Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Foundations of Knowledge: Part 2 - Rationalism and Belief in God

Rationalism is an epistemological method which attempts to ground knowledge in reason. 

Rationalism is often contrasted with Empiricism, which is the attempt to ground knowledge in sense-based experience. Rationalists argue that the variable nature of sense-based experience, that experiences of the same thing can change according to the perspective of the knower, makes it an unreliable foundation for knowledge and truth (For more on this see the video, “An Introduction to Logic and Reasoning Skills - Part 2).

In contrast reason is said to provide a more objective and reliable basis for knowledge, because no matter where you are in the world or who you are, what is logically and rationally true is always going to be true.

For instance, consider the following syllogism, which is a logical method of deducing a conclusion from what appear to be unrelated premises:

  • A - All men are mortal 
  • B - I am a man 
  • C - Therefore, I am mortal
The basic structure of a syllogism is as follows: A + B = C. Thus we deduce: If the first statement (All humans are mortal) is true, and if I am a man, then logically it follows that C is true (I am human, male and therefore mortal).

Rationalism is also associated with the scientific method. Science largely operates according to the principle that true knowledge about ourselves and the nature of the world can be found by utilising human reason and logical enquiry. Unsurprisingly, with its emphasis on faith, belief, and supernatural revelation, religious knowledge is often considered incompatible with the scientific method and Rationalism.

An example of a so-called incompatibility would be religious beliefs about the origins of life, versus scientific theories of cosmic evolution. For instance, in the Bible in the Book of Genesis, we read how God appears to create the world in the course of a week, whereas cosmic evolution suggests that the emergence of the universe and life took billions of years.

It has been suggested that religious accounts of the creation of life were the product of pre-scientific knowledge: that stories were told to help people find a meaning and purpose in life. Thus, the more humans came to understand the world they live in, the less they needed the religious worldview to explain things and fill in the gaps. All this has added to the view that religious belief and reason cannot co-exist with each other.

But for all that atheists and scientists might want to reject religious belief and the existence of God as the by-product of an unenlightened mind, it is a mistake think that Rationalism has no place for God, or that Rationalists are naturally inclined towards unbelief and atheism.

For example, the Greek philosopher Plato who was very much a Rationalist sets out an argument in “Timaeus” for the existence of a benevolent (or Good) demiurge (god/Creator), who brought the world into existence. Although Plato’s demiurge is not the same God as the one argued for in the various modern Cosmological Arguments, there are clear parallels with these, the most notable being that a Divine presence is the First Cause of everything.

One of the most famous examples of a rationalist methodology being employed to support belief in God is Anselm’s Ontological Argument. In “Proslogion”, Bishop Anselm argues that something which exists is better (or greater) than something which does not, and so concludes that God’s existence is logically preferable to God’s non-existence. This means that God actually existing is the greatest thing we can conceive of God. He also argues that the claim “God does not exist” is logically nonsensical, for to suggest that God does not exist presumes we know what it means to say God does exist (which according to him, means God exists).

One of the more striking examples of where Rationalism and belief in God meet is in the philosophy of Rene Descartes. In his “Meditations” he explores a logical and rational method for establishing true knowledge. He suggests that whilst sense-based experience and certain thoughts about his existence can be doubted, the fact that he is having doubting thoughts cannot. Thus, he concludes that whatever cannot be doubted is true (“Cogito ergo sum”).

However, whilst Descartes was certain that his “method” set out a logical and rational basis for knowledge, he still felt the need to ground it in something other than this; something absolutely guaranteed to be a constant and reliable source of truth. And so with this in mind, the Fifth Meditation concludes: “Thus I recognise very clearly that the certainty and truth of all knowledge depends on… God.’’

