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27 November 2011

Re. Non-Euclidean Theology

I was catching up on Leah Libresco's blog, Unequally Yoked, and followed a link trail back to an earlier post of hers entitled, Playing the Consistency Game. In it, she makes some really good points (I'm glad I re-ran into it):
It can be useful for both sides to put aside the big contentious dispute and talk about how well the rest of the theory stands up, even when you grant the cornerstone premise... Don’t forget that atheists and Christians don’t just disagree on which way the evidence points, they disagree on what kind of evidence should be counted... Trying to settle the standard is intensely frustrating and leads to a lot of talking past each other. But if you play the internally consistent game, it’s easier to learn how your opposite number thinks (maybe even well enough to pass an ideological Turing Test). You can see whether, even when spotted the major premise, your opponent’s system makes predictions about the empirical world that are flat out wrong. If there aren’t any obvious misses, is it because your sparring partner has limited the real world implications of his position until they can’t pay rent? How do they respond to that criticism?

In other words, instead of getting hung up on things like epistemological methods, whether free-will or immaterial minds exist, and the like... grant such premises and then see how the belief system turns out with respect to reproducible and predictable experience/evidence.

I was happy to read this, as I think I can honestly say that this has been my primary approach, or at the very least the one I have thought would bear the most fruit. In fact, I more or less hate philosophical debates and arguments over things like this. Such discussions hardly ever go well. Ever since I embarked on my quest, I've gravitated toward lines of argumentation that even have a chance of intersecting the world we actually live in vs. a possible on in our minds or one that can only be experienced after we die.

I hope to flesh out more of these reasons in my series on why I don't currently believe in god, but for now, I'll give some examples of where I personally don't think that religious beliefs pay rent, despite being granted one or more key premises.

The Fall
This is by far my most fascinating area of pondering when it comes to apologetics. I already wrote a bit about this before, and hope to write more in the future. I'm primarily interested in the Catholic positions, as it's the position I maintained. Most particular about Catholicism in this area is its embrace of evolution while requiring firm adherence to a literal first man and woman, Adam and Eve (see the section, Adam and Eve: Real People). For me, this raises a number of issues. Given that evolution is such a slow process of mutations, it's interesting to posit that:
-- Adam had moral capacities while his father had none
-- Adam possessed the potential for eternal life while his father did not
-- Adam was in communion with God in a special way that his father did not partake in
-- Another human, Eve, arose in a close enough frame of time and space for the two to procreate

Even more basically, the point is that without theology insisting on souls, there would be no reason to posit a "hiccup" in evolution. But since souls exist and man needs to be distinct from the animals in more ways than just increased brain power, apologists are forced to insist that god intervened, just this once, to do something fundamentally radical to a living species.

Prayer
Even when granting that an omni-max being exists who hears prayers and cares about the pray-ers, we fail to see any discernible pattern in answered prayers. Some may claim there shouldn't be a pattern. I suppose this could be correct -- there could be no way to know why god answers what he does. On the other hand, it's suspicious to me that the prayers that go answered are those that could be chalked up to inexplicable medical resolutions or luck, while the prayers that would be truly radical (manna from heaven for the starving third world countries, re-growing a lost limb, praying in tongues in multiple real languages without prior knowledge, etc.) never occur.

Evangelization, the Bible and Doubt
Now that I've wrestled with this muddy realm for almost two years, something that has grown on me more and more is... just that: the realm of theology and apologetics is so muddy. It's been almost 1400 years since Muhammad and almost 500 since Luther. No religion has established itself the victor. I recall thinking about the great commission (Jesus' command to "Go, and make disciples of all nations") and the great juxtaposition I see between god's chosen evangelization tools of word of mouth/a book and how many are well aware of that book and have heard evangelistic words and gone one with their lives completely unconcerned.

I liken the fact that someone can be instilled with belief in Islam/the Koran and therefore give no thought whatsoever to the possibility that the Bible is true to the idea that because someone read Dan Brown's Da Vinci code prior to being exposed to Christianity and the Bible, he/she will not even be slightly interested in whether or not Christianity is actually true. Because there is only one divinely written book, all the rest were written by "mere" mortals. Thus, it's mortals who have been making the true god's authored book utterly uninteresting for 500 years (well, only 150 if we include Mormonism and 50 with Scientology, but we need to draw the line somewhere).

Conclusion
So, there are three areas where I think that even if one makes some hefty concessions... things still start to break down. Since science would not give us any reasons to suspect a special intervention in speciation when it comes to humans, and because Catholics support science, the fall/souls seems to be an ad hoc supposition. There's no reasons to posit it except that it has to in order to maintain theological consistency; there are souls because Jesus died to save our souls.

If we grant that god sometimes answers prayers, the competing hypothesis between chance and god's intervention seems to favor chance due to the type of prayers answered (and I'll add the location -- it is much more likely that someone in an American hospital being treated for cancer will experience a "miracle" than that a dying child in a 3rd world country will suddenly be fully healed).

