PK–A Brief Review

pk poster

I am far from a movie aficionado. Though I love films and watch them all the time, the extent of my knowledge about movies and movie-making is pretty limited. So it should come as no surprise to you that PK is the first Indian film I’ve seen. This review isn’t going to be a long treatise on the history of Indian filmmaking, or an explanation about where exactly PK fits genre-wise in the Bollywood industry. What this review is—and what I think it ought to be given the subject matter of PK—is a reflection on how PK made me feel as a human being.

The plot of PK is relatively straight-forward (or as straight-forward as you’d expect a science-fictiony musical dramedy-romance to be): a humanoid alien arrives on Earth only to have his special spaceship remote stolen. In his quest to find the precious artifact, he is told many times (sarcastically) that “only God would know where the remote is by now.” So he searches for this “God” person who seems to know where his remote is. It’s at once a hilarious and heartwarming story and a critique of idolatry and religious exclusivity—the latter of which makes the film quite daring for a country that houses high numbers of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians.

I won’t spoil anything else about PK, but I do want to talk about its design. The film is in Hindi, and so subtitles will be required for most native English speakers. But I think this actually adds to the film rather than detracting from it. Oftentimes subtitles add a layer of removal—they constitute yet another barrier between the viewer and the film, and therefore require even more suspension of disbelief for the movie to work. Why do I think this is good for PK? Because it makes us feel alien and apart from the world of the film—just like the titular alien. We feel removed from the action to a certain extent, which mirrors the feelings of PK as he tries to understand some of the weird things we humans do. Thus, the emotional payoffs are more rewarding. PK’s insights feel more raw and relatable to us, because we are also viewing the happenings of the film through extra barriers. This is, weirdly, a movie that possibly works better when not viewed in its native tongue.

Aamir Khan—aside from being pretty buff for an almost 50-year-old—plays the part of childlike PK perfectly. He seems at once familiar and distant. Somehow off, but not in a sinister or scary sort of way. I imagine that such a character is a fine balancing act—you don’t want to be too familiar-seeming and risk spoiling the effect of your being an alien, but you also don’t want to seem too other and risk evoking that weird tribalism that is prevalent amongst us humans. He needed to be someone you could like and connect with, while still being able to critique our societal systems—and he succeeded.

PK is an amazing film. It is about humanity and compassion in the face of extreme social pressure. It is about loving one another regardless of our labels. It is about treating each other with respect at all times. I wanted to go into PK’s monologue against the leader of a popular Hindu cult in the film, but I decided against that because it possibly would spoil the effect of that scene for you readers. Suffice it to say that by the end of the film, I was filled with both love and sadness in equal measure—and as usual, this resulted in some tears.

Go watch it.

Advertisements

Why I’m Not An Atheist, pt. 4

(on morality and the Problem of Evil)

Last week I talked about the Euthyphro dilemma. This week, I want to talk about a similar charge that has been laid against theism’s view of morality. Known as the Problem of Evil, the charge is that the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, loving God is contradictory with our world, since this world has so many cases of suffering and pain. The way this problem is framed is, basically, as follows: There is evil in this world. Therefore, God cannot have all of the qualities of omnibenevolence, omniscience, and omnipotence. This is because someone who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving would know about the evil we have on our earth (omniscience), be able to prevent or rectify those problems (omnipotence) and have the desire to do so (omnibenevolence). Thus, since evil exists, the existence of a being with those three qualities is impossible. Epicurus has a famous quote in which he summarizes the logic of the Problem of Evil. Specifically, he talks about God’s ability to get rid of evil and suffering.

“If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak – and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful – which is equally foreign to god’s nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful, and so not a god. If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?” (this can be found in Lactantius’ De Ira Decorum)

On the face of it, this logic seems to work. It doesn’t disprove the existence of a deity, but it does seem to call into question the probability of Christianity’s deity. For the record, I think that arguments from morality are theism’s strongest. However, I do sympathize greatly with the atheist here. I too hate that little children starve in Africa and God appears to do nothing. I too hate that innocents are killed in drive-by shootings, that unspeakable horrors occur on an everyday basis and it doesn’t appear that God is doing much to stop them. So I get it. I do. And I get that this argument is supposed to refute the internal logic of Christianity’s brand of theism. It is supposed to show that the morality of Christianity specifically is flawed and hugely improbable. I think this is a strawman argument, but I’ll get to that later.

