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Discussion in 'Off-Topic' started by Plotinus, Feb 13, 2007.

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  1. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    I didn't have to learn any language, because my BA was joint schools. If I'd done straight theology I'd have had to learn Greek. Similarly, if my M Phil had been just in patristics, I'd have had to learn Greek (or Latin if I'd been doing a Latin-speaking theologian for my thesis). But I did mine in patristics and modern theology so I got out of that! I learned Greek in my spare time, but I found it very hard. Greek is more important to theology than Latin is, although of course if you're going to specialise in medieval theology or something like that then Latin is more important. Augustine spoke Greek very badly and Aquinas didn't speak it at all, so perhaps I'm not in such bad company.

    I learned French at school, so my natural inability to learn languages was forcibly overridden!

    I should add that if you study modern theology you generally need to know German, because most of the really important theologians of modern times have written in German. Plus, of course, a lot of modern scholarship is German. Fortunately for me, an awful lot of patristics scholarship over the past century has been French.
     
  2. Red Door

    Red Door Man of Mayhem

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    I'm sorry if you answered this, but I needed to ask:

    What religion are you or consider yourself?
     
  3. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    As I said in the opening post, I'm not religious at all.
     
  4. Ansar

    Ansar Détente avec l'été

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    So, did you study German or have only had to study Greek? :)
     
  5. Red Door

    Red Door Man of Mayhem

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    So, what made you want to study theology? Would you say you "major" in one certain denomination of Christianity?

    What do you believe about the likelihood of there being a historical figure of Jesus? His ressurection?
     
  6. Quasar1011

    Quasar1011 King of Sylvania

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    Except that the Bible, which you study, says that other religions will pass away.

    Jeremiah 10:11
    "Tell them this: 'These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens.' "
     
  7. Bill3000

    Bill3000 OOOH NOOOOOOO! Supporter

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    Theology does not require that the religion that you study is what you actually believe to be true.
     
  8. Kraznaya

    Kraznaya Princeps

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    How influenced are you by what you study? (I know you claim non-religious but are you influenced by other parts of religions?)
     
  9. Turner

    Turner Chieftain Retired Moderator

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    Have you ever studied one of these religions, and said "Maybe they're right?"
     
  10. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Well, as I said, I never had to study any languages. It would have been different if I'd been in America, where they have much more of an emphasis on modern languages, especially German. My father used to teach German so I grew up around it, but I never learned it. I've learned some Latin in my spare time too. The problem is that I can learn grammar without much difficulty but I find it extremely difficult to learn vocabulary. I don't know why. So I've found Latin easier than Greek, since there is more vocabulary overlap with English, although I think that Greek is intrinsically an easier language to learn.

    I was just interested in it. Also, I must admit, I was religious back in my misspent youth... If I "major" in anything it's the church fathers and seventeenth-century western theology.

    There's no serious doubt that Jesus really existed. There's also no serious doubt that his followers were convinced that he'd been raised from the dead. But of course I don't think he was.

    That doesn't say that other religions will pass away, only that other gods will. People could still mistakenly worship them even after they've ceased to exist.

    Besides, as Bill3000 said, you can study the Bible without thinking that what it says is true. I've discovered that there are fundamentalist Christians who find this very, very hard to accept. They are so used to simply accepting anything in the Bible unquestioningly that they don't even seem to conceive of the possibility of someone reading the Bible and disagreeing with it. I remember once having an incredibly long conversation with a street evangelist from Africa who tried to convince me of all sorts of things by quoting Bible verses at me. Somehow it didn't seem to have occurred to him that if you're not a Christian you're unlikely to be convinced by that. He challenged me to find a contradiction in the Bible; I showed him the one I mentioned before about the relation between Jesus' death and Passover, and that threw him a bit - he'd spent all his life reading the Gospels and never noticed. But it didn't stop him insisting that there must be some "solution" to that "problem" which his pastor could no doubt tell him, and we could continue to assume that everything in the Bible is true. I asked him why I should believe anything in the Bible. He said you have to have faith. I asked why I should have faith in the Bible rather than, say, the Koran. He was absolutely stunned and said he would have to ask his pastor since that question had simply never occurred to him.

