Miracles and univocal metaphysics

Recently I have been writing about miracles and the idea that a materialistic understanding of nature eliminates the possibility of belief in miracles. The points I have made are not new or original to me. The root issue I have discussed is whether events which contradict “scientific laws” ought to be disbelieved entirely on principle, namely the principle that such a contradiction is impossible and so therefore the miracle cannot happen.

I have begun reading Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, which is a book about the unintended social and philosophical consequences of the Protestant Reformation. The first chapter describes how a shift in the conception of God beginning with Occam and Scotus in the high middle ages eventually led to the conflict between science and religion. The author describes this shift as “univocal metaphysics” combined with “Occam’s razor.” I will explain what he means by univocal metaphysics, how it interacts with Occam’s razor, and why this leads to the view that miracles ought to be disbelieved on the basis that they contradict scientific laws. I will begin by considering the concept of “the God of the gaps.”

The God of the gaps is the way that God is invoked to explain a phenomena which cannot be explained given known scientific understanding. Some series of events occurs, A-B-C, whose causal relationship is understood. Then some event occurs, X, whose causal relationship to A-B-C is not understood. This is then followed by another understood causal series of events, E-F-G. The “gap” is the X in the series A-B-C-X-E-F-G. Since we don’t understand how X could occur, we explain the “gap” by saying that X was caused by God.

This understanding of God says that the series A-B-C and E-F-G are the result of natural processes, nature working “on its own,” and only X, which is not understood to be a part of nature, is the result of God’s activity. So A-B-C and E-F-G are not caused by God, but X is caused by God. As many atheists and materialists will observe, this is unnecessary because it is more likely that X simply represents some lacuna in our scientific understanding of the natural world. Since science tends to uncover explanations for these things as it moves through history, it makes more sense to simply wait for that explanation. In other words, the power of science justifies our decision to postulate an unknown natural cause for X rather than attribute X to God.

The book refers to this as a univocal understanding of God. “Univocal” means that there is one meaning for a word so that every time the word is used it means just that one thing. This is as opposed to “equivocal” in which a world has multiple distinct meanings determined by context, such as “bat” referring to a baseball bat or the animal. The God of the gaps is a univocal understanding of God because it uses the word “cause” in the same sense when talking about nature and God, which turns God into a being acting in the natural world in the same way that everything else is a being acting in the natural world. When trying to understand A-B-C-X-E-F-G, the God of the gaps explanation presupposes that God’s causal powers are the same as nature’s, and that therefore determining the cause of X is simply a matter of determining whether or not X can be explaining according to natural causes (even if those causes are extraordinary or highly unusual). In other words, if a natural cause for X can be found, then God did not cause X.

The idea of Occam’s razor interacts with this univocal understanding of God in the way I described earlier: Occam’s razor says we ought not to postulate unnecessary metaphysical entities. If an event is explained by ten causal factors interacting in a highly complex way but could also be explained by two causal factors interacting in an ordinary way, then the latter explanation should be preferred.

This turns God into a hypothesis which can be tested and falsified. It is falsified in the same way any other natural explanation is falsified, namely, by finding some other explanation. Colonel Mustard is dead; if the cook did it, then the butler didn’t do it. A person was miraculously healed through prayer; if they were healed by a freak confluence of natural causes that coincided with the prayer, then it was the natural causes and not God. Therefore the God hypothesis would be falsified.

Those familiar at all with the Biblical understanding of God will know that God is not merely described in the Bible as a powerful being which causes miracles. Rather, God is described as the powerful being that causes the existence of everything. The Bible attributes ordinary natural processes to God’s activity, such as rain and sun, the seasons, animals finding their food, and so on. While God does cause miracles, he also presides over the ordinary course of natural events. In fact, we would still talk about God’s activity in the world and him bringing things about even if there were never any miracles.

God’s presence in the world is somewhat like the presence of the government in society: it helps create an orderly, peaceful environment by establishing and enforcing laws. In most cases it is the mere presence of the government, the mere potential of the enforcement, that brings order. The government is not constantly intervening in the daily lives of its citizens to bring about that order (well, at least it didn’t use to). However, the government can and sometimes does directly intervene in our lives, as the covid outbreak and the 2020 riots demonstrate. But the ordinary, day-to-day order of society and the occasional, direct, extraordinary interventions of the government do not negate each other.

Libertarians often make a “government of the gaps” mistake: since people are ordinarily carry out their business without constant intervention, it is therefore assumed that the government should simply be “Occam’s razor-ed” away as an unnecessary being. If it was the market, then it wasn’t the government. Now obviously the government didn’t build your business, you built it. But on the other hand, you built it in an environment created by peace and stability wrought by the government, even if that government is not as well-managed as it could be, the removal of which would not simply entail “business as usual” but chaos.

So the objection to miracles presupposes an understanding of God as a being “out there” somewhere perhaps made of ectoplasm or some kind of spiritual goo that is everywhere all at once, like air. But God is not everywhere all at once in the same way as air, because air is part of the created world, a feature of nature, whereas God is totally transcendent and other. This means that we reason about God’s interaction with the world not univocally but analogically. These analogies, like the government analogy above, or the Biblical analogy of God as father, help us understand through images and likenesses what God is like. But because God is totally other and beyond nature, we cannot actually “grasp” or “apprehend” God in any complete way.

To falsify a miracle because it can be explained through natural causes is to misunderstand how God relates to the world by creating a dichotomy between things in the world which happen “on their own,” apart from any activity God does, and those things which God himself actually does. This view seems to make God truly other, but it ends up placing him on the same level as another created being. God is present in the ordinary workings of nature just as much as in the miraculous.

Laws of nature vs natures

My last two posts had to do with the miracle of the Resurrection, particularly regarding criteria people sometimes use to ascertain whether a belief is reasonable. But this got me thinking a little bit about the sort of background beliefs that exist between those who believe in miracles and those that don’t. I will try to lay out what I think those two perspectives are.

