Saturday, 12 January 2013

Liar, Lunatic, and Lord?

by Kwame Weekes

C. S. Lewis
Considered by many to be one in the long line of heavyweights in Christian apologetics is Clive Staples Lewis. In his memoir, Surprised by Joy, he told a story of growing up sceptical of religion and becoming atheist at the age of 15. At the age of 32, after years of personal study and quiet nudging by friends like J. R. R Tolkien, he found reason to believe in the Christian God. Since then, he has become a poster child for atheist-to-Christian conversion, giving hope to Christian families with wayward sons. A young Christian looking for ammunition to fight against the onslaught of atheist friends may come across his famous Trilemma argument in favour of the godhood of Jesus Christ.

The argument (which can be found in Mere Christianity) is that we must either accept Jesus Christ as a liar, lunatic, or Lord. He argues that there is no room for us to consider Jesus to be a great moral teacher while simultaneously stripping him of his divinity because anyone who makes the kind of claims that Jesus made is either a mad man or a liar, neither of which, according to Lewis, could be considered great moral teachers. Therefore, if we are to accept Jesus as a “great moral teacher,” we must also be willing to accept him wholesale, “fall at his feet and call him Lord and God.”

The argument is made against persons who claim Jesus as a great moral teacher but not Lord. I, for one, do not consider Jesus to be a “great” moral teacher. He said some wonderful things, yes, but he also said some things in ways that make me second guess his sanity. However, for the sake of argument I will grant that Jesus Christ was indeed a great moral teacher. The question now is, why can’t he be both a great moral teacher and a lunatic or a liar or an unfortunate combination of all three?

If I understand the phrase correctly, a great moral teacher gains his greatness by what he teaches. The term does not say he is a great moral person. We’ve all heard the saying “do as I say and not as I do.” It is conceivable that a person can teach and preach the most beautiful morality and still be the devil himself. There is also room in there for madness. There are different types of madness and psychology is a science that does not yet stand on very solid ground with regard to its use of definitions. Regardless of this limitation, history has been coloured with many mad men who lived normal public lives and were considered sane by the rest of the world.

One such person is Jeffery Dahmer, serial killer extraordinaire. Anyone who watches a video of him may find it hard to believe that this man killed people, cut off their heads, stripped the skin off their faces, stored their skulls in refrigerators and had sex with their corpses. If this darkness was not enough to stop him from charming young men back to his room, most certainly with lies, what was to stop Jeffery from spouting a few words of moral wisdom if he wanted to?

I tried pointing this out to a friend of mine who had cited Lewis’ Trilemma argument and he agreed with my general argument. Still, he said that we would never call someone like Jeffery a “great moral teacher” no matter how many good things he may have said. That may be true, but that does not refute the argument that a person can be both at the same time and that the Trilemma is no real trilemma at all. I thought about what my friend said, however, and wondered why that was so.

Historian Jad Adams did extensive primary research on the voluminous writings of Mahatma Gandhi, a man second only to Jesus in popular perception of holiness. Adams revealed in Gandhi: Naked Ambition a Gandhi who believed sex tarnished the soul and so practiced celibacy. The shocking information, however, is that the saint tested his fortitude by surrounding himself with women – sleeping naked with them and bathing with them. To add madness to the peculiar, he refused to give his wife suffering with pneumonia medication, a decision that resulted in her death. When he was struck by malaria, though, he reversed his aversion to modern medicine and accepted it. This type of inconsistency was known to him, it seems, because he wrote of himself elsewhere:
I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent. In my search after Truth I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things…What I am concerned with is my readiness to obey the call of Truth, my God, from moment to moment, and therefore, when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine, if he has still faith in my sanity, he would do well to choose the later of the two on the same subject. (
Was Gandhi a liar, lunatic, or great moral teacher (unlike Jesus, he never claimed divinity)? I’d argue that he was a mixture of all because there is nothing that says he cannot be. The real problem of the Trilemma is not a problem inherent in the persons in question but in the persons looking on. Some persons find it difficult to see people complexly. It is either you are a sinner or a saint, a hero or a villain, a Madonna or a whore. When it comes to public figures like Gandhi and Jesus, Aristotle can give insight to this propensity. Ethos, he says, is one of the three components of persuasive arguing. Your case is greatly improved if you are seen as an ethical person. This is why politicians go through great lengths to cover up their dirty pasts.