    This sort of attitude (that you just have to have faith and never mind about why) is known as fideism, and it emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a response to rationalism (the idea that you should believe only what can be proved). It was given some intellectual respectability by Kierkegaard, but I don't have much time for it. I should point out that the Catholic Church regards it as very dubious too. And I must mention that the attitude to the Bible that that evangelist had - that it is utterly infallible even if different bits contradict each other and that it is the sole authority (he looked very dubious when I mentioned the Pope) - is also a very modern attitude, one which developed first in the Reformation and then more in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - and one which the church fathers would all have rejected.

    Going back to the topic, as I pointed out above, different parts of the Bible contradict each other, so no-one could consistently believe in the whole thing, even if they were the most extreme fundamentalist. I should point out that I have never studied the Bible very much anyway. I don't find it very interesting, especially the Old Testament.

    It depends on what you mean by "influenced" - clarify please!

    Of course! Apart from anything else, you can't really understand a worldview without at least trying, to some degree, to empathise with it, that is, to imagine what it would be like to believe it. So naturally if you have some empathy with a point of view you would wonder if it's true. But I don't generally wonder for very long in most cases, because I've already thought my way through it all. As I said, I was a Christian once upon a time, so I suppose I retain a basic sympathy for it although I stopped believing in it. And of course I spent a lot of time wondering if it was true, and if so, which parts.

    But I must admit that recently I've wondered more, in the case of some religions. Not Christianity though. I like Christianity but I can't possibly believe in it again.
     
  11. Turner

    Turner Chieftain Retired Moderator

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    Why not? What is it about Christianity that makes you unable to believe in it?
     
  12. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Well, several things.

    I'm not convinced that the usual Christian notion of God is even possible, let alone probable. I'm not sure that it even makes sense to talk of an incorporeal being, let alone one with infinite attributes. Richard Swinburne would have us believe that an infinite being is simpler than a finite one, so the notion of God is not only possible but highly plausible. I don't swallow that for a moment. I also think that the problem of evil is much more pressing than most Christians seem to suppose. It doesn't disprove God's existence (the notion that it does was in vogue among philosophers a few decades ago, but not any more) but I think it does make it very unlikely. Even if God is possible and not notably unlikely, I don't see any reason at all to believe in him. I'm also not convinced that the doctrine of the incarnation is coherent. If it is coherent, I don't see any reason whatsoever to suppose that it is true.

    Perhaps more importantly, though, I know why Christians believe what they do. Most Christian doctrines just developed through the normal processes of history. The fact that people believe them can be explained very well without having to suppose that they are actually true. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity became orthodox in large part because the emperor Theodosius I decreed it. If he hadn't, then Arianism might have become orthodox, and it would be heretical to say Jesus was divine.

    Now of course that doesn't mean the doctrine in question is false. To suppose it does would be to commit the genetic fallacy (which is to suppose that if a given reason for X is wrong, then X itself is false). Maybe Theodosius was actually right to go for Trinitarianism rather than Arianism. However, I don't see any particular reason to suppose that he was right to do so.

    But if anyone can give me a good reason to suppose that Christianity (or, rather, some version of it, since there is no such single thing as "Christianity", just lots of interpretations of it - indeed I don't think there's a single doctrine that all Christians share) is true then I'm always willing to think about it!
     
  13. Bill3000

    Bill3000 OOOH NOOOOOOO! Supporter

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    I got another question that's been bugging me, and it's a heavy one. I also extremely appreciate your knowledge on this subject.

    Is the idea of faith in god, rational? By "rational" I don't mean whether or not it is acceptable to have a belief for the sake of the advantages it brings, psychologically or otherwise. I mean the idea in the belief in God itself; belief in something that cannot have any empirical evidence whatsoever, and doesn't have a deductive proof? If it isn't necessarily irrational, how can it differ? If it is rational, how? And if it isn't irrational, how is this a strawman? This may seem jarring, but it's something that I have been thinking about, and I'd love to get someone who knows more about the subject.

    As well, what do you think of the various arguments against the existence of god perpetuated by the layman/CFCer atheist, or atheists in general?
     
  14. mangxema

    mangxema I

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    Are you aware of any alternative explanation/theories that could explain their convictions?

    Why not?
     