Materialism and the Laws of Nature

Those who reject miracles tend to look at the world in a mechanistic way. Causality is “mechanical” because things sort of passively respond to other things that act upon them. A pool table with billiard balls bouncing around is a stock example. In this view, the world is governed by “scientific law” like the laws of physics or chemistry. We can refer to all these laws generally as the “laws of nature.” This view of the world operating in a mechanical way where everything is just the motion of physical matter is called “materialism,” because all that exists is just “material.” Sometimes it is called “naturalism” for the same kind of reason: there is only “Nature” but nothing super-natural.

Someone who commented recently on one of the Resurrection posts said, “We do not know yet, what it took to start life. We have no evidence it required some supernatural force. We do have evidence that the laws of physics can handle it fine.” This comment reveals an assumption that is often part of the popular materialist perspective. The laws of nature are sometimes treated as if they have a causal power. This is why people speak of being able to explain things with recourse to “the laws of physics” or the like, because those laws “govern” our world, and therefore what we can expect to happen in the world lies in the space demarcated by those laws.

In other words, miracles don’t happen because miracles aren’t part of the natural laws. Since miracles would “break” those laws, miracles cannot happen. Some Christians might argue that God can break those laws if he wants, but I think there is a better objection: natural laws are abstractions of our empirical observations of the world. These laws describe the way the world normally operates under observation. But the laws are not entities themselves which exist in a transcendent state and have some binding power over the world.

As a brief aside, consider that last point for a moment: the laws of physics, for example, are not material entities themselves. So if they exist, they are non-material. So at least in the popular version of materialism, what you actually end up with is these non-material entities exerting a causal force on the world and controlling it. This seems to me to be not as far from belief in God as the materialist typically believes.

The main point with materialism is how it determines the scope of what is and is not possible. The reason miracles cannot occur is that they violate laws, laws of physics, chemistry, and so on. So the miracle of turning water to wine is rejected because it would violate some physical or chemical law. Which law specifically forbids this I do not know, and who specifically enforces this law on all water at all times I also do not know.

Now the problem I have with this view, as I stated previously, is that it assumes that we know what all those laws are and that we understand all their interactions. It is to make the judgment that we know that such a thing cannot happen, and this is very different from claiming that we know that such a thing does not happen. It is also seems to gain its strength to a certain extent from the language used to describe it: we do not refer to the generalities of physics or the generalities of chemistry but to the laws of physics and chemistry. To call it a “law” tilts your mind toward the idea that these generalities are inviolable.

Things have natures

I came up with the title for the post while driving, and I insist on making my sub-headings work with it! Essentialism is an alternative to materialism, and it looks at miracles a little differently. Essentialism was much more dominant prior to the modern age and was articulated generally in some form by Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas (among many others, of course).

While the “scientific” view says that miracles cannot occur because they break the laws of nature, essentialism would say that miracles are impossible because miracles accomplish something that a thing does not have the power to do of its own nature.

So for example, if I strike a match, it creates spray of sparks, but it does not create a spray of water. Similarly, I can blow up a pile of rocks with explosives, but a pile of rocks will not explode on its own. A match, by virtue of its nature, has certain “potentialities” or possibilities which can be “actualized” or made real. Among these is not “create water.” A pile of rocks also has certain potentialities. Among these are not “spontaneously explode.”

When I light something on fire with a match, I can do this because the match has fire-creating potential in it. Of course, it has many other potentials, like becoming a bunch of splinters or becoming a burned stick. If I want to put that fire out, I cannot light another match in hopes of creating a shower of water. The match does not have the potential to do this. What the match can and cannot do is delimited by its nature or essence.

Similarly, if my pile of rocks explodes, there must be some cause other than the rocks themselves that explains why they exploded. To give an account for why something happened, we must appeal to something which has the power to cause the thing we are explaining. A wet paper cannot be explained by a match, and a burning building cannot be explained by the pile of rocks in front of it (or that used to be in front of it; they aren’t there anymore because they exploded).

Can water turn into wine? Well ordinarily if you fill a giant stone jar with water, it will remain water. But the reason is slightly different than that given by materialism. Essentialism would say that water cannot move itself to become wine, and neither can stone move water to become wine. So the miracle is that water turned to wine despite the fact that the causal powers present did not have the power to cause the miracle. What makes this a miracle is not so much that it violated “laws of nature” or that it was statistically highly improbably but because the water did something neither it nor the stone did not have the power to do on its own.

It is important to point out that, conceivable, you could look at the world in an essentialist way but not believe in God. You could accept everything I’ve said about things having an essence which limits what they can do and what they can cause, but you could deny that there is a God who is a transcendent cause who exists “above” the natural order. But the essentialist view is much more natural to those who have religious beliefs, if for no other reason than that it consciously admits the existence of a metaphysical system. The essentialist view is hospitable to the existence of God whereas the materialist/naturalist view is outright hostile to it.

Comparing the two

Materialism and essentialism have some things in common, broadly speaking. Both acknowledge the necessity of cause and effect: things don’t “just happen,” rather they have causes. So when we examine some phenomena, we can always inquire about what causes it. They would also both agree that we can make generalizations about causal relations; we can know how the world ordinarily works. And, both would agree that when something happens which violates these generalities, we should find something that explains that violation, something which is capable of bearing the causal relation between itself and the violation we are trying to explain.

Where materialism or naturalism would diverge most seriously from essentialism, at least concerning miracles, is over the stock supply of causes which are available as explanations: materialism only allows for things which are part of “nature,” but not things which are “outside” of nature. In order for water to turn to wine, there must be some chemical process that would have occurred anyway. There is no possibility of making water turn into wine absent some preexisting process or reaction that is capable of making that happen. If such a process exists, any person could in theory also transform water to wine. But if there is no such process, then there is no possibility of making the transformation.

I prefer the essentialist way of looking at things for a few reasons. First, it avoids what seems to me to be arrogance about our understanding of the world. It seems more open-minded to me to allow that things which we thought were impossible can happen, because that would acknowledge that our understanding of the world is imperfect.

Second, it still accounts for why miracles strike us as miraculous. Both essentialism and materialism agree that miracles are things which “cannot happen.” But materialism treats the laws of nature like the laws of logic by acting like violations of those laws entails an absurdity, and that a “rational person” would not believe in such an absurdity.

