Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Walter Kaufmann on Courtroom-Style Religious Apologetics

If the smash hit success of the Making a Murderer series on Netflix is a testament to anything, it might be that everyone loves a good courtroom drama. Over the course of almost any criminal trial, there is suspense, intrigue, and excitement as each side builds its case and new evidence is presented, eventually leading up to a verdict. Depending on the circumstances involved, many such trials can also be deeply emotional, eliciting anger, disgust, sadness, or sometimes joy even in people not in any way affiliated with the case. So-called "trials of the century," like those of Charlie Manson or O.J. Simpson, have garnered massive public attention in modern times thanks largely to press coverage. Skilled attorneys, unexpected discoveries, and undecided jurors help to make some trials into gripping roller coaster rides of anticipation

Christian apologists have published a number of best-selling books modeled on this format, most notably Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict (1972) and Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ (1998). More recent is Cold Case Christianity (2013), written by homicide detective J. Warner Wallace, as well as the upcoming film God's Not Dead 2, which teases a "court case" showdown that threatens to "expel God from the classroom". The idea of defending the faith in a legal setting even goes back to Jesus himself, who defends his ministry before the Jewish and Roman authorities in John 18.

But how fruitful really is this approach in attempting to justify the truth of Christianity? Part of its appeal is likely that it tries to reduce bias by working on a more neutral ground of debate - a secular ground, arguably. Another part of the appeal is that it seems to allow for an evaluative contrast: the case is made so strongly that we ought to believe it tells the truth. This is what Lee Strobel implies by noting in the ending chapter of his book, "I had seen defendants carted off to the death chamber on much less convincing proof!"[1] If Christ comes out favorably by even the high standards of the same justice system to which we trust countless human lives, then shouldn't we trust Christ?

Years before the publication of the aforementioned texts, philosopher Walter Kaufmann offered an insightful critique of this particular apologetic style:

An attitude often encountered among religious people and exemplified professionally by a great many preachers and theologians is that of the counsel for the defense. Here is an attitude toward truth quite different from the scientist's or the historian's, but no less methodical and disciplined and moral. Only it is governed by a different morality.

In many countries the counsel for the defense is expected to use all his ingenuity as well as passionate appeals to the emotions to gain credence for a predetermined conclusion - namely, that his client is innocent. He may ignore some of the evidence if he can get away with it, and he is under no obligation to carry out investigations which are likely to discredit his conclusion. If, after all that, he cannot convince the jury of the truth of his position, he will saddle his opponent with the burden of disproof; and if necessary he will rest content with a reasonable doubt that his position might be true.

Common though this attitude is toward religion, it is indefensible outside the courtroom, and it does not indicate a second type of truth.

In the first place, some unusual conditions obtain in the courts where this attitude is legitimate. The very fact of the indictment creates some presumption, psychologically, that the accused is guilty. Then, the prosecutor is an official of the government and aided by its vast resources, ranging all the way from its prestige to its police. Against such formidable odds the defense requires a handicap; and that is one reason why it is conceded the liberties that have been mentioned. In the case of religion, the situation is more nearly the opposite. Its advocates are aided by the government's prestige and by voluble testimony from officeholders and would-be officeholders; and the case for all kinds of religious propositions is proclaimed not only from the pulpits but in our most popular magazines, too, and in the press, and over radio and television, while the case against these propositions never gets a comparable hearing. If the courtroom analogy could be extended to the case of religion, the prerogatives mentioned should be granted to its critics to redress the balance.

Secondly, a jury is not asked to come up with the most likely story or even the most likely culprit. The jury is confronted with a single suspect, and truth is not the highest consideration. Better let two guilty men go free than punish one who is innocent.

Suppose that the major philosophic positions were haled into court, one at a time, each defended by a brilliant advocate. Surely, these attorneys - it could even be the same lawyer every time - would succeed time and again in raising a reasonable doubt in the mind of the jury that the position might be true. The attorney might not even have to try very hard if the prosecution were under pressure to pull its punches, as it is in the case of religion. Position after position would be acquitted. But such acquittal of a philosophy or a religion creates no presumption whatsoever that the position is probably true. In the end, those who care for a considered choice would still have the whole field to choose from.

We have here two different attitudes toward truth, but not two different types of truth. The second attitude, unlike the first, subordinates questions of truth to other questions of a moral kind. In fact, it might be argued that the verdict of the jury, "We find the accused not guilty," is not so much a determination of fact as it is a deceptively phrased recommendation for action. In line with this, the records show that when juries know that a finding of "guilty" makes the death penalty mandatory they will find the accused guilty much less often.

There is no need here to distinguish legal truth from other kinds of truth: such a distinction only prompts confusion. Consider a case that happens occasionally: some of the evidence against the accused has been obtained illegally or was not legally admissible in court, and the judge therefore directs the jury to find the accused not guilty. There is no point whatsoever here in introducing any conflict between types of truth. Clearly, the truth is in this case subordinated to respect for civil rights. And the situation can be explained perfectly in terms of the one and only kind of truth we have encountered so far.

"Guilty" and "not guilty" are, in the mouth of a jury, elliptical expressions which are only apparently identical with these phrases in other contexts. In a verdict they mean "proved guilty (or not proved guilty) in accordance with the special rules of evidence and argument that govern court procedure." Thus the accused may well be guilty in the ordinary sense but not guilty in this more restricted sense.

A jury operates under unusual conditions and is not expected to decide more than the special question whether the accused has been proved guilty in accordance with a certain set of rules. Neither the jury's attitude nor that of the counsel for the defense is at all appropriate when we are asked if a religious proposition is true or not true.[2]

Could the gospels or the resurrection hold up in a court of law, as apologists like McDowell, Strobel, and Wallace have claimed? One is tempted to respond: so what if they could? Our legal system does not establish truth. Moreover, it's not even clear what the charges might be that could reasonably be leveled against a faith like Christianity, nor is it clear why subjecting the beliefs of that faith to  standards developed and intended for judging human social behavior at this specific time and place in history should be appropriate, let alone impressive in the event that everything stacks up well.

1. Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (1998, Zondervan), p. 264.
2. Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy (1990, Princeton), p. 105-107.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Absurdity of Life With or Without God: A Reply to William Lane Craig

The Human Need for Meaning

We live in meaning like a fish lives in water. To step out of meaning is to die.  
- Dorothy Rowe

The annals of humanity tell a familiar story. Were sentient extraterrestrial beings to read our histories, they would surely take note of our persistent labor to find our place in this world. Questions litter the pages of human history, pondering our identity, our reason for being, and our future. The struggle for survival seems to have birthed the struggle for meaning, for something more to the life we fight for than the mere hope of continued existence. Awakened into greater awareness with the development of human cognition, we find ourselves repeatedly asking, "Why?" - a characteristic which has been regarded by many as unique to our species.

Innumerable men and women have sought answers to these questions, and some claim to have found them, in religion. What we are is children of God. Our reason for being is that we were created by God, and, for some believers, our future is determined by the relationship we have with our creator. Life has meaning because God has given it meaning. We have a purpose because God, who created us, created us with purpose.

Yet the postmodernist wants to live without God, and without faith, as we hear from many a pulpit today. The man of the world and the woman of the world think they have moved beyond the need for God, beyond reliance on antiquated religious doctrines and dogmas. But without God, life ends at the grave, and if all concludes in death, what point is there to any of it? Dostoevsky is often cited for saying, "Without God, everything is permitted."

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig paints a vivid picture of this harrowing outlook in his essay, The Absurdity of Life Without God. Setting aside the issue of whether or not Christianity is true, Craig attempts to show that the alternative - which he considers to be atheism, or naturalism - is untenable, unlivable, and awful. Life without God is absurd, he says, too absurd to be a rational decision about how one should live. "It seems to me positively irrational," writes Craig, "to prefer death, futility, and destruction to life, meaningfulness, and happiness."

Indeed, if this tremendous sense of decay and despair is actually what is entailed by living without God, perhaps we ought to rethink our doubts. One way in which Craig tries to underscore that a consistently godless life is absurd is by reference to atheists such as Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus. The message is that these non-believers recognized the meaninglessness of their own worldview, and therefore serve as something like 'eyewitness testimony' in support of Craig's thesis.