  15. PrincepsAmerica

    PrincepsAmerica Nothingness made flesh

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    Does it not nag you, in the back of your head, that these men: Aquinas, Augustine, Abelard, Oresme, and Scotus, all were Christian, and as comes across in their philosophy, just as reasonable and intelligent, if not more so, than you or I?

    Do you wonder what you're not getting? And if you still judge them wrong, don't you wonder what the thought of your times has done to bias you just as you could say theirs did to them?
     
  16. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    That's probably the biggest question in philosophy of religion right at the moment. Alvin Plantinga, who is probably the most prominent philosopher in the field, argues that it can be rational to believe in something even without any overwhelming evidence (or without any evidence at all). The reason is that if it seems to you that something is the case, then it would be irrational not to believe it. Of course that just raises the next problem: if something just seems the case to you, is that rational?

    Really the problem is a much wider philosophical one. We believe many things that we can't prove: we believe, for example, that other people have minds. We also believe that we did not miraculously spring into existence five minutes ago with our memories fully formed. Of course, if that had happened, we couldn't know it; we would think we were quite old. So how do we know it's not true? Of course we don't know either way, but no-one would believe that it were true. Well, why not? Is it rational to believe that we are more than five minutes old? If it is, then what makes that belief rational? If it is not, then can we criticise anyone for believing anything else irrationally?

    According to the epistemological theory known as foundationalism, all beliefs are either (a) basic beliefs or (b) believed on the basis of basic beliefs. For example, my belief that I am sitting here now is based on the more basic belief that what my senses tell me is probably true. My belief that what my senses tell is probably true is not based on any other belief; I can't justify it on the basis of something more basic. So that's a basic belief. It's just like a building with many stories: each storey is built upon a lower one, until you get to the foundations, which are the most basic. Now according to this, we all have certain basic beliefs, and different people will have different basic beliefs, although no doubt there are some which are common to everyone, or almost everyone. The question now is which of these are properly basic beliefs. That is, which beliefs can we rationally treat as basic? For example, most people would suppose that the belief that our senses are normally trustworthy is properly basic. It's a belief that, psychologically speaking, we cannot really shake off; moreover, if we were to stop believing it, life would be unliveable. So perhaps that is a properly basic belief.

    Now the question is: can religious beliefs be properly basic? Plantinga says they can, although his argument is a bit thin: he argues that the criteria that are normally put forward for identifying basic beliefs are wrong, so no-one is entitled to say that religious beliefs are not basic.

    He also argues that we have a sort of natural tendency to believe in God, and in virtue of this, the belief is properly basic. But even if theism is quite common, it’s hardly as universal as belief in external bodies or other minds or the antiquity of the universe. In fact, if you're talking about classical theism of the Christian kind, then it’s a minority belief. Plantinga could respond that belief in the supernatural of one kind or another is a majority belief, but why would that do him any good? If we can only say that that is a properly basic belief then it doesn't go far to establishing the rationality of theism any more than the prevalence of belief in morality establishes the rationality of utilitarianism. Plantinga says that belief in God is properly basic only under certain circumstances, such as having lots of good reasons to believe in God. But perhaps only a deluded person could think they have such reasons. And if theism is properly basic only for a deluded person, what good is that?

    So you can see there's lots of matter for consideration here. Plantinga also has a rather neat argument for the claim that, if God does actually exist, then people who believe in him do not simply have a true belief; they actually know that God exists. There's a difference between true belief and knowledge, of course. I think that Plantinga's argument there is actually quite good provided one accepts his definition of knowledge as warranted true belief. But that itself is controversial (ever since Plato, philosophers have been unable to agree on a definition of knowledge).

    I would disagree with your claim that the existence of God cannot have any empirical evidence whatsoever. It seems to me that there could be good evidence for God's existence. If a big booming voice speaks out of the clouds to us to deliver edifying teaching, and there is no apparent naturalistic explanation, then I'd say that would be good empirical evidence for God's existence. Of course it wouldn't prove God's existence, but that's not the same thing.

    I don't know what arguments have been flung around in CFC recently. I think the argument from evil is good and I have not yet found any convincing response to it, other than "We don't know why God permits evil, but he does." That's perfectly possible - it could be the case that God exists and that evil exists as well - but I don't think it's likely.

