Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Living Option

[This essay originally appeared on The Remarks of a Fish -- ed.]

Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan have been debating whether religious “moderation” is a rationally acceptable alternative to religious fundamentalism. Harris contends that religious “moderation” is self-delusive: it pretends to be rational and integrate doubt into faith while at the same time rejecting the possibility of falsification. This post is a short essay response to Sam Harris’ position (or something like it) in the debate.

To be sure, their debate raises interesting questions about the nature of Faith and whether or not it is compatible with Reason. However, much of the content of Harris’ attack on faith is familiar. Without too much doubt, Harris is making the common objection that we should not believe in God (or other religious doctrines) because we cannot be said to really know them. This objection appeals to what may be called the Evidentialist Principle:

(EP) We ought only assent to those propositions which can be established by evidence.

Taking a leap of faith entails stepping beyond what can be established by appealing to objective evidence. As a result, it is an inherently unreasonable act – because such a leap seems to eschew rational standards of validation, it lacks justification. It follows that we should suspend belief in God, since (EP) demands our beliefs lay where the evidence does.

Some philosophers, such as Aquinas and Leibniz, have thought it was possible to meet this evidentialist challenge head-on and provide proofs for the existence of God. The project of natural theology is to establish some core religious truths by providing rigorous arguments for them. Whether this project can succeed or not is a difficult question, and I suspect that it is not possible to produce an argument that, on pain of absurdity, rationally forces belief in God.

However, I do not think that we should on that account dismiss theism. In the Will to Believe, William James argues persuasively (EP) is false by showing it is only one of many intellectual strategies available to us. In the sciences, we act with the greatest caution, accepting only those hypotheses which are experimentally grounded. As a general intellectual approach to the world, however, this is not necessarily appropriate. James argues that this position is inadequate because it does not make it possible to believe certain kinds of truths. Why always forfeit a chance at the truth due to the risk of error?

Believe truth! Shun error! – these, we see, are two materially different laws; and by choosing between them we may end by coloring our whole intellectual life. We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoided of error as more imperative, and let truth takes it chance.

The aim of inquiry is ultimately to find the truth, thus the method, modeled to some extent after scientific thinking, recommended by the evidentialist is unsuitable to serve our purpose. Instead, James maps out an alternative strategy to following the scriptures of (EP). A living option is one in which the alternative hypotheses are alive in the sense that they are intellectually defensible propositions which may be true. A forced option is a dilemma, with no possibility of not choosing (because not choose is functionally the same as one of the options). In a momentous option, the option may never again present itself, or the decision is effectively permanent, or something important hangs on the choice. James calls an option genuine when it is living, momentous, and forced.

The choice between Theism/Non-Theism is a genuine option in this sense. I think that theism, Christianity in particular, is an intellectually defensible position, making it a living option (a strong claim for a blog post!). Given that theism is the sort of belief which organizes one’s entire way of life, the option is also momentous. Lastly, the choice is based on a complete logical disjunction – our hand is forced when it comes to Theism or Non-Theism. Given the stakes and confines of this genuine option, it is reasonable to assent to Theism. James writes,

Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds…

James is suggesting that only genuine options which are intellectually open are decidable on passional grounds. So, he is not attacking the idea that we should conform views to the evidence, whenever there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that a particular position is correct. His target is the universality of the prohibition of believing a proposition whenever the evidence is insufficient for demonstrating it. Since it is reasonable for Reason to acknowledge limits to its power, it can be rational to have faith in certain unproven propositions. The idea that we can rationally make a leap of faith whenever we are presented with a forced and momentous option between two live hypotheses has great intuitive force, and undercuts the validity of the evidentialist principle (EP). James supposes,

…if we are empiricists, if we believe that no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then it seems a piece of idle fantasticality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell. Indeed we may wait if we will – I hope you do not think I am denying that – but if we do so, we do so at our peril as much as if we believed. In either case, we act, taking our life into our hands.