However, the absurdity that Professor Craig shoulders atheism with in his essay is absurd primarily because it eschews certain theological notions of meaning, purpose, and value. Although part of the hopelessness is allegedly that life ends at death, even immortality would not count for anything unless it was God-given immortality. Thus, it all rests on God in Craig's argument, and life without God is absurd because, essentially, it's life without God. God is the only thing able to make life meaningful.

This is quite a contention, requiring more than just the supposed lack of objective value and cosmic purpose on a naturalistic worldview. Can meaning just be created into life, and the absurd vanquished, by the hand of a deity? In this article, I will contend that Craig under-appreciates the weight of absurdity - namely that he neglects a full treatment of the subject as it has been articulated in Camus, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. I suggest that his criteria for absurdity are weighty only insofar as they reflect this fuller understanding of the absurd. I will likewise argue that absurdity of this sort does not undermine atheism, but recommends it, in that it reveals the absurdity of even life with God.

My aim here will not be a comprehensive defense of Camus; specifically, I will not be diving far into the deeper aspects of his philosophy, such as his ethics. All I intend to show is that absurdity, it might be said, is a two-way street concerning theism and atheism. References here will be without page numbers, due to my purchase of a cheap text printed with no actual page numbers, and for that I apologize. Most of this material can be easily looked up online, however. I begin with a summation of Craig's central claims, followed by a discussion of Camus' conception of absurdity, as well as the absurd in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. From there, I proceed to a critique of Craig's position, and then some final comment on living the absurd life.

Godless to Absurdity

If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.

For Craig, absurdity arises out of the absence of ultimate meaning, purpose, and value. Call these latter the Big Three. Throughout his essay, Craig has two main points to drive home: first, that life needs the Big Three to avoid being absurd, and second, that life can only have the Big Three with reference to God. A life that terminates in us passing out of existence, with no immortality and no God, is an absurd life.

The first point is a common intuition for many people. We like to think our lives have importance because of how they affect others, or because some of what we do can change history, but in the grand scheme of things, it appears to make no real difference. Craig is willing to grant that we partake in such "relative significance," while still emphasizing that none of it amounts to much. A lot of little meanings may satiate us for a time, but they are no substitute for Meaning with a capital M.

The threat of non-being looms large over every pleasure, every day, and every relationship. Science tells us the universe itself will one day become cold and lifeless, and so the fate of every creature is the same. What difference would it make if we had never existed, or if the universe had never existed? "This is the horror of modern man," Craig declares, "because he ends in nothing, he is nothing."

It would be a mistake to believe, however, that extending life indefinitely could suddenly make it mean something. If the short span of a lifetime is already without meaning, it is not clear how adding infinity to it would give it meaning. What is needed is a source of life's meaning, one capable of giving it a truly lasting significance. Nothing in this life seems able to fit that extraordinary bill. Most of us desire love and compassion in our lives, yet these come and go, and they end with death as well. If our fate is the same regardless of how we act, then why be loving or compassionate, anyway?

An uncreated universe, even if eternal, is a purposeless universe, according to Craig - a mere "cosmic accident," an absurdity. I said in the previous section that this view of absurdity is labeled as absurd primarily because it eschews theological notions about meaning, purpose, and value. Here we see this made most plain. Whatever meaning, value, and purpose might exist in this life, none of it can be of cosmic or ultimate significance if the universe is just the product of unintelligent, purposeless chance. Thus, Craig writes:

...if God exists, then there is hope for man. But if God does not exist, then all we are left with is despair. Do you understand why the question of God's existence is so vital to man? As one writer has aptly put it, "If God is dead, then man is dead, too."

God alone can make life meaningful in the sense demanded by apologists like William Lane Craig. To say life is absurd is not to say it lacks any meaning, purpose, and value whatsoever, but that it lacks the right kind of meaning, purpose, and value that could elevate it above absurdity. As noted already, it is a common intuition that some greater, larger picture of significance must exist in order for all the little treasures underneath to have import. This intuition is frequently defended as one defends the most cherished of desires, with passion and conviction and an overwhelming sense of need. It is certainly defended this way by Craig, who stresses the "gravity" of the alternatives in so desperate a statement that if God is dead, "man is dead, too."

Yet ambiguity remains. What exactly constitutes the right kind, or right recipe, of the Big Three is not as easily reasoned as it may be intuited. Particularly when we are talking about what may be a consistent and livable existential attitude - for any of us individually, or for humanity generally - it seems like there will be far too much speculation involved behind any black-and-white, one-size-fits-all answer. Though we all do share in something called the human condition, we also exist in relatively different and unique circumstances, and we are each accustomed to various modes of being in the world, which can change over a lifetime. To propose that there is one perfect cocktail of meaning, purpose, and value that suits all of us, in all the diversity of our positions, may in fact require the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good creator to orchestrate such a fantastic miracle!

If nothing else, though, we can surely say that Craig's favored recipe for meaning depends on his understanding of the absurd. For Craig, absurdity is more of a mindset than a reality. It is a problem to be cured. The life of the atheist is absurd only in that she does not acknowledge God, and so has no claim to ultimate significance, purpose, and value. Absurdity on this view is practically a placeholder for irrationality. Craig says of the godless perspective that it is "utterly without reason." The absurd life is living with the irrational belief that we inhabit a godless universe.

Divorced From Life

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus describes the absurd feeling as being divorced from one's life. We encounter a tragic divide between our desires for reality and reality as it really is, perhaps most of all in those humbling conscious moments of suffering and trauma. The desires we have for unity, purpose, and order clash with our experiences of a world that seems not to care about us, our dreams, or our plans. The absurdist finds herself a stranger adrift in a foreign world with no lights or illusions, unable to remember where she has come from and unaware of where she is heading. If she denies the absurd, she lives an inauthentic life, as if the world is so little different from her desires that the incongruities presented to her are not really incongruities at all.

For Camus, the absurd is fundamental to who we are. Our consciousness is what separates us from the world, what gives rise to absurdity.

If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning, or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world. I should be this world to which I am now opposed by my whole consciousness and my whole insistence upon familiarity. This ridiculous reason is what sets me in opposition to all creation.

The human condition is uniquely human in that we are consciously separated from the world in which we live. The same cognition that allows us to reason also isolates us from the rest of the universe. To be conscious is not just to think, it is to remember, to imagine, to desire, and, at certain times, to be aware of these things. We wish for much more than that our biological needs be met. We not only have a concept of the world, but we have the concept of what we need from the world, and what we need for our very existence to be meaningful.

Yet the world is silent to our pleas for this ultimate meaning, and no higher reality or perfect being can spare us from this fact. "What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me?" Camus asks. "I understand only in human terms. What I touch, what resists me – that is what I understand." Even if a god exists, and has endowed the universe with its purposes, there remains doubt that these purposes would matter to us. Thomas Nagel, in his own essay on "The Absurd," interprets Camus as saying that "the world might satisfy [our] demands if it were different." In opposition to this, Nagel claims absurdity derives "not from a collision between our expectations and the world, but from a collision within ourselves." However, Camus' point is not just that the world has no seemingly in-built meaning to it, but that we, as the conscious and reasoning creatures we are, do not even belong to this world.

For the world to meet our demands, we would have to be the world. Likewise, we would have to be God in order for God to rescue us from absurdity. Such radical alternatives seem almost unthinkable, though, in that they would undermine the human condition itself. Instead, we know and experience the world as alien - we find ourselves afloat in a universe that shows no concern for our ontological needs, desires, or hopes. But oh, how we still need, and desire, and hope! We long for ultimate meaning, that we might be reunited with God, the world, and the totality of it all. However, this is not the existence we have, and if some day it should be, it will mean the end of the self. At the depths of our being, we feel the weight of the absurd

Many people have collapsed under the burden of absurdity. Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus to address the question of suicide, which is commonly seen as the end result of life losing its value and meaning. One way of responding to the absurd dilemma is to deny one of its components. It may seem as if those who commit suicide have done the only reasonable thing in light of meaninglessness (this, in fact, looks to be an undercurrent in Craig's essay). But suicide does not actually stem logically from nihilism, Camus points out, when the decision to end one's life is to make a value judgment that life is not worth living. Rather, suicide is a denial of the absurd in that it removes the self from the world, and so eliminates half of the dilemma.

