Monthly Archives: March 2015

“Cultured Despisers Gonna Despise”: the Nature of Liberal “Evangelical” Theology Versus a Truly Biblical Theology

A recent careful evaluation of the roots of liberal theology - by a liberal theologian.

A recent and careful re-evaluation of the roots of liberal theology – by a highly regarded liberal theologian.

“The Holy Spirit is no skeptic…. a man must delight in assertions or he will be no Christian.” — Martin Luther to Erasmus

Recently, in an interesting First Thoughts piece on the current debates about Karl Barth, the name of Immanuel Kant was invoked.

The author of the article, Philip Carey, stated that for Kant: “The intelligibility of the world lies not in the substance of things [i.e. “their formal being or essence”] but in the a priori categories imposed on it by our active, ­conceptualizing minds.”  As Carey states, Kant came up with this idea because “we have no intellectual faculty for knowing the essence of things in themselves.” (to have Kant’s view explained in some detail in layman’s terms, give this fine podcast a listen)*

On one level, I submit that Immanuel Kant’s fight was real: for him, he was fighting to preserve the reality of free will for humans vs what he saw as the reductionism and determinism of the natural sciences (a focus of mine to), whose clout was increasing due to piling up success after unending experimental (and practical!) success. And yet, whether he intended to do so or not, Kant created a system of thought where there was no need for Divine revelation – where Divine revelation was something that could just be “tacked on”, but didn’t really fit into the overall picture. In this sense, he was not all that different than any other philosopher who has come to capture the hearts and minds of elite men and women (I also find it fascinating that he was evidently sufficiently vague [British: “shifty”] that scholars today actually argue over whether he was atheistic, theistic, panentheistic, or pantheistic, but I’ll leave that important observation alone for now). And to say this, of course, is not to insist that he may not have had some good ideas, (“denying knowledge to make room for faith”, and saying that the “world of appearances”, or “phenomena”, counted as knowledge were not these…) gotten some things right, etc. – only that his focus was not where it should have been (see Acts 17 to get some focus).

Carey’s piece put me in mind of something I had read recently in liberal theologian Gary Dorrein’s recent and ambitious revisionist work Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: the Idealistic Logic of Modern Theology.

Dorrein begins by speaking about classical political liberalism (all bold are mine):

Historically and theoretically, the cornerstone of liberalism is the assertion of the supreme value and universal rights of the individual. The liberal tradition of Benedict de Spinoza, John Locke, Charles Louis de Sceondat Motesquieu, Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson taught that the universal goal of human beings is to realize their freedom and that state power is justified only to the extent that it enables and protects individual liberty….

No longer saying: "when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me" and "this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent..."

Kant et al losing this plot..: “when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me” and “this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent…”

…and then goes on to say about liberal theology:

The founding of modern theology is an aspect of this story.  Liberal theology, in my definition, was and is a three-layered phenomenon: Firstly it is the idea that all claims to truth, in theology and other disciplines, must be made on the basis of reason and experience, not by appeal to external authority.  From a liberal standpoint, Christian scripture or ecclesiastical doctrine may still be authoritative for theology and faith, but its authority operates within Christian experience, not as an outside word that establishes or compels truth claims about particular matters of fact.

Secondly, liberal theology argues for the viability and necessity of an alternative to orthodox over-belief and secular disbelief.  In Germany, the liberal movement called itself “mediating theology” because it took so seriously the challenge of a rising culture of aggressive deism and atheism.  Liberal religious thinkers, unavoidably, had to battle with conservatives for the right to liberalize Christian doctrine.  But usually they worried more about the critical challenges to belief from outsiders.  The agenda of modern theology was to develop a credible form of Christianity before the “cultured despisers of religion” routed Christian faith from intellectual and cultural respectability.  This agenda was expressed in the title of the founding work of modern theology, Schleiermacher’s Uber die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verachtern (On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers).  Here, Britain was ahead of the curve, as there was an ample tradition of aggressive British deism and skepticism by the time that Schleiermacher wrote.  British critics ransacked the Bible for unbelievable things: in Germany, a deceased anonymous deist (Hermann Samuel Reimarus) caused a stir in the mid-1770s by portraying Jesus as a misguided political messiah lacking any idea of being divine; Schleiermacher, surrounded by cultured scoffers in Berlin, contended that true religion and the divinity of Jesus were fully credible on modern terms.

The third layer consists of specific things that go with overthrowing the principle of external authority and adopting a mediating perspective between authority religion and disbelief. The liberal tradition reconceptualizes the meaning of Christianity in the light of modern knowledge and values.  It is reformist in spirit and substance, not revolutionary.  It is open to the verdicts of modern intellectual inquiry, especially historical criticism and the natural sciences. It conceives Christianity as an ethical way of life, it advocates moral concepts of atonement and reconciliation, and it is committed to making progressive religion credible and socially relevant.

This definition is calibrated to describe the entire tradition of liberal theology from Kant and Schleiermacher to the present day….. The key to the ascendency of liberal theology in the nineteenth century is that it outgrew its origins as an ideology of freethinking criticism to become a theology in, and at home with, the Christian church. (pp. 4-5, 6).

Bayer ("Christian theology is therefore regarded as the interpretation of this speech act between the justifying God and the justified sinner") vs. Vilmar ("“The knowledge of God which calls itself theology is at the same time a speaking from God.  And speaking from God goes forth into the world, into human life.”)

Bayer (“Christian theology is… regarded as the interpretation of this speech act between the justifying God and the justified sinner”) vs. Vilmar (“The knowledge of God which calls itself theology is at the same time a speaking from God.”)

Of course, this is where traditional orthodox theologians must disagree with Dorrien, however right his diagnosis to this point. This goes back to the main argument of J. Gresham Machen, who asserted – rightly, I think – that liberal Christianity and biblical Christianity were two different religions. Theologically freethinking criticism and the Household of God don’t really go together (I think the late confessional Lutheran theologian Kurt Marquart had a deep grasp of the issues, and made this argument quite effectively – see here).

The difference, of course, is that the biblical theologian stands with the earliest theologians of the Christian church: he states that the very Word of God, as put forth in the written Scriptures, is true, and that it speaks of purposeful, discernible realities that exist outside of us.  This makes it relevant and incapable of becoming irrelevant – whatever the “Spirit of the Age” may think – and all else follows from this simple point.

And not only this, but Christians are those who make assertions not only about what is true about God and man, but the rest of His creation and the personal intentions discerned within. This means, among other things, that ancient metaphysical ideas of “substance”, for example, align more closely with the teachings of the Bible*** than does the Kantian alternative, still in vogue today in a myriad of different forms (underlying a whole spectrum of “mediating theologies”). To say this does not mean that man can, with or without the Scriptures, accurately discern and assert the intrinsic purposes of all the things in the cosmos.  It does mean however, that even without taking the Scriptures to be God’s word, man is able to accurately discern and assert some of the intrinsic purposes of some of the things within it (which should not be surprising, since the latest and greatest theories of smarter skeptics are moving in this direction anyways, as I pointed out in my last post here).

After all, as the Psalms say repeatedly: “the fool says in his heart: ‘there is no God'”.  And as Paul writes “[the] divine nature… [has] been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”  Even if one thinks that Paul is only talking about conclusions made from the deductions of our sensory experience or that he only says this by virtue of our having innate knowledge due to our “intellectual apparatus” (in Kantian terms, “synthetic apriori” stuff, the “metaphysic of experience”), Kant (we can have “strong convictions” about but not knowledge of free will, morals, rational agency, good and evil, the soul, God, etc.) gets decidedly left behind by these revealed assertions of God through His apostle – and some classical philosophers, on the other hand,**** perhaps get our grudging respect…




* More from that quote:

“It is not the mark of a Christian mind to take no delight in assertions. On the contrary, a man must delight in assertions or he will be no Christian.