Finally, Reformed Epistemology sets out a rational defense of belief in God’s existence by suggesting this belief does not require proof, as many non-believers argue it does. In rejecting the call to provide evidence for God’s existence (Evidentialism), they argue instead that belief in God should be treated as a basic and justified belief. For example, just as the existence of other minds is something we consider to be a rational and logical thing to believe, yet one we cannot actually provide evidence for to conclusively prove is true, then why not regard belief in God’s existence in the same manner? If we’re not insisting on evidence to prove the existence of other minds, then why insist that we need evidence to prove (or justify) God’s existence?

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Some thoughts about religion, religions and the religious


Wherever we have found evidence of human activity on earth, we have found religion. For instance, even in the dimmest moments of recorded history, there is evidence of people burying their dead, which many assume indicates a belief in what happens to a person once they died [1].

The oldest world religion still practiced by large numbers of people today is Hinduism. This began around 5,000 years ago in India. Sikhism is the youngest major world religion, having also begun in India less than 500 years old. 

Although all religions are centered on the belief that each of them contains the truth about life, many of them are also directly related to each other. For example, although Jesus is said to be the founder of Christianity he was also a Jew and a follower of Judaism. For example, Jesus never attended church, but visited the temple in Jerusalem or taught at a synagogue. Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha (also the founder of Buddhism), and Guru Nanak (the founder of Sikhism) were both born and raised Hindus. Finally, in the Qur'an (Islamic Scriptures), Islam is said to be a direct descendent of both Judaism and Christianity as these three faiths can be traced back to Abraham (the father of Isaac (Jews) and Ishmael (Arabs)). The Qur’an also talks of Jesus as a great prophet and a respected teacher of Islam. 

Some of the similarities and differences between religions can also be explained by geographical location. For example, religions which have their origins in the Middle Eastern countries (such as Israel, Saudi Arabia), tend to view God as a personal deity and each person as distinct from God and each other. On the other hand, religions which originated in the Indian continent have tended to arrange their beliefs around the idea that each person has a divine soul is directly related to God (or a part of God) [2].

What religion is (or types of religion) 

For all the conflict religion has created in the world, it is also something which draws people together and gives many people a sense of purpose and meaning in their life. One problem Sociologists face with regard to the study of religion is defining exactly what a religion is. In other words, what makes a 'religion', a religion?

Consider the following example. Theistic faith traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam and even Sikhism, are grounded in the notion that there is one God. So we might say that a 'religion' is that which has as its central belief, the idea that there is one God (monotheism). The problem with this definition is that Hinduism is also considered to be a religion, but it promotes the belief that there are many gods (polytheism). The common factor here is the suggestion that a religion promotes belief in a Deity of sorts. However, many consider Buddhism to also be a religion but this does not promote any belief in God. So we see here how we need to broaden our definition of “religion” to accommodate the variety of beliefs in, or non-beliefs in, God/Deity.

Despite the problems associated with defining what religion is, common features of 'religions' are said to be: 

  • Belief that there is something greater than humanity
  • A distinction between the sacred (pure/good) and the profane (impure/evil)
  • Rituals
  • A moral code
  • Feelings of awe, guilt, or mystery
  • A relationship and response to that which is believed to be higher than humanity
  • A social group/community based on these shared beliefs
Why people are religious 

Many people who are religious are born into a family where religion plays an important part in the life of their parents or other family members. In this case people are often religious because they have been taught that this is the right way to think about the world.

Others are religious because at some stage they have begun to consider what the Buddha called Ultimate Questions (E.g. ‘Where did the world come from?’, ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘Where am I going?’), and find satisfactory answers to these in a particular faith tradition (or religion). For these people, religion gives them a sense of purpose to life, a and answers questions the non-religious life does not. Of course, if a person believes their religion gives them satisfactory answers to these “ultimate questions”, then they will naturally believe it to be true. Problems arise when people of different faiths claim their beliefs (or religion) is true to the exclusion of others [3].