Men like Jesus and Gandhi preached philosophies and had devoted followers. After their deaths, in order for these philosophies to grow and remain influential, followers needed to ensure that the saintly images of their leaders were preserved. The unpopularity of the dark sides of Gandhi is better understood when put in the context of India’s independence and the role he played there. If everyone knew about his secret practices it may have adversely affected his influence while alive and also after death. For human beings, you cease being a hero the moment your sin becomes public and this must be avoided at all costs. Seeing that the earliest gospel written about Jesus was done 40 years after his death, I suspect that similar things were done with Jesus as were done with Gandhi.

What I think is necessary as we move forward is less hagiography and more objective historical inquiry. Jesus Christ should not be exempt from this scrutiny. Christians should ask themselves why they believe the things they believe about Jesus. What evidence do we have that he was free from sin? Why should we believe that Jesus Christ was the perfect human being apart from books written about him by devoted followers? Jesus Christ never told a white lie? Really, now. There is evidence of him being a bit rude to his mother when they couldn’t find him because he was “about his father’s business,” but that is always interpreted in Jesus’ favour. More is needed for us to uncover the true face of Jesus and we may all be surprised by what we find. We should want to know the truth no matter how unbearably beautiful or terrifying because reality equips us for real life better than any fantasy ever can. 

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Is "Something" More Likely than "Nothing?"

by Jonathan Bellot

Why is there something rather than nothing? The question seems valid at first glance, and probably at second and third glances, as well. It seems easy to imagine a "world" where there is "nothing," but to have this vast universe around us seems somehow special, somehow worthy of wonder. There could have been nothing, the question implies, but look: we've got something, and that something is a big something, and it demands an explanation. It's all very intuitive. However, there's something--to use that devious word--very wrong with the question of why there's something rather than nothing. Beneath the intuitiveness, it reveals a drastic and unfounded presupposition about the entire universe: that "something" is more likely than "nothing." I say "unfounded" not because the opposite is true, but because we simply don't actually know, despite all our feelings on the matter, that one is more likely than the other. 

Indeed, if you ask the man considered by many arguably the greatest living philosopher of space and time, Adolf Grunbaum, about this, he'll likely say what he has said before: that those who think "nothing" is more likely than "something" are unjustifiably prejudiced towards what Grunbaum calls "the Null World" (nothingness). The problem Grunbaum refers to as "the Spontaneity of Nothingness"--our quickness to assume that we should only have nothingness around us but, miracle of miracles, we have "something." There is no reason to think that having "something" is somehow less likely than "nothing," Grunbaum says. And, if you stop to think of it, there's reason in that. Where on Earth did we get the idea that the things that allow for the universe to exist--even down to forces like gravity--had to have been created somehow? It's intuitive to think that something being somewhere implies that it was somehow put there or arrived there in some manner, and this is indeed the case inside the universe, but why should the universe, taken as a whole--the proverbial "something"--be less likely to exist than no universe? 

Copleston and Russell
As Bertrand Russell put it in his famous radio debate with Father Copleston in 1948, "the universe is just there, and that's all." Russell also said, going back to the idea of the whole universe being distinct from what goes on with the individual things inside it, that it is wrong to assume the universe itself has a cause just because things inside the universe have causes. "I can illustrate what seems to me your fallacy," Russell said when Copleston brought up the something-rather-than-nothing question, the question of why the totality of things--the universe--exists. "Every man who exists has a mother," Russell continued, "and it seems to me your argument is that therefore the human race must have a mother, but obviously the human race hasn't a mother." In other words, what applies to individual members of a set may not apply to the set taken as a whole--and, as a result, asking why there is a universe rather than no universe is to assume that everything that makes the universe possible, even down to forces, is to assume that the laws that apply in the universe must apply to the universe as a whole. While this seems intuitive and sensible, we actually have no evidence that this is true. And we also have no evidence that "nothing" is more likely than "something."

This can be a bit startling. All of a sudden, it seems possible that, even if the universe emerged in the Big Bang, whatever makes the formation of univeres possible--the "quantum foam" that produces "bubbles" of universes due to gravity, for instance, to paraphrase Stephen Hawking--may have simply always been there, and we were wrong to assign a probability to it at all. Maybe there is a probability to universes forming out of this quantum foam, but not to the quantum foam itself being there. In a conversation with Jim Holt in Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story, Grunbaum says that while he will "grant that nothingness may be the simplest [thing to imagine] conceptually," we still have to ask why this concept applies to actual existence, to reality--that is, "what makes simplicity into an ontological imperative?" And, lest you think that "before" the Big Bang there was indeed absolute nothingness, Grunbaum adds that "Physics does not allow us to extrapolate back and say, 'Before this singularity there was nothingness. That's an elementary mistake...the lesson of the Big Bang model is that before the initial state there was no time.'" As Holt writes later, reflecting on his discussion with Grunbaum, the singularity is where relativity breaks down and where time ceases to have clear meaning. 