And by assertion– in order that we may not be misled by words– I mean a constant adhering, affirming, confessing, maintaining, and an invincible persevering. Nor, I think, does the word mean anything else either as used by the Latins or by us in our time.

I am speaking, moreover, about the assertion of those things which have been divinely transmitted to us in the sacred writings… Nothing is better known or more common among Christians than assertion. Take away assertions and you take away Christianity.”

–Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, Eds. E. Gordon Rupp and Philip Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), 105-106.

** Carey goes on: “*But we can make scientific sense of the world because its conceptual structure and intelligibility come from us, from the activity of our minds as we conceptualize the data of our sense ex­perience”

*** While most all of modern academia shuns notions of essence/substance, a notable exception is this quote from Hans Ulrich Bumbrecht, professor of Romance languages at Stanford University, from his 2004 book “Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey”:

What I want to say….is that there is probably no way to end the exclusive dominance of interpretation, to abandon hermeneutics… in the humanities without using concepts that potential intellectual opponents may polemically characterize as “substantialist,” that is concepts such as “substance” itself, “presence,” and perhaps even “reality” and “Being”.  To use such concepts, however, has long been a symptom of despicably bad intellectual taste in the humanities; indeed, to believe in the possibility of referring to the world other than by meaning has become anonymous with the utmost degree of philosophical naivete – and until recently, few humanists have been courageous enough to deliberately draw such potentially devastating and embarrassing criticism upon themselves.  We all know only too well that saying whatever it takes to confute the charge of being “substantialist” is the humanities on autopilot (bold mine, quoted in Armin Wenz, Biblical Hermeneutics in a Postmodern World: Sacramental Hermeneutics versus Spiritualistic Constructivism, LOGIA, 2013)

As I noted in the past: “In other words, almost no one today in the academic world is a “substantialist”, or we might say “essentialist” –  to suggest that there are things in the cosmos that have firm categories of being, or essence, or substance, is anathema, for the universe is in flux.  To suggest that some of these things have an objective meaning or purpose we can discern takes even greater hutzpa.  Now, it is likely that some in the fields of the humanities see what has become their arch-nemesis, science, as being “essentialist”, however one notes the primacy (and difficulty) of interpretation in the modern sciences as well: to speak of essences is to speak of atomic particles, and not things we regularly see and experience in the cosmos, like males and females, and marriages and children, for example.  More importantly, the particles and assemblies of particles might “mean something” in a purely material sense – showing themselves to have a certain order and predictability – but a greater purpose in those things that contain them can only be a total mystery (I talked about the despair this creates here).”

**** Very interesting and helpful listening on Aristotle’s notion of the four causes:

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Posted by on March 26, 2015 in Uncategorized


The Gods of our Brahmins: Thomas Nagel’s and Rebecca Goldstein’s Intelligent Designers


Goldstein gets praised, Nagel gets burned.

In my last post, I talked about how Rebecca Goldstein has given the atheists (and agnostics to be sure) an intelligent design that even they can love. Of course this begs the question: Why specifically, has Goldstein, unlike Thomas Nagel a couple years earlier, seemed to have gotten nothing but love from the “freethinking” community?

As I said in the previous post, I don’t think that there really is a good rational answer – looking at the big picture both thinkers are essentially dealing with a Logos, or Reason, that has teleological designs (however much Goldstein may want to deny this – please read on). That said, a difference seems to be that Nagel’s teleological “bias towards the marvelous” means that the laws of nature are somehow disposed to create conscious rational beings where Goldstein’s teleological bias towards “the-best-which-just-had-to-happen” just means that while the particular laws of nature are not somehow disposed to create conscious rational beings, nature as a whole somehow is. No, the real reason Nagel is despised and not Goldstein likely has to do with whom he gives props to. From John G. West, author of Darwin Day in America:

Nagel attracted special displeasure for praising Darwin skeptics like mathematician David Berlinski and intelligent-design proponents like biochemist Michael Behe and philosopher of science Stephen Meyer. As the New York Times explained, many of Nagel’s fellow academics view him unfavorably “not just for the specifics of his arguments but also for what they see as a dangerous sympathy for intelligent design.” Now there is a revealing comment: academics, typically blasé about everything from justifications of infanticide to the pooh-poohing of pedophilia, have concluded that it is “dangerous” to give a hearing to scholars who think nature displays evidence of intelligent design.

Unfortunately for Nagel, he is a serial offender when it comes to listening to the purveyors of such disreputable ideas. In 2009 he selected Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design as a book of the year for the Times Literary Supplement. Written by my Discovery Institute colleague Stephen Meyer (whose ideas are discussed in the original conclusion to this book), Signature in the Cell made the case for purpose in nature from the existence of the digital information embedded in DNA. After being denounced by one scientist for praising Meyer’s book, Nagel dryly recommended that the scientist should “hold his nose and have a look at the book” before dismissing it.

Apparently unconcerned about being accused of consorting with the enemy, Nagel insisted in Mind and Cosmos that “the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific world view that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents precisely to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion.” Nagel added that he thinks this antireligious materialist worldview “is ripe for displacement”—an intriguing comment considering that he himself remains an unrepentant atheist.

Nagel ultimately offered a simple but profound objection to Darwinism: “Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermines their reliability, and in doing so undermines itself….” (quote from article here)

So, the reason people don’t like Nagel has a lot to do with social and political considerations. Again, as I said above, when it comes to the big philosophical picture, I think we are talking about distinctions with little difference. I don’t understand how one can’t conclude that Goldstein is just as teleological as Nagel is, albeit with universal mathematically-infused nature (or maybe nature-infused mathematics) instead of particular physical laws. The only practical difference is, it seems to me, is that Goldstein’s view is not able (yet at least) be empirically tested in any way, particularly in the fact that it seems to require a multiverse, but perhaps in other aspects as well.

with Goldstein things are very different: in her view, the result we are looking at – life, particularly conscious rational life – should not be seen as being improbable

With “Atheist with Soul” Goldstein, life – particularly conscious rational life – should not be seen as being improbable…

To explain what I mean a bit more: presumably, for Goldstein, the neo-Darwinian synthesis can somehow survive in her holistic view, as the efficient cause of beneficial mutations still occur accidentally, improbably, through non-teleological natural laws. Dovetailing along with this view of neo-Darwinism’s supposed viability, Elliott Sober, in response to Thomas Nagel’s book, said “I don’t think that life, intelligence, and consciousness had to be in the cards from the universe’s beginning”. But it seems clear that with Goldstein things are very different: in her view, the result we are looking at – life, particularly conscious rational life – should not be seen as being improbable. I can only assume this is because she thinks mathematics somehow strongly implies that there must be a multiverse as well (a popular ideas among cosmologists which she discusses favorably in her book), and so, despite the astronomical odds against life, etc. occurring, the “best” is nevertheless bound to happen (here, the idea of seemingly infinite places where evolution could occur serves the function that “eternal time” served in past, purely materialistic, accounts).

This raises a number of questions, not least of which is this: when the importance of empirical verification is abandoned (where math, not evidence, is sufficient to prove the multiverse idea), is science still being practiced? In any case, with Goldstein’s view one is still hard pressed to wonder why the universe had to be what it is, namely infinitely large, in order that the odds might somehow work out… so that the non-teleological laws could give us conscious and rational life that gives the impression of having been carefully designed…. Again, it is clear that with Goldstein’s view, consciousness, for example, comes to be something that we can expect – and not because of contemporary neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, which says nothing it to be expected. What is the answer?