Of course, the religious point-of-view is only one amongst many other ways of understanding the world and the same event can be interpreted both as an act-of-God, or as a coincidence, or a natural outcome of events. For instance, is someone being healed an answer to prayers, or the result of medicine doing its job ob (or maybe both)? Before science became a significant force in the world for explaining the way things are, people had a more superstitious view of the world. Heaven was believed to literally exist above the clouds, with earth in the middle and hell beneath the crust of the earth. Spirits (angels and demons) were also believed to live in the world, and people relied on the gods for food (i.e. sun and rain). Also, because people believed life in all its fullness was dependent on the gods, people were concerned to keep them happy through sacrifices or living a certain way. Thus as our knowledge of the world and universe grows, so it seems our need for gods (or God) to help us make sense of them becomes less and less necessary.

Yet we need to keep in mind that often 'science' and 'religion' are asking and answering two very different sets of questions about the nature of the world we live in. Science tends to ask and answers how? questions whilst religions tend to ask and answer why? questions. So science might tell us how the world was made, but religion might tell us why it was. Clashes between these two worldviews tend to occur when they try to do what they other does (E.g. If the world is here simply as a natural occurrence, that our purpose in life is solely for genetic reproduction).

The Alistair Hardy Research Centre has recorded over 6,000 personal testimonies of religious experience. In answer to the question, 'How religious are British people in the latter half of the twentieth century?', the centre found that nearly half the adult population of Britain would respond positively to the question by claiming they have had a religious experience or 'other-worldly' (transcendental) experience of some kind. Out of these, some do not want to call this an experience of God, whilst others do. Half of the positive respondents had never attended a place of worship, and many had never told anyone about their experience. One interesting find was that people reporting these experiences are better educated, happier and better balanced mentally than those who did not report them. This, therefore, challenges the generally accepted notion that people claiming to have had a religious experience are odd and mentally unbalanced.

Many may hold this view of the religious mindset because modern science has generally discarded and tabooed the spiritual dimension of human experience. However, if a spiritual experience is not due to error or sickness, and has a positive function for individuals and society, then these taboos will ultimately be challenged.

Some of the positive aspects of religion: 

  • Gives people self-esteem and a sense of purpose
  • Helps people through difficult times
  • Inspires creative activity (E.g. Churches, sculptures, paintings, music)
  • Unites people into a community
  • Inspires positive political action (E.g. William Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade) 
Some of the negative aspects of religion:

  • People think that their religion is the only one that is right, which can (and does) breed intolerance amongst people
  • Most wars are fought in the name of religion
  • Being in a religion can create an unhelpful distinction between those who believe, and those who do not
  • Believing that one’s religion holds all the answers can limit the scientific enterprise (NB. Copernicus and the Catholic Church) 


[1] In some religions the dead are not buried. For instance, Zoroastrians have traditionally left the bodies of their dead to be consumed by vultures in special places called Towers of Silence. This is because they believe burying or cremating dead bodies will defile the earth (and the elements).

[2] As you are reading this article you will notice that God is never referred to as a 'He' or a 'She'. Rather, the view is taken by the author of this website that God is neither he or she. As such, the terms 'God' and 'Godself' are preferred so as to avoid using any gender-biased language.

[3] It might be tempting to conclude that fighting between people of different faiths is proof that religion is a bad thing, or even that these particular religions are not true. However, the problem might not be with these religions per se, but with the way people understand and practice their faith.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

An Introduction to Epistemology: Foundations of Knowledge (Part 1)

Epistemology, from the Greek word episteme (meaning to know), is to do with the science, or art of knowing what we know.

I say “science or art” here because epistemological debates often center around one of the following issues: Do we discover knowledge of things, or do we create our knowledge and understanding of them?

Let’s state this another way: Are our minds passive or are they active in the cognitive, or knowing process? 

When passive the mind plays no active part in the cognitive process. In one sense we might say knowledge is pure, untainted by anything outside or in the mind. There is also a correlation between the thing perceived and our mind’s ability to receive knowledge of it. In the end the mind acts as a repository or a store for the knowledge we acquire, and that is all.

