Monday, February 28, 2005

Are Disagreements Honest?

In my "Nature of Truth" essay from my 9 part truth treatise that launched DiscoverTruth.com as a blog, I originally wrote: "We may disagree on some of the particulars, but hopefully we can just agree to disagree in those areas." I was wrong. Agreeing to disagree is a dishonest way to proceed in truth seeking if we share common priors.

The title of this blog entry is from a technical paper I googled by Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson with the same title: "Are Disagreements Honest?" These authors have some interesting comments in their paper such as: "Most people fundamentally accept not being a truth-seeker" and "few people have truth-seeking rational cores." It is a fairly challenging read, but the conclusions are interesting. The authors state this in their conclusion:
We have therefore hypothesized that most disagreement is due to most people not being meta-rational, i.e., honest truth-seekers who understand disagreement theory and abide by the rationality standards that most people uphold. We have suggested that this is at root due to people fundamentally not being truth-seeking. This in turn suggests that most disagreement is dishonest.
In their conclusion the authors give some consideration on how one might try to become more honest when disagreeing, and as a truth seeker I'm bound by my integrity to at least investigate the truth-claims of something like that.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Being a Truth Seeker - Part 2

The following is the second email exchange with Jen Koontz regarding the question, "Who is Jesus?" You can read the first exchange in my blog entry titled, "Being a Truth Seeker - Part 1."

Jen Koontz wrote:
Ok, so we both agree religion sucks. Good. But I guess religion is different than believing in God or Jesus as an immortal? See usually I equate that stuff with religion. But I guess you don't so... ok. I'll go with a stricter definition of religion.

Dennis Elenburg responds:
I'm a theist, and I also believe Jesus really was who he claimed to be. You seem to be committed to a Darwinist belief system, but not all Darwinists are consistent rationalists (i.e. they don't see the rational conclusion for Darwinism is atheism). I guess I'm still not quite sure where you fall on the spectrum from theism to agnosticism to atheism. Have you totally rejected your Catholic roots of theism?

Jen: [re: C.S. Lewis block quote in first exchange] What, so people can only tell the truth or lies? People mix it up all the time! Perhaps he was a megalomaniac who really thought he was the "son of God"; that doesn't necessarily discredit his stories or morals, as long as you take them with a grain of salt. Maybe all that God stuff is a metaphor. But whatever, the point is I can appreciate his stories and learn morals from them without having to accept that he's the son of God or immortal or supernatural. But if I do look at it your way (he can either be crazy or the son of God), then fine, he's crazy.

Dennis: Your logic is broken, but what you're basically saying is that it doesn't matter if Jesus was crazy because Jen Koontz is perfectly able to pick and choose what is true or false.

Jen: I still think one can discover all of the positive morals that he teaches by oneself.

Dennis: Exactly my point. This is essentially a post-modern relativist position in disguise. The rationalist ("truth is outside myself") position turns that around and says, "I can only recognize Truth provisionally based on logical principles like the Law of Non-Contradiction and Modus Ponens, etc." So, if the J-Man is a demonstrated loony, you cannot learn anything at all from him. C.S. Lewis was a rationalist. I try to be a rationalist. You claim to be a rationalist. The best any rationalist can do with a loony Jesus is say "it doesn't matter what he said." You cannot respect him as a "great moral teacher." That was the point C.S. Lewis is making in his argument. Jesus did not leave that option open.

Jen: Alright, since we both agree the church sucks we can just focus on the J-man. :)

Dennis: That is what I hoped to do, but based on your blog profile I thought I was dealing with a rationalist. Before we proceed, it would help me to understand where you're coming from. If you're a theist, then how do you reconcile that with Darwinism? Are you *really* a rationalist, or a post-modern relativist posing as a rationalist? I'm trying to find a coherent belief system in there somewhere. :) I'm always trying to hone my own belief system in order to root out incoherence and illogic, so don't take this as a slight. As a committed rationalist, I struggle when trying to understand and communicate with people who relate to the world in a post-modern relativistic manner. It would help me if you'd explain what you mean when you claim to be a rationalist. Maybe we just have different definitions on what it means to be a rationalist.

Jen: [re: my offer to send Jen a copy of "More Than A Carpenter" by Josh McDowell] I don't know about the book. Hmm. I'm a voracious reader, but only of pulp-style fantasy/sci-fi stuff (I know, it's awful! My guilty pleasure! And hey, I try to go for the GOOD fantasy writers. ;) Maybe I will read the Bible, as you suggest later. I've been meaning to anyway, just to sharpen my ammo, hehehehe. :) Ugh, but it's so incredibly DULL.

