Friday, October 24, 2008

The Logic of Paul: I Timothy 2

Instead of continuing with the reasons that pushed me from disillusioned Christian to unbelief, I'm going back to a factor that brought me to disillusionment in the first place. The one goes all the way back to ninth grade when I memorized I Timothy 2 for Bible quizzing.

First, I would like to draw a distinction between two easily confused words: irrational, and non-rational. By non-rational I just mean anything that isn't logic. By irrational, I mean things that try to make sense and fail. “I believe in the Trinity” is non-rational. “I'm convinced the Trinity makes perfect sense” is irrational. While there are of course problems with being non-rational, I should note that to begin thinking one must make the non-rational assumption that one is capable of thinking and logic is in some sense true – non-rationality is often necessary. Of course, I consider “more” non-rationality to be bad, but that's not what I'm going after here. I'm going after irrationality in Paul. In the context of instructions on worship, he writes

I Timothy 2:11-14 “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”

I'll suppose for the sake of argument that Paul's command for women not to speak or have authority over a man [in church] is not unfair and merely critique the logic behind the command. If Paul had just said “do it this way, because I'm Paul, and God is speaking through me – do what God says” as he does in I Corinthians 15:34-37, this would be non-rational. (This is a rational argument for why you should obey, but a non-rational argument for why is it commanded.) This would cause all the usual gender role issues, but I wouldn't have had this particular problem with the chapter.

The problem here is that Paul tries to explain the rationality of the instruction, and it doesn't work. His first reason given is that Adam was formed first. What does that have to do with anything? In the second creation account at least, animals were formed before Eve, but this would make a horrible first step in arguing that animals should rule over women. 35-year-old women were formed before 34-year-old men, but seniority still makes for a poor argument that the latter should not be permitted to have authority over the former. Even this seniority argument is better than Paul's because at least the person who is older was actually formed first. Women alive today were not formed after men who are alive today. At best, Adam having been formed first justifies why Adam should be over Eve, not why men should be over women.

The second reason Paul gives is that Eve was the one who was deceived. This is a very strange accusation. Paul is implying that Adam wasn't deceived, or was at least less deceived than Eve. If they both sinned, this would mean that Eve's sin had more to do with being innocently wrong, whereas Adam's sin had more to do with willfully choosing wrong in the face of knowing what was right. If Eve was the one who was deceived, does this not mean Adam's sin was the greater one? I'd prefer a leader who is sometimes wrong to a leader who sees the right thing to do and doesn't do it.

Next, Eve wasn't deceived in Genesis 3. She knew what God said and chose to disobey – she even recites her specific instructions right before sinning. The only talk of deception is in her excuse – which should be taken with more than a grain of salt, even when assuming Genesis is inerrant.

(Update, 11/1/08: As has been pointed out to me, Eve was deceived. A recap should be 1) Eve understands what actions are sin. 2) The snake deceives her into thinking that sin pays. 3) Eve sins knowing full well she is sinning but while deceived into thinking the results will be favorable.)

Furthermore, Paul doesn't even mention that fact that Adam had anything to do with what went wrong. He talks of Eve being deceived and becoming a sinner and just leaves it at that – as if Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden due to Eve's sin alone. Genesis 3 provides a different picture. Eve eats the fruit, brings it to Adam, and only after they both eat does the narrator tell us their eyes were opened. Adam ate the fruit before Eve's eyes were opened – it's like Genesis is going out of its way to make them share the blame. But Paul merely takes up Adam's banner of “blame the woman.” From this perspective, “Eve was the one who is deceived” is a perfectly logical accusation. It's her fault. Paul argues as if Eve's “I was tricked” and Adam's “stupid woman” excuse is correct. If I believed Genesis and was still deciding about I Timothy, I might reject I Timothy for this reason.

Perhaps Paul is not trying to make his own argument regarding the reason for gender roles, but is merely referring back to Eve's curse in Genesis 3:16. If so, this is quite a clumsy reference. Also notice that this curse is Adam over Eve. Taking this to husband over wives is not explicit, but is one reasonable interpretation. Paul takes this one step further by saying men over women. Furthermore, men could be over women without revoking women's right to speak. Elders are over younger men and yet younger men still get to talk. What is his justification? He merely fakes an answer by giving the justification for the lesser command of Adam over Eve.

