Sunday, December 25, 2011

Believing the Christmas Story (From the Archives)

What follows is a repost of a seasonally appropriate essay from last year. Parts of it resonate with a different kind of significance this year, in the wake of my father's recent passing.

What does it mean to believe in the Christmas story? In terms of substance and significance, what does it mean?

I’m not asking about facts. I’m not asking for a recitation of one or more of the Christmas narratives with the concluding remark, “To believe in the Christmas story is to believe that these events really took place.” If there is one thing that bothers me more than anything about biblical literalists, it’s that their religion is, far too often, so shallow. Their faith becomes about affirming that this or that happened, that this or that factual claim is true. There is no effort to really dwell on what it means to live as if this is true, to let one’s attitudes and choices, one’s patterns of engaging with the world, be informed and transformed by a narrative vision. When I ask what it means to believe in the Christmas story, that’s what I’m asking for.

I ask for it in the midst of my own finitude. I live with a constant awareness of my limitations, limits which I feel in so many different ways. My wife is a triathlete. She’s run marathons, swum unfathomable (to me) distances. Recently, my 7-year-old son has taken up running—and I’ve found myself called upon to keep up with him in the fun run or the 5K at an area event while my wife runs a longer distance. And so I’ve been trying to run, to build my stamina. I’ve been feeling and pushing the limits of my aging body.

One can extend one’s limits, but they remain. I might find myself huffing less intensely after a mile on the treadmill. I might stretch the distance I can cover without a walk break, until I can run around Boomer Lake in Stillwater twice without a rest. But the limits will remain. And starting to run in my forties means that I do so with a clear awareness that whatever limits I stretch will soon close back in on me, as countless little signs of age have their inevitable cumulative effect.

My father was recently diagnosed with cancer. He will be having surgery in a little over a week. This fall, a fellow violinist and retired music professor in my congregation passed away, and I sat at his funeral listening to the testimonies of his violin students and remembering Bernie, my own wonderful violin teacher, who’d passed away decades ago. This summer my wife’s grandfather died, and so I found myself thinking about the deaths of my grandparents—one dying in indignity and anguish, the other with unexpected swiftness. A few months back, Dame Joan Sutherland—La Stupenda—breathed her last. Only recordings of her exquisite breath control remain (many of them in my music collection). All of us confront this ultimate limit, the outer boundary of our mortal life. The generations take turns pushing at it.

Our consciousness moves inexorably forward through time. Even if Einstein is right and we live in a “block universe,” one in which time is just another dimension of reality—even if my experience of “now” is a kind of illusion of consciousness, and that past (and future) are every bit as real, every bit as much there, as the present—even so, it remains the case that my experience of time is sequential, that I am caught in a current I cannot turn against or step out of.

That current not only points me towards the limit we call death, but constrains me at every moment—constrains me in every moment. I’m visiting my parents, who live in the same house I grew up in. Earlier this week I drove past the home of my childhood friend Doug. I’ve reconnected with him recently on Facebook, so I know he was in Buffalo this summer, emptying out his childhood home. I saw the “Sold” sign out in front of Doug’s house, and I saw the bronze eagle that his family had installed over the garage decades ago. I wondered how long that ornament would last once the new tenants moved in.

And I remembered playing in Doug’s basement. I remembered his mother coming downstairs with toast slathered with raspberry jam. I remembered the taste of it, the crunch of toasted Wonder Bread and the burst of sweetness. And for one anguished moment I want to visit then. I wanted more than just the memory, the ghost that haunts the present. I wanted to be that child playing with that friend, tasting the flavors of that moment. And it seemed a terrible injustice that one can travel to old familiar places but not to old familiar times.

The other experiences of limitation are more personal, having to do with my incapacities, my inability to find the right words or gestures to help or comfort those I love. Presented with their needs, I come face to face with my faults. Too often, because I don’t know the right thing to do, I do nothing when something is urgently required.

My “pleasure” reading these days is Stephen R. Donaldson’s fantasy novel, Against All Things Ending. If anything—like all his novels—it’s a narrative meditation on finitude, on the flaws and limits that not only constrain us but define us. His characters’ flaws are always extravagant, their brokenness almost unendurable. And he casts these broken people into a mythic universe which reflects and magnifies that brokenness as well as their beauty, an environment whose threatened virtues demand their self transcendence.

In this novel, Thomas Covenant—who in earlier novels sacrificed his humanity to become an integral part of the mythic Arch of Time—is thrown back into mortal life due to the extremity and reckless urgency of his former lover’s (Linden’s) efforts. Towards the end of the novel he finds himself wrestling with what it means to be a finite mortal creature again, and he has these thoughts:
Now he was human again: he could no longer see past his limitations. Like every creature that died when its time was done, he could only live in his circumscribed present.

This was the truth of being mortal, this imprisonment in the strictures of sequence. It felt like a kind of tomb.

In his earlier state, he had recognized that this prison was also the only utile form of freedom. Another contradiction: strictures enabled as much as they denied. The Elohim (mythic beings of pure “Earthpower”) were ineffectual precisely because they had so few constraints. Linden was capable of so much because her inadequacies walled her on all sides.

Now, however, he had to take that perception on faith.

In the Christmas story, Christians affirm something like what Covenant strives, in the midst of his limited perception, to hold onto on faith: the idea that limits can encompass redemptive possibilities.

One of the most extraordinary images to come from the Hubble Space Telescope emerged when the telescope was pointed towards an area of seemingly empty space. What would the telescope reveal? The answer was galaxies. Galaxies upon galaxies. Multitudes of galaxies filling that tiny sliver of darkness. The vastness of the universe, the immensity of creation, came to light in a stunning way.

To believe in the Christmas story is, first, to believe that behind that immensity is an infinite creator whose vastness dwarfs His creation. The creation itself is one that we cannot even begin to fathom, and which demands our stunned silence—but that stunning immensity is only a symbol of the magnitude of what lies behind.

Second, to believe in the Christmas story is to believe that this infinite creator descended into His creation to take on the boundaries of matter and time and vulnerable flesh. All that immensity, all that unfathomable vastness, became paradoxically defined by mortal limitations: the strictures of sequence, the inevitability of death, helplessness, susceptibility to despair.

Our anguished consciousness of our limits, our fallibility and fragility, finds no purer symbol than the wailing infant, the baby whose only power is to scream out its need. And in the Christmas story, that symbol of frail finitude is juxtaposed against the heavens: the blazing star over Bethlehem, the heavenly host that comes with terrifying splendor to the shepherds—or, in the language of our own age, the vastness of the universe, galaxies upon galaxies that fill up one sliver of darkness in the sky.

But part of the message is that what the child represents is something far greater that the teeming enormity of the physical universe, despite the strictures of sequence, despite mortality and frail flesh. The eternal Logos, the Word that from the beginning was with God, one with God, fully present in a child stripped of any trappings of grandeur. A stall. Hay. Outcast shepherds. Peasant parents. It isn’t the emperor who is exalted, who can claim the mantle of the infinite. The infinite presses itself into mortal strictures at that point where its meaning cannot be warped by artificial hierarchies, the imagined constructs we fashion to tame the vastness of what lies beyond us.

We exalt a man in a big room, on a big chair, wearing glittering clothes—and if such a man is the definition of greatness, then greatness is a miniscule thing. It won’t dwarf us. Such a parochial vision of greatness can help us not to think of the galaxies upon galaxies filling up one tiny corner of the heavens. If God came to Earth in such a man, we’d make God as small as an emperor.

But in the Christmas story we are asked, not to tame our vision of God, but to expand our vision of frail humanity. In the Christmas story, we are invited not to hide from the immeasurable vastness of the universe and its creator, but to confront it in the knowledge that we will not be lost or crushed or driven to despair by its enormity. Rather than taming God, rather than putting God in a manageable box, the Christmas story buttresses us in all our frailty so that we needn’t hide from what transcends us. It does so not by making us equal to God; not by erasing our limits. It does so by making the infinite God one with us, by bringing God down into those limits. To believe in that, to believe in the Christmas story, is to be capable of enduring and accepting our limits, our finitude, the strictures of physical existence and the one-way flow of time—capable of accepting them even when we honestly see them for what they are.

And this capacity in turn enables us to do what inevitably exposes every frailty and imperfection in a blazing light. It enables us to look to the infinite, to open ourselves to it, to face the mysterium tremendum with the joy of relationship rather than in despair over our own inadequacy.

And to believe in the Christmas story is to set aside the fear of inadequacy and all the ugly things that go with it: the jealousies of others’ accomplishments; the envy of others’ talents; the shame of being merely human; the other-directed judgments and condemnations that are really about misdirection, about getting those around us to look somewhere else so that they don’t see our own glaring sins; the self-directed loathing and despair that comes when we cannot hide from our own sense of insufficiency; and all the superficiality, the consumerism, the empty entertainments that we throw ourselves into in the hope of distracting ourselves, of keeping ourselves from noticing our staggering limitations.

To believe in the Christmas story is to look at all this friable life, in ourselves and others—this life constrained by mortality and sequence, impotence and ignorance, sin and fallibility—and to treasure the precious reality that dwells within those limits, rather than the vast nothing which lies beyond them.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Bit More on Hitchens

Glenn Peoples, over at Say Hello to my Little Friend, has posted a rather scathing "tribute" to Hitchens almost worthy of Hitchens himself. He begins by noticing (for the sake of bucking) the supposed trend of "Christians coming out of the woodwork to say nice things about him" now that Hitchens is dead. One can almost hear the scorn in his voice.