The answer is not scientific at all, but is basically philosophical/religious: Mathematics. Beautiful mathematics. This is in charge of not only of the multiverse-shape of the cosmos, but the fact that the laws of nature are fine-tuned for life, and also the fact that our epistemic equipment is capable of discerning this wondrous order!  But here, it is mathematics itself that seems to be operating teleologically (consciously, “reasonably” intentionally?), setting things up just as they need to be in order for the “beautiful best” to happen. Teleology needs to be attributed to something. The notion simply cannot be escaped from – even if by taking this route it might initially seem that scientific explanations still do not need to invoke goals along with mechanistic causes (that is clearly an illusion though – it’s just that the goals are invoked elsewhere, in the whole of nature and its mathematical structure…. of course, it makes no sense to think that what is true for the whole will not have implications for the parts). And this, of course, is just what the philosophy/religion of philosophical naturalism needs, seeing as how, in practice (as is evidenced by its rhetoric) it is always trying to slip teleology in the back door anyway….

Nagel "thinks this antireligious materialist worldview “is ripe for displacement”" No kidding, but...

Nagel “thinks this antireligious materialist worldview “is ripe for displacement”” No kidding, but…

And this means that God – and some kind of personal God mind you (only this really should make sense to us, given that we know no other kind of reasoning besides personal reasoning) – needs to be acknowledged. That, of course, does not mean that such a personal God will be seen or understood to be the Christian God. One might believe in Allah, for example, or some other God entirely: one that is somehow the same as the universe, for example, and has perhaps “evolved” with it….

Should any of this make a difference to Christians – those concerned with historic biblical orthodoxy? I think we should steer far clear from these ideas, and start to think more like simple children when it comes to believing what the Scriptures tell us is true about the universe. After all, as I alluded to in my previous post, it seems clear to me that in both Nagel’s and Goldstein’s systems a strictly theistic view of God is unnecessary (i.e. no transcendence, historical “interventionism”, divine revelation, etc), and both systems could also theoretically allow for all manner of [relatively slow and relatively “ordered”] moral evolution as well – even if Goldstein’s would be more “Platonic” and Nagel’s would be more “Aristotelian”.

And of course this eliminates the need for the eternal law of God and the eternal Gospel (Rev. 14). In other words, this eliminates the Christ, the true Logos. 


Goldstein and Nagel pics from Wikipedia

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Posted by on March 24, 2015 in Uncategorized


Intelligent Design Even an Atheist Can Love: a Not-So-New “Logos” Reasserted

Sounds teleological, huh?:  “The sublimity that had to burst into existence is not one that particularly concerns itself with us. Such a human-constrained goodness would not pack the ontological wallop required to bring forth existence.” (p. 389)

Sounds teleological, huh?: “The sublimity that had to burst into existence is not one that particularly concerns itself with us. Such a human-constrained goodness would not pack the ontological wallop required to bring forth existence.” (p. 389)

I’ll admit that I like to read stuff by brainy pagans. Not because I think they are right mind you, but because I want to better understand “their world” and talk intelligently with them about the things of God they are attracted to.

Over the past few weeks, I have been reading Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, the latest offering from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Goldstein is the wife of the renowned Harvard scientist Stephen Pinker – intellectually, there is arguably no more influential and formidable pair. Both Pinker and Goldstein are known for their irenicism, and Goldstein, for her part, has even been called the “atheist with soul”.

You might be wondering whether you should bother reading what follows. Well, maybe if you aren’t a Christian you don’t really want to (is my reverse psychology working?). After all, I will admit that I believe that anyone who – after hearing about the light of Jesus Christ – continues to hold onto certain religions or all-encompassing philosophies does so because they do not want to answer to Him. Of course, this does not mean that I think that everyone who finds philosophical naturalism / materialism attractive, for example, wants to pitch the moral and spiritual life altogether and, as they say, “live like the devil”. Rather, I suggest that the key goal (albeit sub-conscious) of the non-Christian is to have a system whereby some order – and hence control – can be asserted, while not having to pay close attention to those things surrounding the historical person of Jesus Christ, particularly the things that God calls proof (see Acts 17:31).

Goldstein on Plato’s mathematically-inspired virtue, basically an amputated natural law: “The beauty of proportionality that has led one on, because one loves it, would cause one to abhor a situation that would bring one into disproportion with everyone else… the impersonally sublime is internalized into personal virtue” (p. 392, 393, see Gorgias 507e-508a, Philebus 64e, and Timaeus 47b-c)

Goldstein on Plato’s mathematically-inspired virtue, basically an amputated natural law: “The beauty of proportionality that has led one on, because one loves it, would cause one to abhor a situation that would bring one into disproportion with everyone else… the impersonally sublime is internalized into personal virtue” (p. 392, 393, see Gorgias 507e-508a, Philebus 64e, and Timaeus 47b-c)

I think that this is particularly true of the book that Goldstein has written. Let’s take a closer look.

Though heady, Plato at the Googleplex is well-written and has received numerous accolades, including high praise from the prominent agnostic philosopher A.C. Grayling. It seeks to bring the questions of Plato into the modern world and does so in a big way, featuring dialogues with a scientifically-updated Plato and 21st century interlocutors in very interesting contexts (the Googleplex, talk shows, advice columns, and brain-scanning laboratories). These chapters are interspersed between other chapters which better explain Plato’s ideas and the origin and historical context of those ideas.

I would recommend this book for any Christian who wants to know where the secular world is going as regards sophisticated belief systems. Some of our elites, in seeking to address the problems of our age, have advocated a return to more polytheistic ideas (see All Things Shining below).  I am guessing many with more poetic tastes will veer in this direction. Others, like Goldstein, are looking to promote ideas that have a lot in common with Benedictus Spinoza, who, I would say, basically put the elite philosophies of the Eastern world into a more Western frame (that is, a frame influenced heavily by Greek and Judeo-Christian ideas, though Goldstein, to say the least, downplays the latter).

I see the greatest challenge to Christian thought not in the likes of an atheism that a Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins or a Dennett might espouse. Rather, I think it is persons like Goldstein who presents us with the most formidable challenge. If I recall, Richard Dawkins himself has admitted that he does not see anything objectionable to this kind of Spinozan theologizing/philosophizing. This kind of system poses an appealing alternative to a pure philosophical naturalism, which has attempted to strip reality of all that is spiritual, or at least seems to point us in that direction.

Forging a “new” religious direction more appealing to sophisticated poet-types.  See my critique here.

Forging a “new” religious direction more appealing to sophisticated poet-types. See my critique here.

For me, one of the most important statements in the whole book occurs on p. 309, where Goldstein discusses what it means to escape Plato’s cave:

“One must integrate the beautiful proportionality of the character of the physical universe into one’s own moral character, and then, and only then, will one see oneself in relation to all else – and all others – in the right perspective, the distortions of the cave corrected. This is not a dispassionate process. Plato always stressed how much love is involved in the process…”

Sounds a bit like a form of natural law that exists intrinsically outside of ourselves, right? But she says next:

“….But it’s love of an impersonal kind, not love for persons, that reforms one’s moral being. Plato would have approved this paragraph from Spinoza’s Ethics: “Therefore, without intelligence, there is not rational life: and things are only good, in so far as they aid man in his enjoyment of the intellectual life, which is defined by intelligence. Contrariwise, whatsoever things hinder man’s perfecting of his reason, and capability to enjoy the rational life, are alone called evil” (Appendix, Part IV, v).

Quite the logos Goldstein has there.*

And let me share a lengthier quote that exhibits Goldstein’s argumentation, where she speaks of an impersonal best reason, or logos, “out there”, which conforms with the reason we have inside ourselves as subjects. From pp. 52-53:

“…what does Plato mean by goodness, and how does he entwine it with truth and beauty?