In contrast, when we say the mind is active in the knowing process, we are suggesting it plays some role in deciphering and organising knowledge. For instance, the mind receives sense impressions from things, but these are filtered and organised through an array of social and cognitive (that is mental) filters to give us knowledge.

For example, imagine this coffee-maker is our mind. To make coffee we put water in, which passes through coffee granules in this filter, which fills this jug underneath. If this is our mind then every moment sense-based experiences (what we see, hear, taste, touch and smell) are pouring in, passing through a variety of physical and cognitive filters, on the way to forming knowledge. 

The passive mind model suggests there is nothing affecting the knowledge we acquire, whereas the active mind model suggests there is, and this seems to resonate more with our experience of things. 

For instance, many people enjoy drinking coffee. Their taste buds react positively with the experience and this creates knowledge and a memory that they like to do this. However not everyone enjoys the taste of coffee. For instance, some people, like me, prefer to drink tea!

Now nothing is fundamentally changing in the nature of the coffee to cause someone enjoy drinking it, and me not so much. It is not the case that the nature of the coffee is changing according to the person drinking it. Instead it is each person’s personal preference and taste, which change and influences our experience of drinking coffee (or tea).

Let’s expand this analogy to talk about religious knowledge. 

For someone who believes in the existence of God, sense-experience also passes through the “God exists” filter. For example, if they pray for x to happen and x happens, then they would interpret that experience as God answering their prayers, which for them is also proof that God exists. Of course, some might suggest this is circular logic; that prior to having the experience of answered prayers, one is already assuming God exists and will answer them.

Let’s expand this cognitive model a little more. Just as different flavoured coffee granules can be placed in the coffee maker to give different flavoured coffee, so different social and cultural factors will influence the way our mind acquires religious-based knowledge.

For instance, someone born into a Christian family will most likely understand God as Trinity. A Muslim will experience God as Allah. A Hindu will perceive God to be Brahman, the living presence in all things…. and so on!

Unsurprisingly, the suggestion that the mind is active in the knowing process has led to skepticism and difficult questions about the nature of truth, belief and justification. For instance, can we claim any knowledge to be ultimately true? What criteria is needed to demonstrate true knowledge? Can anyone claim to be truly objective in terms of what they know?

In terms of religious knowledge, a believer might interpret an experience as the product of Divine interference, but an atheist interpret the same experience differently, judging it to be the product of natural causes and that is all. How do we decide whose experience is true?

Ever since the time of Immanuel Kant it has become increasingly popular to view what goes on in the mind as highly influential in the knowing process, and this has tended towards the notion that there is no independent source of knowledge beyond our own realm of sense-experience. But this is not exactly what Kant believed. Although he argued that the mind is active in the knowing-process, he also proposed the existence of a realm beyond human perception (called the noumenal realm) where we find the true nature of things (or things as they are). The problem he left us with is how to attain knowledge of anything as it truly is.

And so we arrive at the crux of the matter: Ontology!

Ontology is to do with the nature of reality. Obviously, logically, reality must have an essential and true nature, but the question is whether we can ever come to know and understand what this is?

If we accept the notion that knowledge is always influenced by social and cognitive filters, then this might suggest we never can never know the true nature of things. On the other hand, if we accept the possibility that mystical experiences or some form of mental training can take us behind the veil of human reason, then it might be argued that (in theory) we can.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Writing better essays (Part 2)

When undertaking any journey it’s a good idea to have some idea of where we want to go. When writing essays a plan is also a useful tool to have with which to guide the content of our work.

In "Writing better essays (Part 1)" we talked about this essay question:
  • What are the advantages of Utilitarianism? Identify the problems of Utilitarianism. (21 marks)
  • To what extent do these problems make Utilitarianism unacceptable? (9 marks)

For the whole question we have been allotted 45 minutes to answer it. Let’s consider the first part and take a minute to construct a plan to help us answer it:

“What are the ADVANTAGES of Utilitarianism?”

