Category Archives: Worldviews

My Review of THE WORLD OF NULL-A by A. E. van Vogt

The World of Null-AThe World of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had a hard time deciding between two stars and three stars for this novel. In the end, I decided on two stars. I found the definition of non-Aristotelian (Null-A) thought an ill-defined and incoherent concept. From my perspective Null-A seemed to imbue the adherents with super-human mental acuity completely disconnected from “integrating animal (thalamus) and human (cortex) parts of the brain.”

In the Foreword the authors tries to shed some light on Null-A. He says: “In World, we have the Null-A (non-Aristotelian) man, who thinks gradational scale, not black and white—without, however, becoming a rebel or cynic, or a conspirator, in any current meaning of the term.” I was hoping after reading the book I would understand what A. E. van Vogt meant. That never happened for me.

View all my reviews

How to Win an Argument by Manipulating the Definitions

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As a novelist, I am in the midst of writing the second volume of a colonization epic set in the future. Although the stories have all the aspects of discovering a new world (my second book in the series called The Battle for Halcyon is about to come out on Amazon, iTunes, and Chapters) I am interested in making the stories as realistic as possible. To be realistic I try to have characters that care about the things most of us care about: survival, freedom, friendship, purpose, meaning, and spirituality. I am therefore interested in discussions that deal with these big questions.

An acquaintance of mine in the Goodreads group the Christian Theological/Philosophical  Book Club, posted an acerbic comment which was billed as the draft of a script to be presented as a monologue on YouTube.

The comment quoted from the Catholic Encyclopaedia on the topic of “belief.” I will cite certain portions of the comment for discussion since I am not sure all of my readers can open the Goodreads comment without first joining Goodreads. Here we go with the quote:

From the Catholic Encyclopaedia

Belief “That state of the mind by which it assents to propositions, not by reason of their intrinsic evidence, but because of authority”.

The commenter then goes on to interpret for us:

There we have it, Sinners: no evidence required when it comes to believing … just authority. It helps if you adopt a very severe tone when you’re dealing with matters such as this – adds gravitas to the smoke you’re blowing up people’s backsides.

I think you get the sense of the rant.

Three Questions

Now I am not a Catholic, but I have read many excellent, well-reasoned book by Catholics. My own experience with Catholic teaching and reasoning made me think that I was not getting the full story on the Catholic position on faith or belief in this rather one-sided monologue. So I looked up faith and reason in Peter Kreeft & Ronald K. Tacelli’s excellent book Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Peter Kreeft is a Catholic, a philosophy professor at Boston College, and has impressed me with his practical and thorough going analyses of these types of questions. All of Chapter 2 is devoted to the question of faith(belief) and reason.

As I thought about the content of the Kreeft Chapter, I realized there are three types of questions that we can ask (the question taxonomy depends on the kinds of evidence one can muster to answer the questions):

  1. Questions that can be answered by reason and data alone.
  2. Questions that can partly be answered by reason and data, but then you need to trust someone (i.e. have faith in someone) to achieve an answer.
  3. Some questions are so fundamental and so foundational, they cannot be proved by data and reason at all and you have to trust someone for the answer.

Note even in type 2 and 3 questions, one can always “try out an answer and see how it works.” In Kreeft and Tacelli’s analysis, they connect “taking someone’s word for it” with revelation. That is to say that for questions of a spiritual nature, God has taken the initiative to reveal the answer to us (this is the most common application of faith in this context). In other realms, I may have to trust a physicist to explain the physical meaning of mathematics I don’t fully comprehend. Or I may have to trust a medical doctor to interpret symptoms and recommend a treatment for me in circumstances where I simply don’t know enough to make a proper judgement.

Examples of the Three Types of Questions

Perhaps the three types of questions would become clearer if illustrated with an example.

Question Type #1 Questions that can be answered by reason and data alone

A mundane example of a type 1 question would be “how do I fix my car?” With enough data and problem solving skills, one should be able to work it out. Now note, I could accomplish this by faith (the Greek word for faith in the Bible transliterated pistis really means trusting someone ). That is to say I could take my car to a mechanic that I trust (faith) and have him fix it for me. Faith in a person shifts my focus from the data and reasoning about the data to the character of the person that I’m trusting. But both are valid approaches. In the end whether or not I go back to the mechanic will depend on how the experience works out (trust can either be strengthened or weakened by experience).