Plato’s truth-entwined goodness can best be gotten to by way of “the best reason” that he sees lurking inside truth. The truth is as it is because “the best reason” is determining it to be so. His language is, at first blush, suspiciously teleological, even suggestive of intentionality. Did someone – Some One – implement this best reason, designing the world accordingly? Or is it rather that the best reason works all on its own, a self-starter, with nothing external to it required to put it into action? It was the latter possibility that Plato had in mind. If there is “mind” determining the truth, an idea put forth in the Phaedo and explored in greater depth in the Timaeus, the existence of this mind amounts to nothing over and above the assertion that the truth is determined by “the best reason.” In other words, the best and final scientific theory would work all on its own to create the world in accordance with itself. In the Timaeus he presents a creation myth, in which a demiurge, or divine Craftsman, is implementing “the best reason,” but his using a myth to dramatize the point is in itself an indication that it’s a more abstract metaphysical principle he has in mind: the best reason, is, in itself, a self-starter, and explanation that explains itself a causa sui, as Spinzoza – who picked up this Platonic intuition and ran all the way with it – was to put it.

The determining role of “the best reason” in making the world what it is is what the goodness in Truth-Beauty-Goodness consists in. Goodness is interwoven with truth because the best explanation for the truth is that truth is determined by the best reason, and the best reason works all on its own – which is as good as it gets. The truth, being determined by the best reason, is ultimately capable of explaining itself. This makes reality as intelligible as it could possibly be. It’s its very intelligibility that provides the reasons for its existence. For intelligibility-craving minds, what could possibly be more sublime?

And once again, as it was with beauty so it is with goodness: it is mathematics that largely foots the bill. The best reason is the reason that is thoroughly intelligible, that presents its own justification transparently to the mind, which is what mathematics does (Republic 511d, Timaeus passim). In the creation myth of the Timaeus, the divine Craftsman imposes as much mathematics on the material world as it can possibly hold, because mathematics is the most perfect expression of the good intentions – the best reasons – by which the mythical Craftsman works (29d-e). The mythical Craftsman doesn’t make the forms he imposes on the world the best by virtue of choosing them; rather he chooses them because they are, independent of him, the best of forms, and their being the best of forms in itself explains why this must be realized.

The talk of “the best reason,” which sounds deceptively teleological, is not teleological at all. The causality is fueled by the mathematics. The causality is at one with the intelligibility. In fact, it was the return to this version of Platonism that managed to get the teleology out of physics, by displacing Aristotle’s final causes with Plato’s mathematical conception of causality. Spinoza, who, like other seminal thinkers of the seventeenth century, was rebelling against the Aristotelian-scholastic teleology that held sway, put the point this way: “Such a doctrine (teleology) might well have sufficed to conceal the truth from the human face for all eternity, if mathematics had not furnished another standard of truth…. Without regard to…. final causes.” (Ethics I, Appendix. Trans. R.H.M. Elwes, 1883. Revised ed. [London: George Bell and Sons, 1901]) (unitalicized words italicized in the original)

On pages 384 and 385:

….The form of the good, of agathon, is the place where all explanations stop. It is the level of the self-explanatory. There must be such a level of self-explanatory, if reality, is, as Plato assumed it to be, thoroughly intelligible. There are no brute contingencies, facts which are facts for no other reason that they are facts. Explanations must penetrate the whole of what is. It’s not turtles all the way down, but rather reasons, logoi, all the way down. This is the fundamental intuition of the rationalist: it was picked up again in the seventeenth century by such hard-core rationalists as Spinoza and Leibniz. Leibniz named it the Principle of Sufficient Reason.

Like them, Plato had demanded that reality thoroughly account for itself, every step of the way, and this entails that there must be a level of the self-explanatory. The way we ascended to each next level was to judge (as best we could) the best explanation. We’ve been led, every step of the way, by the intuition that the best explanation – the most beautiful, the most elegant – is the right explanation. The good is simply that intuition is affirmed. Reality it what it is because it realizes the best of all possible explanations. This is the Sublime Braid – the True-the Beautiful-the Good. The structure of the world is shot through with a sublimity so sublime that it had to exist. Reality exists because it, too, [like the Greeks in Athens,] is striving to achieve an existence worth the existing. The cosmos itself is a high achiever, and existence is the prize.

Benedictus Spinoza - patron saint of freethinkers, more and more so.

Benedictus Spinoza – patron saint of freethinkers, more and more so.

How can existence be the prize of a cosmos,since it, being a cosmos, already exists, you ask? Remember, its “logoi all the way down” (embracing the infinite regress), therefore no need for an uncaused Cause either. Goldstein goes on:

Plato has, in his explanatory ascent, implicitly posed the fundamental question of metaphysics: Why is there something rather than nothing? Leibniz is customarily credited with first explicitly formulating the question, and in those very terms, but once again, Plato implicitly posed the question by explicitly proposing his answer. The good is what bestows existence, he tells us in the Republic. Agathon binds the structure of reality – whatever that reality might turn out ultimately to be. (In the Timaeus, he voices skepticism that we can ever know it entirely. Reality’s being intelligible doesn’t entail it being intelligible to us.) Plato is open to reality’s turning out to be quite different than the way we conceive it at any point in our joint adventure to figure it out. The self-questioning is the essence of the rational process. But what he holds firm to is that whatever reality turns out to be like, it is like that because the best of reasons makes it so, and we are led to those best of reasons by our own sense of intelligibility-maximizing beauty: “Both knowledge and truth are beautiful things, but the good is other and more beautiful than they” (508e).

….“The word “best” is overtly evaluative. There is no escaping evaluation, no more in deciding what is rational to believe than in deciding what is ethical to do. The fact that evaluation is involved – different people may disagree on what constitutes the best of the available explanations – makes it all the more imperative to expose one’s reasoning to a multiplicity of perspectives…..But what criteria are to be used in evaluating which are the best explanations? Here to disagreements erupt. We might ask: Is an explanation that increases the sense of mystery in the world to be valued over one that decreases the mysterious, or is it the other way round? There are excellent reasons, well argued and generally accepted, for embracing the latter alternative. In fact, precisely because the explanation that decreases mystery is judged the better explanation, Plato’s own explanation of universals in terms of the abstract forms has been dropped in favor of other explanations. His so-called Theory of Forms created more mysteries than it solved. There’s evidence that he himself drew the same conclusion as a result of the battery of criticisms he lodged at the theory in the Parmenides.   In the Timaeus and the Laws, the most intelligible – and therefore beautiful – of the forms are conceived in terms of mathematical structures, other forms dropping away….” (p. 386)

“….it is Plato, particularly the Plato of the Timaeus, who is made to carry the spirit of rebellion that rose up in the sixteenth and seventeenth century against the dogmatized Aristotelian teleology. Finding their way back to Plato, the new physicists seize on mathematics as the very soul of explanation – and the more beautiful the mathematics the more explanatory value it is judged to have.” (p. 388, unitalicized words originally italicized)

Even if Plato would have perhaps been cautious in going in such a non-teleological direction (“don’t go there”, we say today), the important point, it seems to me, is that his ideas and system allow for it in the first place. In other words, the loose system we seem to be able to determine that he upheld – bolstered by some flimsy myths not seriously rooted in history (see, in contrast, the book of Acts, particularly chapter 17, particularly the end of that chapter) – can be readily hijacked and colonized by those eager to see not only theological assertions but specific teleological assertions as well (where particular things are created for a particular purposes) bite the dust.

Goldstein pictured in the middle, to the right of Dawkins.

Goldstein pictured in the middle, to the right of Dawkins.

But wait a minute!  On second thought, how is Goldstein’s position really that different then what Thomas Nagel wrote about a couple years ago – in the book Mind and Cosmos*** – only to be savagely attacked?  While Goldstein even has some serious words of critique for the philosophically naturalistic physicist Laurence Krauss, she, unlike Nagel, somehow manages to avoid the wrath of the freethinking community.  Why?