Third, miracles are not simply “unlikely” things which could happen but are rare. Winning the lottery and enjoying late-night talk shows are rare but not miraculous; it is possible for these things to happen. This is what catches up a lot of intelligent design arguments, because they rely heavily on the concept of improbability. But discussing these things in the framework of “probability” is to implicitly grant that it could happen, even if it’s exceedingly rare.

Instead, miracles are better understood as things which occur that involve powers not natural to the things involved, such as water turning into to wine or multiplying bread and fish. It is not impossible to make more bread or more fish, but Jesus did this outside of the “natural” way that this ordinarily happens. There is still a cause which explains the multiplication of bread and fish, and it is a cause which has the power to cause the thing it’s being invoked to explain, namely God’s power to cause all things.

We still retain the striking nature of the miracle rather than explaining it away or denying it, we can explain why it is a miracle as opposed to a mere stroke of luck, and we retain the ability to think in terms of cause and effect by acknowledging that in order for the miracle to have happened, it needs to have been caused by something which has the power to cause the miracle in the same way that a great fire can be explained by a match.

An addition to “On a Bad Argument Against the Resurrection”

I wrote a post called “On a Bad Argument Against the Resurrection” where I discussed the question of the “reasonableness” of belief in the resurrection. I pointed out there that the criteria that a belief is unreasonable if it contradicts “well-established facts” cannot be absolute because there are situations in which even those who reject the Resurrection on the basis that it contradicts “well-established facts” will themselves embrace ideas which contradicts “well-established facts.” I gave two examples: the Copernican Revolution and the spontaneous generation of life from non-living matter.

I also argued that what constitutes “well-established” can vary, since there are different traditions of inquiry which take different facts to be established, and rival traditions often argue that what their rivals accept as established is not established. For example, different schools of economic thought disagree over whether FDR’s economic interventions exacerbated the Great Depression or helped mitigate it.

I realized later that I did not explicitly point out what originally motivated the post. And that is this:

When we claim that a belief is unreasonable because it contradicts “facts,” this implies that our current understanding of the world is completely correct. To reject a miracle because it is “inconsistent” with “the way the world works” or “the laws of physics” or whatever is to make two implicit claims: First, How I understand the world prior to interacting with the claim of miracle is, for the purposes of interacting with that claim, completely correct. Second, My judgement as to whether the miracle is coherent with that understand is also completely correct.

To put it more simply, there is an unreasonable way to apply the “well-established facts” criteria: we can apply it in such a way that we simply enforce our own preconceptions about the world. It is to be close-minded. In other words, a close-minded person is able to justify their close-mindedness by appealing in an unreasonable way to the “well-established facts” criteria, saying that to believe a novelty would contradict their already supposedly correct (and therefore closed) understanding of the world.

It seems to me that the history of learning often involves “game changing” discoveries, ones which upend everything we thought about some subject. I mentioned The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a book which is written to explain just this phenomena. It seems to me that dogmatic adherence to the “well-established facts” criteria would eliminate the possibility of ever learning anything genuinely new. You may think your spouse is faithful, but you could maintain this belief even if you walk in on your spouse sleeping with another person by saying, “A belief is unreasonable if it contradicts well-established facts.”

Skeptical types are correct in that unusual claims ought to be vetted, and that it is unreasonable to believe absolutely any claim that is made no matter how strange. But it would also be impossible to learn any genuinely new thing if we rejected everything that contradicted what we thought was already a closed matter. The Resurrection seems like precisely such a case.

So, to summarize: to disbelieve anything which contradicts well-established facts is to assume that the way you understand the world is infallible, and that nothing could ever happen which you could not have predicted.

How I think about evolution

The debate between 6-day or young-earth creationists (YECs) and evolution is largely a debate about history: how long ago did X happen and how long did it take to happen? where X is “the beginning of the world” and “the origin of life.” YECs think the answer to both is “recently, and all of a sudden.” Modern science says the answer to both is “a long time ago, and very gradually.” YECs arrive at their conclusion as a result of the way they interpret Genesis 1, which is as literal history. There are good reasons for interpreting it this way; but there are also good reasons for interpreting it as not literal history.

During my former time as an evangelical and as a YEC, I came to realize that the YEC argument is a combination of good arguments for interpreting Genesis 1 literally and mostly reactionary arguments against interpreting it non-literally. The “Answers in Genesis” people are quite explicit about this, arguing that if we reject a literal reading of Genesis 1, then there is nothing to stop us from rejecting a literal reading of any part of Scripture, including the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In other words, accepting a non-literal reading of Genesis 1 is a slippery slope.

I call this slippery slope argument “reactionary” because I think there is a sense among YECs that Genesis 1 is “obviously” history, or is most naturally read as history, and that it is only the acceptance of an atheistic, secular worldview that might lead you to adopt a different interpretation. But to do this is to implicitly grant supremacy to that atheistic, secular worldview, which will eventually work its way to dissolving your faith in the Resurrection. Thus, YECs are reacting to the way in which evolution justifies an atheistic, secular worldview.

In other words, while there are good reasons for taking Genesis 1 literally, I think YECs wrongly treat the arguments in favor of taking it non-literally as a gateway to secular atheism. I think this characterization, with its arguments and its observations of Christians falling away from the faith after accepting evolution, is almost entirely grounded in the context of American fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity. And I think this is only the case because fundamentalists and evangelicals present the debate this way: either you accept evolution and you are an atheist, or you accept YEC and you have faith in God and his word.

From what I can gather among atheists, they seem to share this framing of the debate, although they might phrase it this way: either you accept evolution and you are an intelligent, logical person, or you accept creationism and you are a gullible, fallacious person. On the other side, there are YECs who do basically the same thing; I think the Answers in Genesis crowd is like this. Either you accept a literal 6-day creationism, or you accept an atheistic, materialistic evolution. In this way I think the big mistake that YECs make is that they accept atheist’s framing of the origins debate.