The absurd can also be denied through what Camus calls philosophical suicide. This is when we trade in the real world for comforting illusions. Religion tells us our desires for purpose, order, and unity can be met by God, or by a world beyond this one. Certain belief systems even have it that such desires are instilled by God to show us our need for him and bring us closer to him. Camus sees existentialism as another philosophical suicide, since it deifies the absurd, and so merely mystifies capital-M Meaning. On both views, the world is not silent to us, but has just what it is we are looking for, whether we know it or not.

Camus finds significance only in accepting life on its own terms, which has everything to do with acknowledging its absurdity. This is best exemplified in Sisyphus, that figure of Greek myth condemned to roll a rock uphill for eternity. Despite laboring under an aimless fate, Sisyphus carries on and takes his actions and his labor into his consciousness. In doing so, he silences all the idols and his fate becomes his own. "In the universe suddenly restored to its silence," Camus writes, "the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up." The fragility of existence becomes clear to those who see life as it is and not as they wish for it to be. Sisyphus knows the whole extent of his condition, and yet that lucidity which threatens him also "crowns his victory."

Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd discovery. It also happens as well that the feeling of the absurd springs from happiness. "I conclude that all is well," says Oedipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile sufferings. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.

Our condition is absurd whether God exists or not. Happiness, taken in an important sense of well-being, knows this. The Greek word often translated as happiness, eudaimonia, comes from two separate words meaning "good" and "spirit." While this can mean having virtuous character, it also suggests a wellness of being, or put in a more familiar phrasing: it is well with my soul. Human nature is fundamental to Aristotle's conception of eudaimonia, and there is recognition of the need for modesty, to acknowledge our situation and our limitations. Seeing our condition as it is, seeing the absurdity of life, is not antithetical to happiness, it is, for Camus, paramount to happiness.

Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and the Absurd

Nearly a century before Camus, Kierkegaard wrote on the absurd. Of it, he says in the Journals:

What is the Absurd? It is, as may quite easily be seen, that I, a rational being, must act in a case where my reason, my powers of reflection, tell me: you can just as well do the one thing as the other, that is to say where my reason and reflection say: you cannot act and yet here is where I have to act…. The Absurd, or to act by virtue of the absurd, is to act upon faith … I must act, but reflection has closed the road so I take one of the possibilities and say: This is what I do, I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection.

This is one way of viewing the distance between the human being and the world. At some times, our mind pushes us towards what the world will not allow. We find reason retreats from decision, but we are unable to abstain from acting, and so we leap. We encounter the absurd in that interaction between our will and unyielding reality.

For Kierkegaard, the absurd demands faith. Truth, he writes in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, is "the daring venture of choosing the objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite." If one can apprehend God objectively, one does not have faith. It is because one cannot do this that one must have faith. To maintain faith is to remain committed to objective uncertainty, according to Kierkegaard. Here, faith seems to be of first importance, not merely in a manner that keeps the absurd alive, but as a triumph of the believer. Faith brings hope. Thus, Camus says that by his "frantic adherence," Kierkegaard "is led to blind himself to the absurd which hitherto enlightened him and to deify the only certainty he henceforth possesses, the irrational." In short, "Kierkegaard wants to be cured."

Interestingly, Craig makes no mention of Kierkegaard in his essay, although he has elsewhere described him as "a bona fide fideist" who believed there is "ultimately no warrant for Christian belief." Of further intrigue is that Craig characterizes Kierkegaard's view as motivating the leap of faith by "showing how life lived apart from God ultimately degenerates into despair, boringness, and languishing in absurdity." As just pointed out, however, Kierkegaard's concept of the absurd actually seems closer to Camus' than Craig's. Camus may have criticized Kierkegaard for allegedly wanting a cure for this absurdity, but it appears clear that absurdity is not merely a life apart from God on Kierkegaard's account. This is even supported by Craig's own observation that the Danish philosopher thought Christianity itself absurd because of the incarnation. Why such Christian absurdity is not addressed or referenced at all in an article covering the absurd life and its relation to God is difficult to understand.

Craig does at least reference other absurdists in his essay, such as Nietzsche and Camus. In a few paragraphs, he draws on Nietzsche's famous tale of the madman who proclaims the death of God, and in another line he mentions the philosopher's break with Wagner over anti-Semitism. This is all the attention Nietzsche receives.

What does the death of God mean? Various commentators have contributed various thoughts on the declaration, but among them there has also been a good deal of general agreement. For Nietzsche, God's death meant the end of the systems of meaning and value that had sustained much of the world for centuries. When the madman says that, "We have killed [God] - you and I," the message is that our old ways of living and being in the world are now gone, and we are responsible for their destruction. Nietzsche does not say that their demise came about because people stopped believing in God. On the contrary, the madman realizes he has come too early; humanity is not yet ready to give up its obsolete evaluative traditions.

It should surprise no one that Nietzsche, author of The Antichrist, did not think the death of God could be solved by returning to the old faith and the old God. The madman's cry is not for the prodigal children to come home, for there is no going back. The 19th century saw advances in science, education, history, politics, religious criticism, and more, which helped escort humanity into a new age. With each new age and the changes it brings, we are forced to reconsider our place in this world, including where we stand in relation to our former structures of meaning. Like all traditions, Christianity continually turns to ask what its fundamental teachings mean today, in the modern world.

Nietzsche did not speak of the absurd as openly as Kierkegaard and Camus, but his works bear traces of it. Camus wrote of the absurd divorce between man and his world, and we see this divorce come from reason itself in Nietzsche. In the article, "Camus and Nihilism," Ashley Woodward explains as follows:

...for Nietzsche and Heidegger, the unity and existential meaningfulness of life depends upon continuity with an irrational background, a horizon of interconnected meanings and significances that orients our projects. For such thinkers it is precisely the turning of the light of analytic reason on every aspect of this background that has cut us off from it, diminished its significance, and set us adrift.

It is not hard to take from this why an intellectual turn back towards God cannot resolve the absurdity Nietzsche finds in the death of God. He states in Twilight of the Idols, "One must reach out and try to grasp this astonishing finesse, that the value of life cannot be estimated. Not by a living man, because he is a party to the dispute, indeed its object, and not the judge of it; not by a dead one, for another reason." What of God? If God partakes of life, or if he is life - additionally, if he is being, as Tillich thought - then he is just as much party to the dispute, and object of it, as we are. On the other hand, if God is beyond life, or outside of it, then we are confronted again by Camus' question. What can meaning outside our condition mean to us?

God and the Absurdity of Life

We have now seen that, according to three of the major thinkers on meaninglessness, absurdity is about more than the choice to live without God. The absurd is not a mindset, nor is it simply that the world itself is without a priori meaning. Life's absurdity comes from the relation of the mind to the world. Like all else, Camus says, "the absurd ends with death." As noted before, even if God has created the world with ultimate purpose, value, and significance, it cannot matter to us, since we are separated from the world by our condition, by our consciousness. Absurdity remains.

Camus insists that in attempting a solution, we remain faithful to the absurd, and do not simply negate one of its terms in our response. He, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard agree on where absurdity arises, and all seemingly also agree, in their own way, that the absurd requires revolt. What interests me at this point is their shared conception of absurdity - coming from two atheists and a Christian - and how it contrasts with Craig's concept of absurdity. Craig agrees that the world itself is not absurd, but he does not agree that the absurd is in us and the world taken together. He believes, perhaps unlike even Kierkegaard, that God is a definite cure for the absurd, indicated by the entire argument of his essay.

As mentioned, Craig has it that absurdity arises from living with the irrational belief that we inhabit a godless universe. The atheist's life is absurd in either being consistent with their beliefs and thus living mired in despair, or in living inconsistently. "If one lives consistently, he will not be happy," Craig writes, "if one lives happily, it is only because he is not consistent." Additionally, this implies that it is not just the existence or non-existence of God that matters, but whether or not one believes in God. An atheist living without God in a universe where God exists would still be living an absurd life, according to Craig. This is much like Nagel's take, referenced above, that were the world different (having God in it), the absurd would not arise.

Note where the tension lies on this view. The atheist thinks she can live meaningfully without appeal to God. The fact of it is, though, that the meaning she needs can only come from God. She is unable to obtain Meaning on her own for all the standard theological reasons: she is imperfect, she is separated from God by sin, she lacks the requisite power or the goodness needed to make an adequately meaningful life for herself. This is her condition, and it is the human condition. Romans 3:23 says that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," as Jeremiah 17:9 declares the heart is "deceitful above all things, and desperately sick." 1 John 1:8 warns that, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."