It is a bit puzzling.  While in his book Mind and Cosmos, Nagel speaks of the possibility of a kind of “teleology”, saying that we could discover principles which may be goal-oriented or teleological (instead of materialist or mechanistic), he, like Goldstein, does not thereby have in mind the idea of an external Person with intention (“even if teleology is separated from intention, and the result is not the goal of an agent who aims at it”). He is rather proposing something we might call an “immanent teleology” (“order that governs the natural world from within”), where human beings, for example, arise because of a “a bias towards the marvelous” (92, Mind and Cosmos, quoted here).  Other than de-emphasizing the importance of human beings, is this not basically what Goldstein is doing? Even if she is loath to use the word teleology, because of its current associations with Aristotle (and with him Aquinas) and the Intelligent Design movement (see more on Nagel’s book here and here)?

I think it is (and I will defend this assertion in a later post). Further, I would suggest that she is at some level doing this intentionally, because she understands the absolute bankruptcy of clinging to philosophical materialism.

Steven Pinker, tweeting about Thomas Nagel's "Mind and Cosmos": "The shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker"

Steven Pinker, tweeting about Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”: “The shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker”

Before moving on there is another important point to emphasize here. The popular conservative writer Rod Dreher recently tweeted: “the philosopher Josef Pieper, in his great little book Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation] confronts [the] core civilizational question today: Is truth, is reality, something we invent, or discover? Much rides on the answer.”

But as Goldstein shows us, even if someone says that the truth is something that we discover “out there” (“Plato… is firmly on the side of the Reasonables. Everything we need to know – intellectually and morally – is out there”** – p. 384), that certainly does not mean that they will necessarily embrace traditional Judeo-Christian understandings of natural law.

On the contrary, her viewpoint allows for a person to embrace the idea that there is some kind of unchanging, eternal, and external reality while also allowing for all manner of change and flux in the material cosmos we inhabit. Some instability – progress! – in our understandings of the natures of things and morality can be permitted****, so long as wisdom and balance can be found by recognizing the harmony present in the stable and permanent forms – basically meaning the beautiful and impersonal mathematics underlying all things.

What to say to all of this? How about this?:

“How is it responsible to think about impersonal intelligence, mind, or consciousness (these are completely oxymoronic concepts) – especially when thinking of the cosmos’ origins?” Simply put, if reality is fundamentally impersonal, than we are impersonal. And if the cosmos itself can’t be said to be caused, than it makes little sense to think personal responsibility and consequences for actions are anything other than a purely pragmatic matter.

It seems to me that all of this is pointing in a certain direction which is this: when it comes to Reason’s march in the battle of ideas, those ideas that are true will work and those that work will be true. While it may take time to play out in history, the Reasonable persons know that the best will rise to the top – leaving those who refuse to be enlightened and progress in the dustbin of history. For those who have inherited Christianity’s moral capital, they now think they can be most “Christian” by leaving Christianity behind.

Citing modern Calvinist philosophers like Alvin Plantiga to illustrate her point, Goldstein would make a sharp distinction between the religious impulse (belonging to the intuitive realm) and the realm of the rational, which deals with things “out there” that we can discuss and hold one another accountable over*****. This might be a sensible critique for other faiths, not grounded in history, but not Christianity. I would suggest that she has either paid insufficient attention to, or has conveniently ignored passages like Acts 17:31 (and the whole book of Acts for that matter, steeped in history******), with what we might call its “evidentially-based considerations”.

For in the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and was God…. I encourage you to check out the real Logos…  One that doesn’t cut the person and “contingent” history (and along with this divine revelation and miracles) out of the picture. Come and see, perhaps with the Apostle John as your first guide….




*She goes on to write: “Morality necessarily crosses, for these philosophers, thorough the headiest of intellectual terrain, and that is a path that – I don’t think they’re particularly happy about this – few can follow.” I immediately though about Charles Murray’s book “Coming Apart” and the new book by Robert Putnam: “Our kids: the American Dream in Crises”. I note that the kind of statement made by Goldstein could be taken to rationalize away the culpability of the elites for not upholding moral norms as something that all should strive to attain.

**She goes on to say:

“….and the way we come to see what is out there is no more private and unshareable than the reality itself is. One proceeds by way of reason, by offering the best explanations for the questions that each level [attained after leaving the cave] presents. An anonymous, allegorical knower stands in for any of us, so allow me to change the gender of the pronoun. The knower doesn’t come with any special cognitive equipment of a kind to make her privy to special messages from outside the cave. It’s on the power of her own reason that she achieves the vision of the sun. Not only is this a path that is, in principle, open to anyone, but it is a path that requires collaborators, since judging what is the best explanation is an activity best done with others, as the man who founded the Academy, gathering the best thinkers of the day there to join him, must have believed. The prisoner was herself first freed and dragged forward on the first leg of her trip by someone else, and once she sees the sun she remembers the prisoners still fettered in the cave and pities them, returning to help them make the ascent that she has achieved. (It doesn’t necessarily end well. Prisoners of ideology don’t necessarily welcome liberation.)

***Nagel, in an article in the N.Y. Times, summing up the main point of his book:

“I believe [the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature] is ruled out by the conditions that have defined the physical sciences from the beginning. The physical sciences can describe organisms like ourselves as parts of the objective spatio-temporal order – our structure and behavior in space and time – but they cannot describe the subjective experiences of such organisms or how the world appears to their different particular points of view. There can be a purely physical description of the neurophysiological processes that give rise to an experience, and also of the physical behavior that is typically associated with it, but such a description, however complete, will leave out the subjective essence of the experience – how it is from the point of view of its subject — without which it would not be a conscious experience at all…biological evolution must be more than just a physical process, and the theory of evolution, if it is to explain the existence of conscious life, must become more than just a physical theory….a scientific understanding of nature need not be limited to a physical theory of the objective spatio-temporal order. It makes sense to seek an expanded form of understanding that includes the mental but that is still scientific — i.e. still a theory of the immanent order of nature.” (non-italicized words highlighted by me).

I translate this to meant that no theism, transcendence, interventionism, or divine revelation is necessary to how we view the world (even if Nagel, as well as others, certainly would insist that it could be added). Here, it seems to me that Reason, though perhaps not conceptions that have been fully imagined yet, trumps the real Logos and His work in history. Plato (perhaps), Spinoza, Hume (likely), Kant, and Goldstein, it seems, would all be quite happy to have a system of Reason that purports to explain all without the biblical Creator.

Nagel ends his article:

“Mind, I suspect, is not an inexplicable accident or a divine and anomalous gift but a basic aspect of nature that we will not understand until we transcend the built-in limits of contemporary scientific orthodoxy. I would add that even some theists might find this acceptable; since they could maintain that God is ultimately responsible for such an expanded natural order, as they believe he is for the laws of physics.”

It seems clear to me that this would be a fatal compromise. Does either deism or such pantheism have room for the furious God of the Bible who is called Jesus, the Christ? Looking at this realistically (not so much cynically) it simply seems to me that Nagel was simply taking the lead among the most intelligent agnostics and atheists who are in the business of creating systems that by definition exclude the possibility of transcendence and divine revelation.

****Interesting from the WSJ review of Goldstein’s book (about a year ago):

“It is no accident that Socrates propounds what has come to be called the “Euthyphro argument” on the way to his trial. The pompous Euthyphro confidently tells Socrates that the holy is to be defined as “what the gods love.” Socrates points out that this gets things backward: The gods love the holy because it is already holy, not because they regard it so. In other words, things are not good because a supposed God approves of them; rather, God approves of what is good in itself, quite independently of his will. This Socratic argument undermines the entire idea that theology can provide a basis for morality and opens up a quite secular way of thinking about the nature of virtue. As Ms. Goldstein remarks, this was a seminal moment in the history of moral philosophy and indeed in the development of human civilization; it showed the power of pure rational thought.”

*****Interestingly, assuming that Plato is speaking for her, she is fine giving up all notions of free-will, so long as there is “accountability” through reason.