C.S. Lewis claimed that this problem was his main reason for being an atheist (before his conversion, obviously). Read his work Mere Christianity to get a better history of that process if it interests you. Eventually, Lewis realized that this argument has no bearing on the existence of God. In fact, if anything it provides ammo for the theist! His reason for coming to this conclusion is that he saw that his moral problem with the way the world was being run rested on his underlying morality. However, if this morality was subjective (that is, if morality was simply his own personal feelings about the stuff going on) then it appeared that he had lost his argument against God – because why should a supernatural, omnipotent being bend to the will of a finite human? However, if he tried to get around this problem by saying that his charge against the suffering in the world was an appeal to an objective morality, then this seemed to imply a deity. See, moral laws are not like physical laws that describe what is. Moral laws describe what ought to be. Therefore, moral laws require a certain amount of intelligence—a consciousness. We don’t put lions on trial for eating weak or young sheep. This is because we recognize that the lion does not have the cognitive ability to think about his actions and weigh what it is he ought to do. The lion in this example does not have the intelligence required for moral laws to apply to him. So if Lewis’ argument rested on a universal objective morality—a morality that governed the universe and not merely his own personal preferences—well, then this seemed to require an intelligence behind the universe. In other words, a mind is required for a moral law. If that law governs the universe and is “behind” the universe in that sense, then it seems that a mind must be behind that law. Lewis took this dilemma so seriously that it eventually led to his acceptance of Christianity. And I think it shows why the strongest argument for the existence of God is the moral argument. However, let me now jump back and talk about why I think the Problem of Evil is essentially a strawman argument.

The Problem of Evil is essentially a strawman argument for two reasons, that I can see. First, it assumes (falsely) that the highest priority of the Christian God is to alleviate suffering. It is not. Upon reading through the Bible, one will see pretty clearly that the God of Christianity is most concerned with His own glory. This is difficult to countenance. I realize that. But at its heart this means that God’s “omnibenevolence” is misunderstood. The God of the Bible, while distressed at sin and evil and suffering, can be seen in numerous instances to allow such atrocities to build up over time until they reach such a point that the judgment of the society in question is deemed to be full (just read the entire old testament and you’ll see more than you can count). At this point, the God of the Bible usually steps in and wipes out entire civilizations “so that they will know I am the Lord.” Notice that. The reason behind it is His own glory (and, subsequently, sins are seen as refutations of God’s glory that need to be punished). People often talk about God as an omnibenevolent being in the sense that God just wants everyone to be happy doing what they’re doing, but I don’t see that in the Bible. God is incredibly merciful to His people, but He also judges people for sin—and these judgments are often really really devastating and drastic and involve a lot of suffering. So, since the Problem of Evil is supposed to refute the internal logic of Christianity, I accuse it of making up a false internal logic and refuting that. The argument would be devastating if Christianity’s internal logic worked the way that the argument assumes. But it doesn’t.

The second reason that I think this thing is a strawman is that it does not take into account the Curse. The story of Christianity is that God has cursed the Earth and everything on it so that we all die. Everything dies. Of course, the story doesn’t end there, but the Curse is an essential part of the story that sets up the need for Jesus’ atonement. But let’s look at what the Curse entails. Part of it is that we are born into sin, born with a sin nature. This means that we are born with the will to live against the laws of God (which, it is made clear, are good for us to follow). In other words, the way we live can do nothing other than lead to suffering. There is no alternative. Living with no sin would, in the internal logic of Christianity, lead to an absence of suffering. In fact, this is the hope and picture we see in Revelation (a book in which God restores things to their original purposes). Now, all suffering can then be seen to be judgment on original sin. We have diseases because we live in a world that breeds diseases because our forebears sinned and God judged the world and history. Of course, this can lead to other arguments regarding the justice of punishing all of humanity for our forebears’ sins. But my point here is to show that Christianity actually has within it solutions to the charge of the Problem of Evil. And so, taking this point with the previous paragraph, the problem can be seen to be a strawman argument refuting something that isn’t actually Christian theism.

Regardless, I have to hearken back to C.S. Lewis. I don’t think the atheist is in any position to gripe about the existence of evil. In the system of atheism, there can be only three options in regards to morality (at least, these are the options as I see them):

  • 1. Morality does not exist.
  • 2. Morality is relative/subjective.
  • 3. Morality is objective.

Let’s take the first option. Followers of this view would hold that when I say something like “Killing is wrong,” I am uttering nonsense. My sentence has no meaning whatsoever, as if I had uttered “Cheese milk hopping toad” or something else that just combined various words together. I’m not going to spend much time refuting this because it seems entirely ludicrous to me and against our collective human experience. However, I will say that someone who holds this view must hold it as a conclusion to their worldview and not as a reason. This view loses the argument against God (at least in the sense of morality), because the atheist cannot find fault with anything in the world. There are no faults to find. There is no “ought to be.” There is only what is. See, I told you it seems ludicrous.