Question Type #2 Questions that can partly be answered by reason and data, but then you need to trust someone or something to achieve an answer

Two examples of the second type of questions: Does God exist? and How does the mind work? There are many philosophical arguments for the existence of God (Kreeft and Tacelli list twenty of them in Chapter 3), but at the end of the day, one can always say, “I don’t know if that’s really compelling.” In the end it’s not enough to be intellectually be convinced that God exists because of for example the Kalaam argument, but rather one need to go beyond the data and reasoning to the person.  Similarly on the question of the mind, one can do many experiments on the mind but at the end some one has to use their mind to interpret the data. In the words of C. S. Lewis, that’s a bit like asking someone to take out their eyeball to look at it. Using the mind to analyse the mind is a form of begging the question. The measured data may be reliable, but in the end you must trust your own mind (or someone else’s) to analyse the data.

At the beginning of this blog is a picture of one of this year’s daffodils. Why do I find it beautiful? You can partly explain that by analysing the chromophores in the compounds the daffodil produces but ultimately there is a part of the answer that eludes that explanation. For me, like a beautiful painting, the daffodil was designed with my response in mind. The full answer to this question can not be achieved by studying the chemistry alone.

Question Type #3 Questions that are so fundamental and so foundational, they cannot be proved at all and you have to trust someone for the answer

The example that directly comes to mind would be the question: “What is God like?” A question that the writer George MacDonald thought was more important and more fundamental than the question “Does God exist?” If God is wicked, evil, or a trickster, he is powerful enough to fool us all. Any evidence I amass, any reasoning I apply will always face the caveat “But what if he’s just fooling me?” I can’t see anyway of getting around it. I have to trust in his goodness and see if it works out.

Some Observations

Now let me make a few observations:

  1. There are questions that one can ask in all three categories. So the questions exist. I think people who acknowledge that fact of question’s existence and try to answer them as best they can, are more connected to reality than those who try to cram all questions into category one and then either pretend that questions in categories two and three don’t exist or are meaningless.
  2. The most important questions (because they are the most fundamental and are most strongly linked to meaning) are in categories two and three.
  3. The genuine search for truth under-girds all three questions. By truth I mean, statements and assertions that are connected to reality (how things really are). Reality dictates the questions.
  4. Authority is related to character and trustworthiness, not power.

This sheds much more light on the definition in the Catholic Encyclopaedia. The commentary on the Catholic definition in the Goodreads comment to my mind is wrong:

no evidence required when it comes to believing … just authority

It’s not that no evidence is required, but rather that for the most important questions material evidence (in the scientific/engineering sense) is insufficient (actually woefully inadequate) for addressing these questions. In those cases one’s only recourse is to identify a trustworthy, honest, reliable, knowledgeable being and take their word for it. That process is another description of finding someone with authority (authority in this context means a character of honesty and access to the answers). So if one reads the context of the Catholic Encylopaedia definition as pertaining to the most important faith questions (type 3), it makes perfect sense because evidence in terms of archaeology, astronomy, chemistry and physics is of no value in addressing these questions.

How to Win an Argument by Manipulating the Definitions

One of the things that trouble me about the discussion by the commenter is the apparent willingness to orchestrate the conclusion by choosing a definition for faith that virtually compels the result that he is arguing for. One simply does not have that freedom with definitions. Definitions must be co-extensive with the property they are defining. If one is questioning the validity of faith in God or Christ, one needs to use the definition for faith as used in the Old and New Testaments, not simply make up whatever definition one pleases (or make up a definition calculated to make the argument outcome a ‘slam dunk’). Unfortunately a robust faith based on evidence of the senses and the reliable character of the messenger, seems to be transmogrified into what is better termed “blind faith” an irrational faith divorced from both evidence and the character of the messenger. To me that’s cheating and does not demonstrate a very high commitment to discovering the truth behind the questions one is asking (even if the answers are not the ones were were expecting). Furthermore when I read the New Testament and particularly the Gospels that is not the faith I see demonstrated.

This is the very point that John Lennox made when he came to Toronto a few weeks back. It is well worth it to listen to his presentation. I made the point in my book Questioning Your Way to Faith (Subtitled: Learning to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable) that truth-seekers believing in the objective correspondence between truth and reality, ought to always try to achieve the strongest arguments on both sides of every question, because in the end truth matters. Two friends may ending up disagreeing because they weigh the evidence (personal evidence, anecdotal evidence, as well empirical evidence) differently, but still they ought to listen to each other.