  1. People seem naturally inclined towards doing those things that will bring pleasurable consequences. Bentham’s quote, “Nature has placed mankind under the government of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure... they govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think” can be used to support this. Utilitarianism seems to be logically the way we naturally think about the notion of right or wrong
  2. It offers observable and measurable outcomes. We can see people either gaining pleasure from their actions, or pain. Some might say this provides an objective basis for morality
  3. It provides a good foundation for lawmaking. Both Bentham and Mill believed we should seek to create laws which maximise the wellbeing of the most people in society.
  4. Focussing on maximising pleasurable outcomes means we can expand this notion to include non-human species. Bentham quote, “I don't care whether animals are capable of thinking; all I care about is that they are capable of suffering!” This idea has been widely explored in the writings of Peter Singer, whose work has been influential in the animal rights movement.

To sketch out a quick plan such as this takes about a minute. In this video above you will also see I used a combination of words and pictures to help set out and organise my ideas. For more on this technique see Using a mind map to organise study notes.

So having briefly sketched out a plan for our answer, let’s begin writing:

“I am going to discuss four advantages of Utilitarianism.”

  • This very brief introduction shows I have thought about the question and have also chosen to discuss the following examples. Obvious, yes; but a good statement of intent.

“The first advantage of Utilitarianism is that it appears to be the way we naturally make decisions about right or wrong. People are naturally inclined towards doing those things which lead to pleasurable consequences, and seek to avoid those things which do not. They also attribute notions of right and wrong to these consequences accordingly; with pleasurable outcomes being good, and vice versa. As Jeremy Bentham famously stated, “Nature has placed mankind under the government of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure... they govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.”

  • Without actually describing what Utilitarianism is (which is not was the question was asking me to do anyway), I have shown I have a clear understanding of what Utilitarianism is, have referenced a key thinker Bentham, and also used a quotation to reinforce my point, all of which will gain me good marks.

“Secondly, it provides an objective basis for moral decision-making. If we say that maximising pleasurable outcomes is Good, and as a result of doing x it leads to pleasurable outcomes, then we might say that doing x is a good thing to do.”

  • Here I am referring to the problem of establishing an objective basis of morality, and in doing so have used technical terms in an informed and meaningful manner. This shows I am informed and have thought about my subject.

“Thirdly, it provides a sound basis for lawmaking. Bentham and Mill both agreed that laws should be created to maximise the well-being of most people in a society. Laws should not be created to serve the interests of just the wealthy or nobility for example, but for the good of all (or as many people as possible).”

  • Here is more evidence of my wider understanding of the application of Utilitarianism. This again is more evidence of my deep understanding of the subject and would gain high marks.

“Finally, in grounding morality in the notion of maximising pleasurable outcomes we can begin to consider how our actions affect non-human species. Rather than having to address the complicated question of whether animals have “rights”, we can focus instead on how our actions may or may not cause animals to suffer. As Bentham argued, “I don't care whether animals are capable of thinking; all I care about is that they are capable of suffering!”. If we consider any act of causing deliberate suffering to be wrong, then this could start to raise questions about our treatment of animals and whether certain testing and farming practices are morally wrong.”

  • In this final section I have expanded my knowledge and application of Utilitarianism. If time permits I could make reference to Peter Singer, whose work on animal rights has been greatly influenced by Utilitarianism.

In closing let’s review the three main areas of good essay technique:

  • It’s important that our writing is logical and coherent
  • It’s important that we are informed and thoughtful in our work. Our writing should show evidence of carefully building and supporting the ideas we discuss
  • It’s also important we do not simply drop ideas onto the page without some prior attempt to organise them. Successfully doing this requires a plan, but also study and revision beforehand.

Have you also seen "Writing Better Essays (Part 1)"?

Friday, March 18, 2016

Writing better essays (Part 1)

On both a personal and social level, it is important we engage in an informed and thoughtful manner with other people. We also need to do this when it comes to writing essays.