Dennis: It will be hard to focus on the J-man if we (a) don't have a common understanding of who he was and what he claimed, and (b) are unable to discuss this as rationalists using common definitions on what the words mean, including what it means to be a rationalist.

Jen: We'll see, maybe when I finish my current book. I don't like talking about things I don't know about, so I probably couldn't continue this discussion without reading something else anyway. :)

Dennis: Good point. Here's a place to start reading: John 1. My offer to send you the little easy-to-read (not dull) book by Josh McDowell still stands too.

Jen: [re: the Golden Rule as "natural law"] Hmm, I disagree here. First of all, it is most definitely NOT natural law. I believe Darwinism, and survival of the fittest and all that. If everything followed the golden rule, then we would all starve! So it's most not natural. [Natural law] applies only within our own social species. And even within our own species, it's only a "rule" because we have evolved to a point where we can AFFORD to do it. If we had more limited resources, we would not be able to follow it. Would that make us "evil"? Is a lion evil for eating another animal? No, this is how we survive. Since we're not competing for territory or resources as much anymore, it's in our best interest as a social species to follow the golden rule. But it's certainly NOT natural.

Dennis: I think we are saying the same thing from different directions. When I said the Golden Rule (GR) is Natural Law, I didn't mean to imply that human beings are inherently good and naturally follow the GR. In fact, it is just the opposite. It goes against human nature to follow the GR because human beings are inherently selfish. The GR goes *against* human nature. As you pointed out, the GR and Darwinism are incompatible. (So, why do you think they are both true?)

Jen: This reminds me of some philosopher I learned about in my History of Western Philosophy class. I forget his name, but not his point. In the period we were studying, all of the philosophers were trying rationalize the Bible and religion and all that (you can't, of course! They all failed miserably.) But anyway, this guy was talking about "miracles" and "acts of God" and how they didn't really prove God's power or strength at all. His basic argument was that if God created nature and natural order, why would something going AGAINST that order (as miracles do) prove his strength or power? Wouldn't it prove the weakness of his original design, and therefore his power and all that?

Dennis:
Not at all. When a miracle suspends or overcomes the laws of nature, then perhaps that is just God's way of showing us his transcendence over his creation. He created the rules, and he can change or suspend them at his pleasure. The topic of miracles is also interesting when you consider what Jesus said about them in John 5:36.

Jen: Of course, this was all based on the assumption that God is perfect and therefore everything he makes must be perfect or at least the most perfect possibility.

Dennis: God's original creation *was* perfect, but the world we live in today is corrupted. That is why Jesus is so important.

Jen:
Miracles were just things people couldn't explain through their normal empirical evidence, so they attributed it to "God." Which leads us back to the point that God just simply represents the unexplained or unknown. Which is not truthful at all, especially when people are personifying him!

Dennis:
So, would you agree that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is "unexplained or unknown"? I didn't think so. Well, the 2nd Law *requires* some kind of kick-start on the universe *outside* the system. As far as science is concerned that kick-start is "unexplained or unknown." However, we do have evidence that supports the idea that this "unexplained or unknown" may very well indeed be the God who reveals himself in the Bible. If some people have seen such evidence and Jen Koontz has not, that does not prove those who believe in God are wrong. What a rationalist truth-seeker such as yourself should do in such a case is keep an open mind and analyze the evidence as it is encountered. I will show you the evidence, if you're willing to examine it.

Jen:
However, I know that you've mentioned God and his "design", but you haven't explained what your perception of God is (if it's not the normal old-man-sitting-in-the-sky crap, which I have to assume it's not since you are smart). So we'll see what you have to say about that...

Dennis:
You can rest easy. The old-man-sitting-in-the-sky idea is absurd albeit common. We must be careful not to impose our limited notions of perfection on a presumably infinite Creator. That leads to all kinds of silly contradictions, like the supposed impossibility of miracle. My perception of God is that he is the Creator of the universe, that "unexplained or unknown" jump-starter who has infinite intelligence, power, and presence. I also believe God reveals himself to those who seek him. That is why we have evidence that he does indeed exist.

Jen:
Yeah, my knowledge of Jesus all stems from my Roman Catholic upbringing, so I suppose it's probably twisted. I'll see about reading that Bible...