The second option is that morality is subjective—that it is relative to our culture/society/feelings/etc.  This is, in my opinion, the most valid option the atheist has at her disposal. Or, at least, it is the one most in line with the assumption of atheism. However, there are significant problems with this view apart from Lewis’ problem that we discussed earlier. The biggest one, in my opinion, is that this view leaves no room for argument between differing opinions. Under this view, there are no arguments about morality. After all, when I say “Killing is wrong,” this view holds that what I am actually saying is “I dislike killing.” But when Person X comes up to me and counters by saying “No, killing is not wrong,” this view would have to hold that what he means is “I like killing.” What you should notice is that these two sentences are not at odds with one another. But there is a very distinct sense that both me and Person X have: we believe that we are in a disagreement. According to this view, though, we are not. Which seems nonsensical. Also, this view must necessarily hold that there is no way to judge between moralities. Let’s say that the morality of the USA comes up against the morality of North Korea. In one, freedoms and choice and liberty are all considered good. In the other, obedience and authority is considered good. In a relativistic sense, there is no way to say that one is better than the other. If I try to use anything to show that one is better than the other (let’s say I point out that more people are happy in the USA, or that society flourishes more when individuals are given liberties), then I must point to something outside of both moralities. But by using anything to judge between the two moralities I have to assert that whatever I use (say, happiness or societal progress) is objectively better. So any attempt by a relativist to judge between competing moralities is simply objective morality in a clever disguise. In my example, I would be forced to say that happiness or societal progress are themselves the moral law—that is, I would have to say that the underlying, objective moral law of the universe is to increase those things.

That leaves us with the third option: objective morality. I hold, with C.S. Lewis, that objective morality strongly implies the existence of a deity. For me, being left with this option is a strong reason to believe in theism (though not one specific brand, of course). However, atheists who want to hold that morality exists and is objective (which is, I think, the only option that fits the evidence—as seen in the preceding two paragraphs) must hold that morality is ingrained in the universe. But notice that this does nothing to help the Problem of Evil. The atheist must explain what she means by moral law being ingrained in the universe, since the whole point of the Problem of Evil is that things don’t seem to behave in a moral fashion. If the atheist merely means that the moral law is there but requires consciousness to learn and adhere to, then she must explain how she thinks such a moral law could have arisen without consciousness behind it. Surely something that requires consciousness to understand and only effects conscious beings must have originated with something that was conscious…

In any case, I think the three options that the atheist has are not logical or adequate. There is a tremendous leap of faith that must be taken if one assumes the third option. But the other two options do not make any sense and leave no room for disagreement or judgment between societies. I can’t even say that we’re fortunate to live in a society that favors liberty and kindness, because such a statement has no meaning in that kind of reality. Now, it is obvious that my refutation of the Problem of Evil does not necessarily lead one to a specific theistic system. But I hope that it has shown that the Problem of Evil itself does not refute or even call into question the internal logic of theism, and especially not the internal logic of Christianity. That’s all I have for now, and that might be all I have in this series. Is there anything in particular you guys and gals would like me to write a post on that pertains to the a/theism debate?

WHY I’M NOT AN ATHEIST, pt. 2

(on determinism and free will, and thus also on moral responsibility)

Before I even begin this post, let me take the time to define some terms. This part of my Why I’m Not an Atheist series is about determinism and free will, so it behooves us to make sure we all know what I mean by those terms. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines “causal determinism” as “…roughly speaking, the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.” I like this definition. Later in this post, I am going to use what has been called the Basic Argument of determinism to attempt to show why I adhere to this idea. However, given that this post is at least in part about theology – I mean only that we’re discussing the God question and thus our terms are going to need to relate directly to this God question – I’m going to use the word “determinism” to mean “theological fatalism” when discussing the idea from a theist’s perspective (don’t worry, I think you’ll be able to follow…). The SEP defines theological fatalism as “the thesis that infallible foreknowledge of a human act makes the act necessary and hence unfree.” Basically, determinism itself is the analog of theological fatalism in a world in which God does not exist, and theological fatalism is the analog of pure determinism in a world in which God does exist. To put it more simply, we’re discussing the idea that the future is determined by something (nature and the state of the universe on one hand, God on the other), and so I choose to use the same term to emphasize what I see as the sameness of the issue. If you don’t follow that, it’s fine – that is basically what I’m going to try to argue in this post anyway. Okay, on to the next definition: free will. When I discuss free will in this post, I am not referring to the notion that human actions are completely undetermined by anything other than that person’s will. Thus, I’m not talking about a completely autonomous will. Most of us would reject that wording anyway, because most of us realize that our situations in fact do determine our choices to at least some extent. For instance, I cannot choose to be three feet taller, or to spread my arms and fly to Thailand. There are laws to this universe. Some people (Buddhists, maybe? or New Agers?) believe in the idea of “mind over matter,” but this is not the idea I’m talking about when I am referring to free will. For the duration of this post, think of free will as simply the ability of rational agents (humans) to choose between various alternative options that do not go against the physical laws of the universe. Free will is the idea that you can make a choice and thus influence the flow of time. Determinism is the idea that the things which happen necessarily happen – that they happen out of necessity, because they have been determined.