What do we mean when we say we should engage in an “informed and thoughtful manner”?
  • To be “Informed” means to have taken time to learn about and understand someone’s beliefs and opinions.
  • To be “Thoughtful” means to have taken time to reflect on other people’s beliefs and opinions, as well as our own.

A good essay will show evidence of the writer being both informed and thoughtful.

Writing good essays is hard, but it is a skill which can be learned.

The most important thing when starting to write an essay is to understand what we are being asked to write about. For example, here is a sample essay question from an Advanced Religious Studies exam:

  • “What are the advantages of Utilitarianism? Identify the problems of Utilitarianism.” (21)
  • “To what extent do these problems make Utilitarianism unacceptable?” (9)

Look at the question carefully. What is the candidate being asked to write about? The question is not asking the candidate to list everything they know about Utilitarianism. It is asking them to first discuss the advantages of Utilitarianism, then to discuss the problems of Utilitarianism, and finally to evaluate it as an acceptable moral theory. The question is not asking the candidate to describe what Utilitarianism is. It is assumed they will already know this, and in fact evidence of their understanding will naturally be shown in the answers they give.

This brings us to second thing we need to do when writing an essay, and that is to be prepared.
Preparing to write an essay begins with study and revision.

We cannot adequately write about a subject without having the proper information about it, and to do this unavoidably takes time. Think of study and revision like getting to know someone. We cannot say we truly “know” someone after meeting them for just a few minutes. In the same way, we cannot adequately write about a subject unless we have taken time to “get-to-know” it beforehand.

The more time we spend with anything, the more we will get to know it and understand it. It’s that simple!

So writing a good essay shows we know our subject. It also shows we have thought about the things we have learned, and will also give us a chance to demonstrate our ability to engage thoughtfully with the subject, from different points of view.

Remember Bertrand Russell’s table analogy? Russell said that various people looking at a table will all have different experiences of it. Likewise, when we write an essay we are essentially acting as a narrator for different people’s experiences, beliefs and opinions; our own also included.

Now logically, when having to engage with a variety of beliefs and opinions there are going to be some we do not agree with, but that’s okay. The main purpose of an essay is to show we’re informed about a subject. For example, it’s okay for an atheist to talk about why some people believe in God without actually having to feel they need to believe in God in order to do this. If their essay requires them to explain the reasons why people have this belief, then that's all they need to do.

In many ways writing an essay is also like being the conductor of an orchestra; bringing together a variety of different sounds in order to make a harmonic whole. And whilst the conductor will no doubt have a favourite instrument, they will allow each one to be played on their own terms for the sake of bringing the whole composition to life.

Finally, let’s talk about the content of an essay.

Unless you are writing an answer to examination question (where time is the essence), it is good form to start your essay with an Introduction where you talk about your intention for writing the essay (“In this essay I will be…”). Obviously to be able to write a good introduction requires prior knowledge of what you are going to be talking about, which suggests we have a plan for the essay prior to writing it.

Your essay will consist of several paragraphs in which you demonstrate knowledge of the subject from a variety of perspectives. You will also use quotations to do this.

There will be a paragraph or two near the end where you discuss your own informed opinions.

Finally there will be a conclusion where you restate the main argument you made in relation to the question.

Friday, March 11, 2016

An Introduction to Logic and Reasoning Skills (Part 2)

There are over 7 billion people in the world, and with each person on the planet comes a unique perspective on the nature of things.

People are born into different families, different countries and different cultures, all of which shape the way each of us perceive the world.

We are also different from each other in many other ways. Male and female; fair-skinned and black; straight, gay, transgender; disabled, blind, colour-blind. So many things combine to make us very different from each other.

When it comes to thinking about each other’s beliefs and opinions, these too are many and varied. What we think about the nature of the world, reality, purpose of life, meaning of things, morality, religion, and God even, our beliefs are not necessarily going to be the same as what other people think. When we consider the multitude of influences that go into making us who we are, it is easy to see why this is the case.