****** One need not believe the book of Acts is infallible to have confidence that the Apostle Paul said this or that what he said might be worth listening to or asking serious questions about [note also Luke’s reputation for being a good historian here as well – i.e. being verifiable in many respects. Also, it is true that while this is certainly an invitation into what all would call “evidentially-based considerations”, this statement is nevertheless more of an assertion about how God has made Himself known in history – and what He calls proof and defines as proof.




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Posted by on March 18, 2015 in Uncategorized


Fatal Words Christians Should Not Utter: John Updike and Christian Life & Witness

John Updike.

John Updike.

In the days of Martin Luther, many persons thought that God was harsh, unforgiving, and cruel.  I think it is safe to say that in our day many think that God is indulgent, conviction-less, and, as a result, boring.

I could not help thinking that after I had read Gerald R. McDermott’s new piece on the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse site “A Rather Antinomian Christianity”: John Updike’s Religion.

I will admit to not being all that familiar with John Updike’s work, but Mr. McDermott certainly gives the impression that he is.  And his article, as can be seen by the title, expresses some real concerns about the kind of faith Mr. Updike expressed.

He sums this up by saying:

“It was a strange sort of Christianity that rejected the strictures of traditional faith, choosing divine comfort while rejecting divine commands. In other words, it was gospel without law, grace without repentance, the love of God without the holiness of God.”

It is true that as Christians we ought to always be eager to proclaim, highlight, and get to the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  And as I noted in my last post here, the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation in the person of Jesus Christ is perpetually for Christians – all of who fail – and not just unbelievers.

And yet, as a Lutheran who wants to be all about God’s radical grace, I must say that I share McDermott’s concerns.  He brings important matters to our attention.  For example, McDermott states that Updike’s God helped him, as [his recent biographer] Begley puts it, to “cherish whatever happened to him”, and “His beautifully precise descriptions of desire—and the vague implication that its fulfillment could be religiously justified—reassured readers who feared they might not be justified.”

And then there is this:

In Updike’s religion, then, there are no commandments we are meant to keep except the obligation to accept what is: “Religion includes, as its enemies say, fatalism, an acceptance and consecration of what is.” Our only responsibility is to “appreciate” the great gift that life represents. He learned from Barth that the next life is simply this life in review, and from his Lutheranism, he wrote, “a rather antinomian Christianity”—the idea that there are no laws we should fear or live by—which he was “too timid to discard.” There is no hint of final judgment. Nor is there any imperative to repent or improve ourselves: in Begley’s words, “Original sin may be inescapable, but any concerted effort to improve one’s game resembles a righteous struggle for salvation.” And if there was anything he learned from Barth, it was that all human efforts to save ourselves are wrongheaded and futile. As one critic summed it up, Updike “radically divorced” Christian theology from Christian ethics.

A Google search on some of those passages satisfied my question of whether McDermott has been responsible in how he has quoted Updike – even if a phrase of his own describing Updike, like “so enthusiastic for infidelity” for example, begs to be unpacked and explored.

A few key comments about all of this.  First, and most importantly, it seems that Updike was not careful to make clear that while God may indeed use evil for good, we should be careful never to think God planned and meant for us to do such evil – believing such a thing can be fatal to Christian faith.  Second, it seems to me that John Updike clearly did have much important truth to share – G.K. Chesterton to, for example, said “every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.”  Third, as a confessional Lutheran who is troubled by Updike’s own understanding of the Lutheran faith, I nevertheless firmly believe that it is never given to us to pronounce on the final condition of a man’s soul (something McDermott is not doing either, I hasten to add).

Which brings me to a final point, which I take to dovetail with McDermott’s concerns: we need men from the established institution of the church who will challenge our sovereignty of self – whereby we would presume to be our own judge, and administer forgiveness to ourselves.  In Holy Confession and Absolution our pastors (please note I am not one of these), as partakers of the Apostolic Ministry, are called to administer in Christ’s name the forgiveness of sins – or not (John 20:23)  This is alternatively called binding and loosing (Matthew 16:19).

This requires a judgment on their part of what a person – any person they speak to but particularly to Christians – needs to hear: law or gospel.   Perhaps an extended conversation with Mr. Updike – with a humble, strong and wise Christian pastor, for example – may have been necessary to make a good judgment of where he stood… what he believed about the nature of his actions.

Or perhaps not.  Perhaps other writings from Updike give us a very good idea of just what he needed to hear.  Either something simply like “Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God”, fullstop (I Cor. 6:9-10), or, on the other hand, something like the rest of that passage: “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (I Cor. 6:11)

In either case though, it is clear to me that Mr. Updike certainly could have used some good advice – not necessarily literary – on how to proceed in his vocation as a writer who claimed Christ. As a friend wrote in a related context: “The teacher should not try to astound the young with the gravity of his past sins; it will often have the opposite effect than was intended.”  I’d say that that should inform how one speaks about one’s own life, and all aspects of one’s vocation in the world as well.  


Updike pic:

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Posted by on March 13, 2015 in Uncategorized


“Slavery will come to us disguised as the light of liberty and progress.”

Fallen man: "Should we assimilate the Creator as well?"

Resistance is not futile in Christ

That is a quotation from a recent post from Rod Dreher, entitled “Silicon Valley Mordor”, jumping off a piece from, “Death is Optional”.  Ross Douthat dealt with the same topic in his Sunday column, but, as he is apt to do, keeps things a bit more low key. Summing up the article, he says:

“Soon, if not tomorrow, the rich may be able to re-engineer bodies and minds, making human equality seem like a quaint conceit. Meanwhile, the masses will lose their jobs to machines and find themselves choosing between bread and circuses (or drugs and video games) and the pull of revolutionary violence — with the Islamic State’s appeal to bored youths possibly a foretaste of the future.”

In any case, this reminded me of this post I did a while back: “Mankind has always and always will seek to reach three fundamental things”.

The key quote from that post:

“…with an increase in functional knowledge and earthly power, man’s free powers tend to combine with devotion towards certain unbending  principles and “cause-and-effect” laws (like a vending machine: ultimately manipulative “if-then” moralism), and the temptation is for this to take over completely, squelching out the last vestiges of an actual person who is God.  In other words, this “highest of men”, rich in the knowledge and wisdom of the world, seeks to harness not only what have come to be known as the “laws of nature”** and “natural law”, but any “laws of the [increasingly depersonalized] supernatural” as well (whether more or less “systematically”).  This is accomplished with the help of its magicians/scientists and priests as “salvation” comes through the mighty accomplishments of the appropriate “technologies”, dealing with both the material and the “spiritual”.  Here, we find that the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, for whatever its beneficial uses, has actually been of some assistance in banishing the biblical God.  Therefore, writ large,as unchecked Old Adam more successfully harnesses the order inhering in the creation, in practice he makes the Creator his impersonal creation and himself salvation.

As a result of this, the human person – not considered in light of the Divine person of Jesus Christ and His love for all – is inevitably trodden underfoot, as at least some persons inevitably become means to other ends.” 

"…when income is distributed according to a power law, most people will be below average – say goodbye, Lake Wobegon!" - Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee[i]

“…when income is distributed according to a power law, most people will be below average – say goodbye, Lake Wobegon!” – Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee[i]

This might sound a bit far out and far off, but I would say that we can perhaps see the beginning birth pangs of this future in not only in the first industrial revolution, but in one that could be fast coming as well.

I’ve done some other posts with content from a library technology presentation I did last year that deals with these topics (Goethe said that in science and technology, every tool would be used to maximize the power of human being ; Salvation and damnation by technology: introducing the MSTM (modern scientific and technological mindset) ; C.S. Lewis’ prophecy regarding man’s abolition ; What’s not so good about internet technologies).  Here is the info I had in that presentation – based on a good deal of research – about the new industrial revolution that many are saying is upon us.

Here it is:

Where is it [technology] going?