Lastly, we have a fairly ineffective tool, the Bible, that god himself authored and is the primary method for the conversion of others. Scriptures, beliefs and apologetics that rival Christianity are not empty enough to make them a laughing stock or sharply drop their number of adherents. Thus, I have to grant that mortals have done a pretty good job in competing with the almighty in terms of persuasiveness, convincing scriptural content, fulfilling belief systems, supportive communities, etc.

In any case, the primary point was to highlight Leah's suggestion. I agree that it's far more fruitful to bypass the technicalities and just ask for some evidence based on granted premises. I personally find these endeavors much more exciting, interesting, and hopeful than the typical interactions about defining "matter," "mind," "cause," and the like.

The Agnostic Inquirer | The origins of the world

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This is part of a series of posts in response to "The Agnostic Inquirer" by Menssen & Sullivan.
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Menssen and Sullivan take the traditional tracks of discussing causality, whether everything needs a cause, etc. My stance on cosmological arguments, ever since hearing them, has been that we just don't know. This gets mixed in with a little bit of "if cause A precedes effect B, how could there be a cause A when there was no time scale with which to call effect B "prior" to the creation of the temporal universe?" Similarly, in assuming the hypothesis is true and a timeless, spaceless, disembodied mind created the universe... how does choice occur in a non-temporal realm? We constantly refer to "states" of being. Is there a "meta-time" in which god can do such things? Nevermind that we have no frame of reference for how power and knowledge can reside in non-space.

In any case, this question simply seems beyond our reach, and it has never struck me as clear how we can trace back our existence to a specific point in space-time (the Big Bang) and then state out of our unknowing that we know exactly what the cause is/was. Even if we know there was some first cause such that we don't fall into an infinite regress... what leads us to suggest that we should start piling on human-like attributes to such a thing? A mind? A loving desire to bring about creatures to share in its/his/her goodness? The ability to design? While I get why it makes sense to suggest that a mind caused the universe because the only things that choose and decide (from our experience) are minds, as stated above we have no experience of minds not in this universe or not in an animal of some sort. Thus the extension simply doesn't hold -- one can't transfer the property of a mind in a human to a realm no human is known to inhabit and to a being nothing like a human in terms of how the mind is developed, educated, and sustained (fed with nutrients).

Furthermore, why couldn't anything be on the other side of that curtain? A universe generating force/machine/entity? A computer on which we're living this simulation? An infinite regress (I realizing most hold an actual infinity can't exist... but that's in our universe with our mathematics)? An entirely different system of logic, physics, math?

Or... perhaps we'll just never know. That's okay with me. Surely this is an unsatisfying conclusion, but it's where I currently stand. I don't think one can assert what or who caused the universe from a realm outside our experienceable universe.

The Agnostic Inquirer | Spirit interacting with matter

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This is part of a series of posts in response to "The Agnostic Inquirer" by Menssen & Sullivan.
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This post will be short, but I had to speak on it as I was surprised by it. Menssen and Sullivan cover the objection that an immaterial mind cannot interact with matter:
How could a spiritual entity interact with the physical order? How could a god, an immaterial mind, affect or move matter? If mind cannot interact with matter, then a supernatural entity cannot create a natural or physical world.

Admittedly, we have no idea how mind can move matter. But how big a problem is this? It could be monumental if it were not for one thing: in the end, we have no idea how matter moves matter. Despite what is sometimes said, we do not actually experience physical causality in any deep way. We see that matter moves matter in some sense, but we do not see why or how it happens. We see someone throw a pencil across the room: we can see the hand grasp the pencil, we can see the arm move back, and we cna see the pencil leave the hand and fly across the room. We do not, however, see the causation. Hume was right on this point: all we have are laws associating causes with effects.

While their point might be valid (I'm not an expert in physics and causality debates), what is the harm in backing up to change the question from how to whether? If they grant that we see that matter moves matter... how about establishing that mind moves matter instead of derailing the train onto discussions of why and how? There are a whole host of assumptions at play:

1) A non-physical realm exists
2) A mind can exist without a physical brain
3) A non-physical mind existing in the non-physical realm can interact with the physical realm

While we might not know how matter moves matter, our ability to know that it happens has established areas of study like static and dynamic mechanics, fluid flow, heat transfer, and the like. We can design bridges to sustain various loads, hydraulic devices which take advantage of force/pressure relationships and incompressible fluids, etc. Our ability to know that matter interacts with matter enables us to do all kinds of useful things.

What has been verified, experienced, or predicted as the result of the hypothesis that an immaterial mind can affect or move matter? The cause of the universe? Apparent miracles? These seem more like unexplained phenomenon explained by unexplained phenomenon.