What is really needed is an alternative paradigm, a way of understanding both God’s relationship to creation and the relationship between Scripture and reality, a paradigm that does justice both the reality of God’s intervention in the world in history, the reliability of Scripture’s testimony to this intervention, but which also explains the scientific account of the natural world. As a side note, this seems to be why Jordan Peterson is such a phenomenon; he seems to be one of the few people trying to take both the scientific point of view and its implications as seriously as possible while not collapsing into secular, agnostic (or atheistic) materialism.

What all this means, however, is that the debate over evolution and “creationism” understood broadly as a kind of theism is not really a debate over what Scripture says but is actually a philosophical debate. This is partially because the reasons YEC give for reading Genesis 1 literally are all essentially presuppositions; the are the stuff of philosophy. But there is another reason.

Suppose that a reading of Genesis 1 as non-literal could be given which satisfies all the concerns of the YEC view of Scripture. Suppose such a reading is plausible enough that it made evolution a live option for those who would ordinarily only accept a YEC view. Or, suppose Genesis 1 were exactly the same except that instead of the word “day,” it used some other word or expression such that the Bible were exactly the same as it is but never mentioned (or implied) that the world was created in six literal days. Would there be any grounds left at all for critiquing evolution? Would there be anything left to say, or would all the barriers be broken down and wholesale acceptance of evolution follow?

The answer is that of course there would still be criticisms to make, and YECs actually make many of them. The primary argument against evolution is that it is used to justify a materialistic worldview, something which ought to be objected on purely philosophical grounds. They understand that a materialistic account of evolution has certain moral implications, such as “survival of the fittest” and “might makes right.” For example, they correctly connect the dots from evolution to eugenics, since sterilizing genetically “unfit” organisms is like pruning a dead branch off a tree: you a merely speeding along the inevitable.

But notice that these and many other criticisms made against evolution are not really arguments against evolution per se but are really just arguments against materialism. That is, evolution could be true or could have never even arrived as an idea, and the arguments against materialism would be valid. Put differently, perhaps there is an account of evolution which is free from the philosophical difficulties of materialism.

In other words, it seems to me that the “literal historical” question of whether life arose through evolution is an independent question from the question of materialism. It seems to me that one could give an account of how life began and evolved over time that was coherent with a theistic understanding of the world rather than a deterministic, materialistic one.

Therefore, I think the main issue with evolution is not Biblical, or scientific, or historical, but rather is metaphysical. To me, it seems like the popular narrative way of understanding evolution communicated through phrases like “undirected processes” or “random mutations” has certain implications for understanding causation generally. Or, said backwards, our basic understanding of causation seems contradicted by the way certain aspects of evolution is sometimes formulated.

I don’t think it makes sense at all to say that every living organism on earth is the result of an grand accident. It seems to me that saying that evolution describes a specific biological process which is believed to have a specific sort of outcome and that evolution is “undirected” is simply a contradiction in terms. This is like saying that reproduction itself is undirected, or that metabolism is undirected, or that migration is undirected. In fact, I don’t see how you can even call something a “process” at all if it’s undirected.

There is no reason to think of evolution as being “undirected.” There are many examples of things which evolve but are “directed” in the sense that their evolution is “aimed at” something. A seed sprouting and growing into a tree which bears fruit is one such example. The specific ways in which life evolved, the specific mutations which “by chance” happened to spring up among populations of organisms, the specific ways in which the environment changed, all of these things are contingent, but they worked together to produce the life that we have now, and ultimately to produce man. These things didn’t have to be this way, but they were. And if the general claim Genesis 1 is making is that God gradually formed the earth, sky, and seas, and gradually filled them with animals, and then finally made us, then there is an evolutionary story to be found in there, so long as we adopt a non-materialistic account of evolution.

This, I think, is the basic thrust of the evolution debate. The reason evolution functions as a “creation story” for atheists is not because it implies the world is merely old, or that life gradually developed. It is because evolution provides a way for conceptualizing the world as being without final causes, without teleology, without direction, without purpose. The advantage of evolution is not the time it took for it to occur, but the fact that it is understood to have happened without a direction.

But notice that the claim that the universe is without teleology is a metaphysical, not an empirical, claim. This means it is not strictly “scientific” in the sense that one can not simply look at the facts and conclude that life has evolved in an undirected way any more than one can look at a logic textbook and conclude that the laws of logic are “really there.” These things must be argued about.

Old-fashioned racists

What you see is a clip from the Dick Cavett show from 1970 where Lester Maddox, the governor of Georgia at the time, talks with Jim Brown, a football player, regarding segregation.

I have thought for some time that if people exposes themselves more frequently to more overt racism, they would have an easier time identifying it correctly. Today, everything counts as an example of racism, and I think that’s at least partially because there are so few obvious examples of a person acting or speaking with flagrant, open racism.

My purpose in sharing this is that I want to point out what I saw as a missed criticism of Maddox. In order to point this out, I must first lay out Maddox’s thinking.

Before I do so, I want to explain why such a task appears necessary to me. I feel that today, racism is such a weaponized and loaded term that it is essentially beyond the capacity to serve any useful function in social or political discourse. What I see here is an opportunity to engage with what appears to be genuine racism in a way that is analytical rather than social; that is, I would like to explain why Maddox is wrong rather than simply dismiss him as a racist and move on. In a society where the contours of a category are well-understood and generally agreed upon, it is mostly safe to dismiss an idea simply by the act of categorizing it. But you cannot dismiss an idea by categorization if the categories you have available to you are all constantly in motion.

Maddox’s racism

Maddox argued against forced segregation and against forced integration. He defines being a segregationist as someone who loves his own and others’ race enough to preserve it; if he loves it, he does not want to see it amalgamated away. He holds this consistently: he feels both blacks and whites should have some amount of racial pride. He also feels that integration and separation should be choices available to people themselves rather than impositions of the government. He feels forced integration and forced segregation are both violations of the US Constitution, which grants the right of free association under the 1st amendment (although he does not specifically mention this amendment).

