Thursday, August 10, 2017

Have You Heard the Trilemma?

            C.S. Lewis once made this response to people who claim Jesus was a great moral teacher but not a god:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”
                This is referred to as the Lewis Trilemma, and is often shortened to the phrase “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord.” The basic premise being that Jesus cannot have been a great moral teacher and still been an ordinary human, because he also claimed to be God. If that claim was untrue, then he could only have been a liar or a madman, both of which would mean everything he has to say should be disregarded. A popular atheist response to this is that the trilemma is a false one, in that there exists a fourth ‘L’-word that could also be applied: Legend. The argument basically goes that Jesus, if he existed at all, was a dude who had valid moral lessons to teach, while his supernatural claims and/or abilities were legendarily attached to him as embellishments by the authors of his stories. And while I agree that this is a valid alternative, I kind of hold to a different view.
            My view is that the Trilemma is nonsense from the outset. Quite simply, the whole argument rests on an assumption that we need not make in the first place: that the question of whether or not Jesus’ moral teachings have value is dependent in any way on his identity or character.
            Let’s just take one example: the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As a general rule, I think most of us can agree that this is a reasonably good one to apply in your life. But in evaluating the idea and how it might best be applied, does it really matter who said it? Does it matter whether that person held some delusion that he possessed supernatural ancestry? Does it matter whether he lied about his parentage? Does it matter whether every word he ever uttered in his entire life, except for that one sentence, was a complete fabrication? Absolutely not. Either it’s a good idea, or it’s not. It is the idea that we ought to evaluate and not the speaker.
            That’s why I think the whole formulation of the Trilemma is misguided from its very core. If somebody convinces people that they really ought to be doing things that make other people’s lives better, and I am rationally convinced that these are good moral precepts, then I’m likely to call that person a good moral teacher regardless of how ridiculous any claims he might make about his nature and origin might be. I’m on board with giving medicine to the sick, for example, even if the person who convinced me to do so claims to be a lily pad, a god, a demon, or an alien from the planet Orgasmo. Those claims are irrelevant to the value of medicine.
            To Lewis, though, it’s the claim of supernatural authority that is the only relevant part of the equation. Either Jesus really was a god, in which case everything he said is authoritative, or he wasn’t, in which case everything he said was a damnable lie or irrational insanity. It’s a paradigm in which the moral value of everything is dependent solely on whether it has supernatural authority behind it, as if there was no possibility of independently evaluating the impact and value of Jesus’ various statements and claims. To Lewis, it doesn’t matter how good or valuable anything Jesus had to say was; if he claimed to be God, and wasn’t, then he was leading people away from the real God. That makes him either evil or insane, and his teachings valueless.
            I can even sort of get why that would be the case from his perspective. In many forms of Christianity, the only true good is to believe in, worship, and obey their god. Outside of that, nothing you do matters. But it’s an argument that, it seems to me, is silly to direct at anyone. With rare exception, Christians accept that Jesus really was God, and so they wouldn’t be making an argument that he was a great (but merely human) moral teacher. And most people who do think he was a great human moral teacher don’t think the value in his teachings comes from being a god. So what’s the purpose of the argument? I suspect, mostly, that it exists to reassure people who already believe in Jesus’ divinity that they should continue to do so.

            But there’s no logical connection between Jesus being a literal god, and Jesus having some cogent things to say on the subject of morality.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

What About Teen Pregnancy?

            So… it seems that our current administration is cutting funding for investigations into how to prevent teen pregnancies. And, of course, this thrills conservative Christians who favor abstinence-only positions. And liberals are less than thrilled, since it’s rather demonstrably true that abstinence-only polices pretty much always result in increases in teen pregnancies. So of course, there has been the usual chorus of liberals and secularists pointing out this fact as if it ought to affect the policy. But I don’t think it will work, because it never does. And I’d kinda like to talk about why I think that is.
            Now, this is just my personal theory. I may be way off base, here, and I encourage anyone who thinks they know better to correct me. But I think that trying to point out the effect of different policies on teen pregnancy rates completely misses the point. It’s based on the assumption that the target audience agrees that teen pregnancy is a problem, and that reducing it ought to be a policy goal. And I don’t think that’s true.
            I don’t think that conservative Christianity, or at least that portion of it seriously involved in government policy and practically orgasmic over the current administration’s eagerness to pander to their agenda, cares even a little bit about teen pregnancy. We liberals and secularists may think they should, and we may even have good reasons for thinking that, but they just don’t. What they care about is premarital sex.
            You see, to secular society, the problems with teenagers having sex is the possibility of contracting an STD, and that getting pregnant at such a young age frequently leads to health problems, unnecessary abortions, and long-term educational and economic disadvantages for both the mother and the baby. Since those are the problems, and it is demonstrably true that sex education (including abstinence, birth control methods, how conception and pregnancy work, and how STDs are transmitted) reduces the chances of these occurring, then it only makes sense to have a comprehensive sex education policy.
            To conservative Christianity, the problem is with anyone, of any age, having sex outside of marriage because their god doesn’t approve of that sort of thing. It doesn’t give a fig whether we’re talking about teenagers or geriatrics; if they’re married they can have sex and should get pregnant, and if they’re not married they should not have sex for any reason. Full stop. The only possible policy that meets this goal is abstinence outside of marriage. It’s not about whether anything negative happens as a result of sex. The consequences are immaterial. Their god said you shouldn’t do it, so you are supposed to obey.
            Thoughts? Anybody?
            I think that we sometimes talk about fundamentally different worldviews that value different things as if they value the same things. We like to focus on what we have in common, and in general I think that’s a good idea. But we shouldn’t allow it to blind us to how the differences impact the way we talk to each other. Or rather, allow it to let us talk past each other because we make too many assumptions. It behooves us to pay attention to what other people profess to believe, and take them seriously. I know it bugs me when other people treat me as if I don’t actually believe what I say I believe. I figure I owe other people the courtesy of taking them at face value.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