This probably belongs more in a discussion of causality and determinism, but it gets fuzzy to me how we can allow intervention by an immaterial mind (will) and still maintain physical causality. Let's say a very devout and holy man is playing pool in a competition to win money for his starving family. As he makes his last shot, he prays that god would hear him and help him win. If god's immaterial mind granted the request and compensated for his slightly off shot by "tweaking" the cue ball or the ball it impacted so that he sunk the shot... how would that mesh with the realm of physics? We could know with high confidence the outcome of the shot as soon as the ball was struck -- both masses, angle of incidence, velocity, resistance of the felt, etc. The unknowns would be the exact position of all fibers in the felt and their effect, the minute air currents in the room, etc. Even so, these are fairly negligible. Let's say that initial calculations resulted in 99% confidence that the ball would miss the pocket, yet it sank. Furthermore, let's say that this continued to happen again and again. Why should anything be predictable, then? If god is able to violate physical laws, how should we behave when it comes to behaving as if physical laws are... well... laws?

In any case, I think there's a lot more to this than simply claiming that since we don't understand matter/matter interactions, there's nothing wrong with positing mind/matter interactions. We observe one, even if we lack understanding. We neither observe definitively nor understand the second.

The Agnostic Inquirer | Introduction

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This is part of a series of posts in response to "The Agnostic Inquirer" by Menssen & Sullivan.
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Having just finished two heavily philosophical apologetics books (this and Letters to a Doubting Thomas), I'll start by saying that the more I experience philosophy, the more I'm convinced I hate it. I don't think this is because I only took rudimentary courses in philosophy during college, either. I think it's because I'm less and less convinced that philosophy offers us much that even has a hope of intersecting with testable reality (much like theology, actually). In other words, after 331 pages of heady literature, I'm left wondering whether any of the conclusions drawn would lead to any noticeable differences in the world if they weren't true.

The case laid out by Menssen and Sullivan is as follows:
1) If it is not highly unlikely that a world-creator exists, then investigation of the contents of revelatory claims might well show it is probable that a good God exists and has revealed.
2) It is not highly unlikely that a world-creator exists
3) So, investigation of the content of a revelatory claim might well show it is probable that a good God exists and has revealed.
4) So, a negative conclusion concerning the existence of a good God is not justified unless the content of a reasonable number of leading revelatory claims has been seriously considered.

You might read that and think, "That's it?" Indeed, you would be correct to ask that. After trudging through this book, I think the same thing. Even if Menssen and Sullivan succeed, all they've shown is that one should add revelatory claims to the list of evidence to be considered. They don't list which revelatory claims, mind you; they simply make the case for including them in the apologetics arsenal. Perhaps I'm not as philosophically savvy as I need to be to realize if this is a massive leap in the land of apologetics, though.

From this outline, they spend a reasonable amount of energy on premise 2. To their credit, they handle a whole slew of possible objections to the possibility that god might exist, including:
  • The world might have popped into existence
  • The world might have caused itself
  • Am immaterial minor cannot interact with the physical order
  • There is no need to examine revelation due to the problem of evil
  • No method exists for examining revelatory claims
  • Revelatory claims lack explanatory power

That's essentially the book -- a defense of why one can't be an intellectually justified non-believer without examining revelatory claims. To be fair, they actually cover a fair bit of the traditional apologetic grounds in order to defend their premise that one can't outrightly dismiss revelation as having no value (such as their treatment of cosmology and the PoE). For this review, I'd like to comment on a few of their specific rebuttals above. Find these in separate posts that are part of this series.

The Agnostic Inquirer | The Problem of Evil

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This is part of a series of posts in response to "The Agnostic Inquirer" by Menssen & Sullivan.
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Instead of dealing directly with the problem of evil, I'd like to focus on some of the sub-chapters in this section of the book. To start their case, Menssen and Sullivan lay out three alternatives for a world-creator: it is amoral, partly wicked, or wholly good. In covering amorality, my primary issue is the same with all discussions of morality (and properties of god, in general) -- the reliance on human intuitions.

For example, Menssen and Sullivan propose a thought experiment to show that a world creator couldn't be amoral and line up with our intuitions about what the responsibilities of a world-creator would be:
You are a laboratory scientist curious whether it is possible to breed hairless dog-faced monkeys -- and you undertake the experiment and succeed -- you have some special responsibility for the monkeys. You cannot, for instance, just toss the monkeys into a fire once you have satisfied your curiosity. Creation of sentient beings caries with it responsibilities. And creation of rational beings carries additional responsibilities. It is one thing for a laboratory scientist to breed hairless dog-faced monkeys; it is quite another to breed hairless dog-faced humans.

