Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Appeal to Authority

Appeal to authority is commonly heard as the name of a fallacy. However, sometimes it is appropriate to appeal to an authority, as when we have questions about a topic which is generally relegated to experts, and where the experts are in relatively good agreement. If you want to know how far away the Earth is from the Sun, appeal to authority is fine, and just about the only way most of us will learn that information. Similarly, germ theory, basic genetic theory, and the top ten hits are all things we know, most of us (if we know them), on the basis of authority. The question, then, is when appeal to authority is fallacious.
 The most obvious case where appeal to authority is fallacious--and this is covered in any decent logic textbook--is when the authority is not an authority in the right field. Stephen Hawking on religion, or, the usual example, pick a celebrity on almost any topic.
 The other case where an appeal to authority is insufficient is when someone else can establish the contrary by appeal to an equally valid authority. This may be regarded as a subset of the above, but where no one can claim to be an authority on the issue. There are an enormous variety of cases where we depend on this kind of authority, however. Medical professions have many areas where we must follow some authority or another, but they disagree and are equally valid authorities. How are we to proceed? Here the concept of a burden of proof is helpful. The way we tend to go is to follow the established majority, which may or may not be right. We cannot all study the issues involved, so some kind of authority must be involved, but the authorities, on certain issues, disagree--and this is true in any scientific field, the issue is that in medicine we must go on.

So there is a puzzle here. We cannot simply appeal to anyone with a medical degree as an authority, but we cannot all get the proficiency with concepts required to evaluate the research ourselves--and if we did, we would likely have a smaller chance of getting at the truth than those whose profession it is. So, in general, we go with the majority unless we have encountered arguments and evidence which provide reason to think that the majority is suspect. Such arguments can be very difficult to evaluate, however, because they can easily use technical jargon which appears to establish a claim, yet which might not.

With issues like these it is helpful to step back and establish heuristics which we can apply to the conclusions, of the form "if the studies give x kind of conclusion, something has probably gone wrong." For example, if studies seem to show that we should, in general, eat in a radically different way than we have always eaten, either the reason should be shown in how we live radically differently (and there is probably an issue with how we are now living in that case) or something has probably gone quite wrong. Another might be, for a Christian, if studies show we should altogether avoid things which the Israelites were supposed to eat (e.g., meat, unleavened bread, wine), then something has likely gone wrong--which is not to say that we ought to eat the same as the Israelites did. Also, the right diet is liable to result in our enjoying food more. And those are just about diet. Things regarding surgery and other medication would be harder to establish, but hard thought could probably get some kind of conclusion-heuristic thinking running sufficiently to enable us to evaluate at some level the more disagreed upon practices. Some of that thinking goes on in bioethics, but this kind of thinking would be broader than that.

This kind of approach needs to be done carefully. We need to avoid gut-reaction kind of thinking that says "I don't think God would allow such-and-such" unless we have good reasons, grounded in Scripture, for thinking so. I have heard people who don't believe wormholes or time-travel are possible for this reason, which strikes me as odd. Our God is big enough to handle all sorts of things which might make us uncomfortable, and humans have, historically, been uncomfortable with all sorts of things. People once claimed that flight was impossible because if God had wanted us to fly he would have given us wings. These are cautionary tales of this kind of conclusion-heuristic thinking going wrong.

The final case that I intend to cover here is where the question is such that the idea of an authority on the issue is itself invalid. Again, this can be construed as a form of the first or second instances, where we are all counted as authorities and yet many reasonable people disagree. What is an example of this? In my view, there are some philosophical and theological issues which fall into this category. Even granted that Scripture is always a valid authority, the issues we address in theological and philosophical discourse usually cannot be settled by an appeal to another mere human's argument or view, even if that other person has a PhD in a relevant field. This does not mean that we all need to delve into such issues at the PhD level, and it does not mean that PhD's are no better off than the rest of us, but it does mean that if we are to claim a doctrine we should understand the arguments pro and con at some level, at least long enough to see how the arguments work. With theology, because it is always applied, we need to have enough of a grasp of where the doctrines come from to understand how they should work out, and to establish a great enough confidence to live them out. The conclusion-heuristic thinking approach can be helpful here, too. One very important criteria is this: does this doctrine either rest on or support the essential gospel of doctrines? That is, does the doctrine either show the cross in a more beautiful light or under gird the cross work of Jesus Christ? True doctrines tend to wind up at the cross at some point. True doctrines should serve to increase love for God and others.