What is Falsifiability (and Why is it Important)?

            The concept of falsifiability is a scientific idea that often comes up in discussions on the existence of gods. Judging by the reactions I sometimes see, it seems to be a badly misunderstood concept. So I figured I’d put up a short post about what it means.
            Falsifiability, in a nutshell, is the ability to frame a test for a hypothesis that would be capable of disproving it (i.e. proving it false). If an idea is unfalsifiable, that means that no test can be devised that would prove it wrong. Here’s where the confusion often comes in: “unfalsifiable,” does not mean “true,” and “falsifiable,” does not mean “false.” In actuality, many facts about reality that we generally accept as true are falsifiable.
            Let me see if I can illustrate the idea with an easy example. Suppose I had a pebble sitting in the bottom of a bowl of water, and I wanted to investigate why the pebble is sitting at the bottom instead of floating. So I come up with the hypothesis that the pebble must be denser than the water. To check, I take the pebble out of the water, dry it off, weigh it, measure its volume, and come up with a density number. Then I do the same with a volume of the water, and I compare the two densities.
            So what happens if it turns out the pebble really does have a higher density than the water? This doesn’t actually prove the hypothesis. It’s a data point in favor of it, but there still might be other factors besides density that are the actual cause of the pebble sinking. More investigation is warranted, and that’s often the case in science; you rarely, if ever, get to say that a given hypothesis is proven true. All you can do is amass evidence that is consistent with it. In that sense, a positive result in this test isn’t all that important on its own, but rather as a building block to a fuller understanding.
            But there is a more important possible result of the test, and that would be if it turned out that the pebble had a lower density than the water. Because if that were the true, then the hypothesis that the pebble sinks because it has a higher density than the water could not be true. The test would have falsified the hypothesis. We’ve never seen that result, we generally accept that it’s true that objects denser than water will sink, but there is a potential outcome of the test that would tell you that the hypothesis is false. This is what it means for hypothesis to be falsifiable.
            But suppose that I had, instead, come up with the hypothesis that the reason the pebble sinks is because there are invisible, intangible water spirits called Naiads that really love pebbles and want to envelop them. Clearly, testing the density of the pebble does nothing to prove this hypothesis true or false, since any possible result can still be explained as the vagaries of Naiad behavior. But here’s the thing: there may very well be no test at all that could ever disprove the Naiad theory. Because no matter what physical observation you make about what traits result in objects sinking in water, it can always be covered by “that’s just what Naiads like to do.” The Naiad hypothesis is not falsifiable.
            So why should we care? What does it really matter?
            Well, as it turns out, an explanation that is not falsifiable is kind of useless. And that’s because the thing that makes a theory unfalsifiable is the fact that it makes no predictions. Going back to the Naiads above, what does believing in the Naiads actually tell you about whether any given object will float? What does it tell you about anything? Does it tell you that you can expect to see Naiads? No; they’re invisible. Does it tell you that you should expect to touch Naiads? No; they’re intangible. Does it tell you that you should expect dense objects to sink? No; Naiads may just not like any particular object even if they seem to have liked every object denser than water in the past. Does it tell you that you should expect less dense objects to float? No; Naiads really could take a liking to anything. Ultimately, there’s no observation you could possibly make that could not be “explained” by saying that it’s just how Naiads choose to behave in that instance. But, by claiming to explain every possible observation, it actually explains none of them. Not in any useful way, anyhow.
            Are Naiads real? Who knows? They’re unfalsifiable – you can’t prove they don’t exist. But since you also clearly can’t make any decisions about the real world that are predicated on their existence, it doesn’t make much sense to act as if they do. How, in fact, would you behave as if they exist, when you can’t test or observe anything about them to know how you should behave?

            Does that sound like anything else you know?