I would certainly qualify as one of those Christians who, on hearing about Hitchens's death, felt moved to say something nice. To be honest, had he died immediately after I'd first read god is not Great, I wouldn't have had much nice to say and so probably would've remained silent. But the more I followed Hitchens' career in the wake of finishing Is God a Delusion?, the more...fond...I became of him.

And so I wrote the following response to Peoples' roasting:

I generally agree about the quality of Hitchens’ arguments, which were routinely more pugilistically clever than sound. But when it comes to the motivations at the root of those arguments, and their ultimate effect, I think there is much more room for debate.

As far as motivations go, the more I studied Hitchens the more I came away with the sense that underneath the bluster and sneering bravado was outrage at what he saw to be the range of foolishness and inhumanity in the world–and hence, at an even deeper level, a devotion to the true and the good. This is not to say that his response was the best one, or even an especially good one. It is to say that a devotion to the good and the true was the deep source of the passion with which he delivered even his most hostile verbal diatribes.

Of course I could be wrong about this–we cannot readily plumb the hearts of human beings. I certainly did not have this sense when I first started reading Hitchens on religion. In my book, Is God a Delusion?, I rarely had anything positive to say about him–and the general weakness of his arguments on a philosophical level meant I actually gave him less attention in that book than the other so-called new atheists. But as I continued following his career I just had this growing sense about his driving motivations–a sense that I still don’t have with respect to, say, Dawkins or Sam Harris. This sense led me to respond to him with almost a sort of affection (an affection that would, I’m sure, crumble if he ever turned his vitreol directly on me; so not an especially durable affection, but an odd kind of affection nonetheless).

But even if my intuitions here are wrong, there is something I am prepared to say with considerable confidence. Hitchens was a human being, and human beings have an inherent worth and dignity that warrants our respect–even in the cases of those who were not themselves prone to displaying such respect in their own rhetoric. It is quite possible that a roasting of Hitchens at his death–of the sort that Hitchens himself was wont to offer towards those he took to be particularly egregious fonts of foolishness and inhumanity–is a kind of sideways show of respect for him (Kant’s arguments about retributivism point in that direction). But my own inclination is to show my respect by reaching beyond the layers of crud towards what I take to be the mark of his creator at his core–and to live in the hope that this will be preserved long after his pugilistic screeds are forgotten.

I didn't, in that comment on Peoples' post, take up the issue of the effects of Hitchens' attacks on religion. Peoples claims that Hitchens "contributed nothing of value to public discussions around religion," and that his writings and public debates and talks ("circus antics") "only served to egg on the very worst intellectual element of atheism".

I'm not at all convinced that Hitchens' legacy can be reduced to this. One of the things Hitchens liked to do was attack our sacred cows with all the eloquent disdain of which he was capable. He was one of the few, for example, who was prepared to question the near-universal esteem in which Mother Teresa is held--calling her "a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud" (among other things). His attack on her was certainly over the top. Unbalanced, unfair, unfitting, disrespectful--all of these are terms I'd be inclined to apply.

But sacred cows often operate as an impediment to intellectual honesty. And while Hitchens' attacks on sacred cows weren't themselves models of intellectual fairness, I suspect that, at least sometimes, his willigness to attack them created a public conversation that hadn't been there before. In place of nothing but pious repetition of Mother Teresa's virtues, Hitchens' attacks forced at least some people to actually come to her defense. And some of those defenses carried with them explicit concessions that wouldn't otherwise have been voiced, or at least wouldn't have been voiced in a way that made it into the broader public conversation. Perhaps there was something problematic--or at least worth critical discussion--about a nun devoted to giving love to dying orphans in an overpopulated city (in an overpopulated country, in an overpopulated world) while continuing to unquestioningly endorse the Roman Catholic opposition to birth control.

When it comes to religion, Hitchens was of course attacking sacred cows that were already being attacked in lively style by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and others. Arguably, then, he didn't spark a public conversation that wasn't already well underway.  But it is surely the case that the New Atheists taken as a whole sparked a public conversation that had been largely sequestered up until that point in philosophy of religion classrooms and in the occasional (mostly ignored) blog. Prior to the New Atheist onslaught, my qualified and conditioned defense of religion--one which takes sharp issue with fanatical, fundamentalist, and science-hating expressions of faith--would have received far less attention than it did (and would likely not have been read at all by conservative religious believers). This is a point I've made in the past in relation to Richard Dawkins.

So, taken as a whole, the New Atheists did in fact provide a public-conversation-starting function. And Hitchens was a defining voice in that movement.

Let me be clear that this is not an unqualified defense of Hitchens' brand of rhetoric or of the New Atheist movement. One of the great dangers of the approach exemplified by the New Atheists is that the public conversation may become polarized to the point of ideological entrenchment. Going from a world in which the merits of religion go largely undiscussed except in rarified intellectual circles, to a world in which the discussion has the character of a shouting match across metaphorical picket lines, may not qualify as progress. And I'm not yet sure that this isn't the nature of the transition we've undergone.

In other words, there is something to Peoples' claim that Hitchens egged on some of the less intellectually respectable voices in the atheist community. My point is that Hitchen's legacy is more complex that this single effect. That complexity needs to be acknowledged and thought about.

And since I have more questions than answers when it comes to the ultimate impact of Hitchens' brand of anti-religious public rhetoric, let me open it up at this point to the thoughts of others: What do you think is the long-term legacy of Hitchens' brand of hyperbolic anti-religious campaigning?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Reflection on Hitchens' Death At Religion Dispatches

I have a brief reflection on Christopher Hitchens' death at the Religion Dispatches blog. Check it out here if you're interested.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Intelligent Design/Justin Bieber Connection

Okay, so this blog title is a bit misleading. My aim here, really, is to critically assess a proposal offered by Randal Rauser on his blog. Randal’s blog is one I like to check in on occasionally, since Randal is a philosophically-trained theologian who is consistently thoughtful, clear, and witty. While he self-identifies as an apologist in a way that I do not, his brand of apologetics is far more appealing to me than, say, William Lane Craig’s.

That’s not to say I always agree with him. About a month ago he put up a post, "In Search of an Arsonist," that I would likely have commented on—in critical terms—if I hadn’t been grieving my father’s death. The post had to do with the method by which we determine whether something is the product of intelligent design. Randal’s thesis is that we decide that something is the product of intelligent design by ruling out other causes until intelligent agency is all we’re left with.

Sometimes, of course, this is exactly how we proceed. Randal offers the example of forensic investigators who conclude that a fire was arson (and hence the result of intelligent agency) by ruling out other causes. But can we generalize from such cases? Is it always or even usually true that we infer intelligent agency by a kind of process of elimination? More significantly, can we or should we rely on such a process in the effort to infer an intelligent designer behind natural phenomena?

Before tackling these questions, I want to take a slight digression. Specifically, Randal’s arson investigation case is precisely the kind of case commonly invoked by members of the so-called “ID movement” to support their claim that what they are doing is science—that it is methodologically in line with established scientific procedures and so should qualify as science. Is this right?

I’m not sure Randal wants to draw this conclusion. After all, if intelligent agency is best inferred by ruling out other kinds of explanations, then the quest to decide whether phenomena in the natural world are the product of intelligent design might best be pursued by dedicating a discipline to the task of uncovering and testing these other kinds of explanations. In short, we might use Randal’s point as a basis for arguing that science should be “methodologically naturalistic” in something like the way that opponents of ID movement insist it should be.

But let’s set this concern aside for now. To determine whether the ID movement is pursuing an approach that qualifies as scientific, we need to know how ID theorists actually defend their views. As I understand it, the modern ID movement (as opposed to believers in design or defenders of philosophical arguments from design) grew out of "creation science," and it shares with its predecessor the political aim of getting the God hypothesis into the public school science classroom. But ID's approach is much more sophisticated than what one finds in creation science, setting aside pseudo-scientific arguments for the literal inerrancy of Genesis in favor of modern updates of William Paley’s version of the argument from design. Where the modern updates differ from Paley is not in the basic logical structure of the argument, but rather in their choice of examples of things-that-are-best-explained-by-positing-a-God.

Contemporary ID theorists typically rely on examples taken from two sources: molecular biology and physics. The first version of the modern argument, which might be called the Argument from Irreducible Complexity, relies primarily on the views of biologist Michael Behe. Put simply, the argument runs as follows: Certain complex biological systems on which organisms rely are said to possess the property of “irreducible complexity”—that is, they are such that, were they to be rendered any simpler by having any of their components removed, they would cease to function altogether and so would confer no adaptive advantage on organisms possessing them. Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, it is argued, cannot account for the emergence of such irreducibly complex systems, since evolution explains complex systems in terms of incremental increases in complexity, where each such increase is preserved by the adaptive advantage it supposedly confers. Intelligent design, by contrast, can account for such systems. There is, supposedly, no credible third alternative. Therefore, these systems are best explained by positing an intelligent designer.

Second, we have what’s sometimes called the Fine-Tuning Argument. A set of physical constants are said to possess the property of being “fine-tuned” for the emergence of organized complexity (and hence life). No purely physical theory, it is argued, can adequately account for such fortuitous fine-tuning. Intelligent design can. There is no credible third alternative. Therefore, the fine-tuning of the universe is best explained by positing an intelligent designer.

In each of these cases, what the ID movement offers is an argument, some of whose premises are susceptible to assessment in the light of established scientific methods. But notice what it doesn’t offer: a strategy for positively testing the “intelligent design hypothesis” itself. Instead, what we have is a disjunctive argument in which ID theory is endorsed based on a process of elimination—which is, of course, precisely the mechanism that Randal endorses as the proper one for inferring intelligent agency.

