Five Unprovable First Assumptions

I have already mentioned that there are different foundations for our belief in anything. One of the most curious things about epistemology, though, is that some of our beliefs cannot be proved. Many of these are our basic first assumptions about reality.

G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay on this, which I have excerpted below. Under each of his points, I give a summary title. Then at the end I post an addition of my own.

1. Every sane man believes that the world around him and the people in it are real, and not his own delusion or dream. No man starts burning London in the belief that his servant will soon wake him for breakfast. But that I, at any given moment, am not in a dream, is unproved and unprovable. That anything exists except myself is unproved and unprovable.

(Summary: THE WORLD EXISTS, AND AS MORE THAN JUST A DELUSION.)

2. All sane men believe that this world not only exists, but matters. Every man believes there is a sort of obligation on us to interest ourselves in this vision or panorama of life. He would think a man wrong who said, “I did not ask for this farce and it bores me. I am aware that an old lady is being murdered down-stairs, but I am going to sleep.” That there is any such duty to improve the things we did not make is a thing unproved and unprovable.

(Summary: EVENTS MATTER. WE HAVE AN INTEREST IN IMPROVING THINGS.)

3. All sane men believe that there is such a thing as a self, or ego, which is continuous. There is no inch of my brain matter the same as it was ten years ago. But if I have saved a man in battle ten years ago, I am proud; if I have run away, I am ashamed. That there is such a paramount “I” is unproved and unprovable. But it is more than unproved and unprovable; it is definitely disputed by many metaphysicians.

(Summary: THERE IS CONTINUITY OF PERSONHOOD/IDENTITY.)

4. Lastly, most sane men believe, and all sane men in practice assume, that they have a power of choice and responsibility for action.

(Summary: WE HAVE FREE WILL.)

And I add one more to GKC’s list, one that I discovered through a clever little story by Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland fame.

5. Every sane man believes in logic itself.

(Summary: LOGIC IS TRUE.)

These are foundational beliefs that we choose to believe or not believe without any evidence because of their utility.

Source:

G. K. Chesterton’s essay Philosophy for the Schoolroom

Justice, Hell, and the Problem of Evil

Nothing seems to make more people lose faith in Christianity than the Problem of Evil, sometimes known as the Problem of Suffering.

The Problem of Evil is the fact that there is evil and suffering in the world– hurricanes and floods, serial killers, starvation, sickness, death. From this fact, many arguments are made against the Christian God, but this post isn’t concerned with the mere arguments. I will tackle those in other posts.

But this post is concerned with the underlying motivations and attitudes among people who cite the Problem of Evil as their reason for leaving the faith. Most of their motivation is based on the idea of justice.

Justice? How so? Well, they notice all the evil and suffering and think, “The innocent perish and the wicked thrive! Babies and children get cancer or starve and yet evil dictators and mass-murderers live in mansions and live to old-age! How can God allow such injustice?” Implicit in their thoughts is the idea that evildoers should be punished but aren’t. In other words, they desire that justice be carried out.

They are correct in desiring justice. But I find it curious that the people most bothered by the lack of justice are also the people most bothered by the idea of a Hell. They think, “Surely a good God would not create a place of torment and punishment! I cannot believe that God would subject people to such suffering!” Interestingly, in this situation, the doubter does NOT want justice.

For the whole purpose of Hell is justice. In calling for justice (that the wicked be punished) the doubter contradicts his denial of Hell (the place where the wicked are punished) and vice versa– in saying that a just God wouldn’t allow Hell, the doubter refuses to accept the judgement that he himself cries for!

Now, in this post I deal quickly with some complicated and packed ideas, i.e. Hell, justice, and the Problem of Evil, but I still think that my logic holds. If we are consistent in our beliefs (and we humans rarely are) then we must acknowledge that we cannot use both the Christian idea of Hell and the existence of evil in this world as arguments against Christianity. One or the other must yield, they are mutually exclusive.