Life under God is communal, and thus we have teachers in the Church, but it is also individual, and so we each must come to know and love God for ourselves.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Perspective on Evil

As human beings, we desire to see the big picture of what is going on. I think this is partly behind the success of news outlets: they give us a sense of knowing what is happening all over. And because we do not trust that someone is in control of things, we get upset by what is happening, and want to fix things. But we cannot.

Anyone can recognize that worrying about the direction the world is headed does not do any good. Many recognize that we surely are not all supposed to uproot our lives to do something about it, and even that if we did, we likely would make only a small dent in things. Others devote themselves to causes, good causes, but so often the cause becomes all that matters.

The true worldview must be able to handle this situation. That is, whatever is ultimately true, it must enable us both to care about the sorrows of this world, and yet live balanced lives. It is ironic that the extremes tend to be callousness toward sorrows and caring about some cause, and that the causes can so often overshadow people. People become so passionate about causes that they no longer care about other people.

We must see even our causes as overshadowed by something greater, or our causes will become more ultimate than the people we claim to serve.

"And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.
"But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to counsels, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved" Mark 13:7-13
 In this passage, Jesus places the news into perspective. The bad stuff--and it is bad--is to be expected. Expected, but not minimized. Yet it is placed in perspective by the last sentence: "But the one who endures to the end will be saved" There is a hope that we hold, that there is a God who holds the whole world in his hands, and who will, in the end, make all things right. So we work hard to make things better now, but we know we will not make things all better, for only God can, and God will. It is in light of the finished work of Christ that we can claim that we already have the victory, and this enables us to care, knowing that God, too cares. And it enables us to put causes in perspective, caring for others with the love of God, which we have seen in Christ, rather than caring first about what we do, for in Christ it is all done.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Linguistic Minority (or "What is Love?")

Wittgenstein's insight into how language works is that you cannot separate the words, sentences, sounds, etc., which we think of as the language from the way of life, the habits and such, in which it is used to communicate. He therefore spoke of "language games" to refer to that complex whole which includes both the sound production by human beings, and the following actions taken by humans in response.

To change the way of life, then, must often change the language in some way. Conclusion: being the moral minority means being the linguistic minority in certain ways. Further, to maintain the same language as the surrounding culture will, at least, exert enormous pressure to maintain the same way of life as the surrounding culture.

Now, it is obvious that we do not quite speak a foreign language in the common sense of "language." I grant that. I use language above because it is the way Wittgenstein presents it. However, it will fit our sensibilities--our language, as it were--better if I now switch to "dialect." We speak a different dialect, and it is different in important and life altering ways. Wittgenstein seems to think that language must be fine as it is, and that there is no moral component to our linguistic practices (PI 98, but particularly the received linguistic relativist Wittgenstein), but you can only grant that if you think there are no wrong ways of life. If there are wrong ways of life, those ways of life will have dialects, and those dialects will only make sense from within those ways of life consistent with those wrong ways of life from which the dialect originally arose. The dialect, then, will present issues, traps in our thinking about ethical and social issues. This term has issues to--this "Christian dialect" is translatable between languages and, I want to say, is actually the redemption of those languages--but it is the best I have so far.

This is not merely theoretical. The common culture uses the term "marriage" in such a way that to see the Christian dialect as using the same word, and not a similar word in a different dialect, presents issues. If we do not distinguish between the meanings of our words in our dialect and the meaning of the broader culture's identically sounding words in their dialect(s), we will be unable to coherently present our way of life.

If state-sanctioned "marriage" and traditional Christian "marriage" are the same word, then when Christ almost entirely bans divorce, divorce is banned for both, and we end up effectively forced to endorse state-sanctioned marriage as proper. The same goes for an enormous number of other terms, but chiefly "love". Biblically speaking, Christian love must be a different concept than secular love. 1 John 4:12 "No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us." In this passage, particularly in context, love is defined by pointing to the love of God in Christ's sacrifice for us, and is restricted to believers. If you love, then you are a believer, and, so, if you are not a believer, you are not able to love. However we flesh out the concept further, these parameters require us to hold that what happens when a Christian loves is very different from what happens when a non-Christian "loves."

It is not surprising that the point where it is most obvious that Christians must be speaking a different dialect. The ethics of Christianity is centered around love: the greatest commandment is to love God and is followed by the command to love our neighbors (Luke 10:27). For the Christian ethic to be distinctive, then, the Christian understanding of love must be distinctive, and for us to understand the Christian ethic, we must understand Christian love.