James then notes that we will only live in a free society, an “intellectual republic”, if we acknowledge our mental freedom to will or not will to believe. Because the evidence does not unambiguously point either towards or away from God – yet at the same time we forced to act, forced to live – we must step outside the province of reason and believe on the basis of our passions. But, each individual must make this existential choice for himself. Thus, someone who takes on faith must both acknowledge the validity of acting differently, thereby making religious pluralism a possibility. Faith comes with the humility characteristic of someone acting in the face of uncertainty.

When the other disciples told Thomas that Jesus had risen from the grave, he did not believe them. He declared that he would not believe until he put his fingers into Jesus' nailmarks and felt where His side was pierced by the spear. Jesus did in fact let Thomas do this, after which he acknowledged the truth of the disciples' reports. Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” Given James' considerations, I think what Jesus was acknowledging was the profound courage and unique spirit it takes to live a life of faith. If we are candid, then it seems we ought to admit that living with the passion of faith is a blessed thing indeed.




  1. The crux of the biscuit is, I think, the ambiguity of "believe" in your Evidentialist Principle (EP). I think it fails to strictly distinguish between truth belief, and other sorts of purely subjective beliefs, including and especially "spiritual" and ethical beliefs.

    I would phrase (EP) more strictly:

    (EP-S) An objectively truth-apt proposition is one which can be established by evidence, and we are entitled to assent to such propositions only with regard to the actual evidence we have.

    If we are a little slack about our interpretation of "only", we can state the proposition slightly more euphonically:

    (EP-S') We ought to assent to only those objectively truth-apt propositions which can be established by evidence.

    This stricter reformulation has both epistemic and semantic/metaphysical implications. Essentially, it constructs the meaning of "objectively truth-apt proposition" as "propositions which can be established by evidence"; it additionally privileges Evidentiary Foundationalism as an epistemic method for determining objective truth.

    The fundamental anti-religious objection is not to religious spirituality per se. The objection is, as I see it, to the pervasive rhetorical insistence that religious spirituality is somehow true, entailing either that alternative formulations are therefore false or, even worse, entailing a pernicious commitment to truth-relativism: If spiritual truth is relative, why not scientific truth?

  2. Following standard philosophical usage, I generally reserve the term 'proposition' for that which can be stated in a declarative sentence, and which is capable of having a truth-value (true, false, or maybe others). I think that propositions about spirituality and ethics are full-blooded in this sense. There is nothing subjective about the claims:

    (1) Jesus rose from the dead.
    (2) Our souls will perpetually reincarnate until we follow the Eightfold Path.
    (3) Muhammad is God's Prophet.

    Your definition of proposition builds in substantial metaphysical commitments. If a proposition is only truth-apt when it can be established by evidence, then the notions of truth and justification cannot be understood apart from one another. This commits you to a strong form of anti-realism (along with intuitionist logic) of the kind advocated by Dummett.

    The main thrust of my essay is that following the evidentialist principle leaves us hanging when we find ourselves in an evidential gridlock, but at the same time must do something. Since we ought always act according to standards of rationally, it follows we can act rationally in this situation.

    Lastly, I should add that no truth of any kind is relative. The difference is between what counts as a rational justification in spirituality and science. These endeavors are undertaken under different circumstances, and, as a result, the rules of the game are somewhat different. Because in matters of religion we are faced with James calls genuine options, it is rational to make leaps of faith. In science, it not imperative for our lives to plant a flag, and we should happily suspend belief until the evidence is sufficient for a establishing particular theory as correct.

  3. I'm definitely persuaded by your remarks that "truth-apt proposition" is a redundancy.

    English grammar is ambiguous: I'm not sure if you're saying that all or only some declarative sentences are truth-apt. I personally lean towards "some"; at the very least Godel has shown us some declarative sentences that aren't validity-apt. Whether Godel supports your philosophical views or my own is not immediately obvious.

    I think the notions of truth and justification are very closely aligned; I'm not so sure that tying them close together is at all anti-realistic, much less strongly anti-realistic. On the other hand, in my view, realism is very much a scientific position, rather than a metaphysical position. I'm thus unconvinced that a realist position--at least a scientific realist position--entails a correspondence theory of truth.

