought a piece criticizing everyone’s favorite Christmas songs would be more festive than ruining my blog by talking about religion and politics.  Caw Caw!

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Luke is Speaking at Cru Wednesday Night at 7:00!

Before we get to the talk implied (nay, directly stated) in the title of this post, I wanted to offer a brief glance backward and forward in blogging time.  To wit: I have read your many awesome and thoughtful comments to my last post where I offered an argument for atheism — and hope to re-invigorate the discussion soon.  Truth is, I have missed getting to dialogue with all of you!  But alas, things like my job and putting food on the table keeping getting in the way of genuine intellectual exchange.  ’Tis a sad world indeed. (Sigh).

Also, I am polishing up a three-part series on the blog-destroying topic of politics and religion, which is coming soon.  And I haven’t forgotten about the beating my own argument for God’s existence took this summer, and still plan on fighting back!

Now, to that speaking engagement: Luke is going to give a talk on A Christian Approach to Self-Esteem on Wednesday, November 12, at 7:00 PM.  It will be in ISB 110 on the University of Montana campus.

This is the weekly Cru meeting, so be apprised that if you are not a Christian, there will also likely be other Christian-ish sorts of things…like singing…and humor.  But all are welcome!

Posted in What Christians Actually Believe | 2 Comments

The Apologetic Professor’s Argument for Atheism

There is this scene in Tron: Legacy where the son of the main character is trying to explain to his dad, who has been absent from society for twenty years, what “WiFi” is.  When the dad gets it, he says matter-of-factly: “Wireless linking of digital devices?  I thought of that in ’85.”

It turns out that this is often how I myself feel when I read atheist arguments.  I often feel something like “yeah, I thought of that, on my own, about 20 years ago – already been there, done that, moved past it.  You’re way behind me, kid.”  I rarely hear of an argument for atheism that I haven’t already considered.

This just in: I’m arrogant.

This has a point, which is: I like to look at things from both sides of the issue.  My intellectual hero is St. Thomas Aquinas, who generated some of the best arguments for the positions he did not believe in that have ever existed.  I don’t think you’ve really begun to think about an issue until you’ve put forward the best arguments on both sides.  Otherwise, to paraphrase Chesterton, you are like someone arguing against the existence of a police force who has never heard of criminals.

So my Christian readers should not be alarmed that I occasionally still generate arguments for atheism, try to think of the very best reasons why God might not exist. And quite frankly, my arguments for atheism sometimes seem better to me than most of the arguments atheists themselves generate.  Most atheist arguments that I read about are boring, or tautological, or declarations by fiat, or filled with self-defeating logical contradictions, or all four at the same time.  (To be fair, and to stave off the inevitable wave of criticism, most Christian arguments strike me the same way.  See: Humanity). Since I dismiss that kind of thinking for both sides when I see it, I admit I often don’t see a lot of merit in what atheists themselves say about atheism.

It isn’t just me.  A while back, I ran a series where I graded arguments for God’s existence; and I’ve been thinking of doing a parallel series where I grade arguments for atheism. Problem: There are currently, in the public zeitgeist at least, very few constructive arguments for atheism floating around.  I know that sounds controversial, but really, save your hate mail.  This isn’t sensationalism – it is rather something that a lot of people on all sides agree on, including famous atheists such as Richard Dawkins.  I’m not saying there aren’t any constructive arguments – I’m saying that most of atheist argumentation historically, and certainly in the current climate, involves refuting arguments for God, often in a fairly boring manner based on personal experience, and not creating a compelling positive case for the atheist world view.  The very name atheism is reactive.

Yet it need not be the case.  Indeed, as much as I think Richard Dawkins mostly an idiot (he is) that my daughter could out-argue (she could), and which St. Thomas Aquinas could have beaten in an argument while taking a freakin’ nap (hahahahaha!), Dawkins actually produced a pretty clever constructive argument for atheism in a recent book.  Clever, but not memorable – I can’t remember what it was.  A better blogger would go find it for you right now – but I think we’ve established at this point that I’m not a better blogger. Seriously, go read some Grundy or Jack Shiflett if you want better blogging.

Anyway, Dawkins’ argument, whatever it was, did not re-capture the atheist glory of David Hume or anything, but it at least offered something worth reading.  Really.

And in that spirit of creating positive constructive arguments for atheism, I here present to you an Apologetic Professor original:  One of my own positive cases for atheism that is in the old “ontological argument” mold (but of course on the other side of the debate).  I’ll let you decide for yourself, but personally, I think it’s air-tight logically and pretty tough to beat.  It’s only defect is that it happens to be wrong.

Now, I’m not claiming that this argument has never been said before – quite surely, someone else has thought of this chain of reasoning. I even have this vague sense that Jack Shiflett may have inspired or facilitated this argument in a discussion on this blog – I don’t remember.  Maybe I even got it from Richard Dawkins.  But I’ve never seen it before that I remember at this moment, and I didn’t “get it” from anywhere that I know of.  It’s just been in my head for many years running now.

But seriously, how many Christian blogs are going to offer you an argument for atheism?  Cut me some slack.

Enjoy!

For the lazy, here’s the short form of the argument:

1. God must be better than people on all dimensions or else He is not God.

2. God cannot contain sin inside of Him or else He is not totally good.

3. Doing the ultimate good requires overcoming one’s own sin nature.

4. People can do the ultimate good because they can contain a sin nature.

5. God cannot do the ultimate good because doing the ultimate good requires containing a sin nature.

6. Therefore, people are better than God on the dimension of doing the ultimate good.

7. It follows that it is logically impossible for God to exist – the idea of God is self-defeating:

7a. If God contains a sin nature, He cannot be God.