    As I mentioned, I also think that the concept of God itself is not very clear. Leibniz argued that Descarte's argument for God's existence would work if only Descartes could show that God is possible. Leibniz then proceeded to argue that in fact God is possible. However, it is notoriously difficult to prove the possibility of something and I don't think Leibniz succeeded in this case. Personally I'm not sure that it is really coherent to say that there is a thing which does not exist today, and did not exist yesterday, and will not exist tomorrow, which in fact has never existed and never will, and which does not exist in any place at all, but which nevertheless does exist. But that is what classical theism claims.

    There are also bad arguments against theism too, of course. For example, Richard Dawkins would have us believe that the theory of evolution is an argument against God. I can't see any force whatsoever in that claim. But I loathe Dawkins with every fibre of my being, so perhaps I'm biased.

    We don't know enough about what happened and indeed what their convictions were, precisely. The resurrection appearances in the Gospels are notoriously hard to reconcile with each other (they all disagree over who saw the risen Jesus and under what circumstances). It gets worse if we take into account Paul's description in 1 Corinthians 15, which talks about five hundred people seeing Jesus at once, an event which is not mentioned in any other source. According to the Gospels, the risen Jesus was a physical person who could touch and eat things, but he could walk into locked rooms and disguise his appearance. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul states that he met the risen Jesus; but according to Acts 9, he saw only a bright light. And Paul also insists that although the resurrection involves the body, it is no longer physical but spiritual. What on earth does that mean?

    Basically, it seems that although the early Christians all agreed that Jesus had been raised, they weren't sure about precisely what that meant or who had seen him. So given the confusing nature of this evidence it is hard to know what sort of explanation is required. Of course people have believed all sorts of odd things that turned out not to be true. We need only think of some of the wierder cults of our own time, some of which have turned out to be tragically false. Now that doesn't mean that early Christianity was a cult, of course, simply that under certain circumstances the human mind is capable of believing things that most people wouldn't believe under most circumstances. We may never know really what caused the beliefs of the first Christians or even what those beliefs were; in the absence of any clearer evidence for what they believed and did in the early days, it would certainly be quite wrong to say that the only explanation for their beliefs would be that they were true.

    I just don't, sorry. I find the Old Testament incredibly dull. I'm just not interested in the sort of things that it's about. The New Testament is more interesting since it actually contains discussions of doctrine and so on which are easier to analyse in a vaguely philosophical way. But I find Paul thoroughly aggravating as a person, which doesn't help, and most of the rest of the New Testament is inferior to his writing - at least he has creative genius. The Gospels are interesting once you examine how they relate to each other: for example, if you study Mark and Matthew really carefully, you gain a great appreciation for what a talented writer Matthew was, in the way that he takes material from Mark and re-works it in his own way (though why he has Jesus ride into Jerusalem on two donkeys at once, presumably with a foot on each one as if surfing, is beyond me). John's Gospel is theologically very interesting too, but I find those long speeches very tedious and repetitive.

    When I used to go to church, some Christians would talk about how the Bible was the best book one could read and about how you should read it every day. I wondered if they were talking about the same Bible. I think I'd rather have my fingernails pulled out with pincers than have to read the Bible every day. Of course there are many good bits, but you really have to look for them...
     
  17. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Not really, to be honest. I think I understand most of these characters fairly well - I don't think there's something they're "getting" that I'm not. They just happen to believe it and I don't.

    The idea that all intelligent people should agree with each other strikes me as strange, but I suppose that's the idea that underlies your question. Plato disagreed with Aristotle but we don't judge either of them to be unintelligent. Few people today would agree with Plato (well, I did meet someone once who did, but he was rather odd), but we don't judge Plato to be thick because of that. Again, you mention Aquinas and Scotus - but they disagreed on a huge number of things. If I were a Scotist I'd be disagreeing with the Thomists, just as right now I'm disagreeing with them all.

    Of course no-one can avoid being biased in one way or another. Perhaps I'm unavoidably biased in ways that I don't recognise. But if that's true, there's nothing I can do about it. Everyone has to (or should) consider these sorts of things to the best of their ability, and if you've done that then there's not much more you can do.