    In any event, I'm very much interested in your views on Dummett's arguments.

    I'm beginning to notice my careful avoidance of the central thesis of your argument, that religious propositions, especially those you describe in your comment and others similar, really are propositions we must decide with insufficient evidence. I'm going to have to think more carefully about this point.

  4. As I understand your framing, timmo, James interprets the requirement for an active acceptance of Jesus/Chrisitianity as the factor that forces the momentous choice to be a Christian or not.

    I share the bum's skepticism that religious belief-choices are really the kinds of things we must make - but I will assent to that for the sake of argument.

    Upon doing that how does one avoid becoming trapped by the belief-choices of all religions in existence - or at the very least all the religions with exclusivity clauses like Christianity's no god buy God? In short, aren't we forced into arbitrarily many potentially contradictory belief-choices by accepting Jame's logic?

    Like many justifications for religious faith that seem to be largely confined to origins in the Christian west, James' notion seems only to work if we tacitly assume that religious belief in Christianity is the only forced choice of its kind. If Christianity was the only religious option possible - if religion and Christianity were co-extensive, then James' logic works.

    But in a framework where there are arbitrarily many mutually exclusive religious belief-choices, following James logic becomes untenable. Now, perhaps life truly isn't fair about religious belief and we have to accept this burden of belief-choices. Or perhaps this suggests that belief-choices really aren't forced at all.

  5. Barefoot Bum,

    What I mean to say is that propositions are those things which are asserted in declarative utterances which can take on truth-values. So, the answer is: some.

    Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem states that no consistent, recursively axiomatizable system which can represent all recursive functions and relations (and thence its own syntax) can be complete. So, in a consistent, first-order system of Peano arithmetic, there are infinitely many true, but undecidable sentences. Since Gödel’s theorem is a metatheorem about recursion, it seems beside the point.

    I think Dummett is largely correct in thinking that tying truth and justification together is inconsistent metaphysical realism. The idea that physical objects, say, exist independently of our perceptions of them and our epistemic practices entails we ought to commit ourselves to evidence-transcendent truth. But, if we reject evidence-transcendent truth by asserting that propositions are only “truth-apt” if they can be shown correct by evidence, then we make what is true about our domain of discourse dependent on our epistemic practices – which is anti-realistic. To really flesh out this line of reasoning would than a comment allows, but I hope the sketch helps. Perhaps we can discuss this more fully?


    James’ reasoning does not commit us to accepting sets of inconsistent beliefs. The point is that if we have a genuine option, one that is living, momentous, and forced, between A and B, then it is appropriate to decide which to believe on the basis of passion. But, actually, as you observe, the situation is more complicated than this. We can have a genuine option between more beliefs A, B, C, D, and E. This does not force us to accept all of them at all – combinations of the letters are not living options (they are known to be incompatible with each other).

    I also stated in my post that I think Christianity is unique in its intellectual defensibility, a claim which I joked was too large to justify in a single post. If that is correct, then other religions simply are not living options for me, and I would not be rationally justified taking a leap of faith in them. But, someone who reasonably thought that Islam, Buddhism, and Atheism were open would be rationally justified in taking a leap of faith and assenting to one of them.

  6. It seems to me your are using a presupposition that Jame's position must be reasonable to justify the notion that it doesn't require inconsistent beliefs.

    Christianity gives each of us a choice: Believe or don't believe. The choice it gives is forced because it must be made and failing to make the choice is the same as choosing the negative option. In other words, "He who does not see, and therefor fails to believe, is not blessed."

    James logic works because this choice is forced... if we *must* choose then we should even if we don't have sufficient evidence. But Christianity is not the only religion that claims exclusivity and demands explicit assent. All of these faiths necessitate the same forced belief-choice that Chrsitianity does. I'm not saying one can't aknowledge this and still maintain "I've made my bet and decided against all but one or a few (mutually compatible religions)."