Dennis:
Most protestant denominations encourage their adherents to read the Bible more than the Catholics, so if you were raised at least nominal Catholic it isn't shocking that you haven't read the Book. You really ought to give it a shot, though. After all, it is the most widely published book in all of history. For someone who wants to be "well-read" is only makes sense to read the #1 best seller of all time! :)

Jen:
Not sure what "God's general grace" is, but ok. However, I think that if someone thought of the Golden Rule to begin with, then we can certainly think of it again. And I don't accept that the original idea came from God- it's part of the social structure of our species that has enabled us to survive.

Dennis:
Earlier you mentioned that the only reason we can "afford" to practice the Golden Rule (GR) is because we've evolved. I don't think the facts support that conclusion. Most of the wealth in the world is concentrated in Christianized western cultures. We can afford the GR now only because enough people followed the GR in the past to make it so. Modern western prosperity is a product of the Christianized western culture. Just look at what communism (atheism) did to Russia. Look at the rampant poverty in Islamic and Hindu nations. The wealth you claim makes the GR possible came about because of 2000 years of people practicing the GR, and not the other way around. There doesn't seem to be any GR in Islam, nor in pagan (3rd world) cultures. Nor among atheists, except 1st-generation atheists who got it from Christian parents and who didn't reject it when they rejected its logical basis.

Jen:
But of course I don't accept that God created us either... so I guess you could say that he created that need in us or whatever. But not back when we were primates!

Dennis:
I have no comments on your primate ancestry. :)

Jen:
I do agree that children need a good upbringing to help them learn morals. And punishment and rewards help us learn the appropriate responses. But once you get to a certain age and know enough about our society and how we work together, you shouldn't need this vague threat of hell to make you be a good person. You should be a good person because you see the benefit it brings to society and ultimately, ourselves. Yes, it is ultimately selfish. I truly believe that.

Dennis:
My view on hell is that the only people who will be there are those who wouldn't be happy in heaven because God is there and evil is not allowed. Hell is a place away from God where his general grace and blessings do not exist. Atheists have it easy in this world because they benefit from God's general grace even though they deny his existence.

Jen:
I donate to charities because I would want someone to do the same for me if I was in the same position. I don't think that's wrong or selfish, it's just social. Good social behavior evolved to ultimately benefit the individuals and therefore the whole.

Dennis:
Your Catholic upbringing has inculcated a sense of God's general grace into your character, and that is admirable. However, I find it a bit sad that you attribute your good character to social evolution instead of your mother's good job in raising you with some solid Catholic values. [Way to go, Jen's mom, if you're reading this!!]

Jen:
Maybe we should define "worship". I don't think feeling connected to something larger than oneself and worshipping are the same thing.

Dennis:
I believe the need to worship is built into the soul of human beings by the Designer.

Jen:
Worshipping can fill that need, but it is false, because worship to me involves some element of the unknown. Once you understand it, it's not worship anymore. It's just the truth.

Dennis:
Worship is reverent love and devotion accorded a deity. If that deity is the God of the Bible, then I agree that finite human beings cannot understand an infinite God. So, your definition of worship involving "some element of the unknown" makes sense in that context. What's wrong with worshipping the Truth?

Jen:
Hmm, maybe we can get into the gun control issue another time. I'm pretty liberal, so I am of the opinion that everyone should pretty much be able to do what they want... as long as that doesn't interfere with someone else doing what they want. And unfortunately, it's all too easy for any bozo to get a gun at a moment's notice and kill someone whenever they're peeved (which definitely counts as interference!) I think if you want to own a gun you need to take classes on how to use it and gun safety (for more extensive then what you need now, if anything!), and be put on a waiting list, and be researched for criminal history and all that. If you're going to be able to kill me by only moving one finger, then I want assurance that you're not a loony and will only do so for a very good reason!

Dennis:
You sound more Libertarian than Liberal. Look, I'm enjoying the dialogue, but I set out to deal with the J-man question. I'd love to get into these other topics, but let's try to focus the discussion. Let me know when you get in some reading on the source texts, and I'd love to continue this dialogue by focusing on the J-man question. Until next time...

