The Flesh and the Spirit, or why I am still a Christian (reblog from April 11, 2009)

Once again, in discussions relating to my recent abortion blog, I’ve been challenged by those of the more aggressively atheistic persuasion to justify my belief in God as part of this whole dilemma. After I pointed to my recent essays on faith and reason (Spiritual Sense, In the City of David and the Ideal Religion series I’ve been told that “all [they] seem to deal with is the value of religious versus secular thinking. You’ve not even considered whether God exists; this is the most interesting question after all, and the one that should be answered before we start evaluating the value of religious thought.”

I could object to that by saying that the questions of objective realities behind religious and/or secular thinking cannot be taken directly or “non-phenomenally”; we can’t properly distinguish between these realities and our means of thinking about them, especially in the process of debating such matters on line. But while that is actually true, it could also be said to be a means of ducking the question. As disdainful as they may find metaphysics to be, my critics really want to see me dive into the meat of the metaphysical question here.

(This re-blog really couldn’t be much more out of sync with the seasonal context of the original, but so be it.)

For a neutral introduction to the question and a brief survey of the traditional arguments on the matter from my perspective, if that really matters to you, see chapter 7 of my book “Thinking Aloud…” (link on the side bar). But beyond that, in terms of stating and justifying my own biases on the matter, I wrote the following essay some 3½ years ago. Since I couldn’t find a more recent version of it to point inquisitors to, I hereby provide a fresh copy of the text for anyone interested in such.

Fresh dialog on the question is welcome, including considering the implications of the “emergence theory” of Dennett & Co., but for now I’m simply copy/pasting it in “as is” form for those with a fascination for such things.

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It’s now “Holy Week,” the peak of Lent, the grand finale leading up to Easter. For many this is a time of simply celebrating the return of the growing season, together with other basic reproductive functions. For others it is a time to contemplate the great mysteries of Christian spirituality. I have close friends of both persuasions on this one, but I still lean towards the latter. And while most of my non-believing friends are ready to allow for my personal faith without being bothered by it, others stop to ask me – particularly around this time of year – why I still bother with such seeming foolishness. I think it’s fair then for me to give my own updated philosophical account of why I remain a Christian believer.

There is one big question which, more than anything else, tells whether or not religion is for you. It doesn’t have anything to do with how empathetic or conscientious you are; both religious and non-religious people cover the full scale on those matters. Nor is it a matter of appreciation for ritual, since rituals can also be developed in entirely secular and pragmatic terms. The thing which determines whether or not you should be involved in religion is whether or not you believe that there are important things in life that cannot be explained in scientific, materialistic terms.

That is actually a deceptively complex question. It actually has little to do with how intelligent you are. On the one hand there are people with very low intelligence who don’t trust science because they can’t really understand it; on the other, there are people of very low intelligence who naively trust whatever “experts” tell them. Then there are some people of incredibly high intelligence who realize that the more you learn, the more aware you become of how little you really know, who thus see serious limits on how far science can take us in answering “the ultimate questions.” But there are also those who are wise enough to know how little they know, but who still believe that materialistic explanations make the most sense overall, who have a quasi-religious faith in science that some day all of the borders of ignorance will be overcome.

There are intellectual dishonest and emotionally unbalanced people on both sides as well. There are those who have strong religious faith in religious explanations for how things work, who cannot tolerate otherwise quite viable and sensible scientific explanations for the same phenomena. Christian Fundamentalist creationists have the worst reputation in this area. But we also have those whose technophilia and religiophobia drive them to ignore even more serious problems with their own chosen ideologies.

There is only one personal generalization that I’m willing to make about these issues: The more intelligent and educated a person is, the less animosity and hatred they feel towards those who disagree with them about religious issues. Each reader here can take a look in the mirror and based on what you see there take this claim for what it’s worth.

As my upbringing has been strongly Christian, and my specialized education has spilled over from theology into the humanities subjects, I will not claim competence to talk about the religious implications of quantum theory or the Big Bang or advanced mathematical paradoxes. Those who have dedicated their lives to such areas of knowledge can and do talk at length about what is and isn’t knowable in those areas, going on from there to justify their convictions about whether or not there is a God. The area that I personally find most fascinating in terms of unanswered questions, and the set of questions that keep me interested in religion (in spite of all my misadventures in that field) have to do with human consciousness and identity.

