"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Worth watching

Agnostic theism?



Daniel Dennett on the tricks of consciousness



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25 Comments:

Blogger Alex said...

I watched both of these a few months back. Tom struck me as a rather sad, confused little man. I'll give'em both another run through when I get a chance.

9:14 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

TED is a great resource, isn't it? The great thing is that I can download the videos onto my iPod and watch them on it - assuming iTunes lets me, of course!

You assessment of Tom seems a bit harsh. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts in more detail.

9:47 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

I'm just now beginning to listen to the first bit during a break. I was actually just popping back into the comment box to delete my previous comment. Interesting how much one's views can change over the course of a few short months. My comment was based off of a vague impression that had remained in my mind from quite some time ago. I should have just kept it to myself until I had properly viewed the material again.

I'll finish listening and give a more level headed response in a bit.

9:54 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I thought he was quite interesting - although he completely avoids answering the question he asks.

It does seem to be the case with CofE officials that the more they explain their views the more you begin to suspect they might be more atheist than theist. My favourite was a bishop who, in a newspaper interview, explained that he didn't actually believe in Heaven and Hell, but thought that it would be "quite nice" if there was "something" after death.

And people wonder why the UK has one of the lowest church attendences in the world.

10:29 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Okay,
Just finished up. Now I remember what gave me such a hesitant impression of Honey. I'm in agreement with a great deal of the sentiment that Honey is tending towards. However, my main discomfort is that he unmoors himself from the possibility that God may indeed have revealed himself to us in history.

Things I can stand behind:
• A God who enters in and is present in our experience. (look at the cross)

• A God who is affected by our lives. (look at the cross)

• A God who suffers. (look at the cross)

• A God who's revels himself in the the process of service and self-denial. (look at the cross)

• A God who reveals himself through our gender categories, though is not bound by them.

Things I am uncomfortable with:
• Saying that "Either God is responsible for the Tsunami, or God is not in control" This is a false dilemma.

• A God who does not act. If we take this tact, then Jesus was not God, or even affiliated with God in any special way. Not only that but a God who does not act is just as handy as no God at all.

• God was "in" the Tsunami? How does this solve anything? Seems to me Mr. Honey discovered pantheism.

• Rejection of doctrine as on the basis of not wanting to "tie God down". Doctrine needn't tie God down. Doctrine is more man's attempts to understand God's revelation. With out this effort we are simply left with an apophatic silence. Even so I understand his concern here.

Seems to me you are right. Honey certainly does appear more atheist than theist (Certainly more atheist than Christian) Honey is obviously uncomfortable with many traditional views of God, but is now left with nothing at all to help him make sense of the world. It seems he has nothing but an extraordinarily vague "feeling" but nothing to attach it to. I feel for the guy.

11:07 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

It seems he has nothing but an extraordinarily vague "feeling" but nothing to attach it to.

I think that pretty much sums up mainstream Christianity in the UK.

My main problem with his approach is that he refers to the universe (as I recall) as "benevolent", when the overwhelming majority of it is either completely indifferent to us or actively hostile. If God is in everything then, as well as being in the tsunami, he's in the cold, airless vacuum of space, the raditation-spewing sun, the Aids virus and the parasites infecting small children.

If you follow the logic of his position I think you actually intensify the problem of evil, rather than ease it.

11:41 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

My feelings exactly. I don't need to say anything in addition, but I will just for kicks. Honey's biggest beef with "traditional" views of God revolves around his desire for God not to be so "in control" that he ends up orchestrating such things as tsunamis and other catastrophic events. This is an admirable discomfort to hold, but as you so succinctly point out, to conceive "God" and "The Universe" as biconditional concepts does nothing at all to solve this dilemma.

In my opinion there are other ways to conceive of God which not only minimize Honey's initial discomfort, but also don't require the complete pitching of all prior revelation. In-fact, I would argue that revelation rightly conceived does not lead to the dilemma that Honey seemed to have gotten himself into in the first place.

We are agreeing an awful lot these days...