“But you misunderstand my argument,” you may say. “I think it’s okay for an evil-doer or mass-murderer or Hitler-type to go to Hell. Hell, I think they should! But I don’t think it is fair that the innocent should go both suffer in this life and go to Hell!”

To this I must offer the orthodox answer: Worry not that the innocent should be punished unfairly in the afterlife– they won’t be. But also keep in mind that nobody (perhaps barring children too young to make a decision regarding their souls) is innocent, in the Christian use of the term. It is Christian doctrine that “all have sinned” and are therefore subject to divine punishment were it not for the intervening sacrifice of one man, the God-man, the only innocent one, Jesus Christ, who paid our debt for us.

This is the good news: that justice will be done, evil will be punished, every wrong will be righted, all the victims will be healed. And those of us who were both evil-doers and victims (i.e. everyone) don’t even have to pay the price for the pain we’ve caused. We still receive healing for our wounds, but the payment for our sins– past, present, and future– occurred on a cross two-thousand years ago.

This ultimate righting of wrongs, this ultimate justice, hasn’t happened yet, but it will. Until then, the Lord has seen fit to endure the sight of wickedness in the world for a (comparatively) short time because He graciously is providing us time to join His side and be covered by Jesus’ remediary sacrifice. As C.S. Lewis illustrates in Mere Christianity, we would not think much of a Frenchman that joined the fight against the Nazis only when the Allied armies were outside of Berlin in full force. In the same way, God is giving us an opportunity to join him before he comes in full force to defeat all the evil in the world; “it is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up.”

Again, you may say, “But what about those people that aren’t even given the opportunity to join the good side? How is it fair for them to go to Hell?” And to this, I must acknowledge that there are still mysteries that God hasn’t seen fit to give us answers to. I do not know what happens to those who don’t get the opportunity to believe in Christ; he never told us.

But I do know that, as C.S. Lewis says, if in the meantime you are bothered by those who never hear the Gospel, the most unreasonable thing to do is stay on the outside yourself. Join the body of Christ (i.e. the Church) and tell the good news to those unreached. After all, “Cutting off a man’s fingers would be an odd way of getting him to do more work.”

And lastly, if you are still bothered by not knowing what happens to the unreached, focus on what we do know. And we do know this: that God so loved the world that He sent His son Jesus to pay our penalty, reconciling us with our Creator. And that gives me sufficient faith in the character of God to not let what I don’t know hamper what I do.

Faith: The Theological Virtue

I haven’t yet defined faith on this blog. The problem is that faith is notoriously difficult to define. So I’ve looked to someone with a little more apologetics experience than me.

The most refreshing description of faith that I’ve found is what C.S. Lewis propounds in Mere Christianity.

What is faith?

At some level, faith is simply belief. But here is where all the confusion comes in. Faith is NOT believing something despite what the evidence suggests.

Lewis uses a simple illustration to make this subtle point. Suppose you are about to be put under for surgery. You know, in your reasoning mind, that the anaesthesiologist does this for a living and the chances of you waking up during the surgery are virtually nil. However, you are still afraid.

Or let me use a different illustration. We all know that statistically the safest way to travel is by airplane. Travelling by air is drastically safer than by automobile. But still people are afraid to fly. This, and the person afraid to undergo surgery for fear of waking in the middle of it, is an example of a lack of faith.

You’ll notice in both examples that the person knows through the use of reason that there is no need for fear. And yet, somewhere deep down, we are unable to fully believe what our reason tells us.

The real breakthrough is in understanding how we think. The assumption is that once we decide something is the case, we continue to believe it until new evidence surfaces. But that is not how we operate. We can be fully convinced of the safety of the anaesthesia and yet still be terrified when they put the mask on. It is not our reason that is hurting our faith, but our emotions, as Lewis says.

“It is not reason that is taking away my faith: on the contrary, my faith is based on reason. It is my imagination and emotions. The battle is between faith and reason on the one side and emotion and imagination on the other.”