One question we can ask is whether reliance on such a disjunctive argument alone can ever justify one in saying that the conclusion reached was arrived at scientifically. Clearly, scientists can and do make use of this sort of disjunctive reasoning—ruling out known causes for a phenomenon as a way of concluding that some unknown cause is at work. But this is typically a kind of prelude to further scientific work, involving speculation about what the unknown causes might be, and then conducting experimental tests (in some sense repeatable) to determine whether one’s guesses have any merit.

But maybe invocations of intelligent design just can’t work like that, because intelligent design brings things about through agency, and agency is subject to will rather than uniform laws. The argument might go as follows: When a hypothesized cause is mechanistic (to use Hermann Lotze’s language), we can test it—by, paradigmatically, making predictions and seeking to falsify them. But freedom isn’t law-like and so doesn’t allow for that kind of testing. And intelligent design inevitably involves an exercise of freedom. Thus, intelligent design can’t be tested for scientifically, and so can only be rationally embraced in some other way. Perhaps this “other way” is the process-of-elimination approach Randal endorses: If nothing else can explain it, we are left with intelligent agency by default.

If so, we might well ask whether this process-of-elimination approach qualifies as science (i) always, (ii) sometimes (and if so, when and why?), or (iii) never. If it isn’t science, then this just goes to show that intellectual inquiry can and does proceed beyond the boundaries of scientific inquiry, invoking a palette of resources that are still available when science has hit the limits of what it can do with its methods. At stake here is not just the credibility of other methods of inquiry, but the political agenda of the ID movement. If this sort of thing isn’t science, then it shouldn’t be in a science classroom—although it arguably should be part of high school education even so, as part of the philosophy curriculum that high schools shamefully lack.

But the question of whether the process-of-elimination approach to inferring intelligent agency is science needs to be assessed in the light of a deeper question: Is it generally true that we can and do infer intelligent design by elimination of other causes?

I think that, in fact, the situation is much more complex. Consider again the case of the forensic scientists investigating a fire. In this case, we have a certain kind of event (a fire) about which we have considerable experience. On the basis of this experience we have derived a list of “known culprits”—that is, kinds of causes (lightning strike, untended campfire, discarded cigarette, deliberate arson, etc.) which are typically responsible for an event of this kind.

In a situation of this sort, we can systematically rule out the various kinds of causes until we are left with only one—and thus, by process of elimination, arrive at the conclusion that, most probably, the cause was of the remaining kind. I say “most probably” because, even though a rich body of experience tells us that events of this kind are ordinarily produced by causes within this list, there might be unusual kinds of causes that don’t appear on the list. The list is fairly exhaustive, but not completely so.

Some contexts aren’t like this, however. Suppose I’m a space explorer who has recently landed on Planet X. The terrain is uniformly flat in most places, but on my third day I come across a big mound of dirt. After investigating the mound, the ground beneath, and other bits of evidence, I’m able to ascertain that what I’m witnessing is the result of a kind of “dirt-geyser” phenomenon produced when trapped gas pushed up through a silt-filled fissure.

Now I come across another mound of dirt. Upon investigating, I conclude that it is not the effect of a dirt-geyser. But, being new to the planet, I have very little experience with such mounds, and hence very little experience with what might cause them. My list of “known culprits” has one member, and I’ve eliminated it. Presumably, in this case, we can’t reasonably infer intelligent agency on the basis of eliminating all the other known culprits.

What we might say is that the explorer is in the process of creating a known-culprits list for dirt mounds. At that stage of the game, the negative method of determining causes through a process of elimination is unavailable, or in any event untenable. There is just too little that is known about how things work on the planet, and hence no reason to suppose that the list of “known culprits” for dirt mounds even approaches being exhaustive.

Furthermore, there is no reason as of yet for the explorer to suppose that intelligent agency should be included in the list of causes for dirt-mounds on Planet X. The explorer has seen no intelligent denizens on the planet, let alone any who were busy making dirt mounds. This distinguishes our explorer from forensic scientists on Earth who are exploring an unexplained fire, insofar as these scientists know there to be intelligent agents running around and also know that these agents have the means to start fires and sometimes do so.

Of course, this may not be quite right. Suppose our explorer is exploring the planet with a colleague, who is a known practical joker. In that case, the explorer would be well advised to investigate the theory that his colleague created the dirt mound as a joke.

But there’s a difference between appealing to a known sort of intelligent agent—an intelligent agent of a kind known to exist and known to be capable of producing the effect observed—and using observed phenomena as the basis for concluding that a new kind of intelligent agent, one not otherwise observed to exist, in fact does exist. If, after years of study, the Planet X explorer has produced a fairly exhaustive list of causes for dirt mounds—but has never observed any intelligent denizens of the planet—can this explorer really deduce that there must be such denizens if he encounters a dirt mound that cannot be explained by any of the known culprits on his list?

It doesn’t seem so. In fact, it seems that were the explorer to reason in this way, he’d be guilty of a kind of question-begging. What running out of known culprits warrants is the conclusion that there is a heretofore unknown culprit. To assume that the new culprit is an intelligent agent is, in effect, to operate as if the “gap” in one’s list is in fact not a gap at all but is filled by precisely the new kind of intelligent agent one is seeking to establish. The explorer has, in effect, treated the hypothesized new sort of intelligent agent as a member of the known culprits list in order to reach the conclusion that a new sort of intelligent agent should be included in the know culprits list.

But now suppose I’m exploring Planet X and come across an enormous rock in the shape of Justin Bieber’s head. I mean the resemblance is perfect. Of course, I scream in utter terror. Not only are there intelligent beings here, but they clearly wish me ill.

In this case, unlike the dirt-mound case, I immediately infer intelligent agency. I don’t infer this because I have eliminated all non-agent causes from my list of things-that-can produce-perfect-stone-replicas-of-Justin-Bieber’s-head. Rather, I infer it immediately from the nature of the phenomenon that stands in need of explanation. And I infer it (rightly, I would say) without having ever observed any intelligent agents at work on this planet, without having any idea of what those intelligent agents are like, how they produced the stone head, etc.

The reason I justifiably make this inference is because a sculpture of someone’s head is the kind of thing that, in my experience (and not just mine), is only produced by intelligent agents. Once I rule out my practical-joker colleague as the cause, I might now reasonably add a new kind of intelligent agent to my list of known culprits for things observed on Planet X.

In effect, then, from the above we can identify two distinct ways of arriving at the view that intelligent agency is responsible for some phenomenon of type P: (1) A body of experience teaches us that P’s are typically caused by a range of causes, one of which is intelligent agency; the phenomenon at issue is a P; and all causes other than intelligent agency have been eliminated; (2) A body of experience teaches us that P’s are caused only by intelligent agency, and the phenomenon at issue is a P.

(1) and (2) may not be exhaustive. They wouldn’t be if, for example, we could ever immediately intuit, without a body of experience, that certain phenomena require intelligent agency. I'm inclined to suspect that, in fact, we can do exactly this. But I won't pursue that case here. Instead, I simply want to summarize what I take to be the lessons of the above analysis:

(a) Inferring intelligent agency by a process-of-elimination is an acceptable approach (arguably a scientific one) in cases where there is a known set of culprits for a given phenomenon, intelligent agency is among the known culprits, and there is reason to suppose that the set of culprits is fairly exhaustive (that is, most phenomena of the given sort are explained by one of the known culprits).

(b) In cases where we have no firm reason to suppose that our set of “known culprits” is fairly exhaustive, the process-of-elimination approach is not acceptable for inferring intelligent agency or any other cause.

(c) If we are asking whether there exists a new kind of intelligent agency that we haven’t seen before, the process-of-elimination approach is question-begging—unless the phenomenon we are seeking to explain is the sort that we justifiably believe on other grounds could only be produced by an intelligent agent. In that case the process-of-elimination approach would operate on known intelligent agents who might have caused the phenomenon, with the inference to an unknown intelligent agent reached when all known intelligent agents have been eliminated.
In place of Randal Rauser’s process-of-elimination strategy for inferring intelligent design, I would therefore offer up (a)-(c). And given (a)-(c), it would take more work than Randal has done to say that the fine-tuning case should be approached in the same way that forensic scientists investigate a possible arson.

Anyway, that a first run at articulating my thinking about this. Thoughts?

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Politician's Beatitudes, Take Two

Some time ago I composed these "Politician's Beatitudes." Since my last two posts were, for better or worse, related to the statements and arguments of a couple of politicians, I thought it might be the right time for a repost. So, here they are: The Politician's Beatutudes. Enjoy!

Blessed are those who act to preserve the privileges of the rich, for they shall receive substantial campaign contributions.

Blessed are those who swallow back tears at strategic moments only to quickly compose themselves again, for they shall be regarded as having a sensitive side but still be seen as strong, thereby being judged more trustworthy by the electorate (unless they’re women, in which case they risk being seen as dangerously emotional).

Blessed are the aggressive, since negative campaigning has proven time and again to work even though the electorate complains about it.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for prestige and influence while pretending to care primarily about serving the public, for they will gain levels of political influence that those motivated more by a spirit of public service than ambition can only dream of.

Blessed are the merciless, because they’ll ruin the political credibility of their opponent before their opponent does the same to them.

Blessed are those who can look earnestly into the camera and sound really sincere as they say things like “God bless the United States of America,” for they will win the heartland.

Blessed are the warmongers, at least if they can properly time their war-related popularity surge to an election cycle.