The basic problem is this: as many forms of Frankenstein’s monster as we might make, we have yet to find a way to program a machine, or any other human creation, to be a self-conscious moral agent. We can make machines which can teach themselves, which can recognize and respond to particular situations better than humans can, and which can offer us more objective analyses of problems than any human thinker, but we have no idea of how to make a machine that can take moral responsibility for its actions. This in turn is because, strictly speaking, machines do not choose what they do; they operate in pre-determined ways that depend on their design, programming and operating conditions. Until a machine is able to freely choose its functional direction between equally possible alternatives, with full awareness of the consequences of each, we cannot morally blame a machine for what it does.

Now some would say that we humans are equally pre-programmed and limited in our practical possibilities to freely choose. Our emotions and sense of decision making are nothing more than automatic feedback mechanisms which control our functional operation. Nothing we experience then, by this standard, has any meaning beyond a fluke of nature going through its own natural processes, like a snowflake swirling in a blizzard. And nothing we choose has any merit or blame, virtue or vice, magnificence or depravity to it. Admiration and moral disgust are just so many more silly feelings in the same series. Reward and punishment are just irrational automatic processes by which we interact with the other automatic mechanisms around us.

I must admit, such a premise is at least theoretically possible. It would neither be provable or disprovable in itself. In that way it would go in the same category as theories that the material world does not actually exist. The only difference would be that a theory of all personal decision making being an illusion is harder to live by than a theory of material reality being an illusion. But if I take Descartes’ approach and doubt everything I can possibly doubt, including my ability to choose the words I am now typing, I still know one thing for sure: I am conscious of my own existence.

Self-consciousness as we humans experience it is a fascinating phenomenon unto itself. This too is something we don’t know how to program a computer to experience. A.I. and Blade Runner provide interesting thought experiments about what our moral responsibilities would be if we could give our creations self-consciousness as part of their decision making capacities, but the fact remains, we have no way of doing that as of yet. I personally seriously doubt we ever will develop such technologies.

Under these circumstances, the easiest way to relate to the self-conscious, morally aware, ethically responsible human condition is to assume that there is more to us than just our materially determined form. In religious terminology, we each have a soul. There is something about each of us that transcends material form, which puts us in touch with realities beyond our mundane survival needs, which gives life a greater purpose than its own competition for survival. In terms of Occam’s Razor, this postulate provides the simplest, most elegant explanation for reality as I experience it.

Once we have postulated the existence of a transcendental soul, the next issue is what sort of “spiritual economy” that soul is part of. The fact that the Christian world view is the most popular way of conceptualizing such a spirit world does not make it necessarily right, but it does give it a certain credibility in the debate. The fundamental elements of this belief are:
–    A unified, personal, benevolent ultimate power in the universe: “God” by any other name
–    Human souls being formed as imperfect and yet inherently valuable  images of this God
–    An incredible act of divine mercy being necessary to connect our screwed up little souls to their spiritual source, and
–    Jesus of Nazareth being the miraculous historical individual whose teaching and suffering and power over death made possible this redemption – this re-connection with our spiritual source

Any one of those premises can raise serious questions, especially among those who assume that science has all the answers. For such people I’m not going to argue that their belief is inherently less rational than mine, just that my belief is as rational as any when it comes down to it, and it happens to work for me. I’m willing to answer any inquiries anyone may have about any one of these points in particular, but I do so with the understanding that not everyone will believe.

Christianity, like pretty much any religion, includes a certain temptation to form a picture of God in your mind that is sort of like what you see as the ultimate realization of your own personal virtues. As the old joke goes, “God made man in his own image, and man returned the favor.” Plenty of people have done this over the years. In these terms not everything that has been said in the name of Christianity deserves to be taken seriously. Christianity has had more than its fair share of half-wits, spewing all sorts of absurdities as messages from God. Even as a believer I remain sceptical about many aspects of the Christian tradition. But even more importantly, I have learned to take my own “spiritual intuitions” with a grain of salt, so to speak. An important part of Christian faith is the humility to know that there is much that we as believers still cannot know for sure. From there it becomes a matter of trusting God to accept us in spite of our limitations, which is fine because that was supposed to be the main point of Christianity all along.