How are those who live meaningful lives with God able to do so? "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves," states Ephesians 2:8-9. "[I]t is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast." All these passages appear to suggest that we possess a fallen nature that cannot be overcome by any effort on our part. Grace is what ultimately saves the day, grace that can come from God alone. The apostle Paul speaks in the New Testament of two alternatives: being a slave to sin or a slave to Christ. We are left with no third option of making our own way. Our will collides with an unyielding reality, for even our desires to be saved, to enter into eternal life, and to live morally cannot be achieved except by divine will.

I do not want to over-stretch the comparison here. The Christian view does seem to say our desires for significance can be met. Even so, something of a paradox exists in that while nothing we do really grants us salvation, somehow salvation is given, and not indiscriminately, but to those who 'call on the Lord.' Another way of emphasizing what Kierkegaard and Camus have said of the absurd is by observing that we are incomplete, we are not whole. The point of most spiritual or self transformation is to be at home again, to no longer feel separated from reality, the world, or God. Craig believes it is possible for that to happen, but what he calls the absurdity of life without God belies a deeper problem, one where we are all incomplete and sinful. In our earthly, fleshly, human condition, we bear witness to this separation.

The problem is that this is where we are now. We are not yet in eternity or united with God in celestial bodies. We exist in and struggle with a world that does not answer to our demands for unity, purpose, and order. We may believe the world shows these things in itself, or that God has bestowed meaning on life, but these are inferences, suppositions, and hopes. Absurdity comes to us not as belief, but as conscious experience, the lucid feeling of disconnection. Blake spoke of psychic disintegration, Marx of alienation, and Christian theology talks of a God-shaped void. Though these ideas have their differences, to be sure, they communicate a common, powerful sense of the awareness of our divorce from life. The very core of Craig's essay, arguing our need for God, tells of something important we are missing.

It might be tempting to ask, 'What if God made us differently, in a way that we would not be divorced from life?' This question is already a step towards illusion, as are all the imaginative ideas that come with it. It is to surmise that the human condition might be other than it is. Of course, one can worry that this is too quick, and begs the question against other positions. Still, we seem aware of our separation from the world, especially when we struggle and contemplate our existence. Craig himself cites the familiar observation in his essay that man is the only creature who asks, "Why?" The same impulse that moves us to count ourselves as a special creation calls attention to the loneliness, the isolation, of humanity in the universe.

If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. -John 15:19

The author of John expresses why Craig's account of absurdity is inadequate. In saying that God and immortality give us meaning, Craig places the cure for absurdity firmly outside this world, this life, and our condition. As such, it is presently unattainable. Explaining the "success" of biblical Christianity near the end of his essay, Craig remarks that on his view, "man's life does not end at the grave," and, "[i]n the resurrection body man may enjoy eternal life and fellowship with God." These are the conditions that make life meaningful for Craig. We are destined for another world, and yet we find ourselves in one where we do not belong, one which allegedly only has meaning in leaving it behind. Can that other world really matter much to where we are now?

No, say Nietzsche and Camus. If this life were to have meaning, it would be meaning that affirms this life, rather than meaning that negates it by turning existence itself into a means to some other end.

Living With the Absurd

Is it truly impossible to live consistently and happily with absurdity, as Craig has claimed? We have already seen the beginnings of one answer in Camus. Where happiness involves something like well-being, and an awareness of one's condition is implied in that, it is not so challenging to envision how recognition of the absurd can contribute to happiness. As Avi Sagi notes in Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd, Camus' call to picture Sisyphus as happy is "a notion close to the Aristotelian model, which approaches happiness as a by-product of self-realization. The individual who lives the absurd realizes human existence to the full, and is therefore happy."

Craig's reason for denying one can live happily and consistently with the absurd appears to revolve exclusively around an analogy from Francis Schaeffer.

Modern man, says Schaeffer, resides in a two-story universe. In the lower story is the finite world without God; here life is absurd, as we have seen. In the upper story are meaning, value, and purpose. Now modern man lives in the lower story because he believes there is no God. But he cannot live happily in such an absurd world; therefore, he continually makes leaps of faith into the upper story to affirm meaning, value, and purpose, even though he has no right to, since he does not believe in God.

First, note the presumption behind where meaning, value, and purpose are located in this universe. Schaeffer locates them in only one story, conveniently the same story where God is located. More than this, though, there is no differentiation between different kinds of meaning, value, and purpose. In this respect, the analogy begs the question. Craig acknowledges that a world without God can still have "culturally and personally relative, subjective judgments" about meaning, value, and purpose. I have previously noted the common intuition that people have about the necessity of capital-M Meaning for grounding all the little meanings, and I have also noted the very daunting challenge this intuition invites for justifying any one 'perfect cocktail' of meaning above all others. It seems to me that placing meaning, value, and purpose solely on the upper story is an unwarranted assumption.

Second, Schaeffer's assertion that modern man "continually makes leaps of faith into the upper story," though he has no right to, is supported in Craig's essay by nothing else than accusations of inconsistency in the statements and behavior of select atheists, like Sartre and Camus. However, these allegations do not prove the stronger claim in Schaeffer's analogy. Even if some atheists have tried to have their cake and eat it too, it does not follow that this is the case across the board. Granted, Schaeffer's analogy is exactly that - an analogy - but since it is all Craig really brings against the possibility of living happily and consistently with absurdity, it deserves the scrutiny. It is also certainly debatable whether any of the examples Craig uses actually shows inconsistency.

To take one such example, Craig alleges that "Camus has been rightly criticized for inconsistently holding both to the absurdity of life and the ethics of human love and brotherhood." If life is meaningless, how can you have values like love and brotherhood? Again, there may be a bit of a bait and switch going on, for it sounds as if Craig is dismissing those subjective judgments he elsewhere concedes to a godless world. If we take him as consistent in not dismissing them, then we might find reason to question his claim about Camus.

We must find a way to live with the terms of the human condition, rather than abandoning absurdity through denial, by philosophical or physical suicide. Camus saw that to live in the face of the absurd is to adopt a stance of metaphysical rebellion. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, a value also emerges from it. The absurd, he observes in The Rebel, "is contradictory in its content because, in wanting to uphold life, it excludes all value judgments, when to live is, in itself, a value judgment. To breathe is to judge". In Cartesian fashion, Camus takes the absurd as primary, as his starting point, since his project is to see if one can live "without appeal." Yet the value that emerges from his exclusion of value judgments is a value that comes from experience, from facing the absurd, and not from presupposition.

"The point is," Craig explains, "that if there is no God, then objective right and wrong cannot exist. As Dostoyevsky said, 'All things are permitted.'" Camus' valuation of life is personal rather than an eternal value. At the same time, it is tied to the core of his being, for not wanting to deny the absurd through suicide, he must continue to be, and continuing to be is to find value in living. If all things are permitted, why not this? But Camus objects to this reading of Dostoevsky:

The absurd does not liberate; it binds. It does not authorize all actions. "Everything is permitted" does not mean nothing is forbidden. The absurd merely confers an equivalence on the consequences of those actions. It does not recommend crime, for this would be childish, but it restores to remorse its futility. Likewise, if all experiences are indifferent, that of duty is as legitimate as any other. One can be virtuous through a whim.

If one is worried about the license that meaninglessness and absurdity may give, then, as Camus further states, "The certainty of a God giving a meaning to life far surpasses in attractiveness the ability to behave badly with impunity."

Within that sense of divinely-ordained purpose, many throughout history have found ample justification for the most heinous bad behavior. It's all too easy for the stalwart believer to dismiss this point by saying justification was going in the wrong direction for those wolves of the faith, that they only sought sanction for the sin that was always in them. This can be agreed without sacrificing much. The absurdist knows we deeply desire meaning in our lives, to which the world is unreceptive, and the ways that we find, invent, and preserve our place in this world are frequently problematic, even destructive. This is why she turns inward, towards the absurd life and the lucidity it brings. It restores the universe to its silence, restores to her her joy, and causes her to say "yes" to life.


Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O'Brien
Albert Camus, The Rebel, p. 9.
Ashley Woodward, "Camus and Nihilism," Sophia (2011) 50:543–559.
Avi Sagi, Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd (Value Inquiry Books, 2012), p. 2.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (Penguin, 1968), p. 40.
Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript
Soren Kierkegaard, The Journals 
Thomas Nagel, "The Absurd," The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 68, No. 20.
William Lane Craig, The Absurdity of Life Without God, ReasonableFaith.org.

Monday, December 7, 2015

A Critical Review of Doctor Who's Season 9 Finale

On Saturday, the ninth season finale of Doctor Who aired, and already many critics have praised it as a strong finishing episode. Currently, it has an average score of 9.2 on IMDb, accrued from 1,458 viewers. So what I'm about to do in this post - a critical review of the finale - is apparently going to be pretty unpopular. 

Of course, some critics have shared minor disappointments with the episode, and, of course, it's always easier to be negative than it is to be positive. All this is known, acknowledged, etc. My purpose in this review is not to fanboy rant, to be edgy and 'go against the grain,' or to hate on the show. Consider this an exercise in thinking through alternative possibilities, if you will, something of which I like to think the Doctor approves.

Needless to say...

If you have not watched through all of season 9 yet, and you don't want anything ruined, close this window and come back later.



First, I want to begin by saying that this ninth season has been a great season. Many of the characters and stories were interesting, we got to see some fan favorites reappear, and the two-parter format brought a sense of anticipation back to the series that felt absent from the previous season. Peter Capaldi also really came into his own as the Doctor, delivering outstanding performances like the climactic monologue in "The Zygon Inversion." Likewise, Jenna Coleman, whose character I wasn't very fond of in the last couple seasons, stood out more here, especially in the unforgettable episode, "Face the Raven."

Then there was "Heaven Sent," the eleventh and last episode preceding the finale. And what an episode it was. Not only did Capaldi masterfully carry the show all on his own for most of it, but the writing and visuals were stellar, too. The Doctor's journey through the confession dial drew you in on the same mysterious, haunting, frightening, confining, and ultimately triumphant journey of self-realization. After Clara's departure in "Face the Raven," episode eleven was a somber and brilliant way of taking the audience along on the Doctor's struggle to overcome his grief, and to confront the numerous questions and implications raised during it.

Season 9 has been alluding to both Clara's death and the Doctor's need to face his own death ever since the premiere. Having been brought before Davros, the Doctor exclaims, "You've brought me to Skaro!" To which Davros says with a tinge of foreshadowing, "Where does an old man go to die, but with his children?" There's the Doctor's ghost in episodes three and four as well, also alluding to his death. Clara's death is hinted at in her entrapment inside a Dalek shell in the second episode, not to mention her death-like stasis in the Zygon two-parter, with her oddly phrased text to the Doctor: "I'm Awake." This is just the kind of teasing we expect from Moffat and company, though, so for some time it was hard to tell to where exactly these allusions would lead.

Perhaps predictably, one of the big complaints I have against the finale is how it undermined Clara's death in "Face the Raven." I'm certainly not alone in feeling this way, either, as Twitter users have made similar comments, the Telegraph notes. Her death was one of self-sacrifice, poignantly complicated by its unexpected inevitability. There was no Doctor saving the day. Some things can't be changed. But some things are also maybe worth dying for. Clara accepted her death, faced it with courage, and it was all to save another person. It was, by all counts, a prime example of a noble death, a theme that has been significant in Doctor Who for years now, the Doctor repeatedly facing death to save other peoples and other species.

Jenna Coleman doing the wild-eyed stare she's become famous for.
If Clara's death had really been the end of her for the season, it arguably could've been one of the best exits we've seen for a companion in the new series. After all, the Doctor regenerates usually when he's injured or dying. Clara could have become one of the first companions to do what the Doctor hasn't been able to do all these years: actually die a permanent and noble death for the values and ideals of the Doctor. And yes, I know, she still will die that death... some day. But prolonging it like the finale manages to do strips it of much of its effectiveness and impact. It turned out that what Clara initially expected, that the Doctor could save her, was true all along. And weren't we much less impressed when it seemed that Clara's motivation was to cheat the raven?

Because of the Doctor's regenerative capability, as well as the time-traveling, the show has had a long running theme of cheating death. The Doctor's own death has, of course, been addressed before, as in the episodes revolving around Trenzalore, yet there is always a way out, a way of cheating death. Season 9 held the promise of something different, for several reasons. The Doctor is older now, more mature, and 12 came onto the scene following a series of episodes that made a great deal about the Doctor exhausting his allotted number of regenerations. The ninth season was poised to finally show a Doctor who could learn to face the finality of death. Instead, we managed to cheat death again for the Doctor's latest favorite companion.

Another frustration I had with the season finale was its abrupt switch in the Doctor's mood from episode eleven. In "Heaven Sent," the Doctor didn't just make his confession, he also went to confront his death untold times, in a strikingly spiritual-seeming act of self-transformation, as if breaking the cycle of rebirth within the confession dial. This moving scene of repeatedly enduring the same moments, punching the same impossible wall, making the same confessions - all of it became moot in the finale when it was revealed that the Doctor snapped under the pressure. What seemed like a desperation to break free and return home to Gallifrey turned into a madman's quest to rescue Clara.

Yes, Moffat certainly gave us "unpredictability" in the ending episode of season 9, as Ross Ruediger calls in an article for Vulture, but what precisely makes that in itself worthy of praise is a bit cryptic. An unpredictable story isn't necessarily a good story, nor is a predictable one necessarily terrible. A lot can be said for execution mattering far more than originality, and it's why, for example, films like The Godfather and Goodfellas stand out among so many other flicks about mobsters and gang violence.

While we're on the subject of Gallifrey... oh boy. After so many seasons of the Doctor pining for a return to his homeworld and to his own people, we get an incredibly anti-climactic homecoming. The man who fought to save Gallifrey in "The Day of the Doctor," and became so excited at the prospect of it being spared in a frozen moment of time, came back not even with a vengeance, but more of a meh. 'Gallifrey? Whatevs, I'm only here to save my friend.' Oh, and that frozen moment in time plot point? Dismissed without explanation in a single sentence. How did the Time Lords unfreeze themselves? How did they arrange for the Doctor to be sent to the confession dial? "They must've found a way."

Furthermore, the Doctor proceeded to shoot one Gallifreyan standing in his way, to threaten several others, and hijacked Gallifrey technology to pull Clara out of time. Mind you, 12 was one of the many Doctors we saw working to save Gallifrey in "The Day of the Doctor," and although it never made reference to when that was in his timeline, it's hard to believe he suddenly forgot all the effort he's put in to mourning, repenting for, and trying to save his homeworld over the centuries. The Doctor may have snapped from his confession, but his arrival at Gallifrey still seemed to have zero impact on him emotionally.

Granted, all of these issues I've talked about mostly revolve around the prophecy of the hybrid, which was clearly the focal point for the two opening and two ending episodes. Admittedly, I went back and forth on the idea of the hybrid throughout the season. It was kept intentionally vague, but also did not seem to really get fleshed out much until the very last few minutes of the very last episode. Clara and the Doctor together being the hybrid was not entirely a bad idea, though it did feel like it could've been done better. All during season 9, Clara pushes the Doctor to be a better person, and then suddenly she's causing him to push himself too far. It could've been nice to at least build up to that concept over the duration of the series.

But let's talk about how things are resolved in the finale. Me/Ashildr served as both a good reminder of the Doctor's need for moderation, and as a contrasting immortal for him to converse with about the pain of eternity. It was maybe an interesting development to have the Doctor's memory wiped instead of a companion's, though yet again this seemed like a dilemma that didn't need to be there. It was really only posed because Clara wound up cheating death, thanks to the Doctor. And frankly, I'm not so sure having the first older Doctor in a very long time wind up forgetting his close friend in a bout of self-induced Alzheimer's was a great choice.

"Anyone seen my TARDIS keys?"

Clara and Ashildr flying off through space in a TARDIS felt like a mix of indecision, childish fancy, and poorly-done fan service. We didn't need Clara to survive, and we didn't need her to become her own Doctor, either, especially when the option was there, right under everyone's noses, of having her do something surpassing even the Doctor in its meaningfulness. Sure, this point could be argued, since her death was only delayed, not avoided altogether, but this is in actuality the case with everyone the Doctor rescues. They all die some day, and Clara was not the first companion to endanger her life for other people.