In a similar passage, I Corinthians 14:34-35, Paul gives another reason “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says.” Where in the Law does it say women are to be silent?

(Update, 11/21: As has been pointed out to me, "as the Law also says" likely refers to "subject themselves" and not also to being silent. Genesis 3 is part of the Law, and "he shall rule over you" is close enough to "subject themselves" that my criticism is not justified.)

Why not just say “thus sayeth the Lord” in I Timothy 2? That's really all that's going on anyway. Why must Paul use irrational arguments to try and defend the rationality of his view of gender roles?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Why I Reject Presuppositional Apologetics

(“Why I reject” instead of the more natural “why I rejected” is intentional. I was never a true insider into presuppositional apologetics, so I am making no attempt to refer to what changed historically.)

Presuppositional apologetics are an attempt to show that Christianity is rationally defensible in a unique way, namely, without providing evidence.

The approach is this – take every (or at least many) worldviews, and then show the inconsistencies present in all but Christianity. As the last man standing, Christianity must be true, or at least has been shown to have a rational defense in that it has been shown to be better than all others.

The debate typically comes down to the difference between “apparent contradiction” and “true contradiction,” which means that the vaguest position usually has the advantage. As the phrase “apparent contradiction” suggests, they often look just like real ones. When suggesting a resolution to an apparent contradiction, there is no difference between an explanation whose validity is highly probable, and an explanation that is remotely possible – both prevent the collapse of the worldview, and that's all that is needed. “What you think is really a contradiction” is the only standard. This is an approach which is just screaming for both sides to dress up their positions in as much rhetoric as possible in an attempt to push an apparent contradiction into an actual contradiction. I think the approach is fundamentally flawed, so I am much better off just arguing that, instead pretending that the presup rules of debate can lead anywhere worth going.

I'm not at all saying that presups have nothing worth saying. My arguments here do not refute any particular presup argument used as a complement to an evidential approach. I'm making a very narrow point: a pure presup approach is fundamentally flawed.

The first problem is that it is really easy to craft a logically consistent position, so logical consistency proves very little. The easiest way to do this is to have a built-in catch-all rebuttal that does not have to deal with the substance of any dissenting argument. Here, I will be listing several positions that are internally consistent and consistent with Christians' observations.

1. I am somewhat certain that no one can be more than somewhat certain about anything, because reality is merely what we perceive it to be.

2. The Matrix, plus religion X. Religion X is true. Your brain is locked in a vat. Scientists or sentient computers are experimenting with how your mind will react when presented with an imaginary world in which Christianity is apparently true.

3. Christianity's evil twin. Every miracle in the Bible is literally true, and God inspired the Bible. Christians' perceived relationship with God/answers to prayer are all based on real experiences are real evidence. The only way this differs from Christianity is the after-life, and one of the hidden attributes of god. Namely, god is a cosmic prankster, and after lying to us in the Bible, he's decided to send all Christians to hell and everyone else to heaven.

For contrast, Christians think unbelievers are “spiritually blind” or “unable to comprehend the things of God.” Presuppositionalists think that no true common ground of reason is held between non-Christians and Christians. Presuppositionalists [usually?] view evidence much like the extreme post-modernists view reality. The way they would say it is that evidence is always interpreted in the framework of the observer; the corollary I see to this both logically and in practice is the idea that evidence does not say anything in and of itself. Thus, when it comes to the question of what evidence says, there is no absolute truth, only what you perceive. The convenience of these ideas rivals that of my three examples.

Of course, it doesn't mean that Christianity is wrong or ridiculous. My agnostic cop-outs of “I don't know” are even more convenient – I don't pat myself on the back for not losing when I don't compete. What it does mean is that Christianity contains the sort of fail-safe mechanisms that make logical consistency count for very little. (Not that I'm conceding the consistency of Christianity...)

The other major problem is that the presuppositional approach rejects brilliant ideas if they still contain flaws whose solutions are not yet known. Right before the discovery of the special theory of relativity, observations made about the speed of light were contradictory, or at least no scientist could explain how they were not. At this point, should scientists have rejected the concept of observation as a means to learning about science?