Now Lewis applies this to our religious beliefs:

“I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it. That is not the point at which Faith comes in. But supposing a man’s reason once decides that the weight of the evidence is for it. I can tell that man what is going to happen to him in the next few weeks. There will come a moment when there is bad news, or he is in trouble, or is living among a lot of other people who do not believe it, and all at once his emotions will rise up and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief. Or else there will come a moment when he wants a woman, or wants to tell a lie, or feels very pleased with himself, or sees a chance of making a little money in some way that is not perfectly fair: some moment, in fact, at which it would be very convenient if Christianity were not true. And once again his wishes and desires will carry out a blitz. I am not talking of moments at which any real new reasons against Christianity turn up. Those have to be faced and that is a different matter. I am talking about moments when a mere mood rises up against it.”

In other words, faith helps us to withstand our emotions and hold on to the truth that our minds have already ascertained. Faith helps keep us from falling prey to our animal instincts.

How to Foster Faith

Lewis also gives some pointers on how to keep our faith strong.

  1. Recognize that your moods change.
  2. If you have once accepted the truth of Christianity, then some of its main doctrines should be deliberately held before your mind each day. This can be done through daily prayer, religious reading, and church fellowship.

Finally, Lewis calls our attention to a fact that we all have seen but rarely think about:

“As a matter of fact, if you examined a hundred people who lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?”

It is no wonder that so many college students lose their faith. They go to a place where they don’t have a community of fellow believers with which to fellowship, they don’t have the inner discipline to study the word or pray themselves, they are surrounded by people doing fun things that Christianity prohibits (and which they so eagerly want to join), and finally they have figures of authority telling them that Christianity is false. It is in this environment that faith withers and reason is sacrificed to the altars of pleasure and convenience.

Our college students aren’t being reasoned our of their faith; they are being convenienced out of it.

Socrates – Defeater of Chronological Snobbery

I love it when a person I respect respects another I respect. Here is a quote by G. K. Chesterton on the importance of Socrates:

Everyone mentions Socrates as a man who dies because he was a bold exponent of new truths, but if you look closer you will see that something else is so. Socrates lived in a world of Sophists, and there were hundreds and hundreds of men proving that there was no God, no conscience. There were multitudes of anarchists around Socrates. He was the conservative who subdued them. He turned sophistry against the Sophists. Socrates is remembered. The rest are forgotten.

Chesterton admires Socrates because he was willing to properly weigh the wisdom of the past; he was not victim to “chronological snobbery.”

Coined by C.S. Lewis (the self-proclaimed intellectual son of Chesterton) and Owen Barfield, chronological snobbery is “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” Lewis continues:

You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

Chronological snobbery is everywhere. And, as you see, it takes courage and intellectual strength to stand against today’s currents long enough to even evaluate the traditional viewpoint. Don’t blindly accept the illusions of today. “Know thyself” and, furthermore, I add, “know thy times.”

Is there one truth? Or two? Or more?

G.K. Chesterton, the great apologist, describes a medieval heresy that is now accepted by most people– that science and religion are two separate fields that are both true “in their own way.”

Siger of Brabant said this: the Church must be right theologically, but she can be wrong scientifically. There are two truths; the truth of the supernatural world, and the truth of the natural world, which contradicts the supernatural world. While we are being naturalists, we can suppose that Christianity is all nonsense; but then, when we remember that we are Christians, we must admit that Christianity is true even if it is nonsense. In other words, Siger of Brabant split the human head in two, like the blow in an old legend of battle; and declared that a man has two minds, with one of which he must entirely believe and with the other may utterly disbelieve.