7b. But If God does not contain a sin nature, He cannot do the ultimate good, and therefore He cannot be God.

For the obsessive over-thinker, here’s the argument in long form:

Part I:

1. God is defined as an omnipotent being that on every single dimension attains the very best possible on that dimension.

2. This means that God must be equal to or better than humans on every single dimension, or else He would not be God.

3. God by definition cannot contain sin – God cannot do something morally wrong, because that would not be the best possible on that dimension.

4. God cannot even contain sin inside of him as His own – sin cannot be a part of God – because having sin inside of oneself would make one less than the best one could possibly be.

Part II:

5. It is morally better to exert effort/sacrifice for doing good than it is to do good when no effort/sacrifice is required.

Example: If you can literally print/manufacture money whenever you want it, it would be morally less inspiring to give someone in need $100 than it would be if you had to give $100 of your $200 grocery allowance.

6. It requires more moral effort to overcome sin when it is a part of you than it does when it is not a part of you.

Example: Take a single act of goodness, such as being kind to a stranger on the street.  It would be nearly universally acknowledged that for a (1) person who was raised in a perfect environment where kindness was shown repeatedly and that person had a good temperament and personality, who wanted to do the good act out of her/his nature, performing that good act would be less noble and good than for (2) someone who had been raised starving on the street, fighting for food, having never been shown an ounce of kindness, and who did not want to do the good act.  In the second case, there is goodness is overcoming the natural inclination they had been dealt, their natural inclination to do bad, which does not exist in the first case.

7. Because God does not have a sin nature, God being good does not require the ultimate in moral effort.  It is not possible for God to have a natural inclination to do bad.

8. Because humans do have the potential for a sin nature, humans have the potential to exert the ultimate in moral effort.

9. Therefore, people are potentially better than God on that dimension.  God’s “ceiling” for potential goodness is lower than humanity’s “ceiling” for goodness.

10. Because God cannot have a sin nature, and simultaneously a Being without a sin nature cannot do the ultimate good, it is logically impossible for God to exist – the idea of God is self-defeating.

Posted in Science and Religion | 3 Comments

The One Bible Character I Can Really Relate to

Just because I believe in the Bible doesn’t mean that I can totally relate to all the characters there.  In plain fact, even when I think them admirable, I often have a hard time relating to them at all.  In fairness to the Bible, I’m a backwoods kid from Louisiana who ended up as a college professor.  Not sure I’m exactly “normal”.  [Editorial staff note: He’s not.]

All the same, I really have a hard time finding folks in the Bible I can really sink my teeth into.  Here’s a partial list of what I mean:

Peter? I identify with Peter when he denies Christ and loses faith on the water, but otherwise, I just don’t get having that much faith.  Peter is thunder and lightning, and I’m…the half-dead wimpy bush the lightning strikes and catches on fire.

Daniel?  No thanks.  I have a healthy fear of starved animals that can eat me.  (That’s not a phobia, folks.  That’s just being normal.)

Paul?  Seems super-arrogant and full of himself.  I can’t identify with being arrogant at all. Wait…don’t say anything.  That was a mean thing to think about me. [Editorial staff comment: Re-read his last post about believing the truth about oneself, and tell me the shoe doesn’t fit here?  This guy is so arrogant and full of himself, he makes Jiminy Cricket look like the Easter Bunny.  And we don’t know what that means.]

Noah? I’d be asking God questions like you really want me to save the stupid dung beetles?  I mean, here’s your one chance to get rid of dung beetles forever, and you’re tanking it?  And do you think it’s wise to only bring two antelopes when we have two lions, two cheetahs, and two leopards?  That’s like, what, six fierce cat predators to just two antelopes – you sure that’s a good plan?  And if the ark gets a leak and sinks, am I allowed to use the panda bears as a flotation device?  Wait, what?  You mean the rain’s started while I was asking questions and you decided to let my neighbor Jimmy build the ark?  Jimmy – really?  What kind of name for posterity is “Jimmy”?  If THAT’s the only link between the old humanity and the new, don’t you think the new humanity will just die of shame anyway?  Our hero…Jimmy? I mean, do you really want Russell Crowe in a movie called “Jimmy?”  Not gonna sell tickets, you know.  

Moses? Seriously, think of the snakes, man.

David?  Been in one fight in my life – over whether Terry Bradshaw was a good quarterback – and it was a two-hitter.  He hit me, I hit the ground, went home crying to my dad.  Not a proud day.  But seriously, you think I can understand facing Goliath?

James?  The pursuit of perfection?  Taming the tongue?  I’m just happy when I don’t yell at my co-workers and get fired on a given day.

Matthew?  The guy was a tax collector.  No kidding.  I’m not working for the IRS, you know? That’s bad enough, but then he basically follows Jesus one day because Jesus says “follow me.”  I mean, really, just follow me and he’s gone?  I know tax collecting is an embarrassing and disgraceful profession and all, but I have a hard time with just up and leaving because some person with kind eyes and an authoritative manner says “quit your job and follow me!”

John the Baptist?  The guy ate locusts. You lost me right there.  The Bible could go on and say “…and he was a Griz football fan with a huge ego and a love of all things donut-y,” and I’m still never gonna identify with a guy who eats locusts.  That kind of thing just ain’t natural.

I could go on.  Ezra: Never could understand all that animal burning.  Nehemiah: Built a giant wall?  I can’t build a lego figure named “Brick the Boring Lego Figure” that only has two legos.

My point is, though I love the Bible and often can find points of overlap with most of the characters above, and certainly can find inspiration from almost all of them, there are also points at which I have a hard time understanding them.