Blessed are those who can spin their political opponent’s attack ads as persecution for righteousness’s sake, for they can engage in an underhanded attack on their political opponent while appearing as if they are standing against negative campaigning—thereby both enjoying the benefits of a negative campaign and enjoying the benefits of pandering to the public’s theoretic opposition to negative campaigns.

Blessed are those who, in moments of moral integrity, defy this cynical list of political beatitudes and act from a sense of authentic justice, compassion, or moral purpose—for although they might not get reelected, they may actually find true fullfilment in the lives they lead after leaving public office.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Rick Perry's New Ad: A Translation

One more political post, just because it's the season for that sort of thing. It occurs to me that some people may not understand why Rick Perry's most recent ad campaign, "Strong," grates like fingernails on the chalkboard with people like me. So I thought it would be helpful to offer a translation of sorts. For those of you who haven't seen the ad, here it is:

And here is what I hear as I listen to it:

I’m not afraid to explicitly link my bigoted and hateful beliefs to Christianity in an attempt both to baptize hate and to garner votes, even though doing so gives all Christians a bad name among those who care about justice, equality, and a love that isn’t constrained to one religious community or one sexual orientation.

I believe there is something wrong with the decision in this country to end a painful and damaging discriminatory practice in the military. I think we should have continued to discriminate against some of those who have chosen to risk their lives and sacrifice their comforts in the name of promoting the security and freedoms of their fellow Americans. Because of who they happen to love, their courage and sacrifice means nothing to me.
Furthermore, I think it is terrible that we take separation of church and state seriously in this country. In the name of this principle, our public schools are prohibited from officially sanctioning one religion over others or setting aside school time to explicitly carry out a religious practice or celebrate a particular religion’s holidays. So long as this principle is in place, there will never be schools in this country that require Christian children to observe Ramadan on pain of enduring stigmatization if they refuse. But it also means that Muslim children will not be required to sit through school functions that explicitly endorse the majority religion. And since I belong to the majority and want to impose my views on those who don’t share it, this is an intolerable cost to me.

I know full well that prohibiting schools from explicitly sanctioning one religion over others  does not mean that any child is prohibited from praying in school according to their beliefs, or celebrating their religious holidays and traditions in a manner that doesn’t shove them down the throats of others who think differently. It just means that each child, regardless of faith or lack thereof, is allowed to do this in their own way when it doesn't disrupt school activities, or during times set aside without prejudice for children to pursue their individual convictions—for example, during moments of silence that are still officially observed during school assembles. Even though I know full well the distinction here, I will deliberately choose to ignore it and misrepresent reality for the sake of political gain.
And I will not only aim to increase public confusion on these issues, I will take those who are clear about them to task, labeling their respect for our soldiers regardless of their unchosen sexuality, and their allegiance to church/state separation, a “war on faith.” I will deliberately invoke us/them rhetoric, magnifying the ideological divisiveness in this country for the sake of gaining political power.

I am Rick Perry. I mask my bigotry in the cloak of Christian faith. And despite the fact that doing so plants hate and division into a faith defined essentially by a love that knows no boundaries, I approve this bigotry.
So that is what I hear, for better or worse, when I listen to this ad. And that is what many people hear. And that is why we cringe--or blink in horror at the fact that this man is a serious contender for the most powerful political position in the world.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Philosophical Public Service Announcement: Michele Bachmann's Argument Against Same-Sex Marriage is Bad

One public service that professional philosophers can (and probably should) provide is to carefully explain why certain popular arguments on matters of public interest aren't any good.

Doing this is important because some bad arguments are delivered sincerely by politicians and pundits in the public sphere; and these arguments, despite their unsoundness, play a role in shaping or solidifying people's convictions. And even though anyone who isn't already a true believer can smell something fishy, in some cases it can be hard for the ordinary person to pin down and clearly explain what's gone wrong.

Occasionally I feel the need to present such arguments to my students. A few weeks ago, when discussing same-sex marriage in one of my classes, we were looking at an argument for same sex marriage that relied on the following premise:
Restricting marriage to heterosexual couples amounts to legal discrimination, and thus stands in need of a substantive justification--a compelling state interest, beyond majority preferences or sectarian religious beliefs, that could warrant the state in waiving the presumption of equality under the law.
This premise strikes me as clearly true--and it seemed that pretty much everyone in the class agreed. Those who were opposed to same-sex marriage didn't deny that current practices are discriminatory. What they denied is that the discrimination is unjustified. They thought there were good reasons to exclude same-sex couples from the legal institution of marriage, but were prepared to concede that gays and lesbians were being legally denied something that the heterosexual majority enjoyed.

But I knew full well that there's an argument often repeated in the public sphere which challenges this--an argument which purports to show, not that the discrimination is justified, but that no discrimination is going on at all. So I threw it out there. Here's how the argument goes:
A law that restricts marriage rights to heterosexual couples is not discriminatory at all, because everyone in society has the same rights with respect to marriage that everyone else in society has, namely to marry someone of the opposite sex. No one is excluded from marriage. It's just that everyone in society faces exactly the same constraint on who they can marry. It must be someone of the opposite sex. So: no discrimination, and hence no need to justify the discrimination by appealing to some consideration that could warrant differential treatment.
So what did my students say when I laid out this argument? Very little. I saw some eyes roll. One student said, "I refuse to dignify that argument with a response." They generally sensed it was a bad argument, but they weren't quite able to spell out where the argument goes wrong.

"But if you don't think the argument is convincing," I said to the student who refused to dignify the argument with a response, "you need to be able to explain why. Because this is a major public dispute right now. And not only are there people out there who are sincerely making this argument, but there are people whose prior convictions are being strengthened by it. Put simply, the argument sounds reasonable to them."

Of course, one person who delivers just this argument is GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. Here's a video in which, among other things, she articulates precisely this argument in response to a high school student questioning her opposition to same-sex marriage:

So why is Bachmann's argument bad? (There's actually more than one bad argument in this clip, but I want to focus on the one about same-sex marriage.) The teenagers in the clip were persistent and courageous, but they didn't articulate the fatal flaw in Bachmann's argument with the kind of clarity that would expose it for what it is (maybe even to Bachmann herself).

And what's the fatal flaw? Put simply, the argument is premised on the assumption that everyone has the same sexual orientation. If everyone had a homosexual orientation, then a law restricting marriage to heterosexual couples would require that everyone marry someone they have no attraction to, cannot fall in love with, cannot sustain romantic feelings with, etc. Everyone in society would be equally denied access to a deeply valued social good, namely legal recognition and support for their intimate, romantic loving partnerships. No discrimination there--although we might wonder why the state would systematically deny everyone access to this social good. (I suppose if everyone had a homosexual orientation, the reason might have something to do with motivating reproduction in a world where no one is drawn to reproductive sex).

If everyone had a heterosexual orientation, then--once again--a law restricting marriage to heterosexual couples would be unproblematic. It would preclude everyone from doing something no one had any interest in doing in any event: namely, marrying someone they cannot be attracted to or cultivate romantic feelings for. It would be a kind of silly and pointless restriction, a bit like prohibiting people from eating unhealthy food they despise in contexts where courtesy doesn't demand it.

And, of course, if everyone had a bisexual orientation, then a law restricting marriage to heterosexual couples would put the same limitation on everyone (I've often joked that conservative Christians think everyone is bisexual--after all, they declare that "it's a choice"). We might wonder why this constraint should be imposed, but the constraint would not be discriminatory against any individuals (although it would still discriminate against couples who happened to be of the same sex, and thus would cause considerable pain when people had the bad luck of falling in love with someone of the same sex and then had to face the decision of whether to break up with someone they loved or go on with the relationship knowing they'll never have access to the social and legal goods of civil marriage).

But people don't all have the same sexual orientation. And so, legally limiting civil marriage to heterosexual couples means that heterosexuals are afforded access to a distinctive good (having their intimate romatic partnerships recognized and supported by the state) that is denied to those with a homosexual orientation. (Furthermore, the law creates a situation in which bisexuals are confronted with a potential life challenge--see above--that heterosexuals are immune from). 

Of course, Bachmann claims that a homosexual orientation is something that can be "healed" through so-called reparative therapy or ex-gay ministries. The evidence hardly supports this claim. At best, gays and lesbians can be habituated to more effectively suppress their natural attractions and, perhaps, learn strategies for functioning sexually with people they are not attracted to. But that isn't conversion to heterosexuality. They remain persons with a homosexual orientation who are, we might say, better able to outwardly mimic the sexual lives of persons with a heterosexual orientation (but who, in mimicking this, cannot experience the inner satisfaction and relational intimacy that is possible for heterosexuals).

But suppose Bachmann is right. Suppose reparative therapy actually can succeed in turning a non-heterosexual into a heterosexual. Would it then be the case that restricting marriage to heterosexual couples is not discriminatory? No. It would still be discriminatory. Why? Because, in order to enjoy the distinctive social goods offered by the legal institution of marriage, those who happen to have a homosexual orientation would be required to do something that heterosexuals would not be required to do: They'd need to successfully undergo conversion therapy.

Heterosexuals who fell in love could head straight to the appropriate municipal offices to apply for a marriage licence. If civil marriage were available to same-sex couples, then gays and lesbians could do the same thing. But as it is in most states, they can't. Instead, they're denied the benefit of legal recognition and support for their intimate relationships unless and until (assuming, as Bachmann does, that this is possible) they achieve a successful "conversion" (and spend the time and other resources needed to achieve this).

