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

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Reason and preference

(Note: In one of those annoying moments of (dis?)sycrhonicity I've finished up this post just as Alex has posted his piece below - make sure you don't overlook it! It's not as though I'm that desperate for attention that I need to try and overshadow other people)

According to many people in the field, modern philosophy starts with Rene Descartes, or more specifically with one of the most famous phrases in the history of philosophy: "I think, therefore I am."

Descartes hoped to establish the foundational beliefs of human understanding – to find that which could not be doubted without contradiction. To do this he set aside millennia of accumulated human knowledge and went back to (what he believed to be) the central, unquestionable, truth at the heart of all experience.

I think.
Only that which exists can think.
Therefore, I exist.

However, this is not the fundamental truth that Descartes supposed it to be – it actually presupposes two, quite crucial, things:

1) Reason

Without reason, no argument can be made – or at least no argument worth making.

2) Preference

Without preferences (with which I include desire, value, etc.) there can be no motivation for making an argument.

Descarte (and all sceptics) must assume not only the existence of these two things, but also their validity – as otherwise there are no grounds for making any argument. Without reason, we have no means to, without preference we have no grounds to. This holds regardless of our metaphysics – as metaphysics itself is impossible without them. They are fundamental aspects of our existence and as such largely beyond analysis – once we start to question them our means to and grounds for doing so are pulled from under us: If we question reason, then we cannot construct a rational argument against it. If we question preference, then we have no grounds for preferring it to be valid.

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The crushing weight of silence

Note: I sent this out yesterday via Facebook to a few of the regulars on this blog. Matt suggested I post it (perhaps apple will offer me millions to use it?). Seeing as I have little time to post anything else, perhaps there's nothing wrong with a little personal dramma!


For those of you all who may be used to seeing me on IM, MSN, FB, etc... you may have noticed a peculiar lack of my presence these last few weeks. I thought I'd offer a bit of an explanation. I do this not because I worry that you've missed me (though doubtless, you have), but because this is the sort of story that only finds its meaning in the telling.

That said, my computer is broke. But wait, there's more...

So I show up to my second day on campus two weeks ago. I calmly pull out my super sweet (almost brand spanking new) macbook pro. As I pop open the screen it becomes apparent that all is not well. There is a massive crack all the way across the screen! I figured it must have hit something while in by backpack. After a brief period of shock I decide to suck it up and order a new $300 screen.

Now, I'm staying with my brother-in-law while I'm down at classes so I give him a call to obtain his address so that I can get the screen overnighted to his place. He picks up and I explain the situation to him.... There's an slightly uncomfortable moment of silence on the other end of the phone... "So I take it you didn't get my email then, huh?", he says. Not waiting for me to answer he continues, "I think I may have drove over your computer this morning."


"Ya, I'm pretty sure I did."

"That's impossible! The computer would be mangled had you done that!"

"I dunno, but I think I did."

At this point you may be wondering how the devil my computer found itself in such a place as to make possible the "getting driven over" thing. Briefly: a friend was picking me up for class. He parks on one side of the drive way. I needed to get something in the house. I leave my backpack IN THE YARD next to the drive way; Brother-in-law decides to leave from work; swings wide to avoid friend's car; backs over my back pack containing my lap-top... digital camera... head phones... and ipod. (thankfully, the ipod came out unscathed)

Okay that still leaves me in the position of wondering how it could be that only the screen was cracked after being driven over by a vehicle. As I was later expressing my amazement over this fact the nice boy sitting behind me decided to bring it to my attention that I may be drawing my conclusions a bit prematurely. According to him, my entire lap-top was sort of taking on the shape of a ski jump. After taking a closer look, "according to him" turned out to be "according to reality" as well. Crazy thing is though, the machine still worked fine! For awhile I could still take notes on a three inch section of the monitor that wasn't cracked! (though that didn't last long)

All that is to say that, insurance companies being what they are, my computer is in the process of being "fixed" (even though a new one would have cost only a few hundred dollars more than the "fixing"). Should have it back late this week.