As other reviewers have observed, this raises a big question about what made Clara different enough for the Doctor to risk ending the universe. Was Rose not that important? Donna? Amy and Rory? Danny Pink was able to die and stay dead, despite the glaring inconsistency of Orson Pink appearing in the future for an episode of season 8. I suppose that possible afterlife reunion of Danny and Clara will just have to wait a few billion years, though.

To wrap up this review, I have to confess that I don't get the love that the season 9 finale has been receiving from critics and fans alike. True, the season has been quite good overall, but that's also part of what I feel made this ending episode that much more of a letdown. So much got glossed over rapid-fire in the Doctor's senseless quest to resurrect Clara, including a throwaway line about Missy bringing together 12 and the Impossible Girl (it would've been nicer to see her in the finale). In all honesty, the season could have concluded on its strongest note with "Heaven Sent." What we got for a finale felt rushed, unnecessary, and, at its worst moments, almost incoherent.

That said, I'm still absolutely rooting for the Doctor. There have been bummer episodes before, and even downright awful ones. The season 9 finale may not beat out "Daleks in Manhattan," with its ridiculous penis-headed Human-Dalek, or the unbelievably abysmal "Love & Monsters," but sometimes it's nearly worse when a season comes so close to nailing it, then punts at the last minute. At least we have the return of River Song to look forward to with the Christmas special, and here's to hoping season 10 will be able to pull it together better.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Notes from the Margins: 1. What's the Value of a Communist?

As a sufficiently non-wealthy university student, I tend to purchase a lot of used books, primarily through Amazon, though also on occasion from Half Price Books and other venues. Often the books I acquire will come with little bonuses in the form of notes scrawled in the margins of the pages by a previous reader. These not only provide some fuel for essay topics and further research every now and then, but I think they add a bit of extra charm to the book, too. Perhaps my enjoyment is partly because I don't do margin notes myself, and so they contrast curiously with my usual habit of note-taking electronically or on separate sheets of paper.

Not all notes in the margins are charming, of course. Some are illegible, some are messy, some merely state the obvious, and some are only there to mark sections or passages for reference. I suppose the sign of a good note is that it typically sparks thought and makes you want to have a conversation with the note-taker, yet there are some instances where the opposite is true. You read the scratches of a prior owner and think: '...what.' It's not unusual for face-palms, sighs, or frowns to follow thereafter.

Consider this the first entry in a likely series of posts discussing some of the Notes from the Margins I have encountered in my reading. At the risk of belaboring the gag, they are marginal in more than one sense.


Susan Wolf's Meaning in Life and Why It Matters is a brief little book that lays out the UNC philosopher's view on what constitutes a meaningful life. Taken from some of her lectures, the book primarily distinguishes meaningfulness from morality and happiness, and suggests that an important component of a meaningful life involves activities or ends that are objectively valuable. She mostly addresses the latter issue in the second chapter, where she discusses intersubjectivity, the metaphysics of value, and so forth. 

To give a very simplified summary of her view, Wolf believes that a meaningful life must be about more than just personal fulfillment, it should be about loving the kinds of things that are worthy of love. The paradigm example of Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill for eternity is not made any better if we suppose the gods bestowed him with a deep and lasting sense of fulfillment in his task. What he does is still pointless on the whole. The only time fulfillment can really give meaning to our lives is when it is aimed at certain worthwhile pursuits, and here "worthwhile" means objectively valuable.

In the middle of chapter two, Wolf considers whether intersubjectivity and Ideal Observer Theory (though not called by that name) contribute to an adequate understanding of objective value. Both are inadequate, she argues, and in fact there is no reasonably complete and defensible account of objective value. It is an unsolved problem at present. This should give us pause about to what kinds of things we attribute worthiness. She writes,

My own inclination is to be generous in my assumptions about what is valuable in the sense required to qualify as a potential contributor to meaning. I expect that almost anything that a significant number of people have taken to be valuable over a long span of time is valuable. If people find an object or activity or project engaging, there is apt to be something about it that makes it so - perhaps the activity is challenging, the object beautiful, the project morally important. (p. 47)

Next to this passage in my copy, a note is scrawled in red ink:

So she judges value based on majority view, which is not a philosophical way to think about it, but rather a communist? blind follower's way to think about it.

Underlining, punctuation, and capitalization (Das Kapital?) here are original to the note.

Having just studied Marxism in a recent Political Philosophy course, it's amusing to see Communism here distinguished from philosophical thinking. Apparently this reader sees it less as a political philosophy and more as a "blind follower's way," tied in with majority opinion. On the other hand, it's entirely possible that the lowercase 'c' denotes something more like communalism, as in allegiance to a specific community. But whether it is communalism or Communism we're talking about, I'm not sure why exactly one can't be a reflective, thoughtful participant. It would seem that both call for some level of philosophical and sociological consideration in distinguishing themselves as their own social identities. Then again, that could just be the indoctrination talking.

What's more interesting is how this reader pulls something so foreign out of Wolf's text that it should alarm their presumably conservative American economic sensibilities. Right after the author says in the very same paragraph that the unsolved problem of objective value gives us "all the more reason to be tentative in our judgments," this reader concludes that she has passed value judgments based on majority view. Rather, what Wolf is doing is expressing a willingness not to dismissively judge the ethical intuitions of others. This is pretty much the total opposite of being a blind follower, it is having the awareness, humility, and courtesy to recognize that we aren't the only ones with ideas about value. The author's support of objective value is maintained not out of majority opinion, but by those objects or activities having "something about [them]" - perhaps intrinsic to them - that makes them valuable.

In the very next paragraph, Wolf observes that there are plenty of things that remind us that people also waste their time on frivolous pursuits. From the context, it looks fairly clear she is not endorsing the idea of 'majority rules' or anything of the sort. She is simply sharing the complexities involved with the kind of view that she articulates. Indeed, it strikes me that there often are many concerns people have with moral realist accounts, especially that they may trample the rights and values of the less fortunate. Several other margin notes in the book suggest that this reader had quite similar concerns. Yet in their urgency to find fault with Wolf's position, they missed her actual point, which was in fact lending some credence to their own reservations.

A great deal of philosophy may be about questioning received wisdom, but it's equally important to make sure you understand what is being claimed in the first place. Whether one agrees with his conclusions or not, Marx criticized Capitalism not out of ignorance or a blind belief in Communism, but from an informed position, which is discernible in his writings from his engagement with the work of Adam Smith. It is also the received 'wisdom' of a certain group of people in American culture that Communist thought (or communalist thought) isn't really thought at all, but a blind faith ideology based on laziness and entitlement. Might these influences and factors upon our thinking be just the sort of reasons for which Wolf advises that we be reluctant to make strong, explicit declarations of value?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Privilege Appropriates the Language of Oppression

I used to be one of the many human rights advocates suffering from a condition I like to refer to as 'why-cant-we-all-just-get-along'-itus. By this, I do not mean so much that I was a peacenik who wanted us to all see past our differences and come together to sing kumbaya. Rather, what I mean is that I had a fairly whitewashed view of the cultural and social climate in which we each live. I did not want us to see past our differences because I had grown up being told and believing that we had no real differences. Race, gender, sexuality - these were all constructs of bygone ages, outdated relics we needed to repudiate and reject in order to overcome. And weren't we the lucky ones to live in a time where we knew better, a time where we were overcoming.

A good number of us living in the West tend to have this idea that the social is not real. We construct concepts like currency and make frequent use of them in our societies, yet the things on which we base them do not actually have any such intrinsic value. There is nothing inherent to the dollar that, even in better economic times, has made it count for a certain amount of gold or silver. Nor is there anything inherent to gold or silver that makes it particularly valuable. These things have what we call instrumental value, they are valuable to us only to the extent that they are useful to us. So it may seem to us that these social constructs are illusory in a sense, that they are not real things existing independently in the world.

Because I saw concepts like race, gender and sexuality as social constructs, I saw them as being somewhat similar to other social constructs like currency. They were projections made by people, placed onto other people, and defended by those people because they found them useful. Whether their motivations were to marginalize those of any particular group, or just to generalize for more studious purposes, the concepts themselves were only instrumentally valuable, and therefore had an illusory quality to them. What matters most, I felt, is that we are all human beings. Why get so hung up on illusory things? Those aren't what's real. Our shared humanity is.