Imagine, if you will, that public funding for attending state universities were only available to people who spoke English with an American accent. And suppose that there are accent coaches out there who have a track record of success in teaching this ability to those willing to invest the time and resources. Does the latter fact make the policy non-discriminatory? Of course not. Discrimination in the conferral of social goods based on one's accent remains discrimination even if it is possible, with time and effort, for those who have the "wrong" accent to change it.

None of this implies that discrimination is unjustified (although I think it is). But it does imply that to argue that there is nothing discriminatory going on is just misguided. Bachmann's argument is bad. No one should be influenced by it one way or the other. And so its badness needs to be explained, again and again if necessary, so as to shut down any power it might have to erroneously shape public thinking. Consider this my small effort in that cause--and feel free to direct others to this post if you'd rather not explain the badness of the argument yourself.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Hand Over Your Coat as Well

Jesus' radical ethic is no more vividly described than in this key passage from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-42):
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
What did Jesus really have in mind here? Let evil go unconstrained in the world?

Maybe not. Maybe what he had in mind was something more along the lines of what the social worker Julio Diaz did when he was mugged in the NYC subway. Check out the NPR story here. As Diaz demonstrates (quite literally), "handing over your coat as well" might be a bold act of unexpected--and transformative--compassion. If only more of us were like Diaz, demonstrating creative compassion so consistently that even our muggers are caught up in the web of it, blinking in wonder that such a thing is really possible.

Blog Update

It was my intention--mostly kept--to take November off from blogging so as to focus on family during this time of loss. I intend to resume regular blogging shortly, and I have some topics in the works. Among other things, a philosophical colleague at another university was apparently using my first book in class and sent me a list of questions his students had put together. I will likely use these questions as the basis for some blog posts. I also have a post on intelligent design inspired by a recent essay on Randal Rauser's blog. And I have several posts that are emerging out of the research for my new book project, God and Gays.

But all of that will need to mostly wait until I can see myself clear of the current backlog of term papers and student journals that are now cluttering my office...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving in a Time of Loss

This Thanksgiving is, for me and my family, a time of mourning. On Tuesday of this week we celebrated the life of my father, who passed away a few short weeks ago. I sit now in my childhood home and find myself expecting to see my father at every turn.

It's easy to fall into melancholy memories, to sit there in the aching remembrance of a childhood whose pains are long forgotten but whose joys are as clear as they're out of reach--joys bound up with my father, who is now gone. It's easy, in such moments, to lose touch with the spirit of gratitude that we celebrate today.

The experience of loss is part of the human condition, and it is often felt most keenly during the holidays, when established rituals are pregnant with memories. On the first holiday after a loved one has passed away, the empty spaces left behind are especially potent: the place where she sat, the role he played in preparing the meal, the story she always told, the distinctive resonance of his laughter.

You look with habitual expectation and find yourself jolted by absence. With time, of course, the habits fade. The absence no longer hits with such a shock. But it remains an empty space.  And as we grow older, there will, inevitably, be more such spaces.  

This year my family confronts my father's absence--my father who was always the attentive host, the one who raised the glass in our welcoming "Skål," who always made sure everyone had what they needed. How can we help but feel his absence, so fresh and vivid, as we sit down to the Thanksgiving feast? What does it mean for this holiday, whose purpose is to offer thanks, to turn our eyes upward in a spirit of gratitude, to thank God for the gifts of life?

Part of the answer is offered afresh every day by my children. When I find myself falling into the past, longing for what is gone, I'm grateful to my children who exist so wholly in the joys of the present that I'm forced to live there too. And I'm thankful for my own childhood and the family that made it possible--imperfect as all human families are imperfect, but defined by the kind of love that casts a long shadow into the future. 

Were it not for that love, I wouldn't feel the ache of loss. Those who are gone move us to mourn because, when they were with us, we were present with them, attending to them, loving them. And so loss must recall love, and love must flow out again into this place where we find ourselves now, this place where joy waits to be tasted along with the feast. We honor love by loving. We revere treasured memories by make new ones. 

Another part of the answer hit me on Monday night as I was sitting at the table with friends and family who had arrived in town for the memorial service. We drank wine from the wine rack my father had filled (with his impeccable taste), and we told stories and laughed (and cried) and ate together late into the evening. We were living and present to each other, thankful for who my father was and for each other. We were alive and living our lives at the table together. 

And I thought about the final notes of the violin piece I'd composed for my father's service. A "double stop"--two notes of a chord played together. And the thing that struck me is this: When you play two sustained notes of a chord on a violin, the interaction of the sound waves audibly produces the third note in the chord. If you listen carefully for it you can actually hear it. It's there, sounding clearly above the other two. 

And of course my father was there, in just that way, as we gathered at the table. And as we gather for our feast tonight, he'll be there again, sounding clear and true.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

In Memorium: Paul H Reitan, August 18, 1928-October 30, 2011

I don’t know if many people beyond my immediate family knew about my father’s capacity for silly dancing. He was a quiet man, reserved with his feelings—in many ways very classically Nordic in temperament. He was a college professor who looked and carried himself like a college professor, who spoke with a combination of careful deliberation and passion about topics that mattered to him. In later years, he was a wise elder statesman of sorts for the community of geoscientists devoted to making the geosciences relevant to contemporary social and environmental problems.

But I remember him dancing in the kitchen while we were washing dishes. It wasn’t quality dancing. And it wasn’t flamboyant. It was very deliberate, almost stately, but at the same time utterly absurd. He’d furrow his bushy brow and perform each move as if it were a thing of regal beauty, even though it was just…well, lifting one arm, then another, then a leg. Kind of a slow-motion hokey pokey.
My parents would sometimes have parties that lasted well into the night: gatherings of well-travelled people with intellectual and artistic sensibilities who’d sit for hours around the dinner table talking energetically, laughing, eating, and drinking fine wines or imported beers (sometimes with Aquavit if it was a Norwegian smorgasbord featuring pickled herrings and smoked fish).

It wasn’t uncommon, in these gatherings, for some kind of silly dancing to erupt late into the evening. Once, when I was a child, I remember wandering downstairs because I heard something utterly uncharacteristic: the sound of an electric guitar playing on the stereo. My parents never listened to anything but classical music, usually classical vocal music. But on this evening they’d abruptly decided to put on an LP of Czech rock music—something they’d gotten as a gift from some friends who lived in Prague.
As I came down the stairs, I saw my father dancing in a descending spiral, finally ending up in a heap on the carpet. What else could he do, when a drawn out electric guitar note was descending steadily down, down, down?

Another time, years later, I remember a line dance through the house to the tune of Hava Nagila (played by me on the violin).
And, of course, there were the more traditional folk dances that we did around the Christmas tree every Christmas Eve without fail. My mother would play the piano (or, in later years, I’d play my violin). But my father always danced.

One of my great regrets is that I never got to do an Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop with him. AVP is an organization founded by a collaboration between prison inmates at Greenhaven Correctional Facility and the local Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). AVP runs experiential workshops—in prisons and in community settings—focusing on conflict resolution and communication skills, community-building, and cultivating the psychological/spiritual resources for living a more nonviolent life.
Not long after I became an AVP workshop facilitator, I introduced my parents to the program. They both went through a basic workshop, but my father got hooked. He went on to become a facilitator himself, and after his retirement worked for about a decade coordinating the AVP program at Wende Correctional Center in upstate New York. I understand that he became something of a beloved grandfather for many of the inmates he worked with there.

One of the distinctive things about an AVP workshop is that, for all the seriousness of the skills and personal resources being cultivated, a spirit of play weaves its way through the whole. This comes out most clearly in what are called “Light and Livelies,” activities that are a bit like the ones that parents plan for their grade-schoolers’ birthday parties (except more fun). Intense discussions, deep sharings, thought-provoking activities—all are woven together by a spirit of play.
After all, what is the point of passionate engagement with social issues, of intellectual inquiry and deep personal sharing, of learning nonviolent communication and conflict resolution skills? What is the point, if not to work towards a world where people can enjoy their lives together more richly, laugh more often, delight in one another more fully? What’s the purpose, if not to learn how to unburden ourselves of all the crud that we too often carry with us, especially in our intimate relationships, so that those relationships may become, more truly, a source of childlike joy?

It’s no wonder that my father was drawn to AVP in his retirement, or that he was such a good and well-loved facilitator. Because although he may have looked the role of a quiet elder statesman imparting wisdom with passion and clarity—although he was such a quiet elder statesman—there was always in his heart a spirit of play.
My mother, in the days following my father’s death, expressed over and over her sense of privilege in the midst of loss: the privilege of being able to live 49 years with one of the best men she’d ever known. I had the privilege of being raised by him. And if there’s a personal basis for my staunch opposition to those exclusivist theologies that condemn to hellfire anyone who fails to embrace the doctrinal details and practices of their brand of faith, it lies in this: My father, an agnostic scientist, was one of the best men I’ve known. He could never share my Christian faith, but he was the first to treat it with respect. He could never see his way to believing beyond what his scientifically-trained mind saw as evidence. But he proudly bought up copies of my first book and mailed them to everyone he knew, include some very staunch atheists.

And the idea that he should be eternally rejected by the God of love because he couldn’t bring himself to believe this or that religious doctrine—well, the idea isn’t just absurd. It’s evil. It’s the kind of crud that keeps people apart, that stifles and truncates our capacity to find joy in each other, to love more fully and richly.
If there’s something I’ve learned from my father, it’s that good, thoughtful people can and do see things differently—often because they can’t help it given their upbringing, their experiences, their inspirations and their loves. None of us can pay adequate attention to it all; none of us can draw all the right conclusions from what we do attend to with care. But we can learn from each other.