[For the next installment go to "Being a Truth Seeker - Part 3"]

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Being a Truth Seeker - Part 1

I've received a couple of comments on my little truth treatise, one from a fellow blogspotter Jen Koontz. (See her comment at the bottom of the Jan 26 post.) Jen also sent me a detailed email. I'm not sure if she ever got my reply. She said she has many email accounts, so maybe my response got lost in a spam folder somewhere. She put so much thought into her message that it seemed a shame to keep it to myself, so here it is with my inline comments:

Jen wrote:
First of all, just let me thank you for this opportunity to discuss religion in a rational level-headed way. I find that's not possible too often! :)

Dennis replies:
I couldn't agee more. However, I'm somewhat anti-religion, depending on what you mean by religion. (I'm big on definitions since in email all you really have to go on is the meaning of words.) In general, religion is used as a tool to manipulate and control people. The book of James has a couple of points on religion (chapter 1), but other than that the Bible and particularly Jesus' message was not too kind toward the religious. In fact, it was the religious Jews who had Jesus killed.

Jen: So I'm sorry if my comment was a little abrasive, but I was peeved because I was reading all this great philosophical stuff you were laying out about the truth and getting really into it, then I saw your reference to Jesus and alarm bells immediately went off in my head. I was like, "Oh no... is this where he's heading?"

Dennis: I'm headed to the truth, of course! :-) Your comment was hardly abrasive. In fact, I was cracking up when I read it. It was quite humorous.

Jen: Don't get me wrong... Jesus and his teachings are great, and for the most part I agree with them. But I hate religion in general, especially raving fundamentalists.

Dennis: I couldn't agree more about the "fundies," depending on how you define "fundamentalists." If by fundie you mean a red-faced bible-thumping you're-going-to-hell spittle-spraying preacher who has no sense of grace, then I agree. :-)

Jen: I think Jesus should be viewed as a teacher/philosopher with some great stories and advice on how to live, nothing more and nothing less.

Dennis: Have you ever read any C.S. Lewis? I'll respond to the above point on "Jesus as a great moral teacher" with a quote from Lewis, an Oxford professor of medieval literature (who by the way started out as an atheist):
"A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either he was and is the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."
The option of "Jesus as a great moral teacher...nothing more and nothing less" makes no rational sense at all. Since you fancy yourself as a rationalist (based on your blog self-description), I would challenge you to think through this a little deeper.

Jen: The way he's been turned into this immortal icon, and the way the Church interprets the bible and totally contradicts itself, and yet still has this huge following- I just think it's all a huge lie, that causes more hate and pain in the world than any benefit it gives (if any).

Dennis: Okay, that's a good starting point. However, you've tossed a lot into that mega sentence. If I mailed you a book (really short, also written by a former atheist), would you read it so we at least had a common starting point for discussion? The Bible is 66 books written by 40+ authors over 1400 or so years. The Christian "church" however you define it is also a rather enormous institution and many-headed topic. Those together are a bit much to tackle in an email discussion thread (or blog debate) unless we plan to go at this until we're senior citizens. If we can just focus the discussion on "Who is Jesus?" in the context of seeking the truth, I think that would be an interesting and doable discussion. It would even give me some material to continue on in my blog entries (...and here it is!)

Jen: In my opinion, religion is an antiquated way of explaining the world around us to ourselves and why it's that way. Now that we have science, we shouldn't need religion anymore.

Dennis: Interesting topic, but we'll never reach any conclusions if we open too many boxes without looking inside and carefully examining the contents of each. I'd love to engage on this topic because my college degree is in physics, so I *love* talking about science. Still, I don't have enough time to tackle a discussion on "Who is Jesus?" and "Science vs. Religion" at the same time.

Jen: Science explains everything religion does, except better and more truthfully. And the things science can't explain yet... at least it's not pretending it has the answers when it doesn't.

Dennis: As someone trained as a scientist (physicist), I couldn't disagree more unless you're a materialist and deny the existence of the supra-natural. If that is the case, we'll have to start the "Who is Jesus" discussion at a much more fundamental (not fundamentalist - there is a difference) level.

Jen: Everything that Jesus taught, I think any intelligent being can figure out for himself. It all basically comes down to the golden rule- "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Dennis: That is why we call it "natural law" (see our Declaration of Independence). It is built into the fabric of the created order. God made it that way.

Jen: What more do you need than that? So that's why although I respect Jesus, I don't see him as anything that special, really.

Dennis: I think you're missing some critical information that would greatly influence a rational conclusion on the person of Jesus of Nazareth. My offer to snail mail you a book still stands. If you're willing to read it, I think this could turn into a fascinating discussion. In fact, we could also run "dueling blogs" and do it in public. (...and here it is!)

Jen: Of course, I have the benefit of being aware of the Golden Rule from an early age- perhaps I'm taking it for granted.

Dennis: Most people who live under God's general grace take if for granted.