So with this in mind our starting-point for evaluating another person’s beliefs and opinions must surely be that of asking questions. For example:
  • Why do they believe that?
  • When did they acquire these beliefs?
  • What has led them to continue having these beliefs?
  • How are my beliefs different to theirs?
  • Where might we agree on this issue?
And so on…

Of course, if we all have our own unique beliefs and opinions then how do we decide which of them are reliable or true, if any?

In his book “The Problem of Philosophy”, the Philosopher Bertrand Russell illustrated this point in the following manner:

“To make our difficulties plain, let us concentrate attention on the table. To the eye it is oblong, brown and shiny, to the touch it is smooth and cool and hard; when I tap it, it gives out a wooden sound… but as soon as we try to be more precise our troubles begin. Although I believe that the table is 'really' of the same colour all over, the parts that reflect the light look much brighter than the other parts, and some parts look white because of reflected light. I know that, if I move, the parts that reflect the light will be different, so that the apparent distribution of colours on the table will change. It follows that if several people are looking at the table at the same moment, no two of them will see exactly the same distribution of colours, because no two can see it from exactly the same point of view… The same thing applies to texture… and shape.” [1]

So if people are having different experiences of the table at the same time, whose experience is the most valid or true?
Let’s illustrate this point another way using a well-known Indian parable:

In a village three blind men were touching an elephant. They were asked to describe what they were feeling. The first blind man, holding the elephant's leg, said he was touching the trunk a great tree. The second blind man, holding the elephant's tail said he was holding a rope. The third blind man, touching the elephant’s side, said he was standing in front of a great wall. Each blind man was convinced he was right and others were wrong, even though they were all touching the same elephant.

The table and elephant analogies suggest there is no such thing as Absolute Truth; that in fact all truth is relative to the individual and many philosophers will accept that this when it comes to social, moral and religious truth-claims. However, this is not to say we are now living in a world devoid of any truth or sense of certainty.

For instance, we can’t drive up to a gas station and decide to fill up our vehicle’s fuel tank with milk. Everyone at the gas station would agree that in order to make their vehicle work they need to put gas, or petrol in it. A combustion engine will not run on milk. Even if someone insists it does, they will soon come to realise they are wrong, especially when they attempt to start their car and drive off. So although someone next to me may have been born in a different country, have a different skin colour, is the opposite gender to me, and different in all manner of other ways, both of us would agree that we need to put gas into our vehicle in order to continue driving it.

One final point. Sometimes a disagreement between two people is simply about the meaning of the words we use. For instance, consider the person who believes the earth is flat versus the one who believe it is not. Both would say that the earth is “Round”, but both would also clearly mean different things by this.

[1] Taken from chapter 1, “Appearance and Reality”.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

An Introduction to Logic and Reasoning Skills (Part 1)

When discussing and evaluating issues it is important to be able to present our opinions in a logical and reasonable manner. 

For example, I am sure you have witnessed this type of exchange in the comments section on YouTube: 
  • Person #1: I know the earth is flat but Illuminati’s created the earth round to make people not believe in God
  • Person #2: Haha you idiot
  • Person #1: Insult is the first proof that someone knows he lost ... He will insult you instead of understanding why
  • Person #2: Knows I lost huh. Again, you are a moron
  • Person #1: I won’t insult someone that only wants to insult and not look for the truth ... You’d rather trust what others say and not your own self and for that I will block you, but I hope one day you’ll repent for your sins
  • Person #2: Go kill yourself

(Actual comments posted on a video “Flat Earth theory & Evidence!?”)

Clearly there are no logic or reasoning skills being demonstrated here. Opinions are stated without qualification, and for no good reason insults traded. No attempt has been made to explain or examine anyone’s opinion, belief or idea.

Depressingly, this sort of behaviour is very common on social media; but there is another way.

In order to avoid unnecessary conflict, and simply as a matter of basic respect, we should engage thoughtfully, critically and logically with the variety of different viewpoints people hold. What might this look like? 