(I won’t get into much detail, but suffice it to say that as a Calvinist I believe that determinism/ theological fatalism is true. Some of my fellow Christians will balk at that – maybe even some Calvinists will balk at the usage of the word “fatalism,” since it has the connotation of meaninglessness. However, I personally believe that we have real wills that we exercise but which are ultimately under the sovereign will of God. There is no other possible way, in my opinion, for God to be said to be sovereign – because if everyone has free choices to make and thus can freely influence the flow of history, then history is at the mercy of people and not God. Okay. Just wanted to make that clear. Let’s get on with the actual post, since this isn’t supposed to be about me defending my own particular brand of theism).

Now that we have those terms defined, I can begin my main argument (if it can be called that). Some atheists I have met have posed to me a charge against theism which they find very strong indeed. The charge is that, if God exists, then we do not have a free, effectual will. Our choices are merely the illusions of choices, since a deity that exists outside of time and knows all the events of the future and that can interact within human history would be in control. The criticism can be seen in pop culture all over the place. For instance, think back to the movie The Matrix (yes, yes, I know this is an easy target, since virtually no other movie in popular culture has been so blatantly about philosophy). When asked if he believes in “fate” – the idea that the future is destined to happen – Neo replies “No… because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.” This is a particular criticism of Christianity, since one of the attributes of the Christian God is sovereignty – the idea that this God is in complete and utter control at all times and in all places. This conception of God negates, in these atheists’ minds, the common sense notion that we have the ability to choose freely between alternative decisions. Note that this criticism, and indeed the whole determinism vs. free will debate, is very closely tied up with discussions of moral responsibility. I will get to issues of morality in the next two posts, but the main gist of this criticism of theism is that it seems to preclude real moral responsibility. After all, how can we be said to be morally responsible for an action if that action happened necessarily – if, in effect, we did not have any real control in the matter at all and the action was foreordained and predestined? I don’t shy away from the fact that this is a serious charge. However, what I want to prove here is that a move away from theism does not solve this issue. It merely moves the sovereignty from this deity to something else.

Brace yourselves, because this is where it’s going to get really dense and possibly hard to follow. I’m going to try to keep it as simple as possible (partly because going into depth on every term and theory would take a lifetime, and partly because the whole point of this thing is to be readable). To my knowledge, atheists tend to be materialists – that is, they reject the notion of the supernatural and hold that everything “supervenes on” the physical world. This is consistent with the usual reasons they pose for rejecting theism and supernaturalism in the first place, so you can’t fault them for that. However, let’s run with that scenario. The material, physical world is the only thing that can be said to exist in reality. Even mental processes such as love, pain, reason itself, happiness, depression, etc. can be said to supervene on or be based upon the physical realities. Consciousness is the result of the physical world behaving in a certain way. Okay? Now, here’s where the Basic Argument I talked about earlier comes into play. If this is the way that reality is, the atheist has not escaped determinism. Let me show you. I first heard of this argument in Galen Strawson’s “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility,” which can be found in the 2007 edition of Ethical Theory (edited by Russ Shafer-Landau… the forthcoming quote is on page 347). It is he who termed it the Basic Argument and it can be stated thusly:

“(1) You do what you do because of the way you are. So,

(2) To be truly morally responsible for what you do you must be truly responsible for the way you are – at least in certain crucial mental respects. But,

(3) You cannot be truly responsible for the way you are, so you cannot be truly responsible for what you do.”