I would argue that most people today think a version of this heresy, saying, “Science tells us about the age of rocks, but religion tells us about the Rock of Ages”– implying that science and revelation are two separate fields that do not interact. This blog advocates a much more radical view of truth, the one held by Aquinas and described by Chesterton:

St. Thomas was willing to allow the one truth to be approached by two paths [science and revelation], precisely because he was sure there was only one truth. Because the Faith was the one truth, nothing discovered in nature could ultimately contradict the Faith. Because the Faith was the one truth, nothing really deduced from the Faith could ultimately contradict the facts. It was in truth a curiously daring confidence in the reality of his religion: and though some may linger to dispute it, it has been justified. The scientific facts, which were supposed to contradict the Faith in the nineteenth century, are nearly all of them regarded as unscientific fictions in the twentieth century. Even the materialists have fled from materialism; and those who lectured us about determinism in psychology are already talking about indeterminism in matter. But whether his confidence was right or wrong, it was specially and supremely a confidence that there is one truth which cannot contradict itself.

Aquinas asserts that there is one Truth. How, then, does he handle instances where the two clash? Well, if there is a clash, then that means one of two things happened: (1) either scripture was interpreted incorrectly or (2) the science was done incorrectly.

This is the model that should be used by the Christian apologist today. Each clash should be carefully weighed to see which of the two is at fault. For example, in some scientific fields, such as geology, the science is at fault for taking as a premise an incorrect assumption, in this case, that the gradual rate of geologic change can be extrapolated into the distant past. On the other hand, interpreting obviously poetic language in the Bible to mean that the earth is flat is a hermeneutical error, and the science that it contradicts is not in the least bit speculative but as firm as the earth beneath our feet.

Biblical Basis for the Scientific Method

Can an intelligent Christian believe in miracles?  Does science rule out the possibility of miracles? If I believe in miracles, can I also use the scientific method?

Yes. No. And Yes. As for the first two questions, I will answer them in later posts. But this article addresses the last of these questions: “If I believe in miracles, can I also use the scientific method?”

In order to use the scientific method, one must first make certain assumptions. One of the main assumptions is the continuity of physical laws. In other words, the world works according to the same unchangeable physical laws that can be understood and predicted.

This is unprovable, of course; it is a basic presupposition, a working assumption. But it allows the scientist to make observations and improve our understanding of the world. Without this constancy, the world would be erratic, entirely unpredictable, and dangerous. We would not be able to discern physical laws and use them to improve our understanding of nature.

The scientific method is also known as induction. Induction means watching the specific and forming laws about the general. For instance, we notice that every time we let go of an apple, it falls to the ground. From observing thousands of objects fall to the ground (specific instances), we hypothesize that everything falls to the ground (a general law).

Induction only works on the assumption that every time I drop something the same thing will occur. If on some random days apples fell to the sky, then we would not be able to deduce the law of gravity.

The existence of miracles, on the other hand, would seemingly make the world erratic, unpredictable, and ruin our chances of understanding the cosmos. But this is not so. Although miracles do contravene physical laws, this does not mean that the scientific method is useless.

The occasional miracle does not ruin our chances of understanding the universe with science. To neuter the scientific method, the world would have to act randomly without any order. But that is not in the Christian worldview, despite the belief in miracles.

The Christian world is one in which a Creator God maintains order and predictability while reserving the right to intervene. Usually, though, the world works according to the laws that He has established. In fact, it is the existence of a Law-Giver that spurs us to look for laws! As long as physical laws usually work, the scientific method is still a very valuable tool for improving our knowledge.

And here is Biblical basis for the working assumption that physical laws are not erratic:

“While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
(Genesis 8:22 ESV)

God made this a part of the covenant with Noah after the flood. He promised never again to wipe out all life and to maintain regularity in nature.

For all you Christian scientists, there you have it– a divine promise that the scientific method will be profitable.

Socrates + Aquinas

Socraquinas? What does that even mean?

As shown by the article title, it is the mixing of Socrates and Aquinas. The former is the father of philosophy, and the latter is the classic example of the intelligent Christian. In other words, this blog attempts to examine both the Christian and non-Christian worldview in the vein of Socrates and Aquinas– with curiosity, rigor, and respect.