Why the Three Questions on Faith Strengthens the Christian World View

In closing I want to make two final points. Ravi Zacharias in his book Why Jesus? provides two tests for evaluating world views: coherence and correspondence. To me the three types of questions speak to both criteria. A coherent world view needs to be able to answer questions of type 2 and type 3 (especially type 3). These questions often related to meaning and purpose. But type #1 questions are also compatible with the Christian world view. For me the Christian world view is coherent because it can relate to all three questions.

In contrast to the views expressed by many Materialists, science and Christian faith are compatible. The Christian world view is founded on the principle of objective truth. Many things science advocates are later revised. Christians are wise to wait until science is truly settled and can legitimately be claiming to describe a truth. For many so called scientific questions that level of certainty will never be achieved. For those unchanging assertions that are not revised, reasoning and data are valid avenues for discovering truth.

From my vantage point the Christian world view also speaks to correspondence. Since one can ask type 2 and type 3 questions there ought to be answers. Saying the questions are meaningless is not a legitimate answer in my view.

So What Does That Mean for Me?

I can’t control how others argue, but I can control how I argue on important questions. Here are some guidelines and aspirations I set for myself:

  1. Be a truth-seeker. Care more about the truth than about winning the argument.
  2. Listen carefully to what is being said. Don’t just wait for him to finish before I launch into a rebuttal.
  3. Pay careful attention to the definitions. Many friends talk past each other because they use the same word in different ways.
  4. Respect the other person’s right to disagree, even when the evidence seems compelling to me. Proof happens in the mind and evidence can always be weighted differently.

Fifth Estate’s: War on Wheat. Observations on Scientists Interacting with our Culture

Felsoetold_Wheat_field,_HungaryCBC’s Fifth Estate presented a series by Mark Kelley entitled War on Wheat. Personally, I have enjoyed wheat products all of my life and I have no reason to change. However, several members in my circle of family and friends have changed to a gluten-free diet and so I was interested in hearing Kelley’s perspective on the subject. I had another reason for listening. As a scientist I am interested in examples of how scientists interact with the general public. I hope to learn how I can make my own communication more honest, open, and effective.

Every news program has a point of view. From the title, from the arrangement of the segments, and from the questions that were asked, it was clear to me that Kelley had organized the program to convince the audience that wheat is good, that “science” is almost unanimously on the side of eating wheat, and that going gluten-free is a fad promulgated by “food evangelists.” Remember, I am saying this as a person who loves his slice of bread and has found no reason whatsoever to change. Read the rest of this entry

G. K. Chesterton on Paganism

The Everlasting ManI have been reading G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. This book, first published in 1925, has much to say to a 21st century reader. For me, the early chapters generated one of those wonderful intellectual events, when on reading Chesterton’s account, a number of disparate puzzles coalesced for me and came together in an ‘ah hah’ moment.

Let me explain. In chapters V-VII, Chesterton describes three strands of paganism which ran side-by-side: mythology with all of its fantastic stories; philosophy, particularly post-Socratic philosophy which has given our civilization so much; and those strands of paganism which worshiped demons and were linked with human sacrifice such as Moloch worshipers in Palestine and the Aztecs in the new world. In one sense these three strands were contradictory. How could philosophically rigorous thinkers participate in rites and observances related to Bacchus? How could peoples who at least believed in objective values, as Lewis calls it, the tao (The Abolition of Man), degenerate into human sacrifice?

Chesterton showed how these strands really represented three attempts to connect with the spiritual. Mythology was an act of the imagination. Philosophy was an act of reason, but the two always remained separate, if parallel, strands of connection to the spiritual Other. The darker strand of demonology and human sacrifice, was more pragmatic than the other two. At some point, reason and imagination were abandoned and people sought for what worked. And so dark powers were invoked, requiring hideous sacrifices, all to a pragmatic end – they’ll give us the power that we want.

Chesterton goes on to point out that synthesis between the philosophical strands and the imaginative yearning for mystical experience were only thoroughly synthesized in the Middle Ages. From my own reading I can see how Thomas Aquinas was able to bring reason, faith, and mystical experience together. Perhaps this is why pagan societies, for all their shortcomings, were often very open to the Gospel. The imagination, reason, along with objective value had prepared them.

One final point. In my last post, I discussed the book Living at the Crossroads. It was interesting to see how in our current age the imaginative strand and the logical strand have parted company again. We have Postmodernism (imaginative strand) and Modernism (logical, data-driven strand) existing side by side. We yearn for the beauty and meaning of Postmodernism and yet fall back to the sterile world of data and logic because in some sense it is more connected with reality and outcomes. We have lost the synthesis.

