On the Accumulation of Tradition in Christianity

Nicholas Taleb helps us understand why tradition is helpful::

Consider the role of heuristic (rule-of-thumb) knowledge embedded in traditions. Simply, just as evolution operates on individuals, so does it act on these tacit, unexplainable rules of thumb transmitted through generations— what Karl Popper has called evolutionary epistemology. But let me change Popper’s idea ever so slightly (actually quite a bit): my take is that this evolution is not a competition between ideas, but between humans and systems based on such ideas. An idea does not survive because it is better than the competition, but rather because the person who holds it has survived! Accordingly, wisdom you learn from your grandmother should be vastly superior (empirically, hence scientifically) to what you get from a class in business school (and, of course, considerably cheaper). My sadness is that we have been moving farther and farther away from grandmothers.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2012-11-27). Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Kindle Locations 3841-3847). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Now, in Christianity tradition includes, but is not limited to Scripture. The idea is that Scripture is the measuring rod against which other traditions are judged. Scripture takes pride of place whether the church is examining practices, beliefs, or ways of speaking about God. But this does not mean that traditions are always wrong.

Socrates is right that everything should be questions. Postmodernists are wrong that they should be rejected.

James Chastek nails it on Being as such

How can God not be a being among beings?

In one sense first member of a causal series is a part of the series, but in another sense it isn’t. If ABCD causes something, then A is obviously 1/4 of all the causes you have, but we don’t think about it that way. We don’t say that George Bush played a part in the Iraq War, or even a crucial part in it – it was just his war. Truman wasn’t a part of the system that dropped the bomb – the system was brought int existence by his choice. This is true in every genus of causes. Winning isn’t one part of an athlete’s goals, even if one can isolate other goals than this in the game or in training. A fire hydrant is red and a light wave in the right spectrum is red, but the “is” is not said in the same way. The two things “are red” but not in a way that the one is a part of the whole.

James’ blog on Thomism is one of the best philosophy blogs on the internet. I really appreciate his succinct explanations of complicated topics. In this case he hits the nail on the head. Many Christians accidentally see God as a figure within the cosmos. This is right and good as far as such images support Christian piety because the are the models utilized in Scripture. But insofar as they are mistaken for giving precise expression concerning God’s reality, such ideas (God is a part of the furniture of the universe) tend toward treating God as a creature. The Bible, in its more literal moments, treats God as the being in whom all things live and move and have their being. Similarly, God is the cause of all non-God reality in Genesis 1, John 1, and Hebrews 1. I’ve written elsewhere about how open theism and forms of Calvinism both take anthropomorphic language about God (preordaining and being surprised) too literally.

Thoughts on Faith

In Christian thought, faith often has three distinct meanings:

  1. Belief that something is true (see James 2).
  2. Complete loyalty and trust in/to a person, idea, or group (see Galatians and the gospels).
  3. ‘the faith’ means the body of Christian beliefs and practices handed down by tradition.

“The faith” in meaning three, is a tradition and body of teaching. It doesn’t properly connect people to God because it is, by nature, a field of study and not a person or relationship between persons. But, “the faith” contains that ideas of the Christian gospel.

Faith in the second sense, is usually considered to be what connects the Christian to God, apart from any meritorious work or virtue on the part of the Christian. But such faith certainly leads to good works and meritorious works.

But, belief that something is true (the first definition above), has often been considered a virtue. I’ve always pondered how this could be so. Everybody changes their mind based on evidence and then sticks with the facts. But as I learned statistics, economics, and observed ideas change based on cultural fads, I realized that faith could mean accepting what the logic shows you despite what you think should be true. C.S. Lewis wrote about this in Mere Christianity. He called faith, “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. (Mere Christianity, 123)”

He illustrates this in a way that should be familiar to nerds everywhere. I’ll summarize and embellish. Imagine that there exists a person who starts acting like they have a crush on you. All your friends say, “This person is a cad…beware.” Hilariously, you already knew this to be so! But all your hormones cause you to help this person study, edit their papers, and listen to their problems. Then, when you pour out your feelings for this person to him/her, it turns out that you are treated just like your prior knowledge predicted. The virtue of faith, as belief that something is true, would have required that you stick to your initial perception until evidence (not moods) led you away from them.