There is really only one Bible character that I think I really identify with at some deep emotional level – my story is not hers, but I feel, I’m sure, what this character felt.  I feel that in some way, this character’s experience with God has been basically my own experience with Him.  She was given no name in the Bible; but I’m sure I will learn her name in Heaven.

That character is: The whore at Jesus’ feet in Luke chapter 7:36-50.

The story goes like this. A woman who had “lived a sinful life” came to meet Jesus at the home of a supposedly-righteous religious person.  She stood behind Jesus, at his feet, weeping.  She had brought perfume to pour over his feet and she kissed his feet and wiped them with her hair.

This shocked the sensibilities of the religious folk Jesus was supposed to be dining with.  In fact, the Bible says that his host thought to himself that Jesus should know this woman was a sinner and keep his distance from her.

Jesus read his thoughts and rebuked the host.  Jesus’ words to him are worth reading, but I’d like to focus our attention on the woman.  At the end of the chapter, Jesus turns to her and says, right in front of the uber-religious snobs, “your sins are forgiven…your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

I am that whore.  I am someone who lived a sinful life, devoid of anything meaningful.  And I found Someone who loved me anyway.  And I came to that Person, broken, unworthy to do anything but weep at his feet.  And He forgave my sins and told me to go in peace.  And I did.

So I take comfort.  Atheists and religious people alike rage around me; but they do not trouble me. I sometimes go to academic conferences and see all these famous, sad, anti-religious agnostics lambasting away at God, seeking – like children on a playground who want their peers to think what a fine fellow they are – their esteem in the approval of the world.  Some of them get the approval, and some don’t, but both are equally unhappy.  As for me, I just ignore them – their insults fly past my head – because I have found what they are looking for already; I am at the feet of the Creator of the universe; I am already at peace.

On the flip side, religious leaders often seem to think that people like me don’t belong in the church; they seem to think that I’m not quite what they had in mind; but their long-winded judgments and long surly faces just go right past me.  I hardly take notice: The Creator of the universe has approved me, so why would I care about their hollow and trumped-up self-righteousness?  (I’d like to note that none of those long-faced people go to my church, where I have been loved and accepted beyond all hope of love and acceptance for a pony-tailed windbag.)

So let the world spin out of control on its axis for all I care.  Let the arguments about God’s existence rage, the empty religious judgments fly, the hate and lies and everything else this world has to offer keep coming.  I do not care: I will just remember my Jesus, remember that he has accepted my tears, remember that I am loved and that my sins are forgiven; and I am at peace.

Posted in What Christians Actually Believe | 3 Comments

Top 5 Things that are True About You That Make Good Self-Affirmation Messages

I have never understood people who “believed in themselves.”  The advice is so obviously stupid, so obviously bankrupt.  It’s like telling me to believe in a rock at the bottom of the ocean or in a piece of broccoli.  I mean, why should I pick a random object in the universe and believe in it?  Especially when in this case I happen to know, beyond any shadow of any doubt, that the thing in question (myself) is hopelessly defective? That would be like picking “red” on the roulette wheel after the ball has landed on “black.”

Having dismissed our entire cultural philosophy in one irritating gesture, I’d like to get on with what I actually do believe in.  But odds are, you are so annoyed right now that I’m going to have to stop and (in a fit of deranged irony) defend myself.

So: Consider a parable.  When all the sports stars or artists or what-have-you succeed in our culture, they inevitably say something like “I just believed in myself.  No one else did, but I kept believing in myself.”  OK, so if I were to take that advice as a causal chain with which to impart to young children, then all the mothers of the children on the losing team would also have told them to believe in themselves, right?  I mean, All-Pro kicker Jeff Norwood’s mom and All-Star first basemen Bill Buckner’s mom would both have told them that, at the key moment, they should believe in themselves, right?

But they would have both been wrong.  (Mom, nooooo!).  Norwood missed the kick that cost the Bills the Super Bowl.  Buckner flubbed the grounder that cost his Red Sox a World Series title.  It is an obvious truth that for every person who believes in themselves and succeeds, there are hundreds who believe in themselves and fail. Running back LaDanian Tomlinson did a commercial about how much he believed in himself (“the man who thinks he can and the man who thinks he can’t are both right,” it said) – but LT never won a title, or even made it to a Super Bowl.  (He did make cool commercials, but I never heard him say “I believe in my ability to make cool commercials.  Write that down, kids.  Fact.”)

No: Believing in oneself is a documented way of losing touch with reality.  There are plenty of people who believe in themselves who think they are Jesus.  Which would be fine if they were – but they aren’t.  So even if I believed in God, the one thing on earth I most certainly would NOT believe in is myself.

G.K. Chesterton once said something similar about not believing in himself to a friend of his, who responded by saying, “well, if you can’t believe in yourself, what can you believe in?”  Ah, there’s the rub.  We want to believe in something.  We don’t want to give up all hope.  We want to have optimism, to think there is a reason to go on.

Well, I don’t believe in myself – but I do have real reasons for optimism.  Last week we documented how I am a flawed, broken, pitiful thing who, despite all our cultural commentary to the contrary, is pretty much incapable of doing anything without a lot of help, or luck, or what-have-you.  So are you.

