Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Nature of Man

The first thing to get straight is the use of the word "man." For most of the history of western society, I think the term "man" has been used to mean all of humanity. It is only relatively recently that we have become obsessed with gender. In my opinion, we have done a disservice to the language by narrowing the definition of this word to mean "male person." When I use the word "man" in these notes, I mean humanity, or mankind, or people in general. I refuse to be politically correct when it is to no good purpose.

Anthropology is the study of humanity; it means literally, "to talk about human beings. " This is the second area of knowledge that leads me to an understanding of what God wants me to do and why. Deciding about the nature of man is important in ethics because to understand what I need to become as a human being requires that I understand where I begin. To know what is "right living" I must first know what I am. What is my essential nature? Am I by nature good, neutral, or evil?

If I'm basically good, then right living will mean somehow becoming aware of my innate desires and then following them. This is the source of the saying, "If it feels good, do it!" An essentially good person needs only to follow their basic nature. Unethical behavior is anything that is imposed from outside. If I'm good, and I do evil, it's because something outside me caused it. All that is needed for man to behave rightly is the removal of external pressure to do evil.

If my basic nature is neutral, neither good nor evil, then I can't look to my own innermost feelings to identify the good. I think this leads to an intellectual view of right and wrong. In an sense I don't really care one way or the other. I'm not on either side in the war between good and evil. I should listen to the arguments put forward by both sides and choose the most reasonable. Society ought to adopt a non-interference position on right behavior. Since we are neutral, we might make different choices about good and evil and that's OK.

Neither of these two ideas seems to fit with my experience of living. I am absolutely convinced that there are things that seem right to me that are absolutely evil. Certainly there are things that feel good, but that I believe are wrong. The basically good model doesn't line up with reality in this respect. Neither does the neutral view. I don't see good and evil as two equally plausible choices. I have a strong preference for good over evil and I can't make that preference consistent with a basic neutrality in my nature.

So I'm left with the belief that I am basically evil. This position means that I can't be left alone to decide what I should do, because my nature will cause me to choose evil. This leads to the belief that society needs to create laws to curb the evil behavior of individuals. The difficulty is, who can make the laws if we're all evil? A society can't be less evil than it's members, so the laws it makes would be evil as well. The other issue I can see is this preference that I seem to have for good over evil. It seems that I should prefer evil if my nature is evil. Why would I prefer good?

I think where I end up on the nature of man is that I am by nature evil, but there is some remembrance of good in me as well. It's almost like good is a normal but dormant state. I am evil but I want to be good. This leads me to believe that I will need to look outside myself for a standard of good, and that's the tie back to ethics.

Right living requires a definition of right that is outside of me because I'm evil. There has to be a standard for good that is outside all of us because none of us is by nature good. If I am to live rightly I will need to obey the instructions of what ever sets the standard that defined goodness. Of course, for me that's the definition of God.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Nature of Reality

According to the dictionary, metaphysics is "a division of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being." So what does this have to do with living as God wants me to? Well, it's at the very base of the chain of reasoning that leads me to be concerned about God and what he might want of me.

I can't bring myself to believe something unless I'm convinced it's true, even if believing is more convenient or profitable. Blaise Pascal made an interesting argument like this for belief in God called Pascal's Wager. He argues that you should believe in God because it's a better bet. If you believe in God and you're right, you win big, If you don't believe in God and you're wrong you lose big. If God doesn't exist, then it makes no difference whether or not you believe. Since the worst outcome of belief is the same as the best outcome of unbelief, it's a better bet to believe. There are lots of issues with his argument, but in any case I can't make myself believe on this basis.

For me, truth matters. To live as if God existed even if perhaps he doesn't is dishonest. That isn't to say that I can always identify the truth without error or uncertainty as you'll see later. It does mean that attempting to find the truth rather than making a useful choice is important to me. For some people, this isn't an issue. They can simply believe without a lot of soul searching and contemplation. I'm not wired that way.

The specific "world-view" questions that need answers before making any "life-view" progress are:
  1. Does anything exist?
  2. Does God exist?
  3. If God exists, what is his nature?
The answers to these questions will have concrete consequences. They provide the reasons for the decisions I make about how to live my life. I think we all have answers to these questions even if we've never actually asked the questions.

1. Does anything exist?

Yes. Although, as far as I know there is no way to prove this. A little reading on the topic of "existence" leads me quickly into realms of thought I can't even follow. Reading some of the essays on the philosophy of The Matrix makes it pretty clear that nobody has figured out how to prove anything actually exists.