12:01 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Worrying, isn't it. :-)

(I'm off to listen to 'The God Delusion' audiobook on my iPod - just to be on the safe side)

12:06 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

That should do the trick! ;-)

It's an enjoyable read if nothing else. I'd like to read through it again along with McGrath's counterpoint. Enjoy.

1:40 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

To be honest, I'm not overly impressed with it so far - it seems mostly to be about common misconceptions religious people have about atheism, which, given that I'm already an atheist, isn't that interesting. Although, in fairness, I'm only a few chapters in.

It also seems to touch upon some good issues, but then fail to look at them in any depth - For example, Dawkins points out that many of the US founding father's were secularists, but doesn't make any actual arguments for secularism. Again, maybe this changes as the book goes on.

4:52 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

I think part of the problem is that us westerners have started to generate what can only be described as an irrational fear of death. That might seem like an impossible thought, but I think we've managed it. Whether it's our increasing desire for immortality, or the absolutely paralyzing horror that many of us feel when death confronts us, we have actually managed to so something as counterintuitive as develop our fears of mortality to an irrational, cult-like degree.

The question isn't so much, "Why is God trying to kills us all!", but, "Why do we assume that death is so cosmically wrong?" Regrettable and sad, but is it always objectively wrong?

I wasn't being entirely facetious when I was talking about The Great Cycle in the other thread. Things move and change in the material world; it's a essential element of thermodynamics. It's rather childish to spit the pacifier out of the pram and shake one's fist at God (hell, I don't even believe in the fella, but I'll back him up here) on the basis of some very shoddy moral judgments regarding the nature of things. We already have a good understanding of the nature of things, and that they tend to be cyclical, and self-regenerating. That life and death are essential steps in any ecosystem. So why do we rage against it so? Why is death so bloody taboo?

On the basis of the way nature (or creation) appears to work, our stubborn, if pointless, refusal to die actually smacks of selfishness. We each have a turn on the rolling rock, and whether one is atheist or theist, one must surely acknowledge that sooner or later we've got to stand down and let somebody else on the ride. And yes, there's a good chance we won't be in the position to choose exactly when that happens.

If we relieve ourselves of this somewhat provincial notion of death, I think many of these questions start to lose their significance. The questions are based, imho, on a flawed interpretation of the universe. A relatively recent interpretation, which might have something to do with our emerging belief that, just maybe, we can cheat death. And that very thought has sent many of us start raving bonkers, as we scrabble around trying to get a grip on the chalice and secure a few drops of Elixir for ourselves. It's really quite undignified, imho.

And that's my rant of the week.

8:53 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Incit,
Busy with work stuff at the moment, but I cannot resist throwing a quick thought your way with regard to your incredibly interesting comment.

""Why do we assume that death is so cosmically wrong?" Regrettable and sad, but is it always objectively wrong?"

I would think it would be helpful to step into the shoes of a young family who just watched their beloved baby girl struggle to hang on to life only to die in their arms. Or perhaps a young father who's beautiful wife and child are killed in a freak car accident. Or in my case, a first time father who witnesses his own dad pass on with little more than a few brief interactions with his first grandson.

We can sit here and talk about the wonderful circle of life, but if it's between my wife, my son, or the cyclical nature of the "ecosystem"... well, you can bet I'm going to be rightfully agitated if cancer should steal my family from me. There does indeed seem to be something "wrong" with that.

But here again all depends on our starting point. If we assume nothing more than a impersonal physical system... then yes, to rue death is a silly reaction. Your point is well taken. In-fact I'd be right there with you if I lacked my commitments.

If, on the other hand, creation is born of a personal God who is love, that's when the reality of death starts to feel problematic, for we feel that love should win the day. This amplifies the pain for the theist when death seems to ultimately triumph. For the Christian, however our hope is in the coming kingdom. Death will not have the final word. With Jesus' resurrection he demonstrated that he is the first-fruits of the coming kingdom.

Were I an atheist, all I would be left with is the hard swallow followed by an attempt to realize that the depth of my feeling in dealing with death points nowhere other than to the absurdity of existence. Why should we feel so strongly over the transition of matter? I would be like grieving for months over the rising of dough. Absurd.