Jen: Maybe people COULDN'T figure that out on their own before Jesus. But I highly doubt that! I think it's ridiculous that people need the threat of hell to be good people. Why?! Isn't being good for it's own sake enough?!

Dennis: Interesting point. Having three children (boys ages 8, 11, and 14) gives me a bit of a different perspective. The threat of punishment is frequently required to encourage good behavior, at least until the child has the maturity to make good choices on his own. This also begs the question of whether or not human beings are inherently good or inherently bad. I had a much different perspective before I had childen than I do now. :-)

Jen: I understand that people have a spiritual need, and want to feel connected to something larger than themselves. I feel this is why religion is still so popular, because it fills this void we have in our society now.

Dennis: Great insight. Yes, human beings have a built-in need to worship. Millions attend weekly worship in sports stadiums across the country. Millions more worship the almighty dollar. Millions worship youth and vitality. Some people believe religion is antiquated and worship at the altar of science. Some people worship themselves. The void in society is the collective void of individuals trying to fill the God-shaped hole in their lives with anything and everything. Some try to fill it with drugs and alcohol. Others try to fill it with romantic love and relationships. There is only one thing that fills the God-shaped hole in a human life, and it took me 30 years to find it.

Jen: I feel connected to the greater humanity, and the universe, and am thankful that I'm lucky enough to be here. I feel like my education and understanding of social sciences has pretty much filled that void for me.

Dennis: Oh yeah, I forgot to include "knowledge and education" in the list. Some people stuff that in the God-shaped hole. I know from experience. I studied physics in college because I figured if knowledge and education would fill that hole, then I was going to go for the full-monty. Didn't work. However, I do commend you on your attitude of gratitude. Do you thank God for that, or just "greater humanity"?

Jen: This is why I don't need religion, and feel pretty enlightened about it. I think it's fine if people want to get together once a week to feel connected and a sense of community and all that. I just wish there was an answer for everyone other than religion.

Dennis: Even Christian religions won't fill the God-shaped hole. Tried that too. Didn't work.

Jen: In my opinion, religion causes far more pain and strife than filling this void for people. People exploit it as a tool to dictate how other people should live their lives, and that's not cool at all.

Dennis: Couldn't agree more.

Jen: If they didn't have this tool which many people regard as the "ultimate authority" or whatever, then they wouldn't be able to exploit it. That's why I think religion should be abolished, the same way guns should. Or at least controlled.

Dennis: I live in Texas. I own guns. We'll have to agree to disagree on the gun control issue. :-) However, I couldn't agree with you more on religion frequently being a tool to control and exploit. God hates that. He says so in the Bible.

Jen: Well anyway, I think you get my point and where I'm coming from by now! :) I would love to hear what you think of my reasoning here... (that's why I posted this in my blog)

Dennis: I'm not pulling any punches. I think you're missing the boat on a few points, but I'm not saying that in a condescending way. Heck, I've been exactly where you are and had almost the same identical thoughts. Over time, reality just refused to let me stay there. Seeking truth changed me. I'm convinced that if you pursue it with a passion, you'll change too. It has been said that when an honest man (or woman) is confronted with the facts that prove s/he is mistaken, s/he either ceases to be mistaken or s/he ceases to be honest. My challenge to you is to passionately seek the truth and determine if you are mistaken or not. I commit to you that I will do my best to be honest with you at all levels, and if you prove to me that I'm mistaken, I'll change my views. Are you willing to do the same?

Jen: ...and how it relates to truth. I didn't get into that too much, but I think you can guess that I don't think religion is truthful, not at all. Maybe Jesus and what he says is truthful, but the way he's represented by the Church and through religion is not.

Dennis: Okay, other than reading the book I'd like to send, how about we ignore everything the Church and religion says about Jesus and just go to the source texts. Almost everything we know about Jesus is contained in the four gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). And, in order to discuss this intelligently, I would suggest that you might want to read those four short books. Start with John. It is 21 chapters. Read just 3/day, and you're done in a week. The book I am willing to send to you (unless you want to pick up your own copy) is by Josh McDowell. It is called "More Than a Carpenter." I'm sure it it on Amazon and in most major book stores (unfortunately, you'd have to look in the religion section most likely - aacckk!).

So there you have it folks. I'll leave the next step up to Jen. She is an articulate and interesting young lady. I think this would be a fascinating dialogue if she chooses to continue, but you can't force someone to seek the truth.  That is up to her...

[Jen did choose to continue. For the next installment go to "Being a Truth Seeker - Part 2."]