    To put it another way, I think that everyone today, whether Christian or not, would disagree with all the figures you mention. No-one today could have the same beliefs as Aquinas because no-one today is a thirteenth-century Italian friar. It's just not possible. We inhabit a completely different world today and have to deal with different problems. Even if someone were to share Aquinas' beliefs, they would hold them in a different context, and that makes them different. For example, Aquinas believed that Adam and Eve were real people. Now there are Christians today who believe that too. But they don't really have the same belief in the same way. Because in Aquinas' day, there was no good evidence against the claim; it did not contradict the accepted science. Today, of course, that is no longer the case. That means that no-one today can share Aquinas' belief in the same way. Either they must consciously reject modern science, or they must reject that belief. Aquinas didn't have to do either of those things, but we do.

    This is just one reason why I said there is no such thing as "Christianity", just different versions of it. This becomes even more acute once you take geographical factors into account. For example, when Protestant missionaries preached in Africa in the nineteenth century, they found people asking completely unexpected questions. Dreams were an important source of revelation in many indigenous African religions, so people wanted to know if this continued to be the case in Christianity too: if an angel appeared to you in a dream, was that as authoritative as the Bible? No European had ever even thought of that question, let alone come up with an answer. Polygamy was also generally accepted in many African societies, and so we find that in the first half of the twentieth century many of the greatest African preachers such as William Wade Harris had many wives. The Europeans tried to persuade the Africans that this wasn't acceptable, but the Africans saw no reason to believe them, especially given that polygamy appears to be condoned by the Old Testament and ignored in the New. The result was a new understanding of Christianity which was rooted in a new culture: it couldn't be the same.

    So when you appreciate that, it doesn't really make sense to wonder whether you should have the same beliefs as figures of the past. You couldn't if you wanted to. And the fact that you reject even beliefs which you could share (such as a belief in the existence of God) doesn't mean you think they're stupid or anything like that, it just means you're different.
     
  18. PrincepsAmerica

    PrincepsAmerica Nothingness made flesh

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    Seriously, you're saying you've never encountered the other responses to the problem of evil?

    The idea that free will makes evil inevitable? The idea that suffering only further orients the sufferer more towards God or towards their own destruction?

    Edit: I understand what you're saying but you know as well as I that as much as people differ in belief on things there are fundamental differences that exist between orthodox Christianity as it has been consistently incarnated in Church doctrine and the beliefs most philosophers, you included believe. To that extent do you feel a disconnect from Western tradition? I ask because this has been my experience and you've have studied what I have glanced at much more thoroughly. For instance "the Great Chain of Being" is completely dismantled nowadays, whereas it was very common even among rival philosophers in previous ages.
     
  19. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Of course I've encountered those responses. I just don't find them convincing. Briefly:

    (1) I don't think that free will would make evil inevitable (and the Catholic Church, by the way, agrees with me there). And even if it did, I don't see why free will would be such a great good that it would override all the evil that exists.

    (2) If God needs suffering to bring about certain things, such as people coming closer to him, then he is not omnipotent, because an omnipotent being can bring about any logically possible state of affairs without requiring means.

    Well, I'm not sure precisely which elements of "orthodox Christianity as it has been consistently incarnated in Church doctrine" you mean, or indeed which philosophical beliefs you're referring to. But even if we assume that those are unproblematic, I don't see why it would make me feel disconnected from western tradition, simply because western tradition is not composed solely of Christian beliefs. There's an awful lot more to it than that. Furthermore, much of the western tradition is composed of beliefs that, historically, originally arose from Christianity (such as the importance of human rights or of education) but which now stand independent of Christianity with their own justifications. Certainly I sympathise with all the historical figures mentioned above in many ways and I think they were right about many things, even if I don't share their religion.

    And finally, so few westerners are Christians nowadays that I think I would feel more detached from contemporary western culture if I were one.
     
  20. PrincepsAmerica

    PrincepsAmerica Nothingness made flesh

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    Haha well I'd figured you encountered them, that's why I was incredulous you seemed to ignore their existence!

    Well the second part of your objection would most likely be countered with the idea that God has made the choice and he probably knew best. To what extent can we begin to tally up the value of creation, the thing is impossible and leads us nowhere in either direction (of either doubt or belief).

    He wouldn't "need" suffering as such, of course the point is always that he doesn't "need" anything, but that having limited his own exercise of power over us, in bestowing free-will, obviously suffering is both the result of a tool for bridging our distance from Him.
     
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