Well, let’s consider the following statement: “God exists because the Bible says so.” For those who believe the Bible is God’s written Word, this obviously justifies God’s existence. If the Bible says there is a God, then it must be true.

Also, they might say if there is no God then where did the Bible come from and why was it written? For them the very existence of the Bible is evidence for God’s existence.

Of course, an atheist would naturally disagree! Atheists do not believe God exists and many argue that the Bible is simply a human creation. As such the Bible cannot be used to support the claim that God exists.

Yet for all that atheists will dispute the existence of God, they cannot reject the existence of the Bible. The Bible clearly exists, but where did it come from? Why did people start writing down experiences they claimed to have had of God? If there is no God then why did people keep and preserve these writings and use them as a basis for their social and religious communities? And so the discussion begins.

Logically and reasonably we first need to establish a criteria for proving whether “God exists because the Bible says so”. For example, if a particular book actually is the Word of God and therefore evidence for God’s existence, what would such a book look like? 

What sort of writings would it contain? Would it have any errors? Could its human authors be said to have reliability communicated God’s teachings or commandments in it? Should we expect the original documents to still be around? Are we able to validate its religious truth claims on the basis of it reliably recording certain factual or historical events? And so on.

To examine the claim that the Bible is evidence for God’s existence requires us to explore and understand the assumptions being made to support or deny this, and to do this we need to ask questions and tease out the reasons people have for their different beliefs about it.

The bottom line is this: We cannot reasonably argue against some else’s point-of-view without giving them a good reason as to why we think we are right, or without giving them a good reason for why we think they are wrong!

Monday, February 8, 2016

Three Critical Responses to Fletcher's Situation Ethics (1/3)

The following notes are based on an essay by Henlee Barnette in “The Situation Ethics Debate, edited by Harvey Cox”, which is a review of literature generated around the publication of “Situation Ethics” by Joseph Fletcher.

Henlee H. Barnette - "The New Ethics: 'Love Alone'"

Henlee Barnette analysed the strengths and shortcomings of situation ethics in the following manner:


  • Situation ethics is right to focus on love, as this is a central motif in Christianity and the New Testament.

  • Christian morality cannot and should not be reduced to a set rules, which try to be applicable to all.

"Jesus laid down no rules for Christian conduct... Rather, he presented illustrations and principles of the Christian style of life.”

  • Placing people rather than principles at the forefront of morality has genuine merit.

"The Christian way of meeting the spiritual needs of men is to be redemptive, and this means to treat them as persons.”

  • Fletcher's work has opened up an important avenue of debate in modern Christian ethics, and for this reason alone it cannot be ignored.


  • There is an assumption that people innately know what “Good” is, or in Fletcher's case, there is an assumption that people know what it means to serve love’s interests.

  • What is ‘Love’? Fletcher seems to use it as a catchall term for all manner of things such as, “the intrinsically good, justice, principle, disposition, ruling norm, etc.” Love is made the priority, but never given any content.

"There is ambiguity with reference to the use… of the terms "situation" and "love." One is never certain what [Situationists] mean by these terms.” [Brackets mine]

  • In Christianity love goes beyond the law, but does not replace it. Keeping the commandments, for example, is actually a demonstration of love towards one’s neighbour.

“The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,”and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:9-10)

  • Fletcher equates moral law with ecclesiastical law. The fact that Jesus put aside religious laws for the sake of acting appropriately in a situation (Luke 6:1-11), does not mean all moral laws (religious and civil) should be set aside when one deems it fit to do so.

  • Fletcher is a Utilitarian, but in this case agape replaces pleasure (maximising love). Therefore his Situation Ethics falls foul of the same criticisms leveled against Utilitarianism.

  • As a Christian ethic Fletcher’s Situation Ethics lacks theological depth:

“Noticeably absent… is any is any serious concern for repentance, judgement, human nature and redemption.”