The “it” in the subtitle above illustrates another subtle difference between the modern sceintific and technological mindset (MSTM) and others who want to emphasize that technology does not “go” anywhere without us. Former Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly might talk about What Technology Wants, but is it either true or wise to speak in such a fashion? If it turns out that things like ”information technology and Big data” draw our attention much like Droz’s automata – luring us in like any other “mechanical muse” – should we not rather want to emphasize our own autonomy and personal responsibility here to keep a clear head?  

Technology as permaculture

Technology as permaculture

This is something that will be explored and developed more in subsequent sections. In any case, McLuhan’s idea that the “medium is the message” is certainly important to emphasize given the history of automated technology over the past 200 years. This suggests to someone like myself that one may want technological practice to be analogous to the practice of permaculture – where one utilizes nature in a deliberate fashion not so much to serve nature but in order to gently bend it towards the nurture and care for one’s fellow human beings. Of course, what has tended to happen in practice is that automated technologies have frequently taken jobs from human beings, even as, thankfully, new jobs have arisen to take their place, in a process that has been termed “creative destruction”.

But recent books by Martin Ford, Jaron Lanier and Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee all make a very strong case that while technical innovation has in fact historically created new jobs, there is no guarantee that this trend will continue.[ii] In fact, all of these men argue convincingly that recent technological innovation[iii] is largely responsible for what has been termed the “jobless recovery”, where production and profits remain high and “real spending on capital equipment and software has soared by 26 percent” [iv] even as fewer and fewer workers are hired. In other words, what is happening now is quite different than what has happened historically.

Four books on how technology may soon affect us.

Four books on how technology already is, and may soon affect us.

Heavily automated warehouses with KIVA robots that move 10,000 pieces/day -faster and more efficiently than humans could ever do…

Heavily automated warehouses with KIVA robots that move 10,000 pieces/day -faster and more efficiently than humans could ever do…

Let me briefly explain this in more detail. The claim is that this is simply because of the increasing power and role of computer power – often powered by Big data – in our world. It is made possible because “the critical building blocks of computing – microchip density, processing speed, storage capacity, energy efficiency, download speed, and so on – have been improving at exponential rates for a long time… When given to capable technologists, the exponential power of Moore’s Law eventually makes the toughest problems tractable”.[v]

And this means big changes in the economy. Even as some claim that automation really only has jobs that are “dirty, dull, and dangerous”[vi] in its sights, the fact of the matter is that more complex factory line work continues to be automated.

Rodney Brook’s teach-able “Baxter” Robot

Rodney Brook’s teach-able “Baxter” Robot

Not only this, but more and more of American’s information workers – which is 60-65% of the workforce[vii] – will find themselves affected, susceptible to what economists term “technological unemployment”. In the new book The Second Machine Age, we are told by Brynjolfsson and McAfee that limitations of mind more so than muscle will be overcome.[viii] As Martin Ford says, “routine and predictable jobs are really susceptible to all kinds of automation”, and we note that “routine” does not mean “unskilled”: professions like lawyers, doctors and radiologists are said to be susceptible.[ix] Turbotax can be seen as a microcosm for the phenomenon, even as now, programs are even able to improve through use, “teaching themselves”. In addition, digitization has made it possible for “superstars”[x] who have a special skill, algorithm or insight to replicate this across millions of consumers in a way that can quickly drowns out the competition.[xi] Finally, as Jaron Lanier points out, those with the largest computer networks tend to concentrate wealth and power.[xii]

Ford: “…were the Luddites wrong?  Or just two hundred or so years too early?” (p. 48, The Lights in the Tunnel, 2009)

Ford: “…were the Luddites wrong? Or just two hundred or so years too early?” (p. 48, The Lights in the Tunnel, 2009)

What this means is that while historically it has worked out that technology has made persons better off, researchers from Oxford now predict that half of the jobs that currently exist in the United States will be able to be fully automated within the next few decades.[xiii] There are new jobs and new companies, but humans are not as necessary.[xiv] Martin Ford points out that this raises an important question: “when a substantial fraction of these people are no longer employed, where will market demand come from?[xv] [This graph], taken from Ford, sums up the dilemma that each of the authors mentioned above identifies.

While they offer a whole list of prescriptions, Brynjolfsson and McAfee see the problem as largely being rooted in the way we educate – we especially need to teach collaboration and creativity, in addition to advanced technical training in information systems.[xvi] This will encourage new entrepreneurs who will, they trust, be able to create a large amount of new jobs – even if I have a hard time believing they are really that confident of this.[xvii] For their part, men like Martin Ford and Jaron Lanier are far more skeptical and proffer their own solutions. But here is a key question: what if there are simply limits to how long the presence of technology – especially in the forms that it is taking today – can enable a society to build upon it and still employ human beings in meaningful work?   What might it really mean, for example, that Instagram had 30 employees when it was sold to Facebook for 1 billion dollars while Kodak, at its height of influence, employed 145,300?[xviii] It seems to me that very few persons – save perhaps Lanier – really wants to deal with the disturbing possibility that there may not ways forward that are really amenable to many of us.

Siri for the iPhone ; apparatus on the top of a Google car ; Redbox Kiosk

Siri for the iPhone ; apparatus on the top of a Google car ; Redbox Kiosk

Why not? I submit the following: even pondering the general possibility of limits is by no means fashionable today, and one might even say it is downright un-American (even the ever-thoughtful Jaron Lanier’s own discussion of limits seems to me quite ambiguous and somewhat confusing – see pp 158-162 of his book). As a Sprint ad a few months ago put it (albeit in the context of the “need” to upload every photograph they take to the cloud): “I need – no, I have the right – to be unlimited”.[xix] In sum, asking serious questions about limits is not something the MSTM does. And yet, surely there must be one limit we can all recognize today: it is only man who is behind the curtain of any and every machine, yesterday and today. As Jaron Lanier has already pointed out in his insightful diagnosis of our current situation, while those successful companies with the most computer power (i.e. biggest servers) have certainly created much value through their innovation, there is also value that people in general contribute that makes their ideas and business innovations possible – “machine translation” being just one key example of many (this is made possible not by AI or even the semantic web, but Big data – i.e. massive amounts of human-made language translations).[xx] There are always many persons behind the curtain, for technology cannot exist without its creators and users (“at least so far” we are sometimes told).[xxi]

If this is indeed the case it becomes clear that the statement by Brynjolfsson and McAfee that man should race with, not against the machine, really needs to be adjusted. Of course man will race with the machine: the only questions are which men this will be, how they will race with them, and whether or not as a result of this process they will continue to act as men should.

And this raises the deeper, existential question: are there limits to be respected – are there, for example, things that are not possible as well as permanent things that will not bend from age to age? Or is to say that simply un-American, or now, at this point in time, un-Western? In sum – is saying this to be against all ideas of progress and the genuine help that science can bring us, as the MSTM might suggest or even insist? 


All pics from Wikipedia Commons.



[i] Brynjolfsson, Erik. 2014. Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in the Time of Brilliant Technologies. [S.l.]: W W Norton, p. 162.

[ii] See, for example, Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee. 2012. Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Lexington, Mass: Digital Frontier Press, p. 36

[iii] Some example of the more impressive innovations that illustrate the kind of technology that is now possible: “cars that drive themselves in traffic, Jeopardy!-champion supercomputers; autogenerated news stories; cheap, flexible factory robots; and inexpensive consumer devices that are simultaneously communicators, tricorders and computers.” Brynjolfsson, Erik. 2014. Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in the Time of Brilliant Technologies. [S.l.]: W W Norton, p. 48.

[iv] Ibid, p. 145.

[v] Ibid, pp. 49, 55.

[vi] Barclay, Paul. 2013. Morals and the Machine. Big Ideas. podcast radio program. Sydney: ABC Radio National, October 3.

[vii] Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee. 2012. Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Lexington, Mass: Digital Frontier Press, 52

[viii] Solman, Paul. 2014. In ‘Second Machine Age’of Robots, it’s Time for Humans to Get Creative. PBS Newshour. television program. United States: PBS, March 13.