This is tough to parse on some levels – especially as it relates to the a/theism debate. So let me try to simplify it by connecting it directly with what we have been talking about. To the atheistic materialist, the world is entirely made up of physical things. In fact, even seemingly non-physical things supervene on the physical processes. So, our mental faculties are merely the result of the workings of physical processes in our brains. But, these physical processes behave according to strict physical laws that have been working on your physical makeup since literally before you were born. This is evidenced by the fact that alcoholism, for example, has a genetic basis. Therefore, since you cannot be said to have been responsible for your original physical makeup (after all, you didn’t exist yet and certainly did not pick out the physical properties you would have upon birth), and since you cannot be said to be responsible for the physical laws that have been acting on those original physical properties over time (since those laws existed before you did and are not mutable, or at least certainly not mutable by you), and since your physical makeup dictates your mental processes (this is materialism, the mental supervening on the physical), you cannot be said to have free will, nor to be morally responsible for the choices you make.

Let that sink in a bit. It is very difficult to object to this Basic Argument (in fact, I think it to be impossible if it is approached from an atheistic, materialistic perspective). If the atheist denies premise (1), she is denying the very materialism that she has claimed to espouse. If she denies premise (2), she must then try to figure out what it means to be morally responsible for something that she can’t be said to be responsible for in a nonmoral sense. That is, negating premise (2) is to say that, paradoxically, one is responsible for something one did without being responsible for one’s physical makeup, even though materialism would have to hold to the idea that what we do is predicated upon our physical makeup, according to premise (1). This seems illogical. It is basically like saying that I, Mike, should be held accountable for things I did even though those actions were the result of material processes over which I have no control. Where does this sudden responsibility come into play? Note: I am not saying the theist has it any better. I am simply showing that the atheist has not escaped the problem by a simple move to atheism. What would be required is a radical restructuring of the very common-sense notions of free will and agency that caused the atheist to object to theism in the first place. (Just to make sure I cover this, the only answer given to this problem in the Bible is a rather unsatisfying one. In Romans, Paul argues basically this same idea, but applied to God. He says that none can resist the will of God, that if God has made some to be vessels of wrath for the day of destruction and some to be vessels of mercy no one can resist those purposes. He anticipates the objection “Why does (God) still find fault? For who can resist his will?” and answers the objection by saying “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” Check it out in Romans 9:19-20. My point is that I sympathize with the atheist at this point, because I do not have an answer for this problem. More on that later).

Really quickly, let me summarize the point of this long post. The reason I find it worthwhile to discuss is that some atheists I have talked to share the opinion of Neo in The Matrix: they do not like the idea of not being in control of their lives. Seeing within theism a determinism that goes against their notions of free will, they attempt to solve the problem by a move to atheism (I’m not saying this is the only reason, nor that all atheists even have a problem in this area, but simply that some do). However, what I have hopefully shown here is that making that philosophical move does not solve the issue. What it does is merely push the control down from a deity to Nature itself. If you go back and re-read the Basic Argument, you will realize that in a materialistic universe punishing someone for their actions is much the same as punishing someone for their hair color, or for their skin color. It is the same because in a materialistic universe all things necessarily supervene on the physical, and we do not have control over the physical. Any attempt to assert that we do have control over the physical properties of our bodies will lead to the inevitable fallacy of the causa sui (the notion that we are the cause of ourselves, which is obviously untrue as evidenced by the fact that we did not pick out our parents’ genes, etc.).

Finally, I want to point out a few things. There are many philosophers nowadays who are compatibilists. That is, they hold that free will and determinism are compatible. In fact, there are some who hold, seemingly paradoxically, that moral responsibility is only possible in a deterministic universe. One example of an atheist compatibilist is Daniel Dennett , and the link I just provided is a video of him discussing his views on this dispute. However, I would argue that any move that an atheist makes to solve this problem can equally be made by the theist. For instance, I hold that we are morally responsible for our choices. In fact, adhering to the doctrine of the Bible, I would hold that the problem is that our will is always and only in the opposite direction of God’s will – and that therefore the only way to repent (or, in other words, to turn toward God and from one’s immorality) is to be made to do so by God who is sovereign. Or, other theists (in the sense of including all forms of theism) reject the notion of moral responsibility or else reject the notion of determinism altogether, just like other atheists reject these notions in order to get out of the predicament. My point is that moving to a position of atheism does not help the problem. And if the problem is cited as a reason for the move away from theism, and the move to atheism does not solve the problem, then the reason for moving to atheism was invalid in the first place.
So that’s it. It’s a long one, I know. But I hope it was not too difficult to follow and that it can generate some discussion. My next two posts are going to deal with the issue that this one leads into: namely, morality itself and the supposed problems from which theistic morality is said to suffer. I am excited about these next two posts because, personally, I find morality to be the biggest indicator of a deity’s existence. Don’t worry, though. I’m not going to suddenly switch my purpose here and start trying to convert everyone to Christianity. I merely plan on refuting the problems that atheists have with theistic morality.

