‘Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes’: Bit of a Joke

Book coverI bought a book lately called ‘Plato and Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes’ by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. It’s quite a fun read, although as sympathetic to my evangelical convictions as you’d expect from two Harvard grads from New England. In spite of anticipating some light-hearted hostility, I was nevertheless a little surprised by the ‘Philosophy of Religion’ section. Not because it is surprisingly offensive — it isn’t — but more because it is surprisingly inaccurate.

Pascal’s Wager

The first quibble I had with the book had to do with Pascal’s Wager, about which I have written before (when Dawkins got it wrong). Cathcart and Klein say the following:

‘The seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that deciding whether or not to believe in God is essentially a wager. If we choose to behave as if there is a God and we get to the end and it turns out there isn’t, it’s not such a big deal. Well, maybe we’ve lost the ability to thoroughly enjoy the Seven Deadly Sins, but that’s small potatoes compared to the alternative. If we bet there isn’t a God, and get to the end only to find out there is a God, we’ve lost the Big Enchilada, eternal bliss. Therefore, according to Pascal, it is a better strategy to live as if there is a God. This is known to academics as “Pascal’s Wager.” To the rest of us, it’s known as hedging your bets.’ (Pg 100)

Calling the idea represented above ‘Pascal’s Wager’ is a bit like calling Hamlet a book about whether or not to commit suicide. As I tried to point out in my post about Dawkins’ objection to it, Pascal’s Wager does have to do with betting on belief in God as the best strategy, but Pascal himself immediately warns that it is not possible to fake it, which brings him to the actual content of his wager.

God is not likely to be fooled by bet-hedging faith based entirely on greed. You have to throw in your lot wholeheartedly one way or another, and reason, says Pascal, has no solution to the problem of whether or not God and His promises are true. This is why Pascal’s discourse on the subject rather aims at urging people to experience the Christian life to see whether it is worth committing to. He is actually wagering that living as a Christian (as a sort of a trial period) — though it seems like a terrible life of restriction and sacrifice — will prove it to be the better bet even in the here and now, which removes a significant obstacle to wholehearted conversion. Perhaps the wager is more like trying to convince Cadillac drivers to buy an electric car (which promises to be rubbish but ends up being fantastic to drive, if only you’ll get behind the wheel).

Apples with Apples

My next issue with the book arose out of a Sam Harris quote, which is as follows:

‘Tell a devout Christian his wife is cheating on him, or a frozen yoghurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anybody else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book that he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity that will punish him by fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.’ (Pg 99-100)

Harris has made a living out of publishing clever jibes against religion for a popularist atheist movement, and I suppose (if I’m being generous) this quote is important to the extent that it captures the unfortunate mindlessness exhibited by some Christians. However, I think this quote is actually deeply unfair if applied to Christianity in general, and not on the grounds that some might give, i.e. that other Christian groups have abandoned the Bible’s ‘incredible claims’.

It is unfair because it obscures the fact that different types of belief require different types of evidence. Belief in superpowered dessert treats requires paradigm-shifting empirical evidence. Belief that my wife loves me probably requires some evidence (or at least absence of evidence to the contrary), but someĀ  non-evidential trust. The belief that I love my wife while we’re fighting requires still different ratios of evidence, trust and conviction on my part.

Belief in Jesus is not a matter of swallowing a series of fantastical stories without questioning. Our faith — as we make no end of prostesting — is a matter of relationship. It comes about through being convinced that the Biblical view of the world is true; through being convinced that the historical evidence for the life and resurrection of Jesus is plausible enough; and through no small measure of belief that one has had the subjective experience of being met and called by God Himself. There is no evidence for this latter belief, although it forms the most significant part of conversion. So consider the following as an alternative analogy to frozen yoghurt:

Jane gets to know a family in her neighbourhood whose son is away at war. She learns about the son from his parents, she sees pictures, hears of his past and so on. Eventually Jane decides to write to him. He writes back, and in time they embark on a long-distance relationship. Although there are many risks involved, they decide that they love each other, and get engaged. His letters include remarkable tales of bravery and selflessness, and promises of a happy life together once the war is over. The end.

On the basis of this story, I’d like to ask Samharrisites a few questions:

  • What evidence does Jane have that they have fallen in love other than that she has personal experience of it and assurances from him? What proof should she demand? Is her trust in their relationship a fiction because they’ve never met?
  • Is it OK for her to base her trust in his character on the testimony of his family and his writings? Or is she mindlessly swallowing invisibility yoghurt by doing so?
  • If the news is quiet about the war and no tales of valour are being reported from other sources, should she believe his ‘remarkable tales’ or should she doubt him just because naysayers in her home town haven’t seen anything comparable with their own eyes?
  • If he’s long in coming home and the other boys start asking Jane out, should she break her engagement and settle for something immediate with a person she doesn’t love so well?
  • If he never comes home at all and Jane dies a spinster, in love with some dusty old letters, does she become a tragic figure and a wasted life? Or is her love and lifelong faithfulness a worthy enough existence?