That's not to say I'm going to simply toss a coin, pick a position, and move on. I am a realist. According to metaphysical realism, the world is as it is independently of how humans take it to be. Unless this is so, none of our beliefs about our world could be objectively true since true beliefs tell us how things are and beliefs are objective when true or false independently of what anyone might think. This seems to me to be an obvious truth, and the alternatives seem contrived.

2. Does God Exist?

Again, my answer is yes, and again, I don't think it's provable. C.S. Lewis makes a great run at the topic in Chapter 4 of Mere Christianity. In the first few chapters, Lewis argues that God exists because we all seem to have a very similar set of things that we consider to be "right." He asserts that this must be because there is an "absolute" or objective right, the source of which is God. This is known as Normative Morality and I believe it to be a strong argument.

3. What is God's nature?

To answer this question we will ultimately need to go to the Bible and encounter God personally, so I'll be back to this topic again. For now, there are some of basic questions that seem to be taken for granted by many Christians. One was asked in one of Plato's dialogs called the Euthyphro. In this dialog, Socrates asks Euthyphro, "Is something good because the gods will it, or do they will it because it's good?" Is morality higher than religion or vice versa? I believe the answer is found in the nature of God. God is good. In a sense , God defines goodness. Goodness is God's nature, so both are absolutes.

Here are some of the links on metaphysics I have used:

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ethics, Who Knew It Was So Complicated?

On my daily commute I have recently started into a recorded book entitled, Ethics: A History of Moral Thought (having finally grown tired of my SciFi addiction). At about the same time, I started into my umpteenth re-reading of C. S. Lewis' book, Mere Christianity, which also opens with a careful look at something Lewis calls the "Rule About Right and Wrong."

These events have created in an interest in ethics (some of you will be rejoicing, no doubt). The Internet being what it is, and this blog (and its readers) being mine to abuse, thus results in you being subjected to a complete patzer's rambling and fumbling into the intricacies of moral thought. Don't say I didn't warn you!

At this point in the journey, I am struck by several thoughts that I hope to explore further in the coming days:
  1. I am familiar with the names Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Descartes, and Kant, but yet I actually know very little about what they said.
  2. I was surprised to learn how much of our society's concept of right and wrong has been shaped by these men, and how completely hidden their influence is from most of us.
  3. The opinions about right and wrong held by many of us, and our justification or explanation of those opinions, are simply inconsistent, illogical, and nonsensical. Why doesn't anyone know this?
  4. I was reminded, once again, of how little I am able to remember from one minute to the next. I have a mind like a sieve. Everything passes right through. It's this thought that has motivated this post and the ones that I hope will follow. These are my cheat notes, or my "external brain" for philosophy.
So, on to the adventure!

Ethics is the study of "good," which is the thing desired, the goal, the ideal. It's about what is "right" as defined by some law. It's about "ought," or personal obligation.

The first thing we'll need to get a grip on is ,"What is good?" In order to know if something is good or evil, we must have a clear picture of exactly what "good" means. This seems like such an easy question, but turns out to be surprisingly complicated to answer well.

We all seem to know good from evil. Lewis says, "...human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in." But, why is this so? How do we know? Is good an absolute thing (an objective truth), or is it different for each of us (a subjective choice)?

The professor claims our ethics will flow from our metaphysics (the study of the nature of reality), our anthropology (the study of the nature of humanity), and our epistemology (the study of knowledge).

More to come on this one...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Got An Attitude?

In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 1 Corinthans 11:17

I wonder how true this is of the meetings of my church.

I wonder how true this is of me.

Paul is talking about divisions in the church and the harm they cause. Now, on the surface we're all pretty civil and polite to one another. I can't recall the last time a fist fight broke out in the worship service. But are there divisions among us? Indeed there are.

Paul also says that divisions are to be expected, and indeed are one of the ways we figure out what God wants. We "discuss" things, perhaps intensely, and then sort out which of us has "God's approval." That's just spirited debate, and not something we should run from. That's not what Paul's talking about.

It's the other kind of divisions that make church do more harm than good. The ones that tear other people down because I don't like what they're doing/being/saying.

I wonder how much of that attitude I bring to church.

I wonder.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Wisdom in 22 words

I recently came across a blog ( written by Abraham Piper at Desiring God. The interesting thing about his blog, in addition to the fact that he seems to be related to John Piper, is that every post in the blog consists of exactly 22 words. It's amazing what he can communicate in so few words. I often blather on endlessly and say much less.

I think this is especially relevant as we progress through the seemingly endless process of electing our political leaders. What if we limited every campaign speech to only 22 words?

What if you tried to craft every prayer so it was exactly 22 words long? Would your communication with God be any better?

"Father, forgive me for the ways I've failed you again today. Grant me the desire to serve and the strength to obey."

Hmm, that might actually lengthen some of my prayers!

(I've put a link to 22 Words under "Blogland")