This passage brilliantly highlights why apologetics is such a muddy and laborious area of study. First, we're taking our assessment of what a human would be responsible for and projecting it onto god. There's also the huge assumption that the cosmic analog of a human scientist with full awareness created a universe containing 10 sextillion stars with 10 quadrillion planets during something of an intention-filled lab experiment and is now responsible for the care taking of all sentient life-forms on a single planet. A better analogy would be that NASA is responsible for collecting and taking care of all of the bacteria that grow on space vehicles and satellites prior to launch so that they don't die. It isn't impossible that a world-creator isn't aware of our small corner of the universe!

In any case, even if we grant that this thought experiment holds, it's a double edged sword. For where is this morally responsible father god when his sentient beings are dying of hunger because this designed world has such a poor distribution of farmable soil, climate and precipitation? Accusations of responsibility immediately have something to say about the Problem of Evil (though, to their credit, the authors will argue that human happiness isn't an acceptable standard for judging whether this world is the kind a good world-creator would create).

Nevermind this, however, because there's always the catch-all trump card: heaven. Divine justice will be served. Those poor and weary ones in 3rd world countries will eat their fill at god's table, so while it's unfortunate and we should try to help them, all will be made well in the end. Nevermind that there's no way to verify this. It's the final stone in the theist's air-tight but untestable hypothesis. This is why apologetics is so frustrating. There's no way to establish truth claims as reliable. If there were, only one true religion would be standing today. Instead, we have the exact opposite. The pure fact that no religion can prove another wrong is exactly the reason why people are within their consciences to throw coexist and tolerance bumper stickers on their cars. These stickers should cause believers to spend their prayer time focused on only one thought: "Where are you, God, that so many can live happily astray and ignorant of you?"

Next up, Menssen and Sullivan discuss the possibility that god is partly wicked. They quote Hume's Philo which hypothesized that there are four alternatives for the first causes of the universe: that they were all good, all wicked, partly good/wicked, or neither good or wicked (amoral). Hume concluded that amoral causes were the most likely given the evidence (the world's apparent apathy for living creatures). Menssen and Sulilvan piggy-back on this, stating that because the universe is so consistent, it is unlikely that there is either a 1) team of creators or 2) a single creator with divided moral properties. While I see their point, I disagree. Using consistency and physical laws as predictors for moral character seem unreliable. Regardless of your thoughts on the morality of a creator, physical laws really do seem amoral. I'm not sure how one would say that it's [im]moral for a world creator to bring about a universe with physical constants and laws. Morality only matters when discussing interactions with other beings.

They move on to discuss cacodaemonies, attempts to explain the existence of good in the presence of a purely evil demon, essentially anti-theodicy. They begin by making the point that it's evil as a privation of good that is the standard definition, not the other way around. You can understand goodness without reference to it being lost but not the other way around. For the most part, I get this. At the same time, I can ask, "Would you like this juicy apple?" and "Would you like a fervent beating?" without referring to either not having the apple or not having the beating. Both questions would be answered without having to explain what it's like not having the apple or not having the beating. Or perhaps they assume that the default not-getting-beaten state is a "good" and this would be lost once the beating commenced. If so, the not-eating-a-juicy-apple state would be "bad" and be lost once the apple begins to be eaten. It seems like more of a neutral start that can be improved or degraded to me.

I realize it was published after their book, but the authors might be interested in Stephen Law's Evil God Challenge, which attempts to do this exact thing -- challenge the theist to show why standard theodicies cannot be inverted to defend the existence of good in a world ruled by an omni-max evil being.[1]

Moving on, Menssen and Sullivan go on to claim that no non-theistic standard for "world grading" exists. In other words, there is no possible way that an atheist can establish a coherent system which allows for the claim that our world is less good than any other real or possible world. They discuss some potential systems which might be used: happiness (utilitarian calculations), aesthetics, morality, and various functional standards.

For utilitarian calculations, I find it odd that they object due to the current inability to sum human happiness: "And anyway, a usable standard of goodness requires more than an 'in principle possibility' that happiness or pleasure or utility can be summed." Compare this to their definition of "possible world": "We are committed to no more than the idea that one could suppose that there are worlds different than our own." Why can I not suppose that some future development will allow utilitarian calculus to emerge? Or think that at least, in principle, if we could read minds or know the state of a person's mind/life, we could assign some type of "happiness value" to him/her? Another objection put forth is that summing happiness might allow the happiness of the many to be "purchased by the suffering of the few." But we could include in our summation a coefficient that weighted suffering more heavily than happiness so that this type of world wouldn't come out ahead of a better one with less suffering. Note this aspect of EbonMusing's posited moral system, Universal Utilitarianism:
Always minimize both actual and potential suffering; always maximize both actual and potential happiness. One final point of importance is that the two halves of universal utilitarianism, as given above, should be considered to be in logical order. That is, actual and potential suffering should be minimized before maximizing actual and potential happiness.

This system does just what I suggested above -- weight suffering more heavily than happiness. I simply want to point out that the objection is not very hefty. Given that such a calculus does not exist, we can construct it to combat any number of these types of fears.