It is important to see that what Maddox is saying is that it is important for groups to preserve their identity, and that this occurs in part through self-determination. Groups need to preserve themselves by not being forced to accommodate themselves to the ways of other groups by being forced to share their lives, resources, time, and so on with them. It is in many ways a fairly straightforward argument that would apply at the level of the family, sports team, church, or even a nation-state.

Groups set rules for what it means to be a part of that group; to change those rules or to no longer enforce them brings about the dissolution of that group. The Boy Scouts aren’t really the Boy Scouts if they allow girls to join. The Catholic Church isn’t really Catholic if they allow Mormons to worship with them and receive communion. The Chicago Bulls aren’t really a basketball team if they allow their members to play baseball on the court.

Maddox and those who think like him take ethnic groups or racial groups to be largely the same, where the distinctiveness is the blood tie. Racial and ethnic groups are basically super-extended families, and the desire for racial solidarity and purity is a manifestation of the desire for family unity and solidarity expressed at a wider scale.

What you will notice when watching Maddox is how he continues to emphasize equality of whites and blacks by applying this reasoning to them both; he considers racial equality to be the equal application of this concern for racial solidarity and pride. Both black and white people should have this pride, and that pride ought to be protected rather than stymied by the government.

Maddox’s error

This bring us to the disagreement he has with Jim Brown, which begins around 9:18. Brown says that the main concern of civil rights should not be integration but should instead be the economic development of blacks. At this point in the clip, Maddox starts getting agitated and interrupts Brown frequently in order to emphasize that we should care about the economic development of “blacks and whites“. His further interruptions are more or less to this same effect.

I want to set to one side the fact that Maddox becomes as we might say “triggered” by Brown arguing that the economic development of black ought to be a political priority. Most normal people would probably see this as a kind of “tell” that Maddox is being disingenuous when he says he cares about “all people.” But his emotional reaction is mirrored by his argument, and it his argument that we can deal with much more directly.

Maddox on the one hand wants to assert the concept of racial self-love and preservation while also demanding that Brown speak about the development of “all people” rather than just blacks. He as a white man is defending the right of white people to racial self-interest while simultaneously demanding that a black man not defend the right of blacks to racial-self interest. Brown is engaging in an act of assertion; he is arguing in the public square for the needs of the group he speaks for. According to Maddox’s own logic, he is entirely within his rights to do this.

Now to be precise, Maddox is consistent throughout the conversation: he asserts that both blacks and whites should have racial pride and should have their needs be given equal consideration in the political realm; no group should be prioritized over the other or made to bend to the will of another. And in fact, I think that Maddox is in his own way sincere about this; Brown early on mentions a black separatist group, and Maddox seems to have no issue with this.

In Maddox’s mind, if our country comprises many different racial groups who all possess racial pride and have a right to promote their own racial self-interest–not necessarily over against other groups, but simply promote it an ordinary and reasonable way–then it follows that a black man promoting black interests in the public square is acting consistently with Maddox’s vision of how things ought to be. I don’t know whether Maddox would agree with this, but it seems that it certainly did not occur to him in that segment.

Finally, I would like to observe that Maddox’s error is, I think, natural to human thought. Moreover, I believe that “insularity” is likely largely temperamental, as is openness. Therefore, any society will have a bell curve of individuals ranging from the highly insular to the highly open, with most people in between. Our society demonizes insularity and celebrates openness, so the “anti-racism” efforts popular today are targeted at people who are more than likely just temperamentally more insular and who are for that reason more or less immune to the cries that we be more tolerant and open. It seems to me to be like mistaking introversion for anti-social behavior: one of them is always a normal and healthy subset of any people group, and the other is a subversive threat. Being able to tell the difference is really, really important.


Maddox simultaneously asserts that racial groups are right to have racial pride and self-interest and have a right protected by the Constitution to pursue those interests. Jim Brown is doing precisely that by advocating for the interests of black Americans, yet Maddox insists that these interests be stated in a totally universal rather than racially specific way.

On a bad argument against the Resurrection

I like Christian apologetics as much as the next guy. But I have to say that defending the Resurrection is just not that interesting to me. I think this is mostly due to the fact that I’ve never really heard any serious objections to the Resurrection. The opposition to the Resurrection falls under the broader category of the rejection of miracles. If you are an materialist or atheist or what have you, then you reject miracles, and therefore you reject the Resurrection.

The other day I listened to Trent Horn, a Catholic apologist, respond to an atheist respond to his defense of the Resurrection. Yes, it is a little convoluted: Trent is a responding to an atheist trying to rebut arguments Trent had made when debating the Resurrection with a different atheist, Matt Dillahunty. Trent laid out criteria in the original debate video for assessing whether a belief is unreasonable. One of those criteria was: a belief is unreasonable if it contradicts well-established facts about the subject matter. Now, Trent clarifies in the response video above that in this context, “subject matter” would be things like Jesus, the Gospels, and so on, and not the subject matter of “do people die and stay dead.” In other words, Trent argues that part of why belief in the Resurrection account is reasonable is that it does not contradict any well-established facts about Jesus, first century Israel, the Gospels, and so on.

However, the atheist rebutting Trent interprets this criteria as meaning “the Resurrection contradicts well-established facts about human death” or something like this. In doing this he is expressing a sentiment shared by many atheists, which is that the Resurrection story, and miracles in general, blatantly contradict the way we know the world works, and it is unreasonable to believe in something which contradicts such well-established facts. I want to engage with this idea and show that there are circumstances in which it is reasonable to believe in something that contradicts “well-established facts.”

To begin, what I have realized over time is that the criteria that “a belief is unreasonable if it contradicts well-established facts” often enough ends up meaning “a belief is unreasonable if it contradicts my strongly-held beliefs.” I am not trying to be cynical; rather, I am trying to draw a distinction between the rule when it is phrased objectively (“well-established facts”) and when it is phrase subjectively (“strongly-held beliefs”). Why do I make this distinction?

The argument over the Resurrection is an illustration of the very fact that different schools of thought take different facts to be well-established, to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Every tradition of inquiry has its “first principles,” but different traditions have different first principles. Where these first principles come from, and why they seem axiomatic to some and not others, is a difficult question; it is in fact the very question that began my interest in philosophy. Put another way, there seem to be no facts which some people do not doubt or hold with skepticism. We can find reasons for doubting almost anything.