Christian love revolves around and is defined by the love of God in Christ's saving work on the cross. This is why we cannot love apart from being Christians: we cannot love apart from the salvation from hate which Christ works by killing our old, hateful selves, and we do not know what love is, really, until we have seen it and received it in Christ. Throughout the New Testament, the concept of love is defined by pointing to the cross. The cross redefines love, and thus defines the Christian ethic. The Christian ethic, then, is inseparable and unattainable apart from the Christian message, the good news of salvation by grace alone through faith.

To say that we should just love one another, then, is to say nothing until we have defined the concept of love. We must not toss the word around carelessly, but define it by reference to Christ, as in John 15:13 and 1 John 4:10, and Romans 5:6-8 and 1 Peter 2:21 hint at the same way of thinking. To think of love as a simple concept is contrary to Scripture, for if it were simple, then, since the Law is summed up by two love commands, why is the law so long? Why not leave it at such a simple concept? And even in the New Testament we have numerous commands which are likewise summed up by the same two commands. An immense amount of space in the Bible is dedicated to fleshing out this concept, if indeed Jesus is right that these two commandments sum up the law and the prophets. We cannot, then, assume that we know what it is to love, and we will come into conflict with other groups in our use of many terms, not least this one, and need to be aware of the differences in meaning which underlie similarities of speech.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

BenOp: First Steps

This post on MereOrthodoxy triggered a line of thought which I often have when reading posts on the BenOp. That line of thought is this: what in my upbringing most prepared me to live out of Christian presuppositions rather than out of the more common presuppositions which surround us in the current world? My answer to that question will likely be biased by what I liked--I'm a thinker, so I am tempted to emphasize the thinking end of things--but the question can still be helpful for those of us who find ourselves, to some extent, already living in an out of place way. Those of us who do stick out on account of Christian convictions should be thinking about what has enabled us to do that and what sustains us in doing that, so that we can then report on what has worked. This is particularly important for those of us whose way of doing the BenOp-ish life is ordinary and thus easier for more people to envision living in the pattern of.

My first thought is that making Sabbathing together sacred sets us apart in such a way that reinforces to ourselves that we are first Christians. When you find yourself having to say "No, I am not available on Sundays" in response to most requests (jobs, regular sporting events, etc.) that teaches you what you are first, what identity overrides all others. But that is just Sabbathing. I am suggesting Sabbathing together as what is to be set apart as sacred. Stopping all regular activity to come together with others and slow down enough that you can really interact, enough that there are expanses of time to talk about things, helps bind us together into a community.

My second thought is that talking about how we are different--not necessarily better, but first different--helps us to see how the Christian life differs. So, to have a community where we respond to movies and advertisements and books by recognizing the life they present as different, and particularly to discuss how the gospel makes that difference, how the life that some settle for apart from Christ is, really, sad. These discussions are not meant to be academic, although those inclined toward academic stuff may find these discussions, in one way, more natural, but instead these discussions are a way of developing a Christian vision and imagination for how the world works. It is a way of developing, not only a vision for how they are wrong, but much more for developing empathy for how they are lost.

These are things I grew up with. At a certain level, they are not hard. Granted, developing the Christian imagination may be something harder to get off the ground, but that is an area where we, as the Church, can learn from one another. I am not suggesting come together merely as isolate families, but as churches, as diverse, intergenerational communities, where we can learn and develop a Christian imagination from our elders in the faith. There may be a need in some places for some people to stretch themselves to glean from writers who have thought deeply about how the gospel affects culture, but not everyone needs to do that work, because the few who do ought to then be articulating and exploring the connections they are seeing with others, thereby teaching others what they are learning.

What is needed is not a new organizational structure, but a new willingness to slow down and discuss, intelligently and empathically, life and godliness. Some will be strong in discerning logical patterns, others will be strong in grasping the sadness of lostness, we need one another to develop our imaginations after the mind of Christ. The first step to the BenOp, really, is to become the body of Christ. And that begins with one person reaching out to another to prod them to think and empathize more deeply, more Christianly, more thoroughly about all of life. It is as simple, and as difficult, as asking "how does the gospel impact how we do this?" over a wide variety of areas, and then being struck, as we, perhaps, wathc movies, read books, and see how different they portray the way to do life. How do they answer the problems of life without the gospel? How does the gospel answer the problems better?

These are discussions. I do not think that what is needed to support Christians living as strangers in the world is answers to these questions, although those are good, but that we would think this way. If our hearts move in Christian rhythms, then our lives will be distinctly Christian. Too often, BenOp conversations are about what we can do, and implicitly, usually, it is what we can do to strengthen our hearts in Christ, but it would be easy to lose sight of the fact that what we are after with these alterations to our lives is not merely that our lives would be different, but that our hearts would be more strongly Christian, so that the world would no longer tempt us.