Interestingly, in a great deal of atheist literature, I’ve found that the rhetoric often sounds like this:

We atheists believe the cold hard realities of the godless, meaningless world, despite our temptations to seek comfort in gods, afterlife, and fairies. You religious folk simply have faith, but we have the strength to believe the truth. (made up summary of ideas from several books I read in like 2009 when atheism started becoming cool again)

But this is no different from the Christian notion of faith as a virtue. If a Christian finds evidence that Christianity is completely false, then he should sit down and consider whether or not the evidence is valid and rethink his life. But, if the Christian really wants to look at internet pornography or commit murder and suddenly has an epiphany that Christianity is false based on vague impressions, then the virtue of faith would serve him well.

Similarly, if the atheist starts reconsidering atheism because of sudden superstition, then he should power forward with his commitment to a meaningless universe. But if the atheist suddenly has a vision that lucidly predicts a future with reference to a religion being true, then it occurs, then the atheist should consider this evidence carefully.

Anyway, there is obviously much more to say about faith, but I had these thoughts on my way to work this morning.

The Outsider Test for Logic

A quasi-famous thought experiment which is intended to show why any particular religion is silly is the “Outsider Test for Faith.” I think it was developed by John Loftus.

I think that it is very clever. It may even be the best argument against Christianity I have ever heard. What I’ve enjoyed the most about the experiment is that it provides a rather exhilarating perspective on familiar ideas and habits.

The outsider test for faith essentially proposes that somebody who already rejects all other religions (and presumably the gods worshiped therein), consider their own religion from the perspective of an agnostic (because they already reject all other religions). The idea is that any particular religion, from that agnostic perspective, would be laughably improbable and should therefore be rejected. I think that the test is flawed on a few levels, but those flaws are not the point of this post. I’m more interested in applying the outsider test to logic.

The Test

Imagine yourself as an outsider to the practice of logic. You do not believe or know about the law of non-contradiction, you do not utilize syllogisms (explicitly or implicitly), outside of basic counting you know of no mathematics, and outside of trial and error you have no system of testing ideas cognitively outside of physical experiment.

Then somebody comes along who tells you that there is a thing called logic. “Logic is a symbolic, abstract, non-physical reality that can be used to clarify thought.”, they say. You’re told, “Logic can be used to solve problems in mathematics, human relationships, economics, history, crime scene investigation, ethics, philosophy, and so-on. Logic is no where physical like water or light.”

You stand awed and confused.

“Logic is not made of anything like dirt or wood. Yet, despite being no where and made of nothing, it functions in all times and places. It allows for the most complex mathematical calculations,” they say waving a logic textbook around. “Logic”, they say, “gives you the tools to calculate the distance around the earth, between the stars, and to create calculating machines that utilize the powers of lightening.”

*End Test*

The outsider test for logic allows us to see how weird the world is and how convenient simple things like syllogisms, basic mathematics, and the idea that A and not-A cannot be true at once really are.

Now, I do not think that somebody would, I hope they wouldn’t, reject the use of logic based on the outsider test. I think that a convinced religious person (whether for good or bad reasons) would probably find their faith more interesting and astounding after taking the test. Anyway, the outsider test for faith didn’t convince me not to be a Christian, but it did give me a useful tool as a teacher to help students understand how great things like math, scientific method, logic, medicine, school systems, and other things are. It is also a neat tool for evaluating important cultural artifacts like abortion. The outsider test to determine the rationality of behavior for the longevity of civilization is very intriguing as well as the outsider test for how one spends his or her time.