Sometimes I get passionate about things, and I debate vigorously with those who disagree. Sometimes I pursue causes in the knowledge that others stand opposed to me. In this I’m like my father. I only hope that, like my father, I can remain focused on what it’s all about. If my father  cared so much about the environment, about war and violence, to become passionately engaged in debates and causes, it was for the sake of furthering the kind of community that AVP forges, of lifting the impediments to its spread, of helping to realize a world where everyone can dance.

Monday, November 7, 2011

From the Archives: Some Reflections on Kierkegaard

Having missed my classes last week due to my father's passing, I'm a bit behind--especially in my philosophy religion class, since we could find a substitute for only one of the days I was out of town. Since one of the topics that was slated for discussion last week was Kierkegaard's fideism, I can make up at least some of the lost class time by directing my students to this blog post from the archives--an explication and reflection on Kierkegaard's fideism. And so I reproduce it here.

Fideism is generally defined as the thesis that it is sometimes appropriate (especially in relation to ultimate matters pertaining to the fundamental nature of reality and the meaning of our lives) to believe something on faith rather than based on reason and evidence, perhaps even in the teeth of reason and evidence.

What this means depends on what we take believing something “on faith” to mean. In practice if not in theory, believing something “on faith” often ends up meaning essentially the same as believing it “just because” (where there is absolutely nothing after the “because”), and doing so with complete certainty that one is right (again, with no foundation at all). Typically, the believer then adds that this conviction is due to God implanting it, even though one has no reason to think that God implanted it.

Understood in this sense, if I happen to believe that the entire population of African elephants is right at this moment flying around inside my refrigerator, then so long as I have no reason and evidence for believing this but remain firm in my belief, and so long as I insist that I believe it because God implanted the belief in me (even though I have no reason at all for thinking that this is true), then I am believing it on faith. Seen in this light, it becomes a challenge to justify the worth that is so often attached to believing something on faith.

But this isn’t Kierkegaard’s fideism. In fact, if fideism is defined in terms of believing things without evidence, I think one misses Kierkegaard’s point altogether. Because for Kierkegaard, faith isn’t really about what you believe at all. In fact, so long as what you care the most about is the content of your belief, faith in Kierkegaard’s sense has eluded you.

Consider an analogy. Suppose you meet someone for whom you feel an immediate attraction. You go on a few dates. You start to fall in love. In fact, you feel yourself falling hard. But then you pause and ask yourself, “Who is this person, really? Does she deserve my love? Is she the kind of person with whom I can sustain a long-term relationship?” Suppose you take these questions seriously and so back off from your burgeoning feelings so as to get an appropriately objective perspective. You investigate her history, interview her friends and her boss at work, all the while not letting your feelings for her color what you hear, since you want to get a wholly objective picture. Finally, through this process, you come to know more facts about her than virtually any other person alive.

But, of course, at this point the rhythm of love has been shattered. You have no romantic feelings for her anymore because you’ve stifled them in favor of a wholly objective consideration of what is true and false about her. Likewise, in the process of doing this, she’s sensed your withdrawal and moved on emotionally. Even should you decide from what you learn that a love relationship with her might be a good idea “on paper,” the very process of pursuing such an investigation has killed any chance of having such a love relationship in fact. Furthermore, the things you learn through such an objective investigation are the wrong things in any event. What really matters for whether a love relationship is possible depends on what you learn through relating to her as a lover.

When it comes to the ultimate nature of reality, Kierkegaard thinks something along the same lines is the case. Kierkegaard tells us that “the highest truth is that the knower is an existing subject,” by which he means that the most important thing for me to know is that I am a subject of experiences with a life to live and relationships to form. One of those relationships is with reality—with the world around me as it truly is. But if I investigate the world objectively and dispassionately, in order to collect all the right facts about it, I become like the deluded fool who squashes any chance at actually being in love with a real person because he is too focused on collecting all those facts that can only be collected by setting passionate interest aside.

The real truth about me is that I am a creature who cares passionately, and to be true to myself, I must live passionately in relation to the world. If I squash that passion in favor of objectivity, I stifle the truth about me and so fail to live the truth—all for the sake of collecting propositions that are more likely to be objectively factual. I end up living a life that is utterly false to what it means to be the kind of being I am—and my consolation is a collection of facts.

Consider the following passage from Kierkegaard (in which Kierkegaard is assuming for the sake of argument what he will readily admit is unknowable, namely that the Christian God is the true God—that, in other words, what Christians believe is true):

If one who lives in a Christian culture goes up to God’s house, the house of the true God, with a true conception of God, with knowledge of God and prays—but prays in a false spirit; and one who lives in an idolatrous land prays with the total passion of the infinite, although his eyes rest on the image of an idol; where is there most truth? The one prays in truth to God, although he worships an idol. The other prays in untruth to the true God and therefore really worships an idol.

Kierkegaard frames the question in terms of objectivity and subjectivity—such that believing the correct doctrines is characterized as the objective side of faith, while believing in the right way, with the right kind of passion and love and attention to one’s relationship with the object of devotion, is the subjective side. I think this characterization may actually be misleading, because in reality both of these aspects of faith are subjective. Believing the right doctrines is a subjective achievement. My beliefs are a subjective matter, and hence believing in the truth is one dimension of having the “right” kind of subjective relationship to the truth. The other dimension is having the right kind of passion, the right kind of attitude, towards the object of belief.

The objective reality—such as the truth about God, about whether God exists at all and what He is like—is a different matter than how closely my beliefs correspond with this truth. And it may well be the case (as Kierkegaard seems to think) that it is impossible to ascertain how closely my beliefs about God correspond to reality. But that, of course, is Kierkegaard’s point: If I devote myself to this question, and to the task of bringing my beliefs about ultimately reality into alignment with ultimate reality as it is in itself, I am devoting myself to a task that, when pursued dispassionately, becomes a distraction from living life (which is passionate). And since this question about ultimate reality is unanswerable, a commitment to answering it before I decide what attitude to adopt towards the universe and how to live my life amounts to the decision to refuse to live a human life at all.

Now I think there’s something to all of this—but I want to make several qualifications. First, sometimes an objective study of something can be an expression of one’s passionate devotion. Because I love my wife, I pay attention to little details about how she moves, about the inflections of her voice. I want to hold these things in my heart accurately, and so there are moments when I attend so closely to her that I lose sight of myself for awhile. Likewise, the best scientists are full of wonder at the physical world—and their devotion to describing it accurately is a manifestation of that passion.

Second, our beliefs affect our attitudes and passions (and, of course, our attitudes and passions affect what we believe). We cannot cleanly separate the two. If I come to believe that my wife has cheated on me or that she disdains me, that would affect our relationship. If I come to believe that God is indifferent to human needs and human suffering—even that God is cruel and hateful—these beliefs will almost certainly impact my attitude towards God. It will be hard to sustain a passionate devotion in the light of these beliefs. More to the point, such devotion would be unfitting.

While it is true that a focus on dispassionately collecting facts about a potential romantic partner is inimical to actually having a romantic relationship, it also true that some people are blinded by their passions and so fail to see ugly truths about the object of their devotion—and their love is thereby rendered pathetic or even dangerous.

And when it comes to loving reality as it is in itself, such love is hardly being expressed when one unswervingly clings to certain beliefs about reality and loves them with all the passion of the infinite while ignoring reasons to doubt their veracity. In that case, the object of love has become one’s own picture of reality. One has become an idolater.

So how are we to pursue the balancing act between believing the right things about ourselves, others, and reality, and living the right way in relation to all of these things? I think Kierkegaard may be best understood as a kind of pragmatist—but not Pascal’s kind. Pascal saw faith as a betting game, in which you bet on the side which offers the highest payoff and the lowest risk. But for Kierkegaard, the proper analogy is not that offered by the betting table, in which you calculate which is your safest bet. Rather, it is that little table in the bistro, sitting across from someone you think you might be falling in love with, aware of the risks and costs of giving your heart in error, but prepared, for the sake of living life, to take the leap.

But if that is the right analogy, then what are the implications for how we construe reality at the most fundamental level, for what kind of meaning we attach to our lives, and for our decisions about the kind of life we forge? Surely it's not blind and unwavering dogmatism, but rather a habit of learning from one's leaps.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Death and Time

I know I said I probably wouldn't blog again for awhile. But last night I lay awake for awhile, things running through my head, and I knew I needed to process it in writing, put it into words. I'm still at my parents house in Buffalo, feeling ghosts and grief. 

Yesterday I fixed my mother her Friday martini--something my father had done with a religiosity that belied his personal lack of religion. The last Friday before his death he wasn't able to do it, and he expressed to my mother his regret.

I made it too strong, but my mother drank it anyway, and we listened to Sumi Jo, a Korean soprano. We cried a little, and talked about music, and about the perfect photograph of my father for the memorial service.

The phone rang. It was Uncle Ralph, my father's brother. There was a time when my father and Ralph were estranged--a conflict involving another brother, Harold. Because of my father's childhood family role as Harold's caretaker (Harold had contracted polio, and couldn't use his arms), my father had fallen into a dysfunctional relationship with him, one which Harold reflexively took advantage of in numerous ways. Ralph pointed this out, perhaps not gently, and my father came to Harold's defense.

It took some years for my father to realize that Ralph was right. It took some more years for them to become close again. Of the five siblings, it was clear that the two of them were the most alike (and not just because they virtually looked like twins). They were kindred spirits, both of them with similar outlooks on the world, both accomplished scientists (Uncle Ralph the more accomplished, considered by many the father of modern neuropsychology). And so in later years they built--or perhaps rebuilt--a strong emotional attachment.