"Unlike the beginning of a concert," he writes, "the singularity at the beginning of the universe is not an event in time. Rather, it is a temporal boundary or edge. There are no more moments of time 'before' t = 0. So there was never a time when Nothingness prevailed. And there was no 'coming into being'--at least not a temporal one. As Grunbaum is fond of saying, even though the universe is finite in age, it has always existed, if by 'always' you mean at all instants of time." And so, "[i]f there was never a transition from Nothing to Something, there is no need to look for a cause, divine or otherwise, that brought the universe into existence." The steady-state theory, basically, has been married to the Big Bang in one sense--while the universe did "appear" at the Big Bang, it has, strictly speaking, always been around, and there is no "before" the Big Bang in which there was nothing at all. 

Even Lawrence Krauss, famous and infamous for his Universe from Nothing of 2012 and a speech by the same name from 2009, does not say, contrary to popular understanding, that there was nothingness and then there was something, but that virtual nothingness--not literal nothingness, as he acknowledges in the book--is actually a sea of virtual particles popping into and out of existence, which is the likely origin of our universe. In other words, the laws of quantum mechanics still apply. Indeed, if this is the case, while there would always have been "something" in the form of the virtual particles, their frequent appearance would suggest even more strongly that "something" is more likely to exist than "nothing."

And, more simply, Grunbaum asks, "What could possibly be more commonplace empirically than that something or other does exist?" In other words, we have been observing something since we could observe at all, and "something" is the easiest of all things to observe--indeed, the only thing we have ever truly observed. To observe nothing is a hell of a thing; I'm not sure it's even possible, given that nothing is, well, nothing. And that leads to the question being flipped on its head: what makes us think "nothing" is the natural way for things to be, and "something" is unusual? Do we have any evidence to prove that nothingness is, in fact, far more likely than anything--again, even down to forces--existing? And the fact is that we don't. The whole bit of probability that something is less likely than nothing is based on a presupposition, not an actual observed fact. Again, this common-sense-but-meaningful observation from Grunbaum doesn't make the question about something and nothing into a pseudo-question (as Grunbaum calls it) we can dispense with, but it does mean we need to stop looking at the universe, the something, around us as if we are standing outside it; after all, from that view, it is easy to think there is the universe and then black empty space around it, but we have no idea what, if anything, can be said to be outside the universe, except perhaps for other universes, and it's not at all clear that other universes exist, popular as the multiverse hypothesis is. By looking at the universe from where we are, not an articifial invented position "outside" of it, we see the something we know, and there is not as yet any clear proof that there is nothingness or that nothingness is more common than its opposite (though we must be careful here too not to speak of nothingness as if it is a distinct thing, like that "empty" space. In short, this is far from resolved, but we at least know we have "something" so far).

None of this makes God impossible, mind you. Indeed, William Lane Craig, attempting to get around the problem of time and the singularity, suggests that God, while himself timeless (whatever that somewhat cheap expression may mean), may have produced the universe at the same moment he intended to create it, so intention and creation are all concurrent, and there is no need to say God existed "before" anything else began to exist (despite God being, in Craig's view, eternal and necessary). But it's very odd to imagine an intention literally being simultaneous with an action--downright impossible, actually, going by anything we know about neuroscience. (Of course, to assume God's mind, if God exists, is like a human's is to commit the same fallacy Russell chided Copleston for, but that does not mean anything one says about God is therefore somehow worthy of having a free logical pass.) It's a real problem to simply get rid of God's involvement with the singularity by saying that he is "timeless," since this word has no clear meaning--or none I've seen as yet. And, if you imagine that God and the universe--the "something"--are one and the same, as in pantheism (but not panentheism), there's no real contradiction. And Krauss himself, in his book, says that "on the basis of logic alone one cannot rule out such a deistic view of nature"--not a view he accepts or that has evidence going for it, but one that can't absolutely be ruled out. But, if you imagine that God is a personal god, and that this god is logically necessary--that this god, in other words, cannot not exist--and is not equivalent to the universe, you may have run into some trouble. Quite aside from the temporal problems raised by relativity breaking down at the Big Bang, the fact remains that we cannot assume "having a universe" is less likely than "nothing" and that, therefore, the universe's creation is somehow special and requires a special creator. This assumption is just that--an assumption. Whatever allows for the production of universes, like gravity in the theoretical model Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow present in The Grand Design, may simply take the place of God as a "necessary" force--and maybe there's no real reason to think this is strange or special.

