Saturday, September 5, 2015

A Letter from God

I was musing about how we might react if we received a sign that God exists. Imagine that I send a letter to my sister. It’s hand-written, and signed “Love, Johnny”. My sister receives the letter in the mail, opens it up, reads it, recognizes my handwriting, sees my signature, and instantly knows that the letter came from me. After all, she knows that I exist (we DID grow up together!) and she knows I can write. She’s 99.999,999,999% sure that Johnny wrote her a letter. She has good reasons to.

In contrast, suppose my sister receives a letter, and it’s signed “Love, God". If God is the “uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being of unimaginable power” that some theologians posit, then it would presumably be capable of writing and sending a letter to my sister. But how sure can she be that the supreme, no-lie, it's-really-her God actually did this?

If you’ve thought about this sort of thing before, then that last sentence is where it gets interesting. You see, Sis can know that Johnny sent her a letter signed “Love, Johnny” because she knows to a very high degree of certainty that I exist prior to any scenario involving a letter. She’s seen me. She’s yelled at me. She’s tried to hit me. She’s even kissed me. Unless her senses and intellect are unreliable, she knows I exist and that I am capable of writing letters. This should bolster her belief that she currently is in receipt of a letter from me. But she has no such experience with God. If God fell out of the sky and landed on her head, she wouldn’t know him/her/it from shinola. There’s nothing in her experience that demonstrates to her that an actual entity in this world is God. She has to rely on her ability to mentally picture what God might be, and to feel some certainty that he/she/it exists in the form she imagines, without having a concrete demonstration that it actually does. Is writing a letter that demonstration?

In fact, she can’t confidently associate this piece of evidence (no matter what it points to) with God unless God is either 1) a known entity with a propensity to write letters to pretty ladies, or 2) her conception of God is a better explanation for a letter that is signed “Love, God” than all competing explanations. The evidence points to a letter-writer. That’s all. And here is the crux of the problem for most arguments that God exists. That “uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being of unimaginable power” that theologians posit cannot be established as a sensible concept in isolation from other concepts. There are no observations, hypotheses or theories that point to such a being existing as part of physical reality. Here in the twenty-first century, ideas such as “there must be a cause of the universe, or a designer, or a fine-tuner, or a being of greatest perfection” do not lead us to find an uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being of unimaginable power. In fact, finding a place where this thing might be situated is not even sensible. As cold as it sounds to people hoping there is a personal god behind the scenes, it appears that physical features are all there is. Space-time, matter, energy, the laws governing them and the attributes, behaviors and relationships that allow what we observe to be observed. There may always be that nagging question: “but what caused THAT?” - but the god-thingy doesn’t help us answer that question. It doesn’t stand on its own. Mankind continues to look for answers, and continues to find hypotheses such as the god-thingy useless in the search.

So, a letter signed “Love, God” ends up being better explained by a human letter-writer than an uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being of unimaginable power that also writes letters. It turns out that Sis has no good reason to believe she got a letter from God, because there’s no good reason to think God exists, based solely on this letter. I'm not suggesting that she can't believe in God, or have some other reasons to believe that don't rely on (weak) evidence like this. But this letter from God isn't a good reason. When you apply this type of thinking to the bigger questions - the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the existence of moral values, you find that those are not good reasons to think that God exists, either.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Was BlogPress for iPad finally fixed?

Yes, it was.
It's a miracle!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Incompetence of the Bible

I’m rewriting this post - “The Incompetence of the Bible” - because I was never happy with what it said, or how I said it. I can only remember withdrawing or rewriting a post once in my life, but it’s time to do it again.

While re-reading the New Testament, my focus this time around was 1) matches and gaps between the Gospels and 2) what Paul has to tell us about Jesus. The Gospels aren’t bad - this was (probably) my fifth time through them chapter-by-chapter. I took some time comparing them via the Gospel Parallels - good stuff. Then I get to Acts - ehh. I don’t know why, but I’ve already forgotten it after just a few months. Its just not that impressive to me. Now I’m into the Epistles, and for some reason I’m irritated. Paul just doesn’t know Jack about Jesus. And I let that irritation consume the original post. But my general idea still holds - that the Bible is full of incompetence.