One of Einstein's assumptions was that because the preceding theories had been built up from observations, while they were technically “false,” they were accurate enough that they would be an extremely useful source of knowledge in crafting a new theory. And sure enough, they were useful. Although his discoveries lead to the rewriting of nearly everything in physics, the early theories were not embarrassed, but rather shown to be a useful level of knowledge that helped lead to the next level of knowledge. A presuppositional approach cannot distinguish between insanity and a good idea that that is not yet finished. Right before Einstein, “the universe is irrational” could have beaten “the universe is comprehensible” in a debate under the presuppositionalists' terms. Evidentialists rule the day in science, which is why it advances.

The alternative approach is bottom-up, not top-down. Don't start with a grand theory and evaluate its coherence. Start with observations and evidence, and build up from that – experiential evidence of a relationship with God is not excluded a priori, nor is the possibility that a miracle was observed, or that prayer changes things. If two pieces clash with each other, don't instantly decide to reject one – if both were built up from evidence, they are useful pieces of knowledge, even if one or both is not technically true. This is how knowledge has advanced in every area of thought for the last several centuries.

(It's worth noting that to be consistent, I must reject a few common arguments against the Bible. In particular, if there is evidence that Bible is inspired by God, and the Bible really teaches the Trinity, then I am forced to accept the rationality of believing in the Trinity. Similarly with God is love/God commanded genocide, Jesus is God/man, the Bible is 100% written by man/inspired by God, etc. All of these are relevant problems, but to an evidentialist, they should not be fatal to faith. Granted, they raise the bar higher regarding how much evidence should be needed, but they are not the main point. That was my justification for years, and I still consider this justification to be valid. But everything rests on the claim that there is evidence for the inspiration of the Bible and/or resurrection, and everything crashes very suddenly without it.)

Consider two people who are arguing over the color of the sky. One of them believes that the proper way to determine the color of the sky is to look at it. The second presuppositionally supposes that the sky is green and that he should look down. All he sees is grass, and this grass is green. So based on all the evidence available to him, his position is internally consistent. He also notices that sometimes the first person thinks the sky is black or gray or blue, and the first can't really explain why – this is inconsistent because truth is absolute; the sky cannot be all black, all gray, and all blue. The second one then notices that both of them are equally bound to their conclusions by their presuppositions. Everyone who looks up comes away believing the sky is many colors (usually blue), and everyone who accepts his own manner of thinking comes away believing the sky is green. Next, he reasons as follows: “The sky is green. Looking at it causes one to think it is not green. Therefore, one should not trust their eyes to tell them the color of the sky, and thus I am even more certain I should look down.” The second person may be assuming the color is green, but the first person is assuming that their eyes are a useful tool for discovering truth – both sides have assumptions that effectually force the conclusion.

It's not that I'm stacking the deck against presuppositionalists by making them be the side that is wrong. I'll reverse it. Suppose two people have lived their entire lives underground without seeing or hearing about the color of the sky. The first one just assumes a priori that the sky's color is not fixed, but changes for some reasons but is usually blue or black – he doesn't know what the reasons are. The second goes outside for the first time at midnight, looks at the sky, decides that the sky is black, and then goes back underground. The next day a third person runs outside, concludes that the sky is blue and runs back inside. The presuppositionalist points out that evidence has clearly led one or both of them to a false conclusion, so he concludes that his approach is correct, as the last one standing. Here, the presuppositionalist is the one who is right, and the evidentialists are the ones who are wrong. And yet, common sense still sides with the evidentialist as the one whose approach is wiser as it has a chance of eventually leading to the truth and learning about weather and the rising/setting of the sun; the presuppositionalist is right due to luck and cannot progress further.

The difference is an ontological presupposition versus an epistemological presupposition. An ontological presupposition makes specific claims about reality, an epistemological one describes a means of learning about reality.

There certainly is the imperfection that an evidential approach assumes the usefulness of reason and observation. But I'm not claiming an epistemology with no assumptions – I'm doing what I can with what I have. However, note that the presuppositionalist must also assume a human capacity for reason when arguing for/against internal consistency. Also, centuries of science make it strange that this should be suggested as a weakness. An evidential approach put a man on the moon. Satellites don't stay in orbit because people's philosophies say they should – they actually stay in orbit. Nuclear power plants keep working not because scientists want their philosophies to be validated – they actually work. Maybe the pioneers of science made an unjustified assumption in trusting their capacity for reason, but that should no longer be a question in the twenty-first century.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Life Begins at Conception?