When my mother answered the phone, Ralph could barely talk through his sobbing. When he finally was able to talk, he told my mother what was, for me, a revelatory story. After a lifetime as brothers, what Ralph told my mother about was how he felt when my father was born. He was six years old, and he just loved this little baby boy--loved him so much that he ran home from school day after day in his eagerness to see him.

I could imagine this little first grader holding the baby, maybe feeling the silky head against his cheek, awash in affection. And now, after growing up together during trying times in American history (the Great Depression, World War II), after estrangement and reconnection--after more than eighty years of history together, when he heard about his little brother's death it was as if he was losing that little baby boy. As if death, somehow, has the power to erase time...or, perhaps, the power to erase our temporality.

I lay awake in the night, thinking about this. Because I knew in my own way the same thing. I'm a middle-aged man. I moved out of my childhood home well over half my life ago. But on confronting my father's death, I am that little boy hiding under the kitchen table with my sister, and my father is peeking under at us and calls us Englebert and Humperdink. And how can that little boy manage without his Papa?

Of course, I'm not that little boy. That little boy had his Papa, was lucky enough to have his Papa. And I, a husband and father, teacher and writer, will manage. I have plenty to do. But I think about the way the death of loved ones seems to unmoor us from the inevitable forward flow of time. I think about Einstein's understand of time, as a fourth dimension, one in which every moment is as real as the present, nothing lost with age. I'm reminded of Boethius's understanding of God's eternity, an ancient refection on time that parallel's Einstein's: God isn't trapped in the flow, but is present at each moment "at once." This is the perspective of eternity: to be eternal is to stand, not so much outside of time, but within every moment of it in the way that each of us inhabits the present moment.

If Einstein is right about time, then the mystery is why we experience it as we do. The standard contemporary answer--that biological organisms resist or move against the flow of entropy in the universe--is not so much an answer as a gesture: "Somehow, maybe, this fact has something to do with it." Were I to speculate, I'd say that experiencing time as we do is essential to our status as agents, as selves who act, causally, in the world. To be part of the chain of cause and effect, we need to inhabit time in the way we do, first experiencing the moment of decision, then the moment of outcomes.

Perhaps death is the threshold to eternity--not in the full sense that Boethius takes God to be eternal, but in some deep sense. At death, as our consciousness hits the outer edge of our experience in this life, we subjectively hit the place where another perspective on time becomes possible. Even when it is the death of another, the death of a loved one, we sense the strangeness of time as we experience it, we feel the tug of another perspective.

And so we're jarred loose. The years evaporate. For a moment we're children again, re-inhabiting an earlier slice of our world. We're holding a precious little baby brother, smelling him, savoring him. Or we're laughing underneath a table, looking at Papa's slippers and savoring the silly names he gives to us.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Monumental and Routine

I've been thinking those words a lot over the last ten days: "Monumental and routine." As I saw it approaching--this universal thing, this utterly enormous and shattering thing--my gaze would drift to my right hand.

I wear a ring there--on the middle finger--that many people mistake for a wedding band. They wonder why I have one on each hand. It's an understandable mistake.  The ring is old, and the raised area with the stylized harp stamp is well-worn and hard to see. It is, in fact, a Norwegian PhD ring that my father received from the University of Oslo when he finished his degree in Geology. When I earned my PhD, my father passed it on to me. The gift was a reserved man's way of saying, "I love you more than you can know, and I feel connected to you, and I am so very proud." I've worn it ever since.

Less than two weeks ago my family got word that my father's cancer--which had occasioned the removal of his bladder last winter--had spread to the abdomen and liver. Last week, on Tuesday, the oncologist gave his assessment: Without any treatment, he could expect to live weeks. With chemo, he might stretch it to months.

Wanting another holiday with the family, my father opted for a chemo treatment for later that week. I ordered a plane ticket to fly home the following week, so that I could be sure to see him again before the end. I just assumed there'd be that much time. He was ill but walking, talking, hoping to try out the Skype camera they'd finally managed to get hooked up to their computer. When I talked to him on the phone, he expressed regret that, as things were, they probably wouldn't be able to come to Oklahoma for Christmas. I assured him we'd come there.

I was supposed to fly to Buffalo on Thursday of this week--tomorrow--but on Sunday afternoon my sister called, urging me to come sooner. His condition was rapidly deteriorating. She'd asked him if he could hold out until Thursday, and he'd said yes. But she didn't believe him.

I changed my ticket so that I'd leave first thing the next morning. I started packing my bags, not really sure what I was doing. I put the kids to bed--who abruptly decided they wanted to curl up together in one bed "like we do sometimes on vacation." They sensed this was a different kind of night. A couple of hours later I got the phone call that he'd died.

The next morning, a friend drove me to the Tulsa airport. It was a trip I've taken dozens of times--and most often to fly where I was flying now, to Buffalo, to visit my family there. The passage through security--empty pockets, take off belt and shoes, take liquids bag out of carry-on--had the feel of habit. But this time, what waited at the end of the journey was an empty space.

As my first plane was getting ready to take off, I reached into my carry-on bag for something to read. It's what I always do on a plane. I sit and read, usually a fantasy or science fiction novel.  As I reached into the bag I saw the cap my eight-year-old son had insisted I pack. He'd snatched it down from a door knob as I was scurrying madly about to get ready for the unexpected flight. He told me I should take it with me and show it to "Fafa." Because, of course, my father loved caps. He'd been bald since his twenties and had devised a creative assortment of ways to protect himself from a sunburned scalp.

But even within the context of my father's collection, this cap would've stood out. I'd imagined sitting next to him, wearing it, telling him his grandson wanted him to see it. I can picture his smile. And so I found myself turning away from the woman next to me on the plane, choking on the rush of feelings. Stupid Perry the Platypus cap.

I thought about all the people who'd come up to me over the last few days, who'd heard about my father's condition, about the inevitability and uncertainty of it all. "I remember going through that with my mother." "I just went through that this spring." "I'm so sorry. Liver cancer took my dad."

Monumental and routine.

On Friday, two of my father's former students flew to see him--one from Norway, the other from Sicily. My father sat up with them on Friday evening, weak but excited to see them, talking with them about their research. On Saturday he was weaker but still alert. He couldn't talk as much, but he listened.

A third former student was on a business trip in California when he learned about my father's illness, and so delayed his return flight to Russia and arrived in Buffalo on Sunday. When he arrived, my father said his name. It was one of the few moments that day when my mother felt sure he was aware of what was going on.

I didn't make it there before he died, but he was surrounded, even so, by sons. Their devotion moved me but didn't surprise me. My father had been more than a teacher to them. Year after year my parents provided a home-away-from-home for the international graduate students in the geology department. They became family. My parents talked about their "adopted kids" in Italy, Poland, Korea, Russia, Norway. The relationships endured for years after the students had graduated (or, as the case may be, dropped out).

I'm pretty sure that each of the sons who surrounded him at his death had, at one point or another, lived in my parents' finished basement. They'd certainly spent many hours around the unfinished wooden dining room table, talking and laughing and drinking wine (or beer if it was a beer meal, or Aquavit and beer if it was a holiday). My father would've been the deceptively calm presence (the deception unmasked if you got him on a topic he was passionate about--such as the environment--at which point his fire would break through). He would've been the one making sure no one's glass was empty unless they wanted it to be. He would've been the one smiling down through those bushy white brows he refused to trim.

At the end, my mother, his wife of 49 years, was beside him. She held him, kissing his forehead. He drew three last shuddering breaths, and she saw the life leave his eyes. And she called out to her three adopted sons, and they came. 

I came the next day, too late to see him again, with a cartoon character cap in my bag that my own son wanted his grandfather to see, and a ring on my finger with my father's name inscribed within. And I walked through a house full of his traces: his reading glasses, his well-worn slippers. The symbols of a life--the routine symbols that all of us leave, the monuments to who we are, scattered everywhere.

This is not a memorial. In a week or two, when I can step back from my own feelings of loss and grief, I will write about him. For now, I just needed to write about losing him. It will likely be my last post for awhile. When I have a memorial to him written I may post it here. But I think I'll otherwise take November off from blog-writing to focus on other things.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Craig Debates an Empty Chair

It’s the dream match-up, the ultimate showdown in the contemporary God debates: In one corner we have William Lane Craig, a prolifically published professor of philosophy with dual PhD’s in philosophy and theology, and arguably the most prominent living Christian apologist.

In the other corner we have Richard Dawkins, Oxford biologist, bestselling author of books explaining and defending evolutionary biology to a general readership, and—largely by virtue of his hugely bestselling The God Delusion—arguably the most prominent living apologist for atheism.

Or not.

When Craig began to plan a fall 2011 series of debates and lectures in the United Kingdom, many thought it was the ideal opportunity for Craig to finally face off, one on one, against Richard Dawkins. Instead, on Tuesday evening Craig--at least if the event lived up to its billing--lectured opposite an empty chair, one symbolically placed to remind the audience of Dawkins’ absence.

It is true that the two have appeared once before on opposite sides of a debating stage. The event, however, was a tag-team panel debate in Mexico between three atheists and three theists, on the question, “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” And that event gave little opportunity for either of them to probe the other’s views.

The most substantive interaction in Mexico was a kind of straw man exchange. Craig, focusing narrowly on the topic of the debate (as he is wont to do), defended the view that theism makes life objectively meaningful in a way that atheism does not. He made sure to note explicitly, however, that this conclusion does not as such give us reason to believe that God exists—a view that Craig defends on other grounds. Dawkins responded by attributing to Craig the argument that God must exist because a universe without God is too unpleasant to contemplate.