When you read Genesis, its easy to see something’s wrong. The universe that we observe today has features that lead us to believe to a high degree of certainty that it was smaller, denser and hotter in the past. Projecting backward in time, approximately 13.8 billion years ago this model reaches maximum density and temperature, and minimum size. And that’s all we know for sure. What came “before” is a mystery, so much so that some physicists think using the word “before” is incoherent. But Genesis tells us a different story, and that’s where my claim of incompetence first finds an example. If God inspired or directed the authors of Genesis to write the account of the first appearance of the universe, it doesn’t appear that it made it to the twenty-first century correctly. And if God is the omni-bestest at everything - and our conceptions of God generally do assume this - then something is amiss. And without unpeeling what exactly is amiss, we must assume that if God is the inspiration or direction behind this account, then she failed to insure the story remained accurate down through the ages. And this is this first indication to us that God - again, if she exists - is not the omni-bestest that we might have thought. Other thinkers have suggested that God is a trickster, or God has a reason to allow this incongruity to persist, but I have (intemperately) decided to describe it as incompetence because Genesis was the ideal place to establish God’s bona fides. She could have even directed the author to end it with a caveat that admits that subsequent books are not inspired or directed by the great one, and we could still be confident that, in spite of what others subsequently said, that God does indeed exist in the form that was described in Genesis. But we don’t have that.

What we have us people trying to kill each other over supposedly God-inspired differences on how to worship and behave. And that tends to make one think that the concept of God as malicious, or a trickster, or negligent, or disinterested, or incompetent, applies.

I tend to think that the Bible was a combination of good-faith guessing about the universe, along with much borrowing from other traditions and some inventions to reach the concept of salvation as described in the New Testament. This is an oversimplification, of course, but it looks like they made a hash of it. Thus, every time I read it nowadays, I tend to see how hashed up it is, and think about how a supreme being could have prevented it, but didn’t. And it just looks like they did a bad job.

Or maybe God was never there.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

NT: 1 Thessalonians

I continue my cursory review of the New Testament with 1 Thessalonians, considered by many to be the first Epistle written, thus the first of any book in the New Testament. I’ve already skimmed over Galatians and James, also considered by some to be the first books written. It’s not relevant to me which is truly the first, because there seems to be nothing in any of them that tell me that this or that book is a direct consequence of meeting Jesus or those who met him. (See my NT index here for the entire series so far.)

I admit that my notes here are shallower than you might expect, given that this is the Bible we’re talking about. I’m a little surprised myself, having read this at least three other times over the decades - probably four. I attribute this to a slightly different point of view over the years. In the seventies, it was “this is the Bible - its the Word of God”. Then it became “this is inspired by thoughts of the divine, but probably muddled through human error”. Now it’s “where’s Jesus in all of this? How do I know that Paul is a fair broker?” Consequently, what Paul says, absent some clear authority from Jesus, is not that interesting to me. My sparse notes are a reflection of that ennui.

Chapter 1 is entirely a salutation.

Chapter 2 recounts travails at Phillippi, and expresses love for the Thessalonians. Verse 15 mentions that the Jews "... both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets". Red meat for the Mel Gibsons of the world?

Chapter 3 is more blessings and encouragement of the faithful. Meh.

Chapter 4 contains even more exhortations ... but includes a future meeting with Jesus and “them in the clouds” - clearly some imagery that took hold in Christianity.

Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.

Chapter 5 is still more exhortations ... and a closing blessing. That’s it.

As I sort through these early Epistles, I’m struck at how no mention of Jesus’ miracle-working is made. Ignore the lack of historical or biographical information - the idea that people might have witnessed healing the blind, curing the sick, raising the dead, turning water into wine, or walking on water is never brought up. I understand (via a Dr. Robert M. Price video) that the explanation for this is that the recipients of the letter would have already known about these, thus mention of the miracles was not necessary, but I find that ... ummmmmm ... interesting. Weren’t miracles noteworthy? Anyway, 1 Thessalonians is yet another example of an Epistle in which Jesus is mentioned solely as the object of worship, not as having performed behavior similar to actual beings.

Here are the mentions of Jesus that I can find:

1 Thessalonians 1:1 (KJV)
Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians [which is] in God the Father and [in] the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace [be] unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Thessalonians 1:3 (KJV)
Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father;

1 Thessalonians 1:10 (KJV)
And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, [even] Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.