    But there is no logical or practical limit to the number of religions that could arise and demand belief-choices from everyone who encounters them. This isn'y a logical problem - but I think it does shade toward a reasonable use of Occam's Razor.

    Again, Jame's logic works if you could establish that Christianity is really the only belief choice that matters. You've mentioned twice now that you think this is so... and I think everyone reading this is all ears in that regard.

    I can't help but pre-empt your words along those lines,however, with a reckoning of how lucky you are to exist in a socio-cultural milieu suffused with the very religion that happens to be the One True Faith ;-)

  7. I should also add that I am not sure it is a settled point theism and/or Christianity in particular, does entail a forced belief-choice before the evidence if available. By that, I mean that is not clear to me that Christian metaphysics does require that the sinner repent before he has died and hence find himself before God in judgment. I am wholly uncertain that God clearly states that the man who repents of his agnosticism when he sees God will still go to hell. If that is so, then a belief in Chrisitianity is not forced because one can always wait until the proper evidence is available.

    This doesn't wholly undercut James' logic - but it does suggest that other implicit claims are at work in identifying theism as a forced belief-choice.

  8. It's all well and good to argue the issue abstractly. But perhaps we should take a page from the scientists' playbook and engage in what we might call "experimental philosophy".

    Timmo has described a certain class of statements which appear to have the following characteristics: They are (a) propositional (truth-apt), (b) objective (their content does not reference mental states), (c) empirically undecidable, and (d) necessary and/or important to decide.

    As an advocate, then, I charge Timmo with the task of showing us some actual sentences which he believes most strongly exemplify this class. We can then critically examine them and see if they do in fact meet the criteria for his class.

    If such a class of statements exists, it is productive to discuss further how we should choose. But I suspect that there are no such statements; it is obviously unproductive to worry about how to decide on statements in a null class.

  9. Kipp,

    As I argued before, a genuine option does not necessarily have to be between only two hypotheses. And the fact that we can have a genuine option between more hypotheses does not occasion Ockham’s much abused razor. This principle holds that explanations should be as simple and economical as possible and no more assumptions should be applied to an explanation that those absolutely necessary. Options are not theories, so this is irrelevant.

    I do not think that Christianity is intellectually defensible because of my upbringing, which was largely irreligious. I say in good intellectual conscience that Christianity is uniquely defensible. For example, to give you a sense of the kinds of considerations I am referring to, the worldview of both Buddhism and Hinduism relies heavily on reincarnation. For the Hindu, one could literally reappear as anything. The problem with this is that there seems to be no way to preserve individual identity. What is it that makes you you after you have been reincarnated? There is no bodily or mental continuity or, seemingly, any other identity-preserving properties. In fact, if you are a materialist about the mind and think that it is a function and product of the brain, then religions other than Christianity and Islam, which promise bodily resurrection, are already intellectually dead for you.

    Living a theistic life is not primarily about “getting into Heaven.” There are real human goods at stake in theism. James wrote, “We are supposed to gain, even now, by our belief, and to lose by our non-belief, a certain vital good. St. Augustine perceived that our hearts are restless until they abide with God. Fashioned by and for God, we are constituted so that His Love a necessary element of our flourishing and happiness. In that sense, our truest, deepest selves are images of God -- we are most truly ourselves when we imitate Him. If our decisions and subjective priorities are out of synch with our spiritual nature, we will not only be wicked beings, but experience life alienated from ourselves. So, this possibility makes theistic belief momentous option – because of its deep implications about us, it can not be dismissed in good intellectual and personal conscience.

    Barefoot Bum,

    I should think it is fairly obvious what propositions constitute this class. Some of them we have been discussing:

    (1) God, as conceived of by Christianity, exists.
    (2) Jesus rose from the dead.
    (3) We will be raised from the dead.

  10. Timmo

    These are indeed interesting sentences. What I'm asking for is for you to commit some set of statements, commit to explicit criteria (I offered a suggestion in my previous comment, but you're free to adjust it as you see fit) and offer a detailed evaluation of how those statements fulfill the criteria.