Next up in objecting to utilitarian standards, they suggest that there is no reason to suspect that a world-creator is obligated to put human happiness and preference-satisfaction as the highest aim. Since humans value human preferences as higher than animals, why shouldn't we value a god's preferences as higher than our own? Fair enough, but one has yet to establish how we can determine god's preferences and understand why they are contradictory to human happiness and preference satisfaction. Even if one can do this, the apologist has a pretty heavy burden of explaining why god's preferences are contrary to minimizing suffering, which is a far cry from satisfying happiness and preferences. We're not talking about my desire to upgrade my rusting-out '95 Mazda Protege; we're talking about people who haven't eaten in weeks or who have very curable illnesses but lack of resources or access to proper treatment. Also, surely even a powerful master can be summoned if need is great enough and worthy enough (since we're speaking about revelation, dare I cite the widow in Luke 18?).

The use of aesthetics is another possible standard that Menssen and Sullivan suggest. I don't find it noteworthy and will pass on commenting. Next, they look at moral standards. I find it odd that they only cover one angle -- Kant's belief that a world without freedom is a world without goodness. They respond that too much freedom might result in a world with too much sorrow and pain to call it, as a whole, "good." But what of this when it comes to the free-will theodicy for the PoE? This is precisely what apologists claim: that without freedom, there would be no morally significant action and, thus, god couldn't have created a world with both free creatures and a guaranteed lack of evil. Now we hear that this is precisely why we don't have more freedom (because otherwise we could have too much suffering)? One can't have it both ways. To hold to this, Menssen and Sullivan would need to show that the world has precisely the freedom necessary to give it the property of allowing morally significant action while not allowing too much sorrow and pain. If freedom is a continuum, why can't we turn it down some more to eliminate some suffering?

Lastly, they try various "functional standards." In other worlds, hypothesize a function/purpose for the world and then claim it's not meeting it. I agree with them that functions for the universe and organisms make little sense in non-theistic language. The universe exists, living things exist... that's about all that can be said from the non-theist's point of view.

Having covered these possible standards, they cover the case that says (paraphrased), "Well, I might not be able specify an exact standard, but this world just plain doesn't make the cut, whatever the standard is." This is the intuitionist case: the world seems like it could be better even though I might not be able to define the measurement used to land "better" on some scale. They offer three objections.

First, it's hard to say whether a state of affairs is unqualifiedly good or bad. Sometimes it has to be considered relative to something else. Getting a cavity is a good thing, but only compared to the bad state of having a cavity in the first place. I get this, though I think we have plenty of bad to work with in the world without it needing to be referenced against some comparative good (a woman being raped, someone getting killed, starvation, etc.). Their second objection is that one might not even be able to tweak something while keeping everything else constant. Thus, it might not make sense to suggest that some instance of suffering could just be removed from the world since the world might not work like that. Similarly, the third and most powerful objection (in my opinion) essentially suggests that god might have created a world most optimized for good, even though it contains bad. To tinker with little bits might start on grappling with the Butterfly Effect, and thus we can't be sure that removing some instance of bad/evil won't produce even more bad/evil or a reduction of resultant goods. This is a very tricky one, and without being able to know all results from an action, it's very tough to say one way or the other. Given the vast number of instance of suffering in the world and throughout time, however, it's very, very, very difficult for me to concede that none of them could be removed without negatively impacting the universe.

After covering non-theistic options, I expected them to discuss theistic standards for grading worlds. They didn't really do this! All they say is that the theist can simply claim that the world is ordered to a good god and call it a day. How unsatisfying! They then transition by stating that a more accurate question might not be grading the world by itself, but grading how the goodness in the world exists in complement with god. Thus they present their case for why this is a world worth creating:
Still, many agree that the promise built into human beings, the beings of wondrous worth, the promise that can be brought to fruition by the ever-reliable promises of a good God, makes this world, with all its grief, a world worth creating, even though the world as we know it is passing away. In short, this is a world a good God could create if it is a world perfused by God's transforming love -- and is followed by an afterworld of the right kind.

Does the creator's love perfuse the world?
Anything due a creature is due on account of something already existing in the creature. But when a creature does not even exist, there is nothing in it to which something is due. Hence, any being owes its existence and ultimately all that is has and does to a primordial act of loving-kindness and mercy on the creator's part. If, then, there is a creator, love and mercy perfuse the world.

I'm not catching the immediate connection between creating a creature and doing so out of obvious love and mercy. What of those bald-faced monkeys? Was the act of the scientist one of "loving-kindness and mercy?" If not, why not?

Also, they've established an empty tautological definition: "This is a world a good god could create if it is a world perfused by God's transforming love." Why use the world "if" in the claim... if we already know that a good god, by definition, creates a world perfused by love? These are meaningless arguments if there is no way for the world not to be the world a good god would create because it is not perfused by god's love. We end up with "this is the world a good god would create because it is the world a good god would create."