Referring to “well-established facts” does not refer to very much if what we mean is “facts we all agree are well-established,” since the context here is a disagreement over whether some particular fact is well-established. Surprisingly few facts are considered “well-established” to all people.

In order to make more progress in our thinking by accepting that certain facts are “well-established,” we therefore bind ourselves to some school of thought. In doing this we make a judgment and “take sides” in some dispute over whether some facts are well-established. We do this to avoid holding every single fact in doubt. We do this to avoid endless skepticism. But once we have made the move to accept one particular school of thought (that is, accept that one particular body of facts are “well-established”), we have now parted ways from other people on the question of which facts are “well-established.”

Therefore, the rule “a belief is unreasonable if it contradicts well-established facts” can be clarified as “a belief is unreasonable if it contradicts what you accept as well-established facts.” This is not to collapse the debate into pure subjectivism; rather it is to acknowledge what I have said above, that different people take different facts to be well-established. To deny this is to implicitly assert that your own personal assessment of which facts are well-established is the ultimate standard by which all other assessments can be judged. It is to attempt to win the debate by defining which facts are “well-established” as “my particular set of facts.”

People convert. They have radical changes in worldview. Things which seem beyond any doubt become doubtful. This means that disagreements over which facts are well-established is not just a disagreement between different schools of thought. It can also be a disagreement between a person and his past self, prior to changing his mind. Many atheists begin as fundamentalist Christians who take the basic tenets of Christianity as being well-established. But they eventually change their mind and come to believe these tenets are not well-established.

All of this is to say that when atheists reject the Resurrection because it is unreasonable to believe something which contradicts “well-established facts,” the problem is that there is no completely general account acceptable to all people of which facts are well-established. There is no concrete set of beliefs that can be verified by “pure reason.” In other words, it is true that it is much more reasonable to attempt to accommodate new facts to your existing understanding of the world and to re-work certain parts of it only as needed; it would be unreasonable to re-work your entire belief system from scratch every single time you encounter a new fact.

So the generality that beliefs should cohere with well-established facts is just that: a generality. There are circumstances in which it may be reasonable to reject something that is well-established. Thomas Khun wrote an influential book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in which he argued that science is not a gradual process of accumulating facts but is rather like “punctuated equilibrium”: periods of stability interrupted by “paradigm shifts.” This occurs when a new observation which contradict established theories becomes established. This “crisis” period created by the tension of the theoretcial contradiction of the old with the new is eventually resolved when a new theory is proposed which accounts for both the older established facts and the new ones.

Such “revolutions” in thought, and hence progress in scientific learning, are only possible if we are willing to be judicious rather than absolutist about how we apply the “well-established facts” criteria. I think there are at least two specific examples of such revolutionary beliefs which most atheists would agree constitute reasonable rejections of “well-established fact.”

Consider that the Copernican revolution contradicted the well-established facts concerning the structure of the solar system. What was reasonable to believe about the solar system in 1300 AD was not reasonable to believe in 1700 AD. This change occurred precisely because of new facts which the old system could not accommodate, and which therefore required a new system. This event, along with Galileo’s advocacy of it, is celebrated by atheists. However, embracing revolutionary points of view makes no sense if we are supposed to believe only that which comports with what is “well-established.”

The response might be that the scientific revolution simply set things straight, so that people could begin to think rationally and use science. But this is simply to offer a justification of the fact that the Copernican revolution contradicted what was considered well-established fact; it is to say “but that was a situation in which it was right to go against what was well-established.” Which is exactly my point.

Consider also that one of the most well-established biological facts is that living organisms come into existence as a result of a reproductive act done by already existing organisms. But the materialistic version of evolution that atheists believe in says that at some point in the history of the world, something which contradicts this well-established fact did in fact occur, namely the spontaneous generation of a living thing from non-living matter. That is, it is well-established that if you want to bring a new organism into being, you need existing organisms to reproduce. But the spontaneous generation of life from non-living matter contradicts this.

The response might be that the primordial spontaneous generation of life does not contradict the facts of reproduction, that reproduction is a sufficient but not a necessary cause of life. Just because things generally happen one way doesn’t mean they can’t happen some other way. This is to argue that it is reasonable to believe in an event in the history which represents the single exception to the rule. But this is precisely the argument that Christians make about miracles: so-called scientific laws do not constrain nature to be one way rather than another; they are simply generalities about the way things typically work which can on occasion be excepted.

In other words, atheists simultaneously believe that 1) Christians are unreasonable for believing that life spontaneously arose from the non-living matter of Christ’s body, and 2) Christians are unreasonable for rejecting that life spontaneously arose from the non-living matter of primordial conditions. Both of these events, the spontaneous generation of first life and the resurrection of Jesus, are essentially miraculous. Yet it is the atheist and the materialist, who rejects miracles purely on the principle that they go against the natural order of things.

To summarize, there are facts which can agree are or are not “well-established,” since what makes something “well-established” is ultimately a matter of judgment. We may think that what some people take to be well-established is in fact not very well-established, but this is a two-way street. Furthermore, we may change our minds and downgrade the “established-ness” of a fact. This indicates that we cannot apply this criteria in a purely general way, because to do so smuggles in some concrete set of facts which may in fact be in dispute. This means that atheists are incorrect to object to the Resurrection on the basis that it contradicts “well-established” facts, because it is the very “established-ness” which is in dispute. Furthermore, many atheists themselves hold to beliefs which contradict what is or was considered well-established, either now or in the past. In order to update our beliefs to make sense of new events and new study, we must be flexible and open, which may involve accepting facts that are themselves well-established but which go against what is generally established in other areas. The tension between well-established but apparently contradictory facts is what drives revolutions in scientific thinking.

Wherein I descend into the madness of commenting upon voter ID laws

I generally prefer to discuss things that tend to be relevant for longer than five seconds, so I typically stay away from “pop culture” and “current events.” However, the opposition to voter ID laws continues to impress me as being a prime example of “trying so hard not to be racist that you end up being racist.”