How many of those who call themselves Christians God accepts, and who else other than Christians God might accept is up to God, not me. The worst hypocrites and half-wits in any religious tradition have always been those who claim that they have an exclusive copyright on “The Truth,” which others can be part of only if they live up to the standards set by these “experts” and/or if they pay the price they demand. My Christianity is not of the sort where I believe that any human authority can determine who gets in and who doesn’t. But on this too, your mileage may vary.

So, as of this year, that is what I believe, and why. I hope this leads each of you to further looking within yourselves. I hope it encourage some to state your own beliefs and questions. I hope this leads to fruitful discussion between those of differing beliefs, and ultimately I hope this leads to fellowship based on shared beliefs with those with whom you least expected to find it. Whatever the case, I wish each of you a blessed Easter: a joyous time of life beginning again for each of you on all different levels.

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6 Comments

Filed under Philosophy, Religion

6 responses to “The Flesh and the Spirit, or why I am still a Christian (reblog from April 11, 2009)

  1. Very good read. I particularly like how you’re able to tow the proverbial dividing line between believers and non believers and see things so objectively… always informative!
    God Bless.
    Steven
    http://stevenbenjamin.weebly.com/

  2. When I think of Christianity, I have to ask, did you have a good reason to believe? Where did you learn about it? Since you call yourself Christian, do you believe that the bible is the word of God? Is your version of the Christian God omniscient, and omnibenevolent? Does it bother you that the God of the bible is a logical contradiction?

    My mom is a deist. She believes in a grand starter with a heaven, and no hell. She also thinks Jesus was a real person, and the son of God, but thinks that the bible was just a bunch of stories written by men.

    And on the other topic, my friend has not responded yet.

  3. Heh, I’m tired and forgot where i was going with my mom thing, and I see I can’t edit this…

    She also considers herself a Christian, would you?

  4. Chris

    The widespread acceptance of a belief does not lend it credibility. For millenia, it was a widespread belief that the Earth was flat. Popularity and accuracy are separate entities.

    You also state that mankind is unable to program an entity to become a self conscious moral agent, however that is exactly what raising a child is. We reward good behaviour and punish bad behaviour such that our offspring are able to effectively function as part of a society.
    One of your key points about the existence of the soul is about the freedom of choice. Unfortunately, we are all more or less products of our larger environment. Yes, we do get to choose the environments we expose ourselves to (to an extent), but those choices we make are based on prior experience. While it is comforting to believe that our conscience mind is in control of our decisions, current evidence is starting to show that thiis may not be they case. For example, Professor Lipton at Stanford suggests that only between 1-5% of decisions are based on the conscious mind. We are slaves to our subconscious, which is the product of our beliefs, which in turn is the product of our upbringing.

    Also, it took over 4 billion years of evolution to develop self conscious beings (assuming humans are the only self conscious beings). It is not surprising therefore that humans have not learnt to do this with artificial intelligence, considering that AI has really only been around for little over 50 years, if that.

    With these points in mind, I am not convinced about the “transcendence” of the soul.

    • Chris, I’m not really into the Calvinist “presuppositional apologetics” thing, but your style of response brings that strongly to mind. You have a clear set of theories lodged in mind to explain the phenomena you experience, and you’re not particularly open to alternative explanations for such phenomena, even if they would have a more consistent and “economical” explanatory power. I’m cool with you believing whatever you choose to believe on such matters; I’m just hoping you’re not so much of a “fundamentalist” about it as to believe that your chosen beliefs are the only “sensible” ones. If you happen to find Dennett more convincing that Chalmers vis-a-vis “the hard problem of consciousness”, you’re entitled. I don’t. My point here was not to convince all doubters that I’m right and their wrong, but merely to point out why I continue to find a theistic/ dualistic premise most honest and workable, with all due respect to those who don’t. Within this format I don’t think we can take the debate too much further than that.

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