Theists and atheists alike have been hungry for something more substantive—an opportunity for Dawkins to respond explicitly to the objections Craig has been leveling against The God Delusion for the last few years; or a chance for Dawkins to directly challenge the arguments for God’s existence that Craig didn’t have a chance to develop in Mexico.

But Dawkins has steadfastly refused to play. The pressure to debate Craig during his UK visit was strong. There were separate debate invitations from the British Humanist Association, the Cambridge Debating Union, the Oxford Christian Union, and Premier Radio. There was even a much-publicized insinuation of cowardice by a fellow atheist and Oxford don, Daniel Came.

But the final blow to those hoping to see a face off between Dawkins and Craig came last week, days before Craig’s scheduled Oxford lecture, when Dawkins felt called to make a public defense of his decision. It appeared in the form of an essay in The Guardian, “Why I refuse to debate with William Lane Craig.”

In that essay, Dawkins begins by minimizing the significance of Craig as a public intellectual and defender of Christianity. “Don’t feel embarrassed if you’ve never heard of William Lane Craig,” he begins. “He parades himself as a philosopher, but none of the professors of philosophy whom I consulted had heard his name either.”

To get this result from a consultation of philosophy professors, Dawkins must have been careful to consult only philosophers long dead. Indeed, as a professional philosopher myself I would be hard-pressed to find colleagues who haven’t at least heard the name of William Lane Craig. And in the sub-field of philosophy of religion, it would be hard to find any who weren’t well-acquainted with at least some of his work.

This is not to say he enjoys universal respect. In fact, many would likely make a low growl or roll their eyes on hearing his name. Some might say he’s not really a philosopher in any true sense, because he uses what are admittedly substantial philosophical skills mainly in the service of Christian apologetics.

But in a discipline that still practices blind refereeing in professional journals, Craig has enjoyed enormous output. And few would deny the significance of his scholarly contributions to the philosophy of religion, especially in connection with his revival and defense of the so-called Kalam Cosmological Argument.

And over the years, Craig has had one-on-one debates with a veritable who’s-who list of academically astute atheists: Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchen, Victor Stenger, Paul Kurtz, Anthony Flew, just to name some of the more renowned. Indeed, one might make the case, given Craig’s reputation as a formidable debater, that Dawkins’ absence from this list is a bigger credit to Craig’s reputation than would be his appearance on it.

Nevertheless, in his account of why he refuses to debate Craig, Dawkins dusts off the dismissal he’s borrowed from a former Royal Society president to rebuff creationists’ debate invitations: “That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine.”

When the debate invitations come from creationists who want to attack the theory of evolution, this rebuff actually makes sense. Such creationists are people with little or no legitimate scientific background who want to challenge the credibility of evolutionary theory in debate with a renowned evolutionary biologist. Even if Dawkins could easily wipe the floor them, the act of dignifying them a place next to him on a podium would lend a false stature to their arguments and credentials.

But in this case the proposed debate has almost the opposite character (and not just because Craig is uninterested in denying the science of evolutionary theory). In this case, what we have is an established professional in the philosophy of religion inviting Dawkins—who has no philosophy of religion training but who’s nevertheless written a popular book on the topic—to discuss issues in the philosophy of religion. Let me say that another way: Dawkins, a non-philosopher, is being invited to take the stage with an accomplished philosopher to discuss philosophical arguments. Under these conditions, Dawkins’ invocation of the Royal Society president’s rebuff rings hollow.

But Dawkins saves his main argument for last, when he points to some deeply troubling dimensions of Craig’s apologetics: specifically, Craig’s effort to defend Old Testament reports of God commanding genocide. Craig seeks to argue that these reports might be taken as veridical, as genuine accounts of divine commands, without thereby undermining the moral perfection of God.

These arguments are hardly central to Craig’s public apologetics. The passages Dawkins quotes don’t come from Craig’s published works or lectures, but from the Q&A section on his website, practically buried among hundreds of questions on more traditional apologetic topics (one wonders how and why Dawkins came across them). Nevertheless, Craig said the things he said there, and he stands by them—and Dawkins largely lets them speak for themselves. He quotes them and invites us to look upon them with horror.

Like Dawkins, I find Craig’s efforts seriously disturbing—even after looking at the quoted passages in their broader context, in which Craig (among other things) confesses that they “offend our moral sensibilities” and then roots this aversive response in the jarring contrast between the genocide passages and what he takes to be the holistic ethical message of Scripture.

In my view he should’ve stopped there. In purely pragmatic terms, do we really want to say, as Craig does, that since children are innocent and will be ushered into heaven at death, God might very well command their slaughter since such slaughter would do them no harm (and might do them some good by taking them out of the world before they can fall into mortal sin)? Do we really want to lend this sort of presumptive credibility to the claim that indiscriminate slaughter of children and adults can enjoy divine sanction? What implications does Craig’s argument here have for how we should assess contemporary terrorist claims to be acting on God’s will?

If this were legitimately Dawkins’ reason for refusing to share a stage with Craig, one might at first see it as principled, even heroic. Can we really dignify such apologetics-run-amok with a public platform?

Of course, this argument may be nothing but a pretext. Perhaps, as one author recently insinuated, the obscure source of these quotations suggests that  Dawkins did "a little internet trolling" in order to dredge up a rationale for a decision already made. There is, after all, a much more obvious reason why Dawkins might refuse to debate Craig: He was afraid he'd lose.

This wouldn't be an idle fear, given Craig’s years of experience debating atheists, and his extensive training in philosophy and theology. He's a more formidable debating opponent than, say, the bishops Dawkins has expressed a willingness to take on (since the latter are devoted to ministerial and administrative tasks rather than to honing their arguments for theism). And even though Dawkins is clearly convinced that he has the truth, he knows full well that in a debating context, having the truth doesn't guarantee a win.

If so, I’m not at all convinced that “cowardice” is the right word for such motivations. Consider: In the recent book that John Kronen and I wrote defending Christian universalism, one of our targets was Craig. I’ve challenged Craig’s views on hell before—in what I think is one of my best philosophical articles. I still think my critique of Craig is brilliant and devastating. In broader terms, I’m pretty darned confident that, on the issue of hell, my arguments are better than Craig’s.

But if he challenged me to a public debate on the doctrine of hell, I think I’d refuse. Why? First, because I don’t think the public debate format is the best way to explicate and assess the arguments on both sides with the degree of precision that’s required. Second, because I’m a plodding thinker who needs to consider and think about arguments for awhile before responding to them, and who generally feels compelled to rewrite and revise what I say multiple times before I’m confident it expresses what I really mean. I feel an obsessive need to qualify and nuance my remarks, sometimes to the point of losing my audience.

And I say “Um” a lot.

And so, in a debate with Craig, I’d be trounced. And I’d lose convinced I had the better arguments on my side—and I’d rush home and write up what I should have said, publishing my crushing refutation of Craig in a book that nobody will read.

Knowing this, is it cowardice to refuse to debate Craig? Or is it simply an honest recognition of my own limitations, and a recognition of the fact that debates are sometimes lost by people with the better arguments on their side, simply because the opponent is the better debater? Perhaps Dawkins, although convinced he has the truth on his side, knows full well that the debate format will favor Craig and thus hurt Dawkins’ cause and hence the truth as Dawkins sees it.

If so, this the decision not to debate isn’t cowardice but an expression of certain virtues—among them, honesty with oneself.

But if this is Dawkins’ real motivation, he isn’t being honest with the rest of the world. While his decision not to debate for reasons of this sort may be legitimate, his overall behavior remains less-than-admirable. So let’s assume that his stated reasons are honest: He is so offended by what Craig stands for that he doesn’t want to lend those ideas the kind of platform that a public debate with Dawkins would generate.

The problem, of course, is that Craig already enjoys an enormous public platform. The controversy around Craig’s visit to the UK virtually guaranteed a large audience for his UK lecture/debate tour, whether Dawkins was a part of it or not. And while there’s something to be said for refusing to dignify certain arguments with a response, it’s sometimes necessary—and, we might think, the job of public intellectuals—to take on bad arguments and explain why they are bad. This is especially true when the bad arguments are being voiced by prominent figures who happen to enjoy a substantial audience. Do we really want to allow their claims to stand unchallenged?

But there is, a think, a deeper reason why, if Dawkins was being sincere about his reason for not wanting to debate Craig, he should’ve reconsidered. As a reason to refuse a debate with Craig, his moral objection comes off sounding like a smokescreen whether it is or not. It’s painfully easy for a jaded public to roll their eyes, dismiss his moral indignation seriously, and conclude, “He’s just afraid he’ll lose.” And under those circumstances, his moral message itself is lost behind its perceived insincerity.

Another, more powerful gesture in support of this moral message would have been possible if Dawkins had actually shown up for the debate. Dawkins says he doesn’t want to shake Craig’s hand. But one needn’t shake someone’s hand to debate them. Consider the impact of showing up for the debate—a context in which handshakes are customary—and refusing to shake Craig’s hand…and then explaining why with all the moral indignation of which Dawkins is so eminently capable.

Rude? Yes. But people couldn’t cynically dismiss the moral message as nothing but a smokescreen for cowardice. The refusal, precisely because of its deliberate violation of normal etiquette, would carry no small measure of symbolic weight. In fact, this is why I think it's sometimes morally right to be rude.

As it is, the weightiest symbol of this event may have been an empty chair.