Christianity is much more like the long-distance relationship and not at all like the evidence-demanding frozen yoghurt. We believe on the basis of God’s character, His actions in history and subjective relational experiences — a basis that cannot (like it or not) fruitfully be subjected to much scientific testing.

Jane’s story is not beyond belief. I’m sure people like her have existed in human history. We accept it readily enough without demanding proof, because we can relate it to our own experiences and to a long history of similar events. Yet real-life Janes have only one life. She does not have the luxury of assurances that things will work out or any ‘do-overs’ if they don’t. In the same way, this is our only life and this is the one-and-only human history. We don’t have the luxury of multiple worlds in which we can observe God’s track record or the likelihood of incarnations and resurrections. These things have happened in our history or not. Their uniqueness in history doesn’t make them more or less possible. So we take God at His word and wait patiently. If the naysayers are right and our faith and calling are illusions, then perhaps we’re pityable, but with Jane and with Pascal I’m convinced that even if all we have at the end is a life lived in hope and good character is was not a waste.

Critical Scholarship Lacks Self-criticism

Some scholarly debates reach a ‘consensus’ because, although unresolved, scholars get bored of discussing them. The majority position is assumed to have won, and no one is allowed to talk about it anymore. One such view is the belief that the Old Testament is comprised of multiple sources and that little bits of the Pentateuch can be pigeon-holed into compartments labelled ‘Jahwist’, ‘Elohist’, ‘Deuteronomist’ or ‘Priestly’ (JEDP). These little bits and pieces are given their own theological motivation and an entirely new chronology. You would hope that people calling themselves ‘critical scholars’ would have some sort of evidence for their slicing up of the text, at least something that distinguishes it from what is popularly called ‘making stuff up’.

A parable:

The text: ‘It was 1920. I was walking past the German butchery on my way to my lodgings when a horse and rider galloped past me down the street. The sound of a car engine and a sudden blast from its horn startled the horse, and the rider fell from its back, injuring his wrist. I decided to get some Bratwurst.’

As an accomplished historian and source critic, I approach the text knowing that travel on foot was characteristic of pre-technological stages of human development, that domestication of horses for transportation purposes was common for three millennia or so, and that motorised transportation became popular in the mid 20th Century. Therefore, it can be noted that the above text has gone through three stages of historical development, where one tradition, which we shall call P (for Pedestrian), represents the earliest story layer dating from an age of prehistoric forms of transportation. The second source, which we shall call E (for Equine), represents a significant development in the life of this story, but an intermediate stage about which little is known for certain. What is much clearer is the work of the final editor, which we shall refer to as M (for Motorised), whose work included the provision of the late date (1920s), as well as the ‘Teutonicising’ of the text in order to turn this centuries-old travel narrative into a post-World-War-I apologia for the German nation. It is of course the character from the P source who shows sympathy by entering the German butchery after the great ‘fall’ that precedes it, and not the expected M source, but this is clearly an attempt by M to edit out the P material. He was not entirely able to do so, as the remnants of P are still discernible.

While the above is clearly ludicrous, you’d be surprised how many doctorates are handed out for work that appears to me to be only slightly better dressed than my parable. Heck, I could possibly get a doctorate simply for coining the term ‘Teutonicising’. A book I’m busy reading by Claus Westermann, purporting to explain what blessing means in the Bible, does just this sort of thing. He approached scripture with a pre-formed historical paradigm (courtesy of the generalisations of the early 20th C ‘history of religions’ school) through which the biblical material is to be assessed. In this case, it is the assumptions that a) ancient Arabic beliefs about magic spells were commonly held in the Ancient Near East, and that b) belief in magic words securing fertility for the family was the ‘original’ belief, followed later by belief that God or a god was responsible for blessing even whole nations, followed later still by the belief that blessing came via religious activities. [Do I need to point out that each of these views is held concurrently today?]

So he sets about hunting for this three-stage development through which religions are supposed to pass, and because it doesnt exist in this way in scripture, he turns to the wonder of source criticism, finding vestiges of the early beliefs ‘under the surface’ and ‘stripping away’ the work of later editors that tried to ‘theologise out’ these previous magic-words beliefs about blessing. In other words, if there’s a detail that can be made to fit with my paradigm, but seven other details that make it impossible, source criticism provides me with an academically acceptable means of ignoring the information that stands in the way of what I believe.