9:22 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I think we worry about death so much because it's the cessation of all that we value: our hopes, our dreams, our loves... even our fears. Whether we're the product of evolutionary forces or the creation of a divine being makes no difference to the fact that we consider these things important.

To put it crudely: We like life. Or at least prefer it to the only alternative.

What I think has changed recently (in the past few centuries) is that death has gone from something completely out of our hands to being something that we can actively fight against - though to an incredibly limited degree.

What angers us is not the thought of death itself (though to someone who believes that we were created for a purpose the idea might seem incredibly unfair), but the thought of an unnecessary death - could X have been prevented, and, if so, why wasn't it?

10:00 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

True, there's a vast difference between the death of a young mother and the passing of a 94 year old woman who is struggling with a failing body.

At the very least we feel that if this life is all we get, we should at least get our expected allotment.

10:05 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

To go back to Rev. Tom Honey, the more I think about it the less I can see why the problem of evil should cause so much soul searching in people like him.

I assume he believes in some form of Heaven (although, as he's a CofE reverend I hesitate to ascribe any specific beliefs to him), so why is he so bothered by it? Sure, it's sad and tragic for those who lost friends and loved ones, but the actual people killed by the tsunami are now, presumably, in a much better place.

He may not understand why God chose to take them and in the way he did, but the idea that God's ways are mysterious has a long history in the Christian church.

If you believe that God is love and that he shaped the universe then you surely have to assume that all "evil" acts, no matter how horrific we may find them from our limited perspective, are done for a greater good?

"Ours not to reason why, ours but to do and die."

10:18 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

I guess to my mind the main problem the "blue print" model of reality presents to Honey is simply the visceral reaction we naturally have to such a story. To say that God actively willed such destruction for some unknown good creates a revulsion within us. Especially when you allow for God preserving this person here or there, but allowing the rest to go to their watery graves. If God could save some... why not the thousands of others? Such seemingly capricious action seems to indict God for failing to act on behalf of all.

But you are right. As the child hates his father for shooting his pet dog who has come down with rabies, believers might be tempted to hate God for failing to save those in the tsunami. But really the tsunami simply seems to be "the facts of life" writ large. In the ordinary day to day, do believers indict God for failing to keep them from stubbing a toe? Do we shake our fist as though it was he who was responsible? Not ordinarily in any case. We simply assume that such is the way reality is structured. For a staircase to be firm enough to support our weight, it must also be firm enough to stub our toe against. What's to say such a microcosmic truth ought not also apply to the tsunami?

But here again this seems to come back to Honey's conviction that traditional theism posits an exhaustively controlling God. For my part, I don't believe sovereignty or omnipotence must entail exhaustive control. Furthermore, I don't feel we need to resort to the sort of pantheism Honey posits to account for such states of affairs.

10:37 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

The existence of evil doesn't rule out God. It doesn't even rule out a loving God. What it does rule out is a loving, comprehensible God - and I think it's this that trips up people like Honey.

They want answers, and struggle to come up with a worldview that might provide them.

10:50 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
That is perhaps one of the truest statements you have ever uttered. One that convicts me as well. I struggle with the temptation to try and put God in his box. I rebel against accusations that I'm playing that game as nothing more than the banter of weak minded anti-intellectuals. There is a tension that is held between acknowledging that God's revelation is not at all exhaustive—that he is, and will always be mysterious—and the striving to love God with all my mind.

The moment we set our versions of God up as the thing itself we become idol worshipers. This is an area I'm working through at the moment. Hopefully I'll be able to restart my stalled epic on the epistemology of God sometime soon.

11:00 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I think - and this applies to atheists and theists alike - that we need to look on knowledge as a process rather than an object (for want of a better word).

We're all seeking truth - though we're taking different paths. So many problems arise when someone just stops and declares that their journey is over, that they've found the endpoint and no more searching is needed.