    I think such a detailed evaluation would be worthy of the front page.

  11. timmo,

    Being raised in a "largely irreligious" family (presumably in a western society enmeshed in Chrisitian thought) does not get one "off the hook" when it comes to an initial conditions bias towards Christianity - but it is a minor point nonetheless.

    Your claims concerning reincarnation lacking "continuity" are vague and seem rather ad-hoc. The notion of karma seems to suggest that some continuity does exist between incarnations of a given individual. Because you don't see these options as attractive (who cares if we are reincarnated if personal identity is out the window, you seem to be saying) you then conclude that Hinduism does not really provide a forced belief-choice.

    But this alleviation only works if we implicitly assume that maintenance of personal identity is both possible and good. If reincarnation is truly the nature of reality (and hence the option of everlasting life in the presence of a timeless God is not possible) then the forced-choice of Christianity is illusory. We must accept the premise that maintenance of personal identity is possible after bodily death before we find our belief-choice in Christianity forced.

    And quite apart from ancient religions like Christianity and Hiduism, we have modern beliefs like Scientology for instance - which has a rather distinctive set of exclusivity notions and forced belief choices. Do you have a handy dismissal argument for Scientology's forced belief-choice like you did for Hinduism (with Buddhism apparently strapped to its back)?

    Even if you do have these dismissal arguments handy, however, it seems our agrument has moved away from the simple "forced belief-choice" that we started with toward a far more mundane discussion of which religions seem likely and/or attractive to us. And these decisions are, I assume, not forced-choices.

    That's why I doubt that James' argument really establishes the Chrsitian belief choice is forced in any real sense. One has to already view Christianity as unique based on a raft of non-forced beliefs about Christianity (and it's compteting religious alternatives) before we approach a forced-choice for Christianity. But, of course, what better place to find the best work on Christian Exceptionalism than in a society dominated by Christian thought for over a 1000 years...

  12. Not commenting either way on theism or atheism, I would like to commend Timmo for a very well-written piece.

  13. Barefoot Bum,

    Thank you for your clarification. I agree with your way of delineating genuine options. While my original intent was simply to show that faith could be rational, your challenge is certainly fair. Once I get a chance, I will take it up.


    My point about reincarnation is not “who cares if we are reincarnated if personal identity is out the window,” but that without the preservation of personal identity the claim that I will be reincarnated in another form after death is unintelligible: what would make the reincarnation an incarnation of the very same person? From this I conclude Hinduism is not a living option, not that the option is not forced or momentous (which it is). (Karma, by the way, will not work as a solution because karma is attributed to praiseworthy and blameworthy persons, meaning that karma presupposes personal identity.)

    I do not regard this argument as a “handy dismissal” of Hinduism, but as a serious philosophical objection. I have not been using poetry or propaganda to persuade you, but been presenting philosophical arguments which can be assessed as sound or unsound.

    A forced option is a dilemma, with no possibility of not choosing (because not choose is functionally the same as one of the options). We are not forced to believe Christianity; we are forced to take a stance on it.

  14. Here's the thing...

    If you look at the scientific method at a purely abstract, metaphysical level, you'd be entitled to retain a profound skepticism. I can't think of any logical reason that the scientific method necessarily entails the acquisition of knowledge. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, not the recipe.

    Likewise, I think that just because we're entitled to metaphysical skepticism of James' method (or Timmo's presentation of it) doesn't necessarily mean that it might not work in practice.

    I have a much easier time, of course; I have five hundred years of technology to support the practical value of the scientific method. But every new method has to have a first try, so the lack of prior results in not necessarily damning.

    Timmo has given us an interesting recipe. Let's try the pudding.

  15. Timmo,

    As far as I can tell, Hiduism maintains (or at least allows the possiblity) that personal identity in a western sense is an illusion and that in fact the "essence" of the individual may not be composed of a component equivalent to personal identity at all.