1 Thessalonians 2:14 (KJV)
For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they [have] of the Jews:

1 Thessalonians 2:15 (KJV)
Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men:

1 Thessalonians 2:19 (KJV)
For what [is] our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? [Are] not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming?

1 Thessalonians 3:11 (KJV)
Now God himself and our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way unto you.

1 Thessalonians 3:13 (KJV)
To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.

1 Thessalonians 4:1 (KJV)
Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort [you] by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, [so] ye would abound more and more.

1 Thessalonians 4:2 (KJV)
For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 4:14 (KJV)
For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.

1 Thessalonians 5:9 (KJV)
For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ,

1 Thessalonians 5:18 (KJV)
In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.

1 Thessalonians 5:23 (KJV)
And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and [I pray God] your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Thessalonians 5:28 (KJV)
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ [be] with you.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Theory of the Supernatural - Part 3

In my prior two posts on "A Theory of the Supernatural" (Part 1 and Part 2), I laid out what I thought were possible arrangements of S-world and N-world such that S-objects might be able to cause effects in N-world, much as we might expact a deity to.

In case I failed to mention it, it seems to me that there are a series of contingencies that must play out successfully for a human theory of the supernatural to be plausible. My list:

  1. A supernatural realm must exist to provide the possibility that supernatural entities exist
  2. The supernatural entities that we're interested in would have the ability to act independently, and cause physical effects in the Natural realm
  3. The means of maintaining awareness between the supernatural and natural realms must exist in order for actions in the supernatural realm to be carried out as expected in the natural realm
  4. A means of transmitting the action from S to N is required.
  5. An entity with at least one characteristic of unrivaled excellence exists in S-world that we might refer to as God

There are a number of quibbles that Theologists and Philosophers might have with these contingencies, such as whether God and the realm in which it exists are separate ideas, and whether the first four items in my list are even germane when we're discussing some entity that can perform any act, such as God allegedly can. But I'm sticking to my guns for the moment - I believe that asking "how does she do that?" is as meaningful as asking how we know that a particular event or circumstance is a result of God's action.

I realized during drafting my last post on a theory of the Supernatural that belaboring whether simpler Supernatual entities such as ghosts, faeries, poltergeists (etc.) exist, doesn't necessarily improve the case for a supreme being, so I'll skip it entirely. Let it be said that a Deity might exist in a Deity-capable realm, and ignore any further navel-gazing.

Also in my prior S-post, I surmised that an arrangement of S-world and N-world could (most likely) be one of the following:

  • SR3. N and S are identical
  • SR4. one supervenes upon the other
  • SR5. one contains the other

For brevity's sake, let's treat these three views as functionally equivalent. Given that S and N are coincident realms, and that humanity's current problem is just that we can't perceive S and don't understand what S might be (other than a place for supernatural stuff to originate), is there a mechanism that we can posit that will allow S-stuff to occur in N? This immediately brings to mind the idea that, regardless of our current inability to perceive S and understand it, any S-causes that affect N ought to raise an eyebrow. Occurrences that are inexplicable are candidates for S-stuff. If we can identify "S-stuff Candidates", then we might have found a starting point from which we can work back through the postulated S-affects-N mechanism, and establish the reality of S. What might we use to start the investigation?

I'm going to confess that I'm drawing a blank here. What the heck, in the history of the world, can we point to and say "this is unambiguous evidence that S-causes affect N"? We know where thunder comes from. And floods. And locusts. We know what red tide is. We know where the sun goes at night. We know that people sense something that they think is "the supernatural". We know that allegedly supernatural objects (crystals, star charts, spirits, deities) can be used to give people focus, organizing principles, a sense of importance, a sense of community, a feeling of certainty and power over an uncertain and intractable cosmos. So where do we look to find clear evidence of S-stuff?

First, I'm going to be really cold and toss out all personal anecdotes of the supernatural as irrelevant - including my own. I thought for several years that spirits existed, and that my grandmother, who had been unable to speak during most of my conscious childhood, guided me and watched over me after she passed away. How else to explain my ability to persevere and to make good when my life was a mess? Similarly, I felt in my early twenties that Jesus loved me, that God loved me, and that I was destined to find human love and to make a positive impact in the world. And both of those feelings are fully explainable. I was looking to be significant in the universe, to find love and friendship, to have something firm around which to organize my life. And was important to me back then. So it's easy for me to imagine other people - billions of other people - approaching their lives the same way, doing the same general things that I did when I was in need. And I don't see why they shouldn't do that, if they don't have a better plan. But I don't see why anyone should think that this human need, desire, hunch that there is something supernatural going on and is affecting them in a real way is evidence that there in fact is. It could be considered evidence if there were a way to validate its occurrence, then examine possible causes. Absent some good physical explanation, a candidate S-event could be important in our overall probability calculation of S's existence, but unsubstantiated personal anecdotes don't work here.