11:10 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

If the postmodern turn has taught us anything, it's that declaring we've found the "endpoint" through our own strivings is myth. I'm working through a lot of this in my readings at the moment. Fascinating!

Every act of knowing contains a fiduciary aspect. The world "as it is" does not present itself to us via direct download. Hence, every "truth" we ascribe to is built upon further acts of fiduciary commitment. It can be unnerving to face up to the fact that "what we know" is not built upon some indubitable certainty, but rather upon the accumulation of prior fallible faith commitments.

The question then remains: What does this do for our search for truth—for knowledge of God? I'm working on it.

11:26 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"If, on the other hand, creation is born of a personal God who is love, that's when the reality of death starts to feel problematic, for we feel that love should win the day."

What is the theological basis of God's love being so closely associated with his respect for material life? As Matt points out, if Heaven awaits then one cannot accuse God of being unloving should He choose to take a soul earlier rather than later. To do so is to somewhat arrogantly ascribe our limited moral perspective to the thing that some charge is the originator of that morality in the first place.

So I disagree. I don't think death is problematic for a theist any more than it should be for an atheist. One can respond to death with sorrow for what the living have lost through the death of a loved one. But to face death with bitterness or anger, because of a perception that someone has been wrongfully deprived seems illogical as well as potentially self-destructive.

I tend to agree with Matt. Living seems to be generally good, and so the more of it the better. But we can only make this assessment as living people. We have no idea how living rates to non-living. (Well, actually we do. We can reasonably surmise that death is a lot like not being born, which was hardly a brutal and negative experience). Either way, We figure we might as well make the best of what we know, and worry about what comes after later on.

"At the very least we feel that if this life is all we get, we should at least get our expected allotment."

Ah. Entitlement! I don't think I agree with this at all, for no other reason that it sets us up for bitterness and anger when such expectations are dashed by reality. Better to live as if every hour we or our loved one's get is a bonus.

I was actually pleasantly surprised by the appearance of this sentiment in a big budget commercial film like Star Wars Ep III,
"Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealously. The shadow of greed, that is."

I think in these times, that's a pretty controversial and inflammatory statement, but one that nevertheless holds a grain of truth. I personally think that grief is an essential part of mourning, but it's vital that it serves only as a transition, rather than a permanent path.zy

11:51 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Incit,
I think you misunderstand me. I was not strictly offering my own views, rather I was seeking to explain our emotional reactions. I was speaking in terms of what we might might "feel", rather than what is justified. I agree with pretty much everything you say here.

I'm interested to hear a bit more of your thoughts on this comment I made earlier:

"Were I an atheist, all I would be left with is the hard swallow followed by an attempt to realize that the depth of my feeling in dealing with death points nowhere other than to the absurdity of existence. Why should we feel so strongly over the transition of matter? I would be like grieving for months over the rising of dough. Absurd."

This whole existential experience thing continues to be a central feature of my rejection of atheism and affirmation of Christianity. One story accounts for our experience, while the other renders it absurd.

I know... same old story.

12:07 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

It can be unnerving to face up to the fact that "what we know" is not built upon some indubitable certainty, but rather upon the accumulation of prior fallible faith commitments.

You should check out the TED video I've just posted over at my blog - I think it relates to this issue quite a bit.

If nothing else, it's quite interesting.

12:11 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Why should we feel so strongly over the transition of matter?

I think if you're looking for a rational justification of subjective value then you're on a hiding to nothing - regardless of your worldview.

Every answer you give has to exist within a certain framework (such as logic), the value of which in turn can always be challenged.

12:13 PM

 
Blogger DSK Samways said...

"I was speaking in terms of what we might might "feel", rather than what is justified."

Sorry, I misinterpreted that.

"Were I an atheist, all I would be left with is the hard swallow followed by an attempt to realize that the depth of my feeling in dealing with death points nowhere other than to the absurdity of existence. Why should we feel so strongly over the transition of matter? I would be like grieving for months over the rising of dough. Absurd."

But it's the absurdity of existence that makes it so attractive to me. It's like living in a Douglas Adams or Kurt Vonnegut novel.

3:18 PM

 

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