    If modern particle physics is correct, for instance, every proton in the universe has the exact same internal structure and properties. They differ only by their position, acceleration, and a few other similarly arbitrary properties that just happen to be products of their individual histories. Once a proton has stoppped being in a given spot or changed its acceleration, it is not necessarily possible to recover any of that previous information. In short, protons have no personal identity apart from the fact that there is more than one proton in universe and hence each proton is itself.

    Our souls - or whatever we want to call the anchor for personal identity in Hinduism - may be like protons. Each soul can persist through reincarnations, but that does not mean personal identity is maintained in the sense that the same subjective I of one reincarnation will exist for the next one.

    Now maybe this notion of a peristently reincarnating kernal of identity that lacks distinguishing characteristics seems unworthy of belief to you. But it is certainly intelligible - which is the sole criterion for it being a "living option."

    Of course, I have to aknowledge that Hinduism does not really seem to be an exclusive religion so I don't know that it happens to be a forced choice - though one must presumably accept some parts of Hindu wisdom to make progress through one's reincarnations.

    I will aknowledge that James establishes that "forced choices" can be be rationally decided (since they must be decided and evidence isn't available). I will also aknowledge that Chrisitianity could be a forced choice if it was actually the only intellectually defensible option as you claim. Thus, I eagerly await your posts laying out Christian Exceptionalism.

  16. kipp,

    I will aknowledge that James establishes that "forced choices" can be be rationally decided (since they must be decided and evidence isn't available).

    I myself remain skeptical on this point. I'm not sure there really are any forced choices; if there aren't, then they can't be rationally decided (in perhaps the same sense that it is false that the king of France is bald).

    Even if they do exist, I'm not really sure that James' recipe is truly "rational". But I can't really tell without some concrete examples to wrap my poor engineer's mind around.

  17. Kipp,

    Again your explanation does not save reincarnation. You write, "Each soul can persist through reincarnations, but that does not mean personal identity is maintained in the sense that the same subjective I of one reincarnation will exist for the next one.” Unless "I" simply denotes my soul, then the notion of my soul is itself unintelligible. What is a soul if it is not an individual mind, my individual mind? Indeed, what would make it the very same soul if it did not have identity conditions? It seems to be a non-starter.

    Also, Bosons do not have universally applicable and determine identity conditions. Multiple bosons can be in the same quantum state (and thus be described by the same wavefunction or density matrix), but there is no fact of the matter about which boson we get when we “yank” it out of that state. So, the analogy does not work: surely we want to say there is a fact of the matter about whether or not I am a reincarnation of Napoleon!

    Being intelligible is not a sufficient condition for being a living option, although it is a necessary condition. The proposition "I am a fried egg" is intelligible -- it has a clear, definite meaning -- but it is manifestly false. Thus, it is not a live hypothesis. Other propositions such “Phlogiston exists” are known to be false, and they are live hypotheses either. Being a live hypothesis means that it is a real candidate for belief: given what the agent alreadey knows, it could be true.

    I have asserted that Christianity is unique in its defensibility. However, even if I am wrong about this, James’ argument is still applicable and taking a leap of faith in Christianity is rational. As I explained before, a genuine option can be between more than two choices, A, B, C, D, and E. If we are in an evidential gridlock with respect to all of them, then we may make a leap of faith in one of them. I am not, as you seem to imagine, some kind of closed-minded “exclusivist,” and I will not be defending loading the deck in one’s own favor.

    What I will be doing is attempting to meet the Bum’s fair-minded challenge of whether Christianity fits into the Jamesean criteria I advanced. That is sufficient for showing that a leap of faith in Christianity is rationally justified. If someone can produce similar arguments showing that Hinduism, say, meets those criteria, then I will happily say that a leap of faith in Hinduism is similarly justified. Because of the possibility of producing such arguments, I am a pluralist (as I said in my original post), not an “exclusivist.”

  18. Just FYI: I don't at all mind being referred to as "The Barefoot Bum" or any variants, but you can also refer to me by name (Larry) for ease of typing.