The idea that voter ID laws disenfranchise black voters is rooted in the idea that black people are incapable of obtaining driver’s licenses or the simple state-issued ID cards which are even easier to obtain than DLs.

Consider the two following statements:

  1. Everyone should be required to show an ID to vote
  2. Nobody should be required to show an ID to vote because black people are incapable of getting IDs

Which of those two statements seems more racist on its face?

Consider a further consequence of the liberal line of thinking: If black people in general do not have IDs, then logically they do not have driver’s licenses, since licenses are a form of ID. But black people in general drive cars. If black people in general drive cars but do not have licenses, then they are in general driving illegally. Hence, police offices would pull black drivers for no other reason than because the drivers are black. And this would be completely justified, if liberals are correct that black people in general do not have licenses.

As others have noted, there is a wide variety of ordinary activity in which an ID is required. Buying cigarettes and alcohol are obvious, mundane examples. But if black people generally do not have IDs of any kind, they could never purchase these things. So in this way we would expect the claim that black people cannot obtain IDs to manifest itself in a variety of empirically observable ways which seem to be contrary to our experience.

Only white people can be racist?

We should all agree that the statement “only white people can be racist” is itself obviously racist, its racism surpassed only by the statement “all white people are racist.” Yet if you point out that certain popular Social Justice ideas are actually racist (like over-generalizing about white people, blaming them for nearly all the problems face by non-whites, etc), you are typically met with the response that people who aren’t in “positions of power” cannot be racist. Therefore Nick Cannon is not a racist because he’s black, even though he said some pretty racist things.

I would like to try to dismantle this idea, or to maybe provide some explanation as to why I think this is a bad way to look at racism.

First, I would like to point out that this is implicitly a “consequentialist” way of thinking: racist beliefs, attitudes, or even fantasies are not wrong because those who lack “power” can’t fully act them out. The idea is that a person who “lacks a position of power” is not racist because they are not capable of committing wrongs like slavery or Jim Crow. Of course, it is true that if you lack the social or political power to carry out systematic oppression, then the consequences of your racism will be limited when compared to the consequences of the racism perpetrated by more powerful groups. But whether the consequences of your racism are bad is a different question from whether your racism itself is bad, which again is a different question from whether it can properly be called “racist.”

This is like saying that it’s not really stealing if I’m poor. I think most people would agree that if I steal a candy bar from a gas station, it’s still called stealing even if I’m poor. I can rationalize it and say that I’m not causing any harm, that the owner won’t even know it’s missing, that it’s so cheap that it barely matters, and so on. But all of these points are moot if the question you are asking is, “Is this stealing? Is it wrong to steal?” If you are concerned with avoiding evil and doing good, you will not steal, even if there are no negative consequences.

Second, consider the long-term effect of this thinking: you are essentially training yourself not to care about the darkness in your own heart, or about the evil or hateful feelings you may have for other people. In other words, training yourself to believe that racism can only be true of other people is to train yourself to be ignorant of the log in your own eye while focusing on the speck in everyone else’s.

The traditional definition of racism says that it is intrinsically wrong, a sin which corrupts the human soul, something that makes you into a worse person. Put differently, the negative consequences of racism (traditionally understood) are spiritual consequences. It poisons you. Telling people that they aren’t racist because they don’t have “power” doesn’t liberate them or enable them to fight for change. It leads them into spiritual corruption.

In other words, this means that the idea that you need “power” to be racist is actually more tolerant of racism than the traditional understanding: it says that a posture of hostility or an attitude of hatred toward another racial group is actually not intrinsically wrong, but rather it somehow becomes wrong when that person gains “power.” Actually, that’s not event entirely correct: it would only become wrong if that person’s group gains power. This is why the racism of prominent black entertainers like Don Lemon or the aforementioned Nick Cannon is ignored even though they have a considerable amount of power and influence as individuals.

Consider the following absurdity this way of thinking entails: was the racism of the Nazis not “really” racism until the they had gained power? If not, then why not? You cannot argue that the Nazis were white and therefore already had “power” if the Nazis’ own self-understanding of their “power” put them in the minority. If you had accused them of racism, they could respond, “But we Nazis are a very small political party; we are in the minority, and we have no power.”

To argue about whether the Nazis actually had power early on is to miss the point, which is that “having no power” is a rationalization for committing racism, and what constitutes “having power” will change according the circumstances (when does anyone ever have “enough” power?). Once you have given people permission to make excuses for their own sin on the basis of power, you have created a demand for convenient definitions of power to satisfy their desire to continue in sin.

Finally, at this point we should be aware of something about the word “power”: the first is that you have read the word so many times that it no longer sounds like a real word. The second, and perhaps more important, is what I have mentioned above: what exactly constitutes “power”? How do you know if you have enough power for your internal racism to become “real” racism? Who gets to decide if we disagree over whether some group has power?

It seems to me that “not having power” begins as a plausible line of defense, appealing as it does to our sense of sympathy for those who are members of groups that have been oppressed. But it ultimately functions as an elastic excuse for which the sin in any human heart will latch on to and find any reason to preserve. It is a get-out-of-jail-free card. A hall pass.

This is what is so frightening about “social justice” and “anti-racism”: these ideas wrap themselves in moral language but in reality function as excuses for their opposites.

Capitalism and Authority

Suppose the market got together and decided to self-impose a minimum wage

Suppose the government wanted to forbid the creation of a minimum wage for the stock capitalist reasons (e.g., slower job creation)

Would capitalists agree with the market or the government?

Many political questions today boil down to asking “who decides?”, which is another way of asking the question, “who is in charge here?”.

I believe the minimum wage example shows that a better approach to politics overall is not to create a sharp division between public and private (and label one or the other “always bad”) but rather to say that each has its place and we need good leaders in each sphere.

But how do we get good leaders? What social conditions produce good leaders? I think ultimately what we need is to have traditions that shape all of us, traditions that our leaders see themselves as protecting and upholding. In order to make good leaders, we need to have protect our traditions because those traditions are the way that we’ve figured over time to achieve our goals and reinforce our common good.