WHY I’M NOT AN ATHEIST, pt. 1

(a series on why I don’t think atheism solves the very philosophical problems with which it faults theism)

So, I’m trying out a new idea for this blog: a multi-post philosophical series. Over the next few weeks (maybe more, if discussion gets good) I plan on developing reasons as to why I do not believe in the non-existence of a deity. That’s clunky language, I know. But it pinpoints the purpose of this series. I want it to be known that I am not trying to prove theism (much less am I trying to prove Christian theism, though I will admit that my references to deities in this series are going to presuppose a Western view of a personal god rather than an Eastern “force” kind of theism). Rather, my purpose here is to show that atheism commits some of the same “errors” that it charges theism with. In other words, I’m trying to show that atheism doesn’t solve the philosophical problems that many atheists cite as reasons for disbelieving theism. This is a Schaefferian- type of thing to do in that it reflects what Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer called “taking the roof off” – a term that denotes showing someone the implications of his or her worldview. Inherent in my critique of atheism is going to be my blatant Christianity. I will try to rein this in when possible, as my goal is honestly not to offend. However, it is the presupposition with which I start, so it is a very difficult thing to hold in check. Anyway, with those disclaimers out of the way, let’s start.

It is difficult to figure out where to begin these sorts of arguments. After all, any of us who are currently alive and who desire to get in on the a/theism debate have to do so realizing that we’re jumping into the middle of a discussion that’s gone on since humankind has existed. That’s a lot of ground to cover. One good starting point might be epistemology (the study of how we know things), but I’m having a hard time starting there.  The reason for my difficulty is that most philosophers accept the Socratic view of knowledge as Justified True Belief – that is, we can be said to “know” something when that something is a belief that is an accurate reflection of reality (true) and which can be demonstrated through a system of “proofs.” I put the proofs in quotes because virtually nothing can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt (see the discussion of the Munchhausen trilemma a few paragraphs down). It isn’t called Proven True Belief, but merely Justified True Belief. I cannot “prove” that we are not just brains in vats that are being manipulated a la The Matrix to pseudo-experience this world. Similarly, I cannot prove that we did not just spring up into existence mere seconds ago with our memories already implanted. I can’t prove or disprove these thought experiments because they require us to jump outside the methods of justification that we have available. As assertions of things outside our reality, they can’t be proven or disproven using things within our reality. So I’m not going to start with epistemology, and I’m going to just assume prima facie that our experiences are real and we’re as old as we think we are, etc.

Instead, and for the remainder of this part of the series, let’s talk about ontology. Ontology is the study of what is. When I talk about a person’s ontology, I am referring to his or her conception of what exists. For instance, a materialist would assert that only the material world exists and could therefore be said to have a materialistic ontology. Note that while I’m not going to explicitly discuss epistemology at this point, ontology is directly connected with epistemology. It is basically impossible to discuss one without the other, so there are going to be parts of this discussion that inevitably deal with how we know things – or at the very least how we justify our ontologies. W.V.O. Quine, one of America’s most influential and brilliant philosophers, was an advocate of having as sparse an ontology as possible – by which he meant that he wanted to allow for the least amount of necessary things existing in reality – and this is an idea that is very palatable to atheists, if I can make a generalization. One of the criticisms that many atheists have toward theism is that theism asserts the existence of a being that is not necessary to explain reality. Another way to put this is that theism is seen to have an overpopulated ontology.

In order to break down this criticism and show, hopefully, that atheism does not alleviate an “overpopulated” ontology, I am going to switch my talking from an overall ontology to what I will call “necessary brute facts.” These necessary brute facts are things which we merely have to assume are true in order to explain the world. The Munchhausen trilemma asserts that, basically, any proof of knowledge must ultimately rely on three equally unappealing (especially in today’s skeptic culture) options: a circular argument (in which the proof is used to prove the asserted knowledge, and the knowledge is used to prove the proof), a regressive argument (in which the proof then requires a further proof to prove it, which then requires a further proof to prove that proof, to infinity and beyond), or an axiomatic argument (in which the proof[s] are built upon some accepted fundamental precepts). Since the first two options are incredibly unappealing, I will assume the third. That is, I assume that everyone – even the skeptical atheist – rests his or her arguments on these fundamental precepts (i.e. my “necessary brute facts”). So, now that the terminology and, begrudgingly, a bit of epistemology have been set in place, let me get on with it.