The astute reader may have noted that last post, I said nothing about God at all.  That was purposeful.  Because last post’s “top 5” list, in a sense, looks at ourselves without God. [Insult alert: I’m not saying the atheist life is meaningless, or that no meaning can be constructed without God.  That’s obviously false.  I am only posing an honest question about where our inability to trust in us leaves us.  That’s all.]  Your life could end today – all that you value could be taken away right now – your very mind could be removed, your personality altered, by a car accident on your way home.  You did not give yourself your brain and you cannot stop it from being taken away.  You may have worked hard for your job and your house, but if the market your job depends on collapses – if a foreign nation successfully invades – if a hurricane destroys all you hold dear – you get the idea.  Clearly, putting faith in yourself isn’t really a good decision.  And if there is nothing beyond this world – if this is really all there is – then there’s nothing for it but to acknowledge that and trudge on anyway.  And I respect that, as long as the trudging is honest and doesn’t involve a delusion that one can tackle a tornado, when the plain truth is that the tornado will beat you almost every time.  You and I are really not that great.

However, I believe in something more.  I believe in a different reason for hope that goes beyond myself.  Whether I believed in God or not, I’d believe that humanity needed some outside help.  Part of the problem IS us – the problem is inside all of us, you and me, me and you.  And we need something from beyond to help us.  The only question is whether or not that thing exists or not.

Well, I think it does – and in today’s post, below, I detail some more positive reasons for optimism about yourself.  So without further delay, I give you: Top 5 Things that are True About You That Make Good Self-Affirmation Messages.

1. There is not a single thing I could do today that would make God love me any less – or more.

2. The person I see in the mirror has committed sins that are already forgiven – all I have to do is ask for it.

3. I am incredibly special to God and could never, ever be replaced in His heart and mind.

4. There is nothing that this world can do to me that can take away my soul.

5.  God knows my name and He’s ALWAYS glad I came!

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Top 5 Things that are True About You That Make Bad Self-Affirmation Messages

In responding to criticism of his actions, NCAA President Mark Emmert said (from the Missoulian, August 11, 2013):

“Have I done things that were inappropriate or frustrated people by mistakes that I have made? Of course.  But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop doing these things.  That’s not the way I operate.”

I personally think ol’ Mark needs some good old-fashioned and unvarnished self-reflection.  You see, he appears to think so highly of himself that even though he has done “inappropriate things” that “frustrated people” – well, he’s ok.  He’s not going to stop doing those things – that’s not who he is.  It’s not how he operates.  And obviously ol’ Mark thinks he operates just fine, thank you.

Look, I’m fine with self-esteem – properly understood – and I think the Bible is, too.  (Just to prove I’m not a total sourpuss and so you don’t get too down, next post we’ll give you the Top 5 Things that Are True About You That Make Good Self-Affirmation Messages). But it occurs to me that we could all use quite a bit more of the truth about ourselves, and quite a bit less of thinking we are incredibly awesome (when we are clearly not all that awesome, or are at best awesome in a “Twinkie-ish” way, by which I mean a this-tastes-great-but-it-makes-my-stomach-hurt-my-gosh-what-is-that-thing kind of way).   We could all use to follow a little bit more of the Bible’s advice when it says in Romans 12:3:

“Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.”

So, with that self-enlightenment goal in mind, I give you the Top 5 Things that are True About You That Make Bad Self-Affirmation Messages.  Try putting these messages on your mirror as your morning “pick-me up”:

1. Today, I might just stop breathing and there is not a single thing I could do about it!

2. The person I see in the mirror has committed sins that I can never undo!

3. If farmers in Oregon do not have a bountiful broccoli crop this year, that could lead to a chain of events causing me to lose my job and I would be helpless to stop it!

4. Remember that most of the things I am afraid of would in fact kill me if I met them alone in a dark alley!

5.  I am a forty-two year old fat guy and I will most likely never fulfill my dream of becoming an NBA basketball player!

(OK, that last one might not apply to you – but did you think this was all about you?  How petty.  That calls for two more.)

6.  In the big scheme of things in this immensely vast universe, I’m like a speck of dust or a blade of grass!  (Go get ‘em, tiger!)

7.  Most people that know me probably think that I’m a worse person than I believe I am – they just don’t know how to tell me!

Posted in Top 5 Lists, Ratings, and Rankings | 2 Comments

The Apologetic Professor is Embarrassingly Alive

There is a nasty rumor going around that I’m not alive.  To squash this rumor, I’m happy to violate several federal laws and share my own recent medical report with you.  As a part of the university’s “wellness” program, a month ago I underwent a series of physical exams.  Here is the doctor’s report, word-for-word:

“Patient is obese.  % body fat in unacceptably high range.  Patient does not exercise and eats a poor diet consisting largely of cheese, donuts, and french fries.  His diet has never seen the broad side of anything green.  YET, we are also professionally annoyed to report that, in spite of this shockingly unhealthy lifestyle, he is obviously as healthy as horse.  An incredibly healthy horse, we mean – not one of the ones you have to put down because its leg is broken.  That would be a weird and horrid analogy that should never be put on a blog, even as a bad joke said in passing.”

So you can clearly see that I annoy my doctors, who constantly tell me to exercise and eat more vegetables, and yet who also constantly tell me that they’ve never seen someone so incredibly healthy.  (This suggests a low-hanging fruit for the health researcher: Where is the study on the health value of donuts?)

I’d also like to squash another erroneous rumor that, after posting my own argument for the existence of God and having it scathingly reviewed with a “barfing face” sticker, I have crawled back into the hole from whence I came and given up.  I laugh an evil laugh at that thought!  Bwahahahahahahahaha!   (The key to the evil laugh is to breathe deeply and let it go from the gut outwards.  Otherwise, you risk pulling an abdominal muscle.  That’s truly humiliating.  So breathe, people, breathe!  Take it from me – I’m in great health and do an evil laugh at least once a day).

Seriously, you don’t know me at all if you think I’m packing it in.  Quite the contrary: I love the intellectual challenge and Jack and the atheist/agnostic crowd better get their gear on.  In actual fact, I’ve been working on a rebuttal/defense so epic, so annoying, that I want it to be perfect before I present it.