What of not being able to establish these claims with certainty?
If what we have said offers any help, it certainly is not enough. Nor are the revelatory traditions completely satisfying. And it looks as though no entirely satisfactory explanation should be expected this side of the world's last night. Yet perhaps revelatory traditions, backed by whatever philosophy can muster, can provide enough of an explanation of the problems of evil and good for an inquirer to conclude that the world began with love, will end with love, and is moved by love all the while -- appearances notwithstanding

Here again we have reference to a temporal-spatial curtain. The best we can do is hope that despite appearances (and what else do we have to go on?) there's a separate world that has never been verified where all of this will finally make sense and be made right? What's happened is that Menssen and Sullivan have introduced language about moral responsibility and owing all of one's life to a creator due to its act of supreme "loving-kindness and mercy," and then explained the inability to verify this in the actual world we experience by asserting that there is some other world which, by definition, no living human has experienced. Pardon me if as an agnostic inquirer, I'll state that revelatory traditions along with "whatever philosophy can muster" have not convinced me that the world was created with love, will end with it, and is sustained by it at every moment.


Footnotes


[1] For more on the Evil God Challenge, see:
-- Interview with Stephen Law on CommonSenseAtheism
-- A rebuttal by Edward Feser
-- Stephen's response to Feser

Book Series: The Agnostic Inquirer | Menssen & Sullivan

In the following series, I'll be posting my notes on selected bits from The Agnostic Inquirer by Sandra Menssen and Thomas Dullivan. This book is part of the reading I am undertaking in my quest for the truth about god, heavily inspired by the Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge (Easy Version) from Common Sense Atheism.

This book was recommended by a friend, and I finally finished it a couple of months ago. It was a heck of a read. Laborious, tedious, and filled with some of the most tentative language I've run across in any apologetics book or blog thus far ("we might just find that," "it seems to us that," "one could possibly conclude that," etc.). I won't cover the whole book, which is highly organized into sections, but just a few areas of interest. These are two professors from my own university; perhaps we'll dialog in person sometime! Here are the posts in this series:

22 November 2011

Cumulative Case: My Story (2 of 5)

This is part of a series in which I present a cumulative case for why I don't believe in god. The series index is here.

This particular post presents my personal story as background information and is one of five parts. Part 1 covered my early life through some of high school. This post will present my early experience at a Twelve Step boarding school. Part 3 will reveal my initial conversion experience. Part 4 will document my time at college and early years in marriage and part five will present the events surrounding my deconversion.

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When we left off I was on a plane to The Family School, a boarding school in NY. My quite large escorts (one of whom played football with the Navy) gave me two letters -- one from each of my parents -- which I read as we coasted along above cotton ball clouds saturated with reds and oranges. The letters contained expressions of my parents' taxed endurance and refusal to idly witness my ongoing self-sabotage. I was shocked. I couldn't believe I had actually pushed them to do something like this. I had been in my own bed just a couple hours ago... now I was flying halfway across the country with strangers who's initial greeting involved an option of doing things the easy way or [holding up a pair of zip tie handcuffs, the hard way].

I soon found out that the boarding school was specifically for kids with addictions and behavioral problems. It was founded on the Twelve Steps, perhaps best known for their place as the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Telling this phase of the story will be quite difficult since the school is incredibly unique and simply difficult to explain. Here's my shot.

The school was started, I believe, in the 80s by Tony and Betty Argiros. From my recollection of the story, they opened their home to a recovering alcoholic in need of a fresh start. He was allowed to live with them contingent on working the Twelve Steps, attending AA meetings, and working. Word spread of their generosity and as time passed more in a similar situation were "added to their number." From what I've heard, Tony and Betty created a sort of "sober ranch" in which individuals needing to remove themselves from typical addictive triggers (known in AA as "old people, places, and things") could stay and find a supportive community of recovery. I believe the early members worked jobs and contributed to some sort of communal fund from which food and supplies were purchased. There were also chores around the ranch in which everyone participated. Communal "spiritual work" was also mandatory. I'm not sure exactly what this looked like (what it transformed into will be described shortly), but I would imagine it focused on urging members to come clean with sins and character flaws and to be somewhat forcefully inspired by the group to remedy these things.

In any case, this "ranch" eventually transformed into a school, but I'm not sure when it was actually founded as such. As a school, this operation was able to receive younger individuals (the "ranch" I described above was more for adults) and allow them to be sheltered from the world for a time in order to work on themselves and be amongst a sober community, even while in school. The school had quite a good number of "unorthodox techniques," many of which have been changed or removed through the years. I arrived at a time when many of the very "old school" techniques had been removed, but many were still in practice. In it's present form, it is nothing like it used to be.