The atheist’s argument that theism has an unnecessarily overpopulated ontology can be reformulated to assert that theism has too many necessary brute facts. I disagree with this, as it seems to me that the only real necessary brute fact in (Christian) theism is the deity itself. In a western, personal-god form of theism, the only necessary brute fact that must be taken for granted is the existence of the deity. Everything else can be seen as contingent upon this deity’s decision to create in the manner in which it decided to create. There is less that needs to be philosophically explained in this system, to my eyes at least. (This is one of those areas in which I readily know I’m not convincing anyone, but let’s move on).

For the atheist, there is more “mere faith” that has to be assumed – more necessary brute facts that cannot be accounted for and cannot, by virtue of being brute facts, be explained through appeals to other facts. On the large scale, the atheist must assume that the Universe is the ultimate brute fact. The difference here is obviously that we can observe the universe, etc. But what this leads to is a cascade of necessary brute facts. Since most philosophers accept the idea of the naturalistic fallacy – the idea that what simply exists does not reflect what ought to exist – the atheist is then left to defend an ontology that includes things we can’t readily experience. At least, the atheist (which in our day and age usually equates to materialism, since many atheists’ problem with theism is that it asserts a non-scientific nonmaterial world) must paradoxically accept as necessary brute facts things like an ethical code embedded into the universe. Note that trying to prove that this ethical code rests on other things like the progress of society or the inherent worth of life does not solve this problem. Instead, it simply pushes the problem back from the ethical code to either society or life, respectively. So it seems to me that the atheist, paradoxically, must accept more necessary brute facts than the theist! The problem has not been solved by a simple move to atheism. Instead, the atheist has just moved from having one thing that he or she cannot prove and must simply accept to having  a multitude of things that he or she must accept.

So there it is. Obviously, this post is not in the least bit exhaustive.  Subsequent posts will deal with more specific grievances that atheists typically use to refute theism, but I thought a more general/abstract discussion was necessary to kick off the series. Many people who are more well-read and more knowledgeable than I have attempted to tackle this Ontology problem – both on the theistic and atheistic side. My point is simply to show that this issue, which many atheists hold to be a fault of theism (i.e. the “you have to have blind faith” sort of criticism) is not escaped by a simple move to atheism because both theism and atheism have at their cores “necessary brute facts” that must be accepted prima facie, without any proofs, and which are subsequently used to interpret all the other facts available to us. This post is supposed to encourage discussion on the matter, from both sides, and so I welcome comments. In fact I really desire that people talk about it! I’d love to hear refutations of this as well as agreements. However, my one rule is that if you feel inclined to comment on this, you must be respectful of other people. Attack ideas and not people. Any attempt to do the latter will get your comment removed – though disagreeing with me will not.

-END PART ONE-

Nonfiction Project Snippet

So, I’ve been sort of halfheartedly starting a nonfiction project about the evolution of my religious beliefs – how I became a Christian, how my theology changed, struggles I’ve had along the way, etc. This will probably not be finished or published in a long time, since I’m working on a deadline for my first novella right now (as well as trying to start an online arts magazine). However, I thought I’d post the first section of it here for you all to check out. Bear in mind that this section is not a happy one, and in fact is very tragic and saddening. So read at your own risk!
———————————————

When my wife was getting her master’s degree in Speech Language Pathology, part of her work was to observe clients in a clinic. People would come into the clinic from all ages and races; people who stuttered and lisped, children who were late developing critical speech skills, or children with debilitating physical or social disorders who needed extra help in communicating. But the most harrowing and terrifying and anger-inducing story that I ever heard was about the parents of one of my wife’s clients, one of whom was a nurse at a local care center.

These people had a baby, and for a while everything seemed great. The boy was developing wonderfully, and he was understandably the light of his parent’s eyes. Then, out of nowhere, the baby started having what are called Infant Seizures. He was four months old. Imagine the horror of this for a moment. I think the phrase “a parent’s worst nightmare” is thrown around way too much in our society. It’s used for things like your daughter showing up with a boy whose moral code is slightly less than that of Jesus. But imagine for a moment that you wake up one night to find your baby having a seizure. Imagine realizing, after all these months of everything seemingly going according to plan, that your child is having seizures. That something is going terribly and utterly wrong in his brain. That there is literally nothing in your power that can be done to correct this. And that perhaps this has been going on unnoticed for quite some time. This is your child, your life. A being for whom you are completely responsible. And yet there is nothing you can do. Now imagine that you have the sufficient medical knowledge to know all the possibilities of what could be causing the problem – and all the possibilities of skills and developments and important personality characteristics that could be lost, that could be getting destroyed from these seizures. How would you feel? What would you do?