No, what I’m actually feeling is this: I’m embarrassed, genuinely embarrassed, that it’s been so long since my last post.  This term has been unusually difficult due to the fact that the federal government gave us some money for a grant (that’s good), but gave it to us like six months late (that’s bad), and then didn’t give us more time on the back end (worse and worse), so we had to cram a lot of work into a short period of time.  Now that we are (somewhat) caught up on that, I can breathe again.  So be warned!  More posts are coming.  Breathe!  Bwahahahahaha!

Posted in Rather Bizarre Social Commentary | 2 Comments

The Iced Caramel Macchiato With Whipped Cream Argument for God’s Existence

One of the things I’ve noticed is that my intellectual reasons for believing in God are not always quite the same as other people’s intellectual reasons.  Many of the arguments that other people find persuasive I find strangely non-compelling.

I’m not knocking those arguments per se; only saying that they often don’t really offer much to me in the way of persuasive fodder to keep my faith alive during darker days.  But as I’ve spent quite a bit of time on this blog criticizing various arguments for God’s existence, I thought I’d actually take a smaller amount of time to do something mildly more constructive: I thought I’d lay out one of my own actual reasons for believing in God.

Well, I should say my own intellectual reasons. My actual reasons for believing in God are, I presume, probably much like any other person’s:  I sometimes feel God’s presence, I have experienced personal miracles, and when neither of those things are happening (which is most of the time), I occasionally long for something beyond this world.  In other words, I really wish the universe contained God’s presence and miraculous interventions on my behalf, and on some occasions I actually experience those things.

But here we are not talking directly about that – but rather the intellectual question: Given the state of the universe as we commonly understand it, and given that it isn’t always obvious that God exists, what is the probability that He exists?  What if I had easy alternative reasons that might explain the things I believed were miracles in my own life – and instead could consider this as a purely intellectual question, such as “is light a wave or a particle or both?” If I try to do that, what can we say about it?

Below, I’m going to lay out an argument concerning this question.  I should first say that there is a part of me that finds such argumentation almost silly.  Now, as that’s the kind of thing the apologetics people tell you not to put on a website, I should clarify what I mean, which is: God doesn’t need an argument to prove that He exists.  I’m not sure that would be His primary method of discovery, if He did exist.  So, in short, I’m going to tell you about one of the reasons I believe in God, intellectually speaking – when I think about it at some broad level – but in doing so, I’m not really discussing something that is super-central to my faith.  My main reason for lobbing this argument out there, like the opening bit of mashed potatoes in a food fight, is for your entertainment – so that you can all have fun ripping it to pieces and tossing it back at me.  What can I say: I like you.

Finally: I don’t claim the argument is original to me in the sense that no one else has ever said anything like it.  Indeed, I’d be shocked to find that no one had ever said this before, and probably some smarter and wiser person has said it better somewhere else.  Rather, I only claim it is original to me in the sense that (a) to my knowledge, I came up with it independent of other folks, and (b) I haven’t really read or heard anyone else say anything exactly like it.  The closest thing to this argument that I’m aware of is the “The Argument from the World as an Interacting Whole” which you can read about on Peter Kreeft’s website via this link:

http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/20_arguments-gods-existence.htm

If I were to name my own intellectual case for believing in God, I would call it “the argument from complex pleasure.”  It starts with an observation from my own experience:

I really, really like an Iced Decaf Caramel Macchiato with Whipped Cream from Starbucks.  From this experience I’ll build my case for God’s existence.  But first, let’s back up a bit.

Background Assumptions

I was made as a creature that can experience pleasure.  This is a fact of my experience.  The key question in my argument is this: Where did that experience of pleasure come from?  How did I awake in a world where I can experience pleasure?

I can see multiple potential answers to that question, but for the sake of brevity, in this post I’m only going to focus on two possibilities: Either it is the result of an entirely naturalistic process in a materialist world (I’ll call that Naturalism), or it is the result of some sort of intent by a higher Mind (I’ll call that Theism).

So which view, naturalism or theism, best explains the origins of pleasure?

The Non-Necessity of Pleasure

I think pleasure is important because it is an obviously unnecessarily positive experience.  Although it does seem to serve (say) a survival function in our world some of the time, there is no necessary reason for pleasure to serve that purpose.  In other words, it is easy to imagine a world where I drink water to survive, but experience no pleasure in the act.  The mechanism to encourage drinking water could be punishment (e.g., I experience more pain if I don’t drink water), or rational (I simply recognize that I need water to live), or could involve some simple intuitive “counter” (e.g., I could have a mechanism that simply recognizes I’m “out” of water or “full” of water without producing any corresponding pleasure or pain in the process).

The point is this: Because it is a part of our world that pleasurable things are related to survival, it is easy for us to sometimes fall into a trap of assuming the pleasure-survival connection is necessary.  But when we are asking how I ended up in a universe where pleasure was possible at all, we need to get out of that box.  And when I do, I can clearly see that the pleasure-survival connection isn’t necessary in the sense that life could conceivably have emerged in a world with no pleasure at all.

Now, this doesn’t of itself play into our debate about God – at least not directly.  The same argument could apply to God as to chance – there is no necessary reason why an omnipotent being would have produced pleasure, either.  But my point here is largely this: Pleasure interests me in part because the pleasure that I feel is, at some base level, a positive fact of my existence that would not have necessarily had to emerge for any particular reason.  So why did I end up in a universe where it was possible?

Simple Pleasures

I think it matters what kind of pleasure we are talking about.  Some of those pleasurable experiences are fairly simple in their nature.  So, for example, I can see that I find pleasure in drinking water or in having a full stomach after eating dinner.