If you have read The Everlasting Man, I would appreciate hearing what you thought of it.

Thanks for reading,

Peter

On Reading LIVING AT THE CROSSROADS by Michael W. Goheen and Craig G. Bartholomew

Crossroads CoverEffective communication means not only speaking and writing cogently and precisely but also developing an understanding of how our words will be perceived by the listener or reader. Words are filtered or perhaps interpreted through the Worldview of the listener.

Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew have written an interesting book on Worldview subtitled An Introduction to Christian Worldview. In order to understand their points it’s useful to begin with a description and history of the key term “Worldview” detailed in their work.

Goheen and Bartholomew in Living at the Crossroads (LATC) trace the concept of Worldview back to Kant’s Weltanschauung, a term which was developed further by the idealist philosopher Friedrich Schelling. Weltanschauung, or Worldview is denoted as a comprehensive and cohesive set of beliefs that underlie and shape all human thought and action.

In other worlds, to use a metaphor, Worldview is the set of glasses through which we see the world. Often, as glasses, if they have been on long enough, we don’t even realize they color everything. This realization is important from two perspectives:

  1. If you are speaking to someone with a different Worldview, communication will be difficult because the very words themselves will be re-translated by the Worldview.
  2. If one seeks to minimize one’s bias, it is important to understand one’s own Worldview and how it colors what one hears and reads.

Now although we all have a Worldview, I do not at all insist that all Worldviews are equal. It matters a great deal how closely the Worldview mirrors reality and sinceSunglasses Worldviews are often contradictory at points, it is unreasonable to believe they all map into reality equally well.

I share Goheen and Bartholomew’s Christian Worldview and it was interesting to me to read how the Christian Worldview intersects and reacts to two other Worldviews currently prevalent in the West: Modernism and Postmodernism.

Modernism

Conversion of EuropeIn Chapter 6 they trace the rise of Modernism through Reformation and the development of modern science from its Christian roots to the point where by the end of the eighteenth century is firmly based on confessional humanism. This transformation is summarized in one graphic and Modernism is based on four principles (page 91):

  1. Faith in progress
  2. Faith in reason
  3. Faith in technology
  4. Faith in a rationally ordered world

To my mind, these four faiths of Modernism also point to the great weaknesses of this perspective:

  1. How do we define progress? Progress becomes things we can measure: Gross Domestic Product, Average Income, and Life Expectancy. These are important, but are these the most important?
  2. Reason is very important, but what assumptions do we bring to reason and what concepts of right and wrong do we bring to reason?
  3. Science and technology are two-edged swords. They can give us polio vaccines and hydrogen bombs. Is our capability outstripping our ability to control our self-interest and quest for dominance? Where do our restraints come from?

Postmodernism

LATC tackles Postmodernism in Chapter 7. Goheen and Bartholomew point to Jean-Francois Lyotard and his “incredulity toward metanarratives” (page 109) as a defining characteristic. He and other Postmodernists are saying that Worldview defines everything. In other words reason must be distrusted when it comes to defining reality. LATC quotes Kenneth Gergen: “We are not dealing here with doubts regarding claims about the truth of human character, but with the full-scale abandonment of the concept of objective truth.” One of the few things Postmodernism shares with Modernism is their hostility towards Christianity. After that they are opposites.

Fact Value DichotomyThe two most significant things I learned from this book can be summarized as follows:

  1. Postmodernism can never completely vanquish or obliterate Modernism because Postmodernism doesn’t really work at any level that touches on reality. It may claim the sympathies of many, but eventually in public discourse, data and reasoned argument will still win out. So Modernism will not disappear.
  2. Although Christians (and presumably people of other Faiths) are able to participate in government at some level, Modernism will not let them be fully enfranchised since key political issues such as education of our young will always exclude their heart felt input. This is shown in the following figure. We can vote, but real choices we care about will never be on the ballot.

In summary, I would rate this book a 3 stars out of 5. I’m glad I read it, but it did not become part of my “go to” library.

If you have read this book, I’d love to hear from you and find out what you thought.

Thanks for reading,

Peter

A Note on the Kazmaier Rating system

4-5 Stars:             I will read this book over and over again.

3-Stars:                 I’m glad I read the book, but am unlikely to read again. If I do read it again, I’ll bump it up to 4 Stars.

2-Stars:                 I wish I hadn’t read the book.

1-Star                  To my mind this book is so poor, I’m stupider now for having read it.