At the time of my attendance from January 2001 until June 2003, the school was structured into eight "families" of approximately 30 students each (about 20 males, 10 females). These "families" were groups which shared a common space (there were eight large rooms in which each family ate meals, did homework, watched movies, played games, etc.) and spent almost all significant time together. There were male and female dorms for each family (16 total) which were double-wide trailers with three rooms and three bathrooms. For the men, this meant a middle room featuring 5-6 bunks and two back rooms, one featuring three bunks and the other featuring two.

The structure of each weekday was as follows:
  • 6:15 - 6:35a: Wake up, dress, and get ready for the day
  • 6:35 - 6:45a: Clean the dorm (by doing your assigned chore, e.g. sweeping, wiping down the bathroom, etc.
  • 6:45 - 6:50a: Exit the dorm and line up outside
  • 6:50 - 6:55a: Walk to the chapel and get seated
  • 7:00 - 7:45a: Prayer service (which rotated; Mon was non-denominational Christian, Tues was Jewish, Wed was Catholic Mass, Thu was Presbyterian, Fri was non-denominational. You didn't have to believe in religion x, but you did have to be present, be respectful, and participate (like with songs, responses, etc.))
  • 7:45 - 8:15a: Breakfast
  • 8:15 - 8:30a: Chores (clean up common area) and get to class
  • 8:30 - 12:00p: Morning classes (M/F featured periods of 50min, I think, and T-Th featured 40min periods)
  • 12:00 - 1:30p: Lunch
  • 1:30 - 1:50p Chores and get to class
  • 1:50 - 5:00p: Afternoon classes
  • 5:00 - 6:30p: Dinner
  • 6:30 - 6:45p: Clean up
  • 6:45 - 8:30p: Homework
  • 8:30 - 8:45p: Clean up and head to chapel
  • 8:45 - 9:00p: Night chapel service
  • 9:00 - 9:45p: Return to dorms, night time showers (4min timed showers), lights out

This is from memory, but I think it's pretty accurate. Weekends were a little different -- they involved a more "extended" set of chores, assigned on a rotating basis to each family group, such as washing the 15 passenger vans (used for trips in to town for student doctor/dentist visits), doing laundry, cleaning the school building, etc. Weekends also featured some extended rec time, usually meaning 1-2hrs in the gymnasium. I got pretty good at basketball as there really wasn't anything else worthwhile to during that time!

I also need to note that the somewhat massively long school day featured 8 periods on M/F and 11 on T-Th. These periods included study halls (I'd say the average kid had between 5-10 study hall periods amongst the 47 total periods per week) as well as any extra-curricular activities. For example, I played soccer, so during the fall my last period on M/F and last two periods on T-Th were scheduled as soccer. Same for being in choir, drama, art, woodcarving, etc. There were also periods scheduled for various chores. A couple days a week you might have a period scheduled for lunch or dinner prep (helping cook, do dishes, deliver food, and set tables) or laundry. Laundry deserves a special mention. All of 240ish kids had to "intake" their clothes, which meant writing your initials in Sharpie somewhere on them. This meant everything -- shirts, pants, socks, underwear, etc. You also got a laundry bag with your name on it. Each family had two days per week assigned to laundry. As you wore clothes, they went in your bag. Two days a week, you would bring your bag down to the laundry area (in a big red barn near the building with the eating areas) and drop them off. There were about eight washers and five dryers in two rooms, one for girls and one for guys. Crews were assigned to laundry throughout all the class periods of the day, as assigned by their schedules. You washed clothes one-washer-per-person, dried them two-persons-per-dryer, and then folded the clothes afterward, matching the intake with the bag. At the end of the day, the bags were hauled to the dorms and thrown into the middle (biggest) dorm room to be put away by the owners at night. It was quite the operation. Laundry ran all day, every day.

There were also a complex series of "sanctions" (read, "punishments") for various things. You could be assigned to have a senior member (trusted student) follow you everywhere, you could have your food portions reduced or replaced with tuna, be put in the corner so that you had to sit facing a corner all day long, or even put on a standing sanction where you would stand 50min of every hour... all day long. It was pretty intense.

There are essentially two types of students that enter the school: compliers and rebellers. I was of the former type. I did what I was told, behaved, and just went along for the ride. I didn't really understand the twelve steps or whether I was an alcoholic or not, but it didn't really matter in the beginning. You have plenty to do -- adjust to the schedule, memorize various prayers/twelve steps, get into your classes, tons of homework, extra-curriculars, and lots of chores. I've always done fine in school. I had a 3.7 in high school up until entering the Family School, and I graduated (sorry to spoil the ending of this saga) as valedictorian (of a class of 25!). I memorized what I needed to fairly quickly. I started meeting with my sponsor, an assigned staff member who is to guide you through the twelve steps. This was a difficult portion of life there throughout. The first three steps essentially boil down (as is often said by AA-ers), "I can't, He can, so I'll let him."