Now, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that, even though pleasure isn’t a necessary mechanism for survival, it could serve as a possible mechanism.  Given this, such simple pleasures seem fairly easy to explain from a purely naturalistic framework – at least conceptually (whether or not chance would have likely produced such a thing is a different matter, and is in a sense a different argument altogether).  Why do I find pleasure in drinking water?  Because I need water, and I need a mechanism to get me to drink water, and pleasure could be a natural mechanism for encouraging me to drink water.  If that were all there were in this universe, I can easily imagine that I as a being evolved to enjoy water in order to keep me alive through chance processes.  Of course, God also could have made me to enjoy the thing that keeps me alive with the exact same purpose in mind – so this is basically a stalemate.  Simple pleasures really get us nowhere.

The Mystery of Complex Pleasures

But not all of the pleasures I experience in life are like that.  Many of them are richer than my experience of a quenched thirst on a parched day.  The very essence of these pleasures is that they are complex: They cannot easily be broken down into a unitary cause-effect chain such that the experience itself is clearly tied to only some biological need.  The reason I like an Iced Decaf Caramel Macchiato with Whipped Cream is not the same reason as I like water when I’m parched.

And the reason it isn’t the same is because of (a) the rich complexity of the experience, the way a lot of varied flavors, desires, textures, smells, and feelings all combine into one amazing mouthful; and (b) while some of the individual parts may seem to serve some clear biological function, the sum total of this experience does not seem to serve a clear biological function.

Now, I know that one natural reaction to this is to simply try and cheapen the experience by saying “I think you are overstating the glory of Starbucks, man.  It’s not that great.”  So I fear I am forced at this point into a very boring task – namely, of defending the glory of the Iced Decaf Caramel Macchiato with Whipped Cream.  I think any argument that simply denies that there is a huge difference in the complex richness of some pleasures and the simple necessity of others is simply closing one’s eyes to reality – at least, to my reality.  So to be sure you are not blithely dismissing this important and obviously-true observation, I want to spend a little time on the experience itself.

All experiences, even ones I’ve described as simple, have some complexity – so, for example, from a sheer biological viewpoint, drinking a sip of water is complex.  Further, obviously water has texture and flavor as well, two different components that constitute some level of complexity.  But I’m referring mostly to the subjective nature of the feeling it evokes here and how the mechanism we have for perceiving that integrated whole might have come into being.  And drinking a latte combines a lot of somewhat-disparate things into a complex picture that produces a unique kind of pleasurable experience that doesn’t seem to be directly about filling some obvious biological need – at least, the summed whole of the experience doesn’t seem to do that (even though a lot of the parts individually might).

There is the pleasure of fatty milk; there is the pleasure of the smell of coffee; there is the pleasure of quenching thirst; there is the pleasure of sugar; there is the pleasure of caramel bits; there is the pleasure of sweet cream; there is the feeling of home, of something like nostalgia, of faint and mostly-forgotten memories, echoes of conversations from times past, and a hundred other learned associations; I could go on.  The point here is to say that the combination of all of these things produces a unique experience that is way, way better than any of the things on their own.  I’m using the word complex; but perhaps the experience itself can best be described as being rich. It isn’t that we don’t experience, say, the pleasure of sugar in a latte – rather, it is that this pleasure is subsumed into a larger mosaic that is much, much richer than that pleasure (or any of the other pleasures) alone.

Before we evaluate what this means about God, let’s take two different examples that are perhaps, by degrees, a little further removed from biological needs.  Let’s start with the pleasure in the colors of fall.  Why do we like autumn color?  Well, liking fall color isn’t the same as liking a page colored with a red crayon (though we often like that because we like bright colors).  It subsumes that pleasure; but it’s richer, more varied, and transcends it.  Our enjoyment of fall colors simultaneously includes at least the following elements: (a) a love of specific colors, (b) a love of contrasting colors, (c) a love of trees and nature, (d) the feeling imbued by transient and ethereal things (that is, we know it will not last long), (e) the enjoyment of visual complexity, and (f) the pleasure we feel in cyclical recurrence of the seasons.  Those are just a few of the elements, all of which involve pleasure individually – yet, the experience of the enjoyment of fall colors somehow combines them, transcends them, subsumes them, into a new and different experience.   That is the essence of a complex pleasure.

Finally, consider something that seems even further removed from biological needs: The love of music.  I was at a symphony a few weeks ago and there were a couple of moments where the complexity of the pleasure evoked by the glorious chords almost made me cry.  [Editor’s note: He also once cried at a football game – and at the movie Mulan – and because he ate a really, really good donut. We’re just sayin’ that maybe we shouldn’t make too big a deal about this whole crying at the symphony thing.] And why do I love music?  Where does that come from?  Enjoyment of the symphony involves an ability to process an incredibly complex mosaic of instruments (more than I’m going to list) and constantly fluctuating variations in rhythms, loudness, and pitch.  The weaving of this rich mosaic is a complex pleasure.

Complex Pleasures Point to God

Now the whole point is this: Why did I awake in a world where such complex pleasures were possible?  And the answer I find, when I think it through, is this: I think it modestly likely that random chance could have produced the simple pleasures, like the pleasure I get from drinking water when I’m thirsty.  But I think it far less likely that random chance in a naturalistic world would have produced complex pleasure.