Now... shower me with pity! (or at least have a good laugh at my expense)

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

PZ Myers, disrespecting beliefs and shooting yourself in the foot

Let's say that a friend of mine is trying to fix his computer. It runs Windows XP, but for some reason he's convinced it's running Windows Vista. This mistake is making his task even harder.

It seems fairly obvious that, as a friend, I should make him aware of this mistake as soon as I can.

Most people want their beliefs to be as true as possible. If a girlfriend is cheating on me then, as much as finding out will hurt, I'd want to know – as tackling the problem will ultimately lead to a better life than living with someone who cheats on me. The fact that I strongly believe that she is “the one” is no excuse for my friends not making me aware of my mistake – although it does mean that they should approach the issue delicately.

Respect for the individual entails disrespect for beliefs we believe to be wrong.

The same applies to religious matters – If someone believes that my atheism is a mistake then, if they care about me in any way, they should try to make me aware of this mistake as soon as possible.

Although, just as they have an obligation to make me aware of my mistake, they have an obligation (to themselves as much as to me) to do so in a productive way. Standing outside my house declaring through a megaphone that I'm going to burn in hell for my heathen ways is not only unlikely to change my mind, it will also sour my view of religious people and so make it even harder to change my mind on the subject.

Which brings me to 'Wafergate'.

My objection to PZ Myer's recent actions concerning “host desecration” is that not only will it fail to change anyone's mind on the subject, it also, by annoying and upsetting many Catholics, makes that task even harder.

If Myers is truly concerned with the threatening actions of some Catholics in response to Webster Cook taking a wafer from a Mass service then the best course of is as follows: Research the Eucharist, find arguments against its validity and then try to present these in a way that will have the most influence in Catholic circles.

As with any group, there will inevitably be some that will refuse to listen. But there are many more who will. Myers is focusing on a minority at the expense of a majority.

Most religious people want to hold true beliefs. As an atheist, I think that their current beliefs are more likely to be false. I also think that they (and ultimately everyone else) would be better off if they were aware of their mistakes. The crude mockery by Myers – and many in the comment threads of his blog – is not only going to fail in making his case, it's actually massively counter-productive.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

A bit late, but still...

Wee li'll Zoë Ophelia

For any who don't know already, our very own Rev. Dr. Incitatus is a daddy!

Congrats man!

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Grenz on Death

As you may have guessed I've been preoccupied with school, work and family life these days. Sadly, this leaves little room for the blogging. Since I can't seem to find a spare moment to pick up the several blogging projects I've left hanging, I thought I'd perhaps post random tidbits from some of the reading I'm doing now days. That way I don't have to think too hard. ;-)

P.S. for any of you Facebook friends of mine I've recently posted some pics and videos from my latest mountain adventure. Good stuff.

Our ability to reflect on our own death brings to light the deeper dimension of this phenomenon. Not only is death the cessation of biological function, it marks the end of personal life. In this way, death calls personal existence into question. As the termination of a person's life, death speaks as it were the final word. Death, so it seems, undermines all our attempts to find meaning for our own lives. In the end, we all die. Whatever significance we may have constructed for life is abruptly breached. As the psalmist declared, "What man can life and not see death, or save himself from the power of the grave?" (Ps. 89:48).

The dark shadow that death casts across personal life suggests that life is a meaningless absurdity. This was the conclusion of the Preacher: "all share a common destiny — the righteous and the wicked, the good an the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not" (Eccles. 9:2). They all "join the dead" (v. 3).

In death, therefore, we face an enigma more problematic than the cessation of the function of a biological organism. We are confronted with a crisis of meaning produced by our inevitable death. As Ernest Becker poignantly observed, "The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive."

Does our Christian faith commitment shed light on the phenomenon of death: Does death carry and genuine significance, or is it indeed the ultimate absurdity?

Stanley Grenz - Theology For the Community of God

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