In other words, you need to make an admission of personal powerlessness and come to the conclusion that only a power greater than yourself (aka God) can restore you to sanity (proper functioning, a non-destructive lifestyle, etc.) (steps 1 & 2). The logical conclusion, therefore, is to surrender your will and life over to that being (step 3). Much emphasis is placed on having a proper first step. Without truly believing that you are powerless, it is said, you will not be able to work the rest of the steps as if your life depended on it. I don't know how much I believed all of this, but I did buy in and think that I was an alcoholic or addict of some sort. I was able to see how my actions were different from my friends (taking extra risks to get high/drunk, using substances alone, perhaps obsessing about the next opportunity rather than going on with my life, etc.). These types of realizations helped me with the first step.

In any case, I was a pretty good kid for about a year. I was well-liked, trusted, and earned more responsibility. I will say that my emotions were insane. By that I mean that I had previously been quite a sensitive kid -- prone to crying easily when yelled at, insecure, etc. Drugs had a definite effect of "hardening me." I didn't feel as much as I had before. I was able to harden myself to the effect my behavior had on my parents. Once at the school, all of the emotions came back. Without drugs, I found myself just like I had been. I was very sensitive, would tear up if picked on, and so on. It was crazy. They say that your emotional age stops when you use a substance in an addictive manner, and I'm prone to agree! Around the end of my first year at the school, I got in trouble. I don't really want to paint in all of the details, but let's just say that I was caught being a hypocrite. I had gotten someone in big trouble for not paying attention and was guilty of the exact same thing myself.

I need to backfill briefly. At lunch and dinner, the school holds "table topics." This is where the peers in your family group are able to submit concerns to the staff members, and the staff look through the concerns and decide which ones to handle. A "concern" could be like so (written on an index card and handed in): "Bring up John for not doing his chores for the 5th time in a row. He needs a consequence" The staff would ask John to get up in front of everyone, the writer of the card would address the concern, and John would respond. The conversation would go from there. If John discussed what was causing him to intentionally or unintentionally not do his chore, things might go fine. If not... me might get have a sanction applied.

So... I got brought up in front of the group and was accused of all kinds of things: skating by on personality/humor, trying to be too much of a nice guy, not internalizing the principles of the school, etc. My image came tumbling down. I stonewalled. I just stopped responding. I can't really recall if I was angry or just embarrassed or what. I got put in the corner. A lot of feelings that probably never really left started festering. My mind went to work. I hated it there. I didn't want to be there. I just wanted to go back home and live life how it used to be.

I decided to run away. This was a fairly common occurrence. Kids would bust out during the day or, more frequently, at night from the dorms. I put some warm clothes under my bed, drank a ton of water so I would wake up, and went to bed. I awoke to go to the bathroom, got dressed in my bed, and made my break. Keep in mind, though... this was January in upstate New York. The main fault of most runaways is to stay on the road. Rural NY doesn't have much going on and thus the main road is constantly littered with staff members who pick up runaways and bring them back. I was smarter: I stayed in the woods. The problem was that there was about 18" of snow. I managed to make it nearly into the nearest town when I came upon a house in my path. I didn't want to trek all the way around it (deeper into the woods), and so I got on the road to bypass it. Within minutes, two staff members passed by going opposite directions and both stopped. I gave up and went back. By the end of my journey my feet were freezing and my hamstrings were cramping every time I lifted my feet out of the deep snow to take a step. Running away sucked. Why couldn't I have gotten in trouble and runaway in the summer?

Once back at the school, I got in some more trouble but was able to ride a common assumption toward receiving better treatment: that a runaway experience is cathartic in some way. Essentially, most runaways tend to have "gotten it out of their system" and do rather well afterwards. I think this is how many thought of me. I was more or less left alone for a couple of weeks until a close friend asked a simple question, "So, have you made a decision yet?" He was referring to a somewhat lingering loose end about my getting in trouble and breakdown, having to do with me wanting to "just go back to how it was." He wanted to know whether I'd really decided to cash in my past-life chips and move on, committed toward sobriety... or whether I still wanted to just live my old life. I told him that I didn't know. The next day, I was brought up in front of the group again. Enough was enough was the word. I'd been there too long to skate by and not make a decision. I clammed up again and was angry. They told me that I'd now be put on a standing sanction to try and force me to make a decision. Right then I knew I'd be running away again. I was more determined than ever to be done with the Family School. The best part was that a lot of snow had left since the last time, even though it was mid February. That night, I did the same thing I had previously. I left and would not return for several days.

At this point, this post has become longer than I anticipated. I'm bumping my story up to span four posts as a result. My apologies for this being a bit of a jumbled read. It's quite hard to describe the world I lived in for two and a half years since it is like about nothing anyone has ever heard of before! Stay tuned for my climactic initial conversion in Part 3.