My intution rages at this. And it's true there is a lot we have to learn. It may, in fact, be true that something is less likely than nothing. Who knows. But that's precisely the point: no one knows. And, going by what we have to observe around us, and everything we have discovered in cosmology so far, it would appear that nothingness is not, in fact, somehow more likely than something. And even if it is, and we all just popped into existence in a way so absurd that even Camus would crack a smile, none of that has to involve a divine creator. God, of course, could have popped into existence along with the universe--but how superfluous is that, eh? Our origins are still shrouded in mystery, hidden behind a veil we may never be able to part, but things still seem better for us at the moment than for personal gods.

Arif Ahmed
Towards the end of a 2011 debate in Cambridge, in which the question under discussion was whether or not belief in God is a delusion, the Cambridge philosopher Arif Ahmed made a curious point. He had been talking about the necessity of God--"necessity" meaning that God (or any "necessary" thing) simply must exist, cannot not exist. (It would, indeed, be logically contradictory to say this necessary thing does not exist.) Ahmed said that "nowhere" in the book he uses to teach formal logic to first-year students of Philosophy, Introducing Formal Logic, "is there any logical principle that shows a contradiction in the premise that 'nothing exists.'" There is nothing logically contradictory, Ahmed asserts, in the statement "nothing exists"--but, if this is true, it means there is a logically sound statement one can make that does not include God or any necessary being at all. Therefore, it is wrong to assume that God's necessity--or anything's necessity--is, well, necessary. Even God's necessity, then, is suspect.

Ahmed and his partner lost the debate, seemingly largely because many people did not want to cast votes that appeared to insult the opposite side by saying they were deluded. But the real loser may be our age-old question, "why is there something rather than nothing?" We must elevate the discussion and stop making assumptions like the ones embedded in this question, even if those assumptions have dug deep roots inside us. By doing so, things may become much more confusing and chaotic for a time--but that can be a good thing, if that confusion and chaos leads us closer to the truth. And, while our intuitions are often correct, we must be prepared to accept that some of them may be very wrong.

Some links: Russell/Copleston debate:
Lawrence Krauss's "A Universe from Nothing" lecture:
Cambridge debate with Arif Ahmed:

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

For the New Year!

So, it's 2013.

Normally, that would start off a chain reaction: what resolutions I made last year (and perhaps did not keep), what resolutions I'll make this year, why there's promise this year, and so forth. I've included a strip from my favorite comic, and what may just be among the greatest comics of all time, Calvin and Hobbes, below, in which Calvin (named after the theologian) discusses the problems of New Year's resolutions.

But I want to do something a bit different. I'm going to put down a list of things I plan to do, organized by categories. Each is relatively open-ended. Feel free to take those categories and list your own resolutions, or add your own categories in the comments or in your own personal list. Enjoy!

Books, Films. As an English major, I find myself reading a lot of books. But I could always be reading more. Goal: find an extra hour or so to read each day. Make a list of books to check out, and make sure I can check them off the list at the end of the year. But leave the list open. And I'll read widely: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and everything, or nearly everything, in-between. Same goes for films. I'll try to further develop myself, acknowledging I have a lot to learn--but I'll also remind myself, if needed, that I've managed to learn some things so far. It's easy to forget, after all, that we've reached anywhere at all.

People and their Ideas. Despite what I wrote above about books, I won't forget to spend time with the people I love, and I'll try to understand the people I don't love more. I'll try to put myself in the shoes of people whose minds I don't understand, like religious fundamentalists and Young Earth creationists (assuming I can find the shoes), so I can see if we can actually have a good dialogue. Empathy, and all that good stuff. And I will never assume I know all there is to know on a topic, or that my opponent/discussion partner can't teach me something new. And if I'm wrong, I have to be intellectually honest and admit it.

Issues I Care About. When an issue comes up, be it at home or abroad, and I have a chance to let my voice be heard in some way--be it by submitting a letter to an editor, a commentary, or trying to do something more visible--I will try to do so. Little efforts sometimes pay off, sometimes become big efforts--but only if we make the effort.

Stop Hiding. If something is important to you, like a cause, belief, or part of my identity, it might be worth finally sitting down with someone you trust and getting it out into the open--or just letting everyone know in a sudden social-media blitz. You may find idiots if you do the latter (and some fun screencaps for the future, no doubt), but you may also find friends who sympathize. And, more importantly, you'll have taken a step towards being closer to who you think you are. (Whether or not the self is an illusion of the brain, possibly like free will, but that's a whole different article.)

Have a great new year, from the Caribbean Freethinkers' Society!
- Jonathan Bellot