  19. timmo,

    You'll need to unpack your definition of "nonstarter" - it seems to be an aesthetic claim that the conceptualiztion of a soul without personal identity does not appeal to you... but surely the intelligibility of a notion is about more than its appeal.

    I made no claims about bosons having determinable identity conditions, only that there do happen to be multiple particles in the universe. We are epistemically stymied from ever determining if a given proton is the same one as a proton we may have isolated before, but it remains the case that different individual protons exist and participate in various relationships with other particles through time. Protons do not have subjective I's - but why should we hang our identity onto contingent experiences in our history rather than onto the unique individual that we are. Just because this conception of a soul lacks the epistemically derivable individuality you like doesn't mean it can't make sense to believe that reincarnation operates on that "soul particle." If this is the nature of reality, then nonstarter or no, it is the way things are: Personal identity is an illusion and that's just the brakes - and sorry, we can't tell you if your soul particle was once Napoleon or not.

    The objections I am making with regard to multiple exclusive religions is not against the structure of Jame's logic so much as a meta-issue about our reasons to think that James' method may not be practical in a world where multiple religions make equally coherent, but mutually exclusive claims for redemption.

    It was also to suggest that the "forced choice" really only comes in a context of many other unforced choices about how we limit our set of possibilities. And if these unforced choices and the constraints they place upon our options can't really be justified, then I think I could be reasonably skeptical that Christianity - or any religious belief beyond Reason - does actually present us with a forced choice.

  20. Bum Larry,

    I am skeptical that there are any decisions which are truly forced-choices as well. I simply agree that if we were faced with a force belief-choice as James describes, then we could be "rational" in choosing one option and committing to it. By "rational" I tend to assume James means something like 'the result of an honest and sober consideration of the options derived from as accurate a picture of a given situation as is available.'
    I should aknowledge that I've given James forced-choice idea only cursory consideration - so I am happy to see you continue your analysis of the logical coherence of forced choices. I just think that they could exist but that Christianity doesn't really provide a forced choice unless one already believes in the particular criterion for damnation that it brandishes...

  21. Kipp,

    This comment thread has gotten fairly long, and I do not think we will be able to see eye-to-eye on this matter. So, this will be my last comment.

    You seem to have conceded that there is no fact of the matter about whether I am a reincarnation of Napoleon (which is what I am trying to show). I do not think this is compatible with Hinduism. What I am in this life is determined by my virtuous and sinful actions in my previous life. Individuals are supposed to ascend through the chain of being toward Brahman, but if individuals do not objectively persist through death and rebirth, the sense of this doctrine evaporates.

    Lastly, Christianity does not “brandish” Hell – unless you are Fred Phelps, whose perverse teachings are utterly contrary to the spirit of Love we find exemplified in Jesus. As I pointed out earlier, there are real, vital human goods at stake in this life. Christianity is not an other-worldly religion. If it were, I would not be one.


  22. timmo,

    The mechanisms by which the Christian God may have created the universe - not to mention the technique by which a timeless entitity interacts with a temporal reality - are all things which we cannot know. By accepting Christianity, you presumably assent to aknowledging that you cannot know how these things are done, but that they do happen.

    Our epistmelogical limits with respect to tracking souls through incarnations, or bosons through partical interactions, do not mean that the Brahman cannot access techniques for doing these things. The structure of the Hindu universe may allow for karma to track souls through incarnations even if all apsects of a soul's "personality" are lost and even if we (mere) humans can't (we are talking about transendant entities here.

    And I will heartily agree that there are important goods at stake in this life based on one's moral system and behavior. But there is no need to assent to belief in the Christian religion to practive a morality equivalent to Christianity and many people do. What makes the belief-choice about the Christian religion forced is the purported nature of the consequences in the next life for choosing not to believe or simply choosing to withhold belief.

    This suggests to me that one's choice of a moral system is the thing that could be truly forced as James describes - but not one's choice about belief in a particular religious ontology.


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I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.

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