Let me point to where the supernatural might be found, given that trivial occurences and human feelings of the supernatural haven't produce anything substantive so far. We should look at the Great Unanswered Questions - things like the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the source of ostensibly objective moral values, the apparent fine-tuning of the universe, the origin of consciousness, the fact that the universe is understandable. If this sounds familiar, it's because these are (obviously) some of the topics used in constructing arguments for the existence of God. And I believe that's where I should look, as well. So let's examine one.

Asking the question "where did the universe come from?" often results in one of two answers. First, a respondent might reply "we don't know". Fair enough ... seems like a difficult question to answer. Another answer we hear is "God created the universe". Here's Dr. William Lane Craig on the subject:

Now from the very nature of the case, as the cause of space and time, this cause must be an uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being of unimaginable power which created the universe. Moreover, I would argue, it must also be personal. For how else could a timeless cause give rise to a temporal effect like the universe?

Craig subsequently states that this cause is a Personal Creator, and that this Personal Creator is God.

Craig didn't think this one up by himself ... there is a history of musings about the "First Cause" - dating back to Plato and Aristotle. Much has been made of Craig's particular argument, with my particular take being that anyone claiming this - an uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being of unimaginable power that is also personal caused the universe - has the interesting task of explaining how those five exact characteristics are required for a being to create the universe, and how that being exists in some state somewhere in order to effect this universe's creation. These claims reek of bare assertion and flirt intimately with infinite regress.

Without good reason to acknowledge that a creator thingy has to have the characteristics just described, we don't really get any closer to describing a plausible first mover, let alone something that, additionally, has some influence on transient corporeal lives and eternal spiritual lives.

Next time, let me poke around into some of the individual characteristics.

Monday, June 22, 2015

NT: An Index

An index to my brief notes and comments on the New Testament:

NT: James

I turn my attention to the Epistle of James (Wikipedia, Blue Letter Bible), mainly because it is said by some that it might be the earliest book in the New Testament.

Fair Warning: James has approximately nothing to tell us about Jesus. He mentions Him by name twice. Two times. That’s all. So, whether or not James is the earliest mention of Jesus is practically irrelevant, since he provides no historical or biographical information that might make Jesus seem real.

Another note, if you’ve read the Gospels and Acts, then read James, you can imagine that itis written either 1) before an actual Jesus appears on Earth, or 2) before the tradition of an actual Jesus (as opposed to a wholly spiritual Jesus) is developed. Read Chapter 5, especially Verse 8 to see what I mean.

In the canonical order, James appears after Hebrews and before 1 Peter. It is the twentieth book in the New Testament. It, like Galatians, is brief, consequently I’ll charge through it in one post.

Chapter 1 is addressed to the twelve tribes - apparently of dispersed Judeo-Christians - and begins a sermon on sin. My favorite verse:

21 Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.

Naughtiness! Yes, that’s our problem!

Chapter 2 shows us James view on justification - the act of becoming righteous - as he espouses works as well as faith. He sounds like a good man.

15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.

Chapter 3 seems like general advice on not being sinners, while Chapter 4 continues the theme.

17 Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.

Chapter 5 repeats an earlier backhand to rich folk - James loves the poor and downtrodden.

1 Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.
2 Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten.
3 Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.

He closes with a final piece of advice.

19 Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him;
20 Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.

James’ epistle is not addressed to a specific group, at least not in the sense that it might be delivered to a particular recipient or group of them. It appears to be a broadcast message. You can imagine printing (if printing had been invented) many tens of copies and leaving them in the public square for general distribution. All-in-all, a nice letter. I like James.

As before, here are the (only two) verses where Jesus is mentioned by name, although “Lord” and “Christ” appear more frequently. Jesus does not seem to be a real person in James’ eyes.

James 1:1 (KJV)
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.

James 2:1 (KJV)
My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, [the Lord] of glory, with respect of persons.

More Cheers!