For me to experience a complex pleasure, there has to be (a) complexity in my environment and (b) a matching psychological mechanism for me to encode and enjoy the complexity in that environment.  Thus, it is primarily the match between the complexity of our psychology and the complexity of our environment that is in play here.  I find it unlikely that chance would have produced something as complex as a latte and something inside of me that allows me to register the complex experience as the rich thing that it is.  I find it unlikely as a matter of sheer probability.  The mechanism that allows me to experience this wild combination of flavors in a complicated way would have to be complex – and the odds of it matching the complex ingredients in the latte seem small.

This is simple mathematical probability: The odds of two things matching by chance decreases proportionally as the complexity of each thing increases.  We’ll deal in a minute with the obvious possibility that the match comes from the psychological mechanism altering the environment or vice versa – but first let’s illustrate the matching probability principle with an example.

A Digression About Crossword Puzzles

I like crossword puzzles; sometimes my wife and I work on them together.  One of the things that reasonably annoys my wife when we do this is that I often like to write down my guesses in pen.  Given the tiny space for each letter and the inability to erase a pen, it is hardly surprising that this is not a popular thing to do in the Conway household.

Yet for our purposes it will help illustrate what I mean about complexity and probability.  Because, contrary to what Kathrene may tell you, I don’t write down every guess in pen – I use an intuitive method for determining the probability that a guess is right before I write it down.  Consider a section of the following (real) crossword puzzle I just completed:

crossword_pic

Let’s say I know with near certainty that 5 down is correct.

And here’s what I have for clues:

5  Across    ___ Romeo

14  Across  Microsoft chief, to some

18  Across  Poet Dickinson

20  Across  Govt. Tax Form

22  Across  A pig’s house 

 

6  Down     Proceeds falteringly

7  Down     Play at Love

8  Down     Brass or Bronze

15 Down    Cheat by deception

Now let’s say that I look at 6 down and I think immediately that it is steps and I look at 8 down and I think immediately that it is metal.  And what I want to know is, what are the odds that these guesses are correct – should I write them down in pen?

Not yet.   I first want to see how they might fit together with other possible guesses.  If I put those in, for example, that means that 14 across (Microsoft Chief) would be B S _ E _.  That doesn’t look promising, since I think that’s probably going to be some form of “Bill Gates” (though I’m not sure – I don’t follow Microsoft) and neither of those would match that.  Further, I think the poet in 18 might be “Emily” and that doesn’t match either one.

So I decide to scrap both of those ideas for the moment.  Instead a new thought occurs to me – I wonder if 8 down might be alloy.  So I play around with that.  I have this vague sense that 5 across is alfa (though I’m not sure why – maybe that’s a car?).  That fits.  If 14 across is Billy (who knows – maybe some people call Bill Gates that?) then that would fit, too.

So far, that’s not enough to be too confident.  But do you see what’s happening here?  If I get one or two things that I’m unsure about lining up, it still could be the wrong answer – all of these could be wrong; random coincidences if you will.  But as the number of coincidences coalesces – as more and more of my guesses fit together into a complex pattern – I begin to grow in confidence.

So now I notice that alloy also fits with Emily because the “l” works.  That’s not quite enough for me to have confidence even in Emily to write it down; my grasp of poets’ names is not all that great.  But then I realize that 6 down might be limps (which fits with alfa, Billy, and Emily).  Then it occurs to me that 22 across could be sty.  I’m not confident in sty, but it fits with alloy.  So what are the odds that all my guesses to this point are wrong?  Very small.  Although I’m not confident in any one guess enough to write it down, I have guesses for 5 across, 6 down, 8 down, 14 across, 18 across, and 22 across, all of which fit together.  For alloy, that would only leave one letter open (20 across, which I’ve no idea at all what it is).  I decide to write “alloy” down because it seems immensely unlikely that, even though I’m not that confident in alloy on its own, I’m confident that the likelihood that the whole mosaic of uncertainties would have emerged as a fluke is pretty small.

I then have a check, because while Billy works great for some of the letters, the “y” on the end cannot possibly work because, if Emily is right, that word for 15 down would start with “yy.”  I don’t trust that; it seems either Billy or Emily must be wrong.  So I try all sorts of words both starting with “y” and with “y” as the second letter.  I come up with “gyp” and notice that this would make 14 across “BillG” which could be right.  I write that down.

Finally, with 7 down having apparent letters (if my guesses are right so far) F L I _ T, I fill in the “r” for “flirt” and decide to call it good.

Does this mean that this section is right for certain?  No.  I’ve done a lot of crosswords and sometimes what I thought was a beautiful mosaic was in fact a set of random words based on sensible guesses that turned out to be almost entirely wrong.

My point is not about certainty; but about probability.  The probability of my being right – and thus the likelihood of me writing in pen – goes up, not just with the certainty of my guesses for each case, but also with the likelihood that those guesses match up to other guesses.  And the more and more complex it gets, the lower the likelihood that the matches are a fluke, and the higher the likelihood that my guesses actually approximate the intent of the person who designed the crossword.

Mercifully We Return to the Question At Hand

So, back to our question: Why did the world end up in such a way as to include both my ability to enjoy a latte and the ingredients to create it?  Why did the world end up in such a way as to contain both my ability to enjoy fall color and the fall color itself?  How did my incredibly complex pleasure-feeling mechanisms happen to match the incredibly complex reality that I actually experience?