This became something to be defended almost as fervently as some would defend the social constructs that mattered most to them. Somewhere in the haze of it all, insistence on these instrumental valuations became, in my eyes, an insistence on division. When someone said women are discriminated against, a deliberate distinction was made between men and women. This always pointed to the simple fact that someone was clinging to an outdated relic, treating women as if they mattered less, but other times it took on the appearance of treating women as if they mattered more. We're all people, and we're all human, aren't we? I thought. Why divide us by acting as if some problems are more important than others?

Lately this thinking seems to be behind certain sentiments expressed in reaction to various claims of oppression throughout our world. The "Black Lives Matter" movement has been met with responses like "All lives matter" and "Cop lives matter." The Men's Rights movement has at times tried to show that some types of discrimination affect men in a parallel way, or greater way, to how they affect women. Allegations of fat-shaming are answered with accusations of skinny-shaming for suggesting there is an unrealistic social standard of beauty. Though I have not cited any here, the examples are numerous, recent, and easily accessible from a Google search.

One of the ideas behind these reactionary sentiments seems to be that focusing on the experience of any one social group minimizes the experience of other groups. However, this assumes a general uniformity of experience across social boundaries, which is the very thing being disputed by most social justice activists. I also think this assumption comes to a degree from the view of social constructs mentioned above. If differences of gender, race, sexuality, and so forth are like illusory projections, are not the experiences people have as a result of those projections equally illusory? This does not follow any more than it follows that the social nature of currency means our experiences with currency are in a sense less real than our experiences with other, objective facts in the world. But I believe the bigger issue lies with the reality we assign to social constructs.

Sociologist Peter Berger notes that there are three elements that constitute an empirically adequate view of how societies are shaped:

Externalization is the ongoing outpouring of human being into the world, both in the physical and the mental activity of men. Objectivation is the attainment by the products of this activity (again both physical and mental) of a reality that confronts its original producers as a facticity external to and other than themselves. Internalization is the reappropriation by men of this same reality, transforming it once again from structures of the objective world into structures of the subjective consciousness. It is through externalization that society is a human product. It is through objectivation that society becomes a reality sui generis. It is through internalization that man is a product of society. [1]

Berger says that society is the result of our putting our selves and our ideas out into the world, of our selves and our ideas taking on a reality in how they affect us and others, and of our adoption of that reality back into our conception of our selves and our ideas. This well explains the way in which we both participate in our societies and yet the societies we belong to also participate in us. It likewise shows that social constructs have a non-illusory reality in that they are indeed made part of the world, able to influence and impact us in ways that are external to us. That is, they will exist and affect us whether we will them to or not. This is true as well for currency, which can affect us in a very real way, especially if we find ourselves unemployed or in great debt.

Social constructs are abstract concepts, and so there may be some controversy over whether they are real in the same sense that particulars are real. Physicists and biologists have not found evidence to suggest that race, gender or sexuality are out there in the material world, existing in space and time like a chair exists in space and time. But there are problems with a strict reductionist materialism just as there may be problems with a Platonist view that sees abstractions as having reality. For starters, time and space have experiential aspects, and they are what Immanuel Kant called the synthetic a priori - they make sense of our experience, but are prior to experience and yet not attained through reason alone. Wherever one falls on the issue of abstract concepts, though, it does seem that they at least have effects in the world that move us in respects that have real consequences.

On Berger's view, we not only see how social constructs can have a reality to them, but we also see how experience is not uniform across social boundaries. Externalization involves an outpouring of selves and ideas into the world that will not be equal, for a variety of reasons too numerous to elaborate here, though not difficult to imagine. Objectivation sees the products of externalization transcending their producers, and they take on a reality capable of affecting others, which will affect different people differently, as the initial outpouring was unequal. Finally, internalization is the absorption of that reality back into individual minds.

Privilege and social advantage often go hand in hand, but both are usually invisible to those that hold them. Social privilege provides something of a luxury in not having to consider anything that is not directly relatable to oneself. The privileged person tends to take the limited view that they do see as the absolute truth or the norm. Psychologist Beverly Greene remarks that we are each of us in a "matrix of categories and contexts, where in some contexts we may be privileged, and in others we may be disadvantaged," [2] and we exist at the nexus of these many categories and group identities.

Externalization takes in these privileges and disadvantages, and some will be more predominant than others. It would be a mistake, however, to think that the privilege of the majority is always a literal privilege in numbers. Power structures and institutions often undergird majority privilege even where there may not be a literal majority. These structures and institutions play significant roles in all three moments of Berger's social process, especially in externalization and internalization (lobbying and advertising would perhaps be the most apparent examples). Privileges and disadvantages become objectivated, and we internalize that reality which we perceive. In a society with lots of people, power structures, and institutions that privilege a particular class, the step of internalization may explain why so many partaking in the predominant privilege seem to be unaware of the fact. What they absorb as the norm, or objective truth, is what they have all put into the social process to begin with.

As I see it, this is all quite relevant to the increase of reactionary sentiments that I mention above. It additionally shows why these sentiments are misguided at best, and are at worst further efforts to marginalize others and defend privilege. Julia Craven writes in an article for The Huffington Post:

Race brings on individual issues for each minority group. Saying "all lives matter" causes erasure of the differing disparities each group faces. Saying "all lives matter" is nothing more than you centering and inserting yourself within a very emotional and personal situation without any empathy or respect. [3]

The purpose of "Black Lives Matter," as she notes earlier in her article, is to draw attention to the fact that our nation has a history of suggesting some lives do matter more than others. Replying that all lives, white lives, or cop lives matter is to miss the point, because even while it is true that all lives should matter, the rejoinders fail to address the central problem: not all lives are understood to matter equally. These responses likewise ignore privilege and the structures in our society that protect it, and so unwittingly call for the status quo, wherein the problem lies. Philosopher Judith Butler explains that "to make that universal formulation concrete, to make that into a living formulation, one that truly extends to all people, we have to foreground those lives that are not mattering now, to mark that exclusion, and militate against it." [4]

Melissa Fabello makes some very similar distinctions in discussing the differences between fat-shaming and skinny-shaming, noting that fat-shaming not only expresses a general fatphobia of Western society, but that "the very structures that hold up our society prioritize the comfort and safety of thin bodies." [5] Later in her post, she comments on how calling out fat-shaming is sometimes treated as being itself an instance of skinny-shaming, like how Black Lives Matter is misunderstood as an exclusionary statement. Again, most of us seem to agree that all bodies should be respected, but this fails to address the actual problem that some bodies are given more respect than others within our society.

None of this is meant to suggest that skinny-shaming is acceptable, or that there are no cases of discrimination against white people, or anything remotely along those lines. But it seems to me that even having to make that qualification says something about the intense sense of entitlement that exists in these responses and that tends to come with privilege. It's an entitlement to always be represented in conversation, to be acknowledged even when it isn't so relevant. It expresses an attitude of suspicion, not willing to give even the benefit of doubt, or to look honestly and nakedly at the stated experience of someone else. Phrased in the dialectic of Hegel, it is the self's attempt to force recognition for itself from the other by negating the other and treating them as an object.

Cultural appropriation has recently become a widely discussed topic in light of celebrities who are alleged to be taking from the cultures of other ethnicities and races in their stylistic choices. In certain contexts, this may be another example of objectifying the other in the struggle for self recognition. I think another way this has been happening in the modern day is in the appropriation of language used by some groups and cultures to describe and respond to their own oppression. This is most notable with the Black Lives movement, whose rallying cry against oppression has been appropriated into an almost antithetical slogan that minimizes the experience of many African Americans.

Another example may be found in the current controversy over the actions of Kentucky's county clerk Kim Davis. Released only days ago, Ms. Davis was jailed for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses to couples after the Obergefell ruling. She and her supporters have claimed that issuing the licenses would violate her freedom of religious belief. Rather than resigning, as many county clerks have done because of Obergefell, she chose to refuse to do her duty as a public servant and served jail time as a consequence. Davis' legal support have suggested the whole ordeal could've been prevented by just removing her name from the licenses, however as Zack Ford of Think Progress notes, Kentucky law defines what goes on the licenses, and the only time that has changed was in reaction to the Obergefell ruling. [6]

While using the language of freedom and liberty for herself, Ms. Davis has asked the state law and federal law to change to accommodate her in denying the freedom and liberty of hundreds, if not thousands, of couples who are now legally able to be married. Despite a marriage license being a legal certification and not any statement of moral or religious authority, she feels it is her religious duty to violate her constitutional duty and refuse to provide the licenses. The LGBT movement has pushed for decades against the oppression that has denied them their right to marry, and even though the tide has at last begun to shift in the US, they are still far from being in any position of privilege. Christians, on the other hand, have a long and standing history as a privileged majority in America.

