Saturday, June 18, 2005


Most arguments about anything in philosophy are bunk, because they manage a carefully constructed worldview that is internally consistent, but need bear no relation to anyone else's theory, or to the real world.

I used to wonder why there was an emphasis on real-world examples in my undergraduate philosophy courses. The point was that the professors were dreadfully afraid that they were making it all up. It is easy to live in a fog of abstraction, admire your grand unified theory, and say "God I hope this is true", like a luxury yacht, with a long, sweeping superstructure, fine furnishings, even a minibar... lost at sea. Utilitarianism, metaphysics in general, the philosophy of language all grip reality somewhat tenuously. Aren't these lovely theories? Great ribs welded to a strong, flexible backbone, holding in a beating heart and breathing lungs... no feet and no hands, no eyes and lips, all dressed up and no place to go.

A long time ago I was provoked into an argument about the truth of Christianity and the existence of God. Not provoked by a person, "XYR PDQ, your faith is showing" that kind of thing. But it occurred to me talking to these guys that we were wasting time. We only talked as if we were arguing. In truth, we were spinning out your tapestries of belief independently, and it would have taken us a long time to get to points where we actually clashed. We could criticize each other's work, but only in the unimportant details; if we had to abandon some inconsequential opinion of our worldview, so be it, but nothing was changing.

Religion is like that when it is only believed and not lived. I dislike the word religion because it seems inadequate to my experience; I am more religious than irreligious, but this says so little about my life. I like a distinction between "believed religion" and "lived religion" because it implies that there is or is not a point of contact between what you say and what you do, between appearances and truths, between theories and facts, and finally between abstractions and realities. I recognize stages in my life where I believed religion, then sat on it.

The truth is that facts destroy theories, obliterate them completely. For instance, 9/11 destroyed the theory that the United States was safe from foreign attackers because it is the world's only remaining superpower. What we learned in the invasion of Iraq destroyed the theory that Saddam was bristling with WMDs. Guantanamo Bay prison camp is destroying another theory... And before these facts intervened, it was entirely reasonable to think that these theories would extend, if not in perpetuity, at least for the foreseeable future. Facts "changed everything".

The interesting thing here is that if two theories are in conflict, say like hard determinism and contracausal free will, then there should be some fact in the middle that touches them both. Examining the implications of that fact will destroy one or both theories.

The more facts touch a theory, the more it is verifiable, the more it has to say about the truth. There are exits from the maze. This is true about scientific theories; the more facts they cover, the more righteous they are. Science seems to me to be seeking out the weird facts, the ones that cut through all our old theories, in order to more closely verify and understand the properties of our real weird. Well, religion and philosophy are the same way: the more verifiable, the more potentially trustworthy.

So me and my friends were at a long-standing, collegial impasse, and I started thinking, "What is the Christian fact? What breaks through the contradictory fogs of theories, where will we hit the land?" It was pretty obvious: if Jesus rose from the dead, then Christianity was true; lots of philosophies and atheisms were untrue. And for once, we need not just deny, deny, tug away at each other's inconsequential details. Now we could say something interesting.

We started talking about this. I still have the tapes somewhere, where I explain why it is reasonable to think that Jesus rose from the dead and unreasonable to think otherwise (hint: it's not just that the Bible tells me so). Is this a fact? If so, it is a fact with an uncanny power to cut through the fog and lead us back to dry ground.

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