One of the most politically significant Evangelical beliefs in modern America is that life begins at conception, and therefore abortion and creating embryonic stem cells for research are forms of murder. Whether or not this is biblical is a question with which I will not be concerning myself.

In particular, I will be making the case that for at least several days, the embryos have no soul (assuming there is such a thing). This will not directly lead to any conclusion about abortion, but it will lead to very definite conclusions about stem cell research and contraceptives that work after conception.

For the first several days after conception, the embryo is a growing mass of stem cells. Nature performs for us the otherwise morally questionable experiments needed to establish its non-humanity.

First, identical twins provide a challenge for the Evangelical view. For the first several days at least, the mass of stem cells can split in two and eventually result in two identical twins. Spiritually speaking, what just happened? Did God create two souls at conception that both inhabited the same cell and later split apart? Did God create one soul to begin with, and then a second soul due to the geographic change of half the mass splitting off from the other half? Pro-lifers rightly argue that if a seven-month old fetus was outside the womb it would be a constitutionally protected person. In other word, God clearly doesn't just create a soul for a baby due to geographic changes. It is equally ridiculous to believe God creates a soul when half of the cells change their geographic location.

But the much more severe problem is human chimeras. Not only can a mass of stem cell split apart, two different masses can fuse. This can result in an apparently normal individual, known as a chimera. Some things about chimeras are a bit odd, like different body parts having DNA that doesn't match, or a mix of different blood types. But someone could be a chimera and not know it. If a soul is created at conception, and two different embryos merge, what happened to the extra soul?

This is a continuum v. discrete problem. The question “is it human?” is yes or no. But the change from sub-human sperm/egg to a fully human baby is gradual. No matter where you choose to draw the line, looking very closely at the line will leave one wondering why the line is here and not there. Even if you say life begins at conception, this problem is only swept under the rug through not thinking about it. Suppose you take a microscope and record the process of conception, and then look at a series of photographs separated by nanoseconds. Can you look at one and honestly say “it's not human here, but in the next one, you can see that God has created its soul?” Even if you could, then take 100 pictures between these two frames and try again. I'm not just being difficult – the way this question is answered determines which forms of birth control are acceptable and which forms are murder. To use a tired analogy, it's like lining up a million shades of gray spanning the spectrum between white and black, and being forced to put them in two categories. Drawing the line is above all of our pay grades.

Ironically, one objection many Christians have to evolution is the way it blurs the line between man and beast. This difficulty is far less severe than reconciling a concept of the soul with embryonic development.

The only reconciliation I found requires the concession that whatever “in the image of God” or “possessing a soul” means, it's not a property of our physical body. Thus, God draws the line, and perhaps at different places for different people. But this accidentally surrenders every single pro-life argument I have heard and more. If “human” is something we cannot determine through physical properties, then why argue “medical fact: life begins at conception?” Why argue that abortion stops a beating heart? Why insist that American Indians have souls based on the fact that they no different? Playing the we-can't-know card in one place is a slippery slope to playing it in other places – quoting Acts 17:26 merely begs the question who is part of a “nation.” The fact is, every position is standing on a slippery slope to horrible atrocities – the safer positions are the ones that realize this and hence step carefully.

This posed an even greater challenge for my faith when I stepped back and looked at what was going on. I was scrounging for the slightest possibility that both reality and my beliefs were true and upon finding one, I was clinging to it for dear life. Nowhere in this line of reasoning had my beliefs been useful for understanding or accurately describing the world, and all throughout they had held me back. I was beginning to believe not because of evidence, not in the absence of evidence, but in the very teeth of evidence to the contrary.

If the way to learn about reality is to look at it, then it's clear that whatever is going on later, there is no soul immediately after conception. In India, sacred cows roam at will while people starve rather than violate the religion over there. In America, medical advancements go undiscovered because experiments with sacred blobs of stem cells violate the religion over here.