Take for example the story of Balaam, hired to curse the Israelites so that they would be unable to succeed militarily. Here, says Westermann, is an example of the early belief that certain people were in possession of ‘power-laden words’, people who could be hired to send evil upon others by magic. This is one of only two places that later editors were ‘unable’ to fully remove evidence of the ‘early beliefs’, showing that blessing is indeed related to magic words and ‘soul power’.

Unfortunately for Westermann, as CW Mitchell points out, the Balaam story completely opposes this view in every way. Balaam was hired because what he said was reputed always to come true. But he specifically says that he has no innate power to curse, but only to report what the gods determine to do (Numbers 23:8 ‘How can I curse those whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the LORD has not denounced?’ — this sort of thing is repeated a number of times in the story). He doesn’t attempt to curse Israel only to find his power removed or overcome. He refuses to curse Israel, because the One with the power to curse is determined to bless.

Westermann then uses this ‘evidence’ of the supposedly ‘early’ view to revise the way that the earlier texts should be understood. According to his fictional paradigm of history, magical views of blessing precede God’s promises of blessing, as so any divine promises to Abraham has to be the work of later theologians, who really ought to have known better than to buck Westermann’s system that he just made up.

If one is critical of the critics’ paradigms and divination of the seams between sources, and if one rather looks at the way that the blessing words are used in scripture (and even in non-Israelite literature from the region), it emerges that all the uses of the word actually share the same things in common: blessing is to do with receiving a good thing from God, or wishing a good thing from God upon another, or living in a state of goodness from God, all on account of a relationship between God and man. It has nothing at all to do with magical incantations from Arabia.

Imagine. Biblical scholarship that uses the Bible instead of foreign interpretive paradigms and an over-eager scalpel. A man can dream. For now I have to read the rest of Westermann.

The Thin, Hazy Line Around Paedophilia


Vogue's 10-year-old Model

Ah to be 10 again! Running carefree in Vuitton couture, the hooker shoes and makeup, the adoration of mothers mixed with the letchery of dirty old men! Those were the days! Some of the details have grown vague over time, but I’m pretty sure that’s how I grew up too.

French Vogue has us all asking the question that’s on literally no-one-healthy’s lips, is a 10-year-old too young for turning on daddies and making mummies jealous enough to want to buy couture (which is in this case, frankly, just a sleeping vest, shapeless silk drapery and those hooker shoes like I used to have)?

Unsurprisingly, many commentators are eager to show that they can be ‘cutting edge’ enough to keep pace with such ‘progress’. Readers on the arbitrarily selected Canada.com (the first place I looked) say:

Am I the only person who doesn’t see anything wrong with this? If I were their mom, I’d be happy to have the money. (Abigail Weinberg). [Because selling your child’s body for money is merely a matter of economics, Abigail. Kudos.]

French Vogue’s racy child models: Creepy in a good way, I think. (Creeperjess)

Of course, moral issues are not about finding a new way (and being the first to pat yourself on the back for being able to stomach it). Ethics is about finding the right way. Ethics exists to chastise progress when the new becomes dangerous.

Pushing boundaries can be good and necessary, and some ‘moral’ traditions are merely dressed-up prejudices. Some of these do need to make way for progress. In our own country, it was considered immoral (and criminal!) for ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’ to marry. Fortunately such laws have been exposed for the evils that they are. In our age, the moral rules of the past with regard to sexuality have been disputed and changed, and so Vogue presumably sees itself as taking part in this process. Fashion currently adores androgyny and is getting its kicks casting pretty men in women’s modelling roles, a practice so cutting edge that it was first tried only as recently as the Ancient Greeks! If it’s open season on gender boundaries, why not push at age boundaries too?

Unless anyone wishes to discuss the matter from first principles, we can agree (at bare minimum) that sexual activity belongs between consenting adults. Children do not have the level of maturity to understand what is involved in it. We also freely recognise that an adult’s sexual interest in children is an aberration.

What Vogue has done (as with the very clever transvestite trick) is to deliver the expected scene with an unexpected subject. So where we were expecting to find a sexy woman getting paid for the magazine to use her body, we now have a ‘sexy’ child in her place. The effect is to prime us for sexually interesting imagery, only to transfer that interest onto a child. Perhaps they were hoping that this would startle us into recognising (men) that the way in which we normally approach fashion models is also unhealthy, and (women) being jealous of fashion model figures is exactly this ridiculous. I’m guessing they were as interested as they usually are in integrity, and thought that provoking paedophilia was an effective way to get attention and sell magazines. Isn’t this the point at which ethical principles are supposed to intervene to avert danger?