But contra liberalism: how can we protect them if we do not enforce them? How do we simply expect everyone to embrace Christian values without at some level enforcing those values? Ultimately, deciding that your nation does not have an ideology is itself an ideology which must be enforced, the enforcement of which will destroy all other ideologies.

It seems to me that the right is losing the culture war because the left believes it’s OK to ultimately enforce its values on the country while the right is opposed in principle to enforcing theirs. This is to say that by being ideologically motivated to avoid enforcing the values that are the precondition to a functioning society, the right is actually enforcing a power vaccuum which the left is all to happy to fill.

Addition to “On the origins of completed math homework”

Some time ago I wrote a satiric post about homework being done by means of throwing pencils at paper. A reader commented with a similarly snarky (but good-natured) response. I treated that response in a post thinking about what God must be like. The reader has clarified his original comment, which I post in full below. Following that, I will respond.

Here is the comment:

I am honestly delighted and flattered that you thought enough of my comment to dedicate a whole post to it! Thank you so much!

I made the comment with the intention of conveying the same sort of caricature of the theist position that you were posing for the naturalistic one. I don’t think either one of us intended such cartoony depictions to stand as a legitimate argument against the opposing case. Rather, we were both just trying our hands at a bit of fun.

That said, I would like to clarify a few points on my personal position with regards to this new post, if you’ll allow.

Atheists seem to object to God [being offered as the origin of life] for two reasons: the first is that intelligence is not necessary to create life, and that any being with “god-like” qualities is absurd.

I actually would not put forward either of those positions.

The first part, I’ll admit, is more of a nuanced objection. I do not argue that intelligence is certainly not necessary to create life. I simply say that I see no good reason to think that any intelligent agency had a direct role in the origin of life. I honestly don’t know how life began. I simply don’t see any good evidence to demonstrate that an intelligent agent played a part in it.

The second part, however, is less nuanced. I don’t necessarily think that the “god-like” qualities are absurd– that depends entirely upon how one defines each of those qualities. For example, if someone were to argue that omnipotence entails the ability to perform things which are logically impossible, I should hope that we both agree such a quality is absurd. However, if someone simply defines omnipotence to mean “maximally powerful,” I see nothing absurd in that. In particular, as regards the God of Classical Theology, I don’t necessarily think that timelessness and spacelessness are absurd qualities; however, I would say that I don’t understand what it means to say that a person exists non-spatiotemporally.

So we agree that completing math homework requires some kind of hand…

Completely! Because every known instance of completed math homework in history has come from a student’s hand. I just fail to see how a process which is thoroughly understood and completely un-mysterious is at all analogous to the problem of the origin of life.

End quote.

My response, which basically just follows his comment linearly:

  1. I am glad that this reader is good enough to recognize satire and understand intentions. People are not always so good at this. Every group has its zealots, whether Christians, Atheists, or SJWs. I have by and large responded to these kinds of people, “intolerant” types, as in “lactose-intolerant” but instead of lactose it’s some idea they disagree with–or that disagrees with them, I suppose. So kudos to this guy.
  2. I made a generality about why atheists object to God. This generality is not meant as a categorical; it’s just a pattern that is sometimes true, and typically of the more intolerant types. If it doesn’t apply to him, that’s fine.
  3. While I am sensitive to his desire to be nuanced, I’m not sure I understand the actual distinction he’s making. If an intelligent agent did not have a direct role in the origin of life, then intelligent agency is not necessary to create life. Saying “there is no good reason to think that a match started this particular fire” implies “a match is not necessary to start a fire”; if a fire exists that a match did not start, then fire can exist independently of matches, which means matches are not necessary to start fires. Similarly, if life exists and there is no good reason to think intelligent agency caused it, then this implies that life can be caused to exist by something else. But this would be impossible if intelligent agency were necessary to cause life.
  4. I agree that omnipotence does not entail logically contradictory things like making a square circle. I also agree that we don’t really understand what it means for a being to exist outside of these constraints.
  5. To respond to his last point, I’d have to unpack what it is that completing a homework assignment has in common with living things. I’m not sure I can really do that justice in the time I’m giving myself for this response. Frankly it would just be the same back-and-forth of “look at this orderly process” versus “living things could be the single exception to that generalization”.

    Having said that: I forget who it is, but some early 20th philosopher (maybe Bertrand Russell or Karl Popper) said something like, if every goose you ever saw was white, that doesn’t mean every goose is white, because you may one day see a black one. There are two problems with this.

    First, it fails to distinguish between properties which are intrinsic to an entity, such that without them it is no longer an instance of a kind, versus merely incidental ones; that is, it does not distinguish between what is substantial and what is merely accidental. What I find misleading about the goose problem is that by failing to clearly distinguish between these two, it makes it seem as if any variation could be just as legitimate. For example, a goose with only one wing would be a defective goose, not simply another kind of goose. Now we may falsely conclude that whiteness is essential to goose-ness, a conclusion supported by unanimous observation and zero counterexamples. But overturning this conclusion would require either a single real counterexample or some kind of argument explaining why whiteness is not essential to goose-ness.

    Second, it is one thing to say that not all geese are white because there could be a black goose out there somewhere. It is another thing to demonstrate the existence of a black goose, or even to produce good reasons for believing a black one exists. In this discussion, it is one thing to simply suppose that, hypothetically, inorganic matter has some self-organizing capacity that it could spontaneously create life under certain hypothetical circumstances. It is another thing to give some reasons for actually believing this. It is another thing again to say that we know that this did happen.

    In short, he fails to see how the homework example is analogous to the life example. Given his remark about “every known instance,” I believe he is using the goose argument against concluding that life is also an example of intelligence; he thinks intelligence is merely accidental to life whereas I think it is substantial; he thinks intelligence is unnecessary for life, I think the opposite. Every goose we’ve ever seen is white; no one has ever seen otherwise. Now, there is a goose behind a curtain. Which do you think is more likely: that the goose is white, or that it is not?

Well there you have it. Five points of blistering rebuttal. Destroyed with facts and logic and whatnot.