The best I answer I can think of to that question is that I was made for it; the complex environment and the complex perception mechanism were both created by something outside of each.  By what or whom?  By something that intended that I, Luke Conway, would have an ability to experience complex pleasure, just like the crossword puzzle was designed by someone that intended the word alloy to fit in a non-random way in that particular place. That something would have to be pretty powerful, awfully intelligent, and have some desires or goals commiserate with this experience.  In other words, it would most likely be some kind of mind that wanted me to be able to experience such complex pleasure and was capable of producing the match between my complex pleasure-processing unit and the complexity of the latte.  That mind would have to be outside of us, guiding our development as a species in some way, either making our processing unit commiserate with an already-existing environment, or making both the environment and the processing unit to match each other.  While it’s of course possible that some Prometheus-like aliens did it, I find that something like a Theistic God fits the bill better.  But the point is that based on what I know, my experience of drinking a latte is better explained by God than it is by naturalism, even though the experience itself is essentially non-religious in nature and doesn’t necessarily produce a religious reaction.

Similarly, I find it unlikely that chance would have produced both the rich varied world of autumn colors and my psychological ability to enjoy that rich and varied experience.  What are the odds that Alloy matches Emily, Sty, Alfa, and BillG by chance?  Not very large to me.  The mosaic feels too complex.  What are the odds that my perception mechanisms would have emerged to allow me to assimilate a seemingly unnecessary pleasure in fall colors and that the fall colors themselves would contain all those complicated elements?  It doesn’t feel like there is a very great probability that both would have co-occurred by chance – they are each too complex.  Thus, just as I assume alloy is probably the result of actual intent by a real mind designing the crossword because it fits into a larger mosaic, I assume that my pleasure in fall colors is probably the result of actual intent by a real mind because it fits into a larger mosaic.

The Obvious Reasonable Objection and Why It Does Not Compel Me

Because this is getting kinda long, next post we will deal with a few possible objections to this argument.  At the moment, though, I’d like to discuss the most obvious one that occurs to me and that I’ve thought about a lot.  That objection is this: It’s possible that the reason for the match between the environment and the mechanism is because one of them created or influenced the other.  So, for example, it is possible that I developed a mechanism that allowed me to enjoy lattes, or to enjoy the ingredients in lattes, because those ingredients existed in the human world.  It is also possible that humans then just experimented with all those ingredients until we found the best combination that produced the most pleasure.  To the degree that this is true, the match between my own perception mechanism and the environment becomes less mysterious and can more compellingly be explained by chance mechanisms requiring no “outside” mind.  The “match” thus becomes less compelling to the degree that there is “contamination” between the environment and the perception mechanism.

This is a reasonable point; but it does not compel me.  Some of the reasons it does not compel me are very subjective and hard to define – it does not remotely capture the nature of the experience itself to imagine that, say, it is very likely that woodwinds and violins playing together were invented as a result of some kind of seek-and-find effort.

But no matter – that’s not really what we are about here.  Intellectually, when I step back from that, this objection has little weight to me.  (1) It is largely based on the unlikely proposition that I would develop a mechanism for assimilating ingredients in my environment when the assimilation itself (and sometimes the individual ingredients themselves) does not seem to serve any necessary function.  Even granting that, having a mechanism for enjoying a complex latte, I might search the universe out to find the right ingredients to produce the perfect one, the question still arises – why would I develop a mechanism for a complex pleasure before I would have the ingredients to search it out?  I don’t just have mechanisms for each individual ingredient – I clearly have a mechanism to assimilate those ingredients.  Thus, as an explanation for the match between the two, the search-and-find idea leaves a lot to be desired.  Indeed, it kind of makes my point for me – it assumes that the mechanism causes the match with the environment, but in so doing illustrates how incredibly unlikely it is that we would develop a complex mechanism for a rich experience that we had not yet had.

(2) On the other hand, if we assume the environment created the mechanism, we have a different problem.  (a) First, it seems unlikely in many cases that the environment would have preceded the mechanism at all.  Is it really a serious argument that my mechanism for enjoying the symphony was created in the distant past by the existence of complex instrumentation?  Yet I seem made for the symphony.  (b) More importantly, in most cases it is hard for me to imagine how the complexity of the mechanism would come from the environment itself.   It may be tempting to say that, given the existence of fall colors, perhaps over millions of years we gradually developed an ability to enjoy the various parts and then somehow assimilated them into a larger experience.  But this hardly gets us anywhere, and indeed just brings me back where we started.   The only naturalistic mechanism we know of is chance mutation (and I can think of no better one, and all of them would involve something like chance in any event).  And there is no necessary reason that, existing for billions of years in a given environment, we should assume that chance mutation would have produced any particular thing, much less this particularly complicated one.  Fall colors exist in a complex way – but a fungus exists in the same environment and presumably does not have a mechanism for enjoying their complex pleasure.  So why should the environment produce a mechanism for enjoyment at all for something so complex?  The prima facie case for an environment producing a complex pleasure is not very strong.  Indeed, in reality the environment can at best only have an indirect effect in shaping the mechanism – it cannot really directly produce anything.

(3) An offshoot of this idea suggests a kind of co-development over time, so that the mechanism for perception grows at the same time as the complexity of the environment.  The co-development idea sounds all fancy-pantsy, but as far as I can tell, it has the same set of logical problems that we’ve already illustrated – it just couches them in more obtuse language.  But as this post is getting awfully long, even for me [Editor’s note: Good heavens, is this guy right for once!  We hope he is actually about to stop rambling], I’m going to deal with that in my next post.  For now, I’ll just note that this co-development idea mostly punts on all the hard questions and takes us a long way round to the same exact fundamental question we are now considering.

And that leads right back to our crossword puzzle.  What are the odds that two complex things, the environment and the mechanism, would co-occur by chance to match each other?  That they would emerge in some mutually-constitutive way when it seems unnecessary for survival for them to have done so?

I would say an honest evaluation suggests to me that it is possible, just like it is possible for all those guesses to have been randomly placed in a mosaic – but it is not likely.

After all, I went and looked up the answers to my crossword puzzle – and 8 down was “alloy.”

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