The parents took the child to doctors and tried all sorts of cures and therapies until they were left with only one. The seizures had been isolated in one half of their son’s brain, and so the only option left to these people was something almost so unspeakable that it is physically difficult to type it out here: the doctors suggested the highly dangerous treatment of removing that half of their son’s brain where the seizure were occurring. Would this cause damage? Yes. But it would likely cure the seizures and prevent the other half of their son’s brain from being damaged.  When I say this must have been a difficult decision, the words seem paltry and ridiculous, since for most of us a “difficult decision” is which college to attend, or which movie to watch on the weekend. This is a decision about removing another human being’s brain, and is thus tied up with all kinds of other decisions like “what do we do if this puts him in a vegetative state?” or “how do we manage to live with ourselves if the procedure kills him?” But the parents decided in favor of the medical advice and the probabilities – like I think any parent would after exhausting literally everything else.  And the boy survived the surgery and came out just fine, minus half a brain.

The real tragedy here is not the difficulty of the decision, or even the removal of half of the kid’s brain. The real tragedy is that afterwards, the seizures came back. Only now the parents had no options left, their son had been hemispherectomized with their consent, and he was still experiencing seizures. Try to imagine your life like this. I do not want to do any disservice to the parents – who I am sure do not want our pity. They are, I am sure, wonderful people. They sure as hell proved that they are sacrificial and tough-decision-makers. And, for me at least, they sure as hell proved that they are good parents. They had to sleep with their child every night and hold him when he had his nightly seizures so that he wouldn’t hurt himself or swallow his tongue, or any other number of terrible things that he could do to himself while seizing. Imagine this. Not getting to sleep in the same bed as your spouse. Imagine trying to speak soothing words to your child as he goes through a seizure, all the while feeling so angry and depressed and guilty inside. Yes, guilty. Imagine the guilt. I’m not vilifying the parents in any way. Nor am I suggesting that their decision was the wrong one. What I am saying is that the situation itself provides no way to not feel guilty: I would have felt guilty having my son’s brain removed, and I would have felt guilty not having my son’s brain removed and letting the seizures go on unchecked. But now, through no fault of their own, the parents have to live with ordering a hemispherectomy on their child to no avail. It is literally the worst of both sides. And so yes, I think there would be guilt there, regardless of whether or not it was deserved.

My wife told me this story shortly before my own son was born. I think it was the first time I ever seriously doubted the existence of God.

Existentialism as Evidence of Mercy

What wonderful fractionalities

pepper our moments!

How strange that such small

insignificances

should butterfly up along

the gradient of time.

Picture this:

My chiropractor aunt,

collecting some coconuts from under the auspices

of palm trees (this is in Puerto Rico),

cracking them open

THWACK

with a machete (their juicysweet guts flowing outward)

under the shelter of some plantain trees

in my grandmother’s garden,

and me

standing there wide-eyed

on the pavement lining the grass,

watching.

I wonder what I would be like

had I not seen that,

had I not been there

for that small moment of familial bonding –

and this when I was still quite young.

Or this fond memory:

me, sitting on an old ripped-out

armchair from ATW’s van,

listening to the creaking of the drumracks

(almost splintered by now)

and wondering which trees were cut

(and from where, exactly?)

in order to make those racks…

trying to listen to the history

of all the things in the room.

The relief comes in seeing

that we have such a

Merciful Mover,

else wouldn’t we have

tornadoed everything by now?

On Gnosticism and Mysticism

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the Gnostic Gospels, the life of Jesus in his early years, the authority and accuracy of the traditional Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), and other related issues. A lot of people have flocked to the likes of Deepak Chopra and others who claim to know the “real” story of Jesus. This got me thinking. I mean, it’s not as if these things are exactly new ideas. People have been undermining the truth of Biblical accounts for centuries and disagreeing with the stories presented in the traditional Gospels. But why, I asked myself, are these ideas given so much credence in today’s time? Why are so many people flocking to the likes of Chopra and New Age gnostics? And I think, at the heart of it, it’s the spirit of our age – Postmodernism/ Deconstructionism – that has given rise to such widespread acceptance of these “secret” Gospels. Continue reading