Privilege appropriates the language of oppression to assert itself over and above those it oppresses. It minimizes the experience of others and marginalizes their self expression in order to try and reclaim the recognition of which it feels it is more deserving. The morbid irony is that the privileged rarely ever lose recognition, it's only that they increasingly come to feel like they should have more than is currently there. It's no wonder, then, that its favorite answer when confronted by the oppressed is not a mere reassertion of power, but a grab for further power. The risk of losing recognition - either by a decline in its own influence, or a rise in the influence of the others - is too high a price to pay, even when the scales are already grossly unbalanced.

1. Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967, Anchor Books), p. 4.
2. Beverely Greene, in Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences, ed. Linda Garnets and Douglas Kimmel (2003, Columbia University), p. 391.
3. Julia Craven, Please Stop Telling Me That All Lives Matter, The Huffington Post (Nov 25, 2014).
4. Judith Butler, interviewed by George Yancy in What's Wrong With 'All Lives Matter?', The New York Times (Jan 12, 2015).
5. Melissa A. Fabello, 4 Reasons Why We Need to Stop Thinking of Skinny-Shaming as 'Reverse Discrimination', Everyday Feminism (Oct 21, 2014).
6. Zack Ford, The Kim Davis Saga May Last Until At Least January, If Not Longer, Think Progress (Sept 11, 2015).

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Gary Habermas Shows Why the 'Minimal Facts' of Jesus' Death Can't Establish the Resurrection

Gary Habermas is a New Testament scholar and philosopher of religion at Liberty University who has devoted much of his career to defending a historical case for the resurrection of Jesus. For over 30 years now, Habermas has collected and analyzed scholarly materials published on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, distilling them down to a core set of trends. His work has been cited by numerous Christian apologists, perhaps most notably in The Case for Christ and the debates and writings of William Lane Craig.

Recently, Dr. Habermas appeared on the Unbelievable radio show and podcast in dialogue with James Crossley on whether the "minimal facts" surrounding Jesus' death support the resurrection. Crossley is an agnostic New Testament scholar at the University of Sheffield and the author of a book called Jesus and the Chaos of History. The minimal facts are intended to be general points of agreement acceptable even to skeptics, and the two criteria Habermas gives are that they be facts with multiple lines of argument supporting them, and they share in a consensus made up of the "vast majority" of New Testament scholars.

Habermas identifies 6 minimal facts in the show, which are as follows:

1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.
2. The disciples had experiences they believed to be of the risen Jesus.
3. Some among the disciples died for their belief.
4. James, a skeptic, was converted.
5. Paul, a skeptic and persecutor of Christians, was converted.
6. The earliness of the proclamation of the risen Jesus.

One immediately noteworthy thing missing from this list is the empty tomb. To his credit, Gary concedes that the empty tomb is not a minimal fact because of the many biblical historians who dispute it. As the host, Justin, remarks, this seems contrary to what some apologists, like William Lane Craig, have attempted to cull from Dr. Habermas' work. In his book God? A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist, co-written with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Professor Craig writes: "There are at least four facts about the fate of the historical Jesus that are widely accepted by New Testament historians today." (p. 22, italics mine) Dr. Craig then goes on to articulate some of the reasons that "most scholars" accept the empty tomb.

Of course, it could be contended that this is just another way of saying that the majority of scholars favor the empty tomb as a historical fact. However, 1/3 to 1/4 of experts dissenting from a given viewpoint is not a negligible difference. Things get even sketchier when you look at the methodology behind Dr. Habermas' 2005 study and discover how that figure is calculated. The survey is not a comprehensive one of thousands of New Testament scholars, it's a survey of select literature published in German, French and English since 1975. While Gary's work offers important insights, he also has not released his data, despite requests for it, and the closest we get to an idea of how many sources he's surveyed is "more than 1400" in that 2005 study of his. Break that down over 30 years and that's a ballpark average of 46.7 studies examined per year. It's hardly a robust amount of data from which to assess the opinions of New Testament scholarship on the whole.

This methodological problem has implications beyond the empty tomb, too, for all of the six minimal facts mentioned above, as well as any other facts that could be conjured up on the same basis. So whether Dr. Habermas wants to single out 4 facts, 6 facts, 12 facts, or his exceedingly generous 21 facts, the fatal flaw remains present in all cases. Statistical analysis is only as good as your data and the method you use to analyze that data, and a study like the one published by Dr. Habermas in a religious studies journal would not pass in an introductory level Stats class (I say this from experience). Granted, it was probably not Gary's intent to do a rigorous statistical analysis, but the limitations of this research need to be noted when attempts are made at extrapolating certain trends from it. For more on this specific concern, see Richard Carrier's article, Innumeracy: A Fault to Fix.

But what real use is a list of even roughly calculated minimal facts when it requires another list of supplementary philosophical assumptions in order to support the resurrection? Near the end of the discussion on the podcast, Habermas explains that the way he sees of moving from the death of Jesus and the reports of his postmortem appearances to the involvement of the supernatural is by bringing in "worldview aspects." This is, in fact, something he notes early on in the show. Among these assumptions are conclusions about the character and identity of Jesus, and the continuation of life after death, though I would argue there are additional assumptions about the existence and nature of god. In a chapter from The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, Robert Greg Cavin outlines still more hidden assumptions in the standard resurrection story of Jesus, which is not just revivification, but has to do with Jesus being raised as a living supernatural body sometime after his death.

At one point in the episode, Dr. Habermas refers to the resurrection allegedly supported by the minimal facts as "mundane," saying that the gospels depict the postmortem appearances as if seeing a dead friend at the supermarket, acting as normal. Yet the point by Cavin above reveals this to be naive. A mundane resurrection in that sense would be as easily dismissed as any incident of a grieving loved one hallucinating their dearly departed. There is nothing especially impressive about it. The minimal facts are where many apologists say that the resurrection differs from other allegations of resuscitation or revivification of a corpse. If the transformation of the disciples is a stand out feature of the resurrection story, it would seem to play a part in discounting the mundane nature of events as Habermas portrays it. After all, we're often told, people might see the dead after they're gone, but they generally don't go to be martyred for them. If this famous image of the disciples valiantly accepting death having seen the risen lord is as true as apologists claim it is, then the resurrection simply can't be a mundane occurrence by their own reasoning.

Does this not also say something about the exceptional kind of assumptions that are required to make a minimal facts case for the resurrection function at all? We are not talking about spotting someone in the supermarket, alive and apparently well when they'd been dead the day before. We are talking about something much less "mundane," and it's the reason why the case for the resurrection has been turned into an argument for the existence of god by an apologist like William Lane Craig. There is an element of the supernatural, a "worldview aspect," as Habermas called it. It isn't simply that Jesus appeared again to his followers, like in a daydream, it's that he miraculously rose from the dead, in a way that his followers took as a vindication of their ideas about his teachings and his identity. It meant, for them, that god not only existed, but that he was the god represented by Jesus, and Jesus was the sort of person god not only had the power to raise back to life, but wanted to raise, did raise, and had the power and will to raise into something more than just a reanimated earthly form.
The miracle of the resurrection is the saving grace of many Christians. To Paul it gave hope for a life beyond death and for a righting of the wrongs faced in this life. Entertaining the historicity of the resurrection without the supernatural and metaphysical assumptions behind it is practically unimaginable, not only for atheists and skeptics but for believing Christians, too. This brings us to the awkward position of either asking each other to buy into our philosophical presuppositions, or leaving things at a set of bare minimal facts that is by itself incapable of showing anything except what it already contains. The minimal facts are, one might say, minimally interesting. Even if we put aside the troubling concerns with the methodology that undergirds them, they aren't what's really doing the work in winning minds. Rather than minimizing background assumptions and asking us to buy into some ample facts, the apologetic case for the resurrection minimizes the facts and asks us to buy into some ample assumptions.