[ix] Here is perhaps a more extreme prediction regarding “natural language processing” from James Barrat: “Advances in natural language processing will transform parts of the economy that until now have seemed immune to technological change. In another few years librarians and researchers of all kinds will join retail clerks, bank tellers, travel agents, stock brokers, loan officers, and help desk technicians in the unemployment lines. Following them will be doctors, lawyers, tax and retirement consultants. Think of how quickly ATMs have all but replaced bank tellers, and how grocery store checkout lines have started phasing out human clerks. If you work in an information industry (and the digital revolution is changing everything into information industries), watch out.

Here’s a quick example. Like college basketball? Which of these two paragraphs was authored by a human sportswriter….” Barrat, James. 2013. Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. New York : Thomas Dunne Books, p. 225.

[x] “In a traditional market, someone who is 90 percent as skilled or works 90 percent as hard creates 90 percent as much value and can thus earn 90 percent as much money. That’s absolute performance. By contrast, a software programmer who writes a slightly better mapping application – one that loads a little faster, has slightly more complete data, or prettier icons – might completely dominate a market…. Ten mediocre mapping tools are no substitute for one good one. When consumers care mostly about relative performance, even a small difference in skill or effort or luck can lead to a thousand-fold or million-fold difference in earnings.” Brynjolfsson, Erik. 2014. Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in the Time of Brilliant Technologies. [S.l.]: W W Norton, p 153.

[xi] From that same program Matt Miller notes that maybe it was a “Luddite fantasy” that all jobs would be lost to machines for the first 200 years of capitalism…. but now, as explored in the program, “digitization creates superstars who can replicate their talent, or maybe their luck, across millions of consumers and automate the jobs of people who are doing routine information processing to the point where they aren’t really essential to production anymore….” Miller, Matt. 2013. The Robots Are Coming! This…Is Interesting. podcast radio program. Santa Monica: KCRW News, Apr 19. (with guests Martin Ford and Eric Brynjolfsson)

Jaron Lanier notes:

“Unions fought for pay and working conditions that turned driving jobs into middle-class ones. In this century, however, we have forgotten that wisdom and decided that when it comes to digital networks, more and more people will not be paid for what they do even though what they’re doing is needed.

Jobs involving communication and expression (music, journalism and so forth) are suddenly much harder to come by, because information is now held to be free. Naturally, a 19th-century trope, the Horatio Alger story, has reappeared. With enough hard work, opportunity is said to be around the corner for young journalists and musicians. Alas, there are only a few genuine success stories. Almost everyone else in the game lives on false hope, accepting the benefits of an informal economy — reputation and barter — while helping a small, distant elite build real wealth. Instead of a bell curve, the distribution looks like a razor-thin skyscraper dragging an emaciated “long tail” behind it.

The fate of journalism and music awaits every other industry, and every kind of job, unless this pattern is undone. As this century unfolds, technology will continue to evolve. More and more activities will be operated by software. Instead of Teamsters, there will be robotic trucks. Where there had once been miners, there will be mining robots. Instead of factories, there will be 3-D printers in every home. Experimental robots have already outperformed many a white-collar worker, including the legal researcher, the pharmacist and the scientific investigator.

Lanier, Jaron. “Fixing the Digital Economy.” New York Times, Jun 09, 2013, Late Edition (East Coast).

[xii] All forms of automation ultimately rely on data that come from people…. There is no magical “artificial intelligence.” When a big, remote computer translates a document from English to Spanish, for instance, it doesn’t understand what it is doing. It is only mashing up earlier translations created by real people, who have been forgotten because of the theater of the Internet.

There are always real people behind the curtain. The rise of inequality isn’t because of people not being needed — more precisely, it’s because of an illusion that they aren’t even there.

DISSECT almost any ascendant center of power, and you’ll find a giant computer at the core. In the past, power and influence were gained by controlling something that people needed, like oil or transportation routes. Now to be powerful can mean having the most effective computer on a network. In most cases, this means the biggest and most connected computer, though very occasionally a well-operated small computer can play the game, as is the case with WikiLeaks. Those cases are so rare, however, that we shouldn’t fall into the illusion of thinking of computers as great equalizers, like guns in the Wild West.

The new class of ultra-influential computers come in many guises. Some run financial schemes, like high-frequency trading, and others run insurance companies. Some run elections, and others run giant online stores. Some run social network or search services, while others run national intelligence services. The differences are only skin deep. I call this kind of operation a “Siren Server.”

Siren Servers are usually gigantic facilities, located in obscure places where they have their own power plants and some special hookup to nature, like a remote river, that allows them to cool a fantastic amount of waste heat.

Siren Servers calculate actions for their owners that reduce risks and increase wealth and influence. For instance, before big computers and cheap networking, it was hard for health insurance companies to gather and analyze enough data to be tempted to create a “perfect” insurance business, in which only those who need insurance the least are insured. But with a big computer it becomes not only possible, but irresistible.

Giant financial schemes are similarly tempting. It is commonly believed that deregulation motivated financial adventurism, but it can also be argued that Moore’s law, which holds that computing becomes better and cheaper at an accelerating rate, guaranteed that sooner or later the temptations of using computation to displace risk would become irresistible.

Financiers caught the seductive whiff of digital perfection in the 1970s. The first major market crash at least partially attributable to automated trading came in 1987. Big computer-centric schemes like those hatched by Long Term Capital Management and Enron, laid down a pattern that continued with the Great Recession of 2007-9.

Lanier, Jaron. “Fixing the Digital Economy.” New York Times, Jun 09, 2013, Late Edition (East Coast).

[xiii] Solman, Paul. 2014. In ‘Second Machine Age’of Robots, it’s Time for Humans to Get Creative. PBS Newshour. television program. United States: PBS, March 13.

[xiv] Kroft, Steve. 2013. Are Robots Hurting Job Growth?. 60 Minutes. television program. New York: CBS News, January 13.

[xv] Ford, Martin. 2009. The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future. [U.S.]: Acculant Publishing, p. 97. Over the years, some have pointed out how it is a waste of effort and a “downright humiliation” for man to have to do what a machine can do. See Cohen, John. 1967. Human Robots in Myth and Science. South Brunswick [N.J.]: A.S. Barnes, pp. 113-114 where it talks about the prescient insight of Mary Boole, wife of the famous mathematician George Boole, writing in the early 1800s. That said, among good men and women, it is probably even more humiliating to not have a job – and as Ford points out, it is not good for anyone.

[xvi] Keen, Andrew. 2014. The Second Machine Age. Keen On. television program. Silicon Valley: Tech Crunch, February 6.

[xvii] Listen to this interview between 12 and 15 minutes: Roberts, Russ. 2010. Brynjolfsson on the Second Machine Age. EconTalk. podcast radio program. Fairfax County, Virginia : George Mason University – Library of Economics and Liberty, Feb 3.

[xviii] Brynjolfsson, Erik. 2014. Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in the Time of Brilliant Technologies. [S.l.]: W W Norton, pp. 126 and 127

[xix] See the commercial here:

[xx] Not only are the formulas/equations used here not taking one language and making them into another (by taking into account definitions, subjects and predicates, other rules of grammar, etc – in other words, no “grammar code” or something like this has even begun to be cracked… ), but they are also not working on their own – rather, they are querying millions of documents where we have the original and the translation, finding ones that have similar keywords, and then looking for similar phrases and mashing them up (at least this is how I understand it).

Lanier’s wider point is that here there are many, many people who are behind this curtain… and those who did that translation work that certainly has some value are not being compensated at all for what they did – and that this is more or less the same story with all these Siren servers, as he calls them.

One can readily imagine that for those in the field of artificial intelligence, it would be tempting to make it seem like this “machine translation”, is more or less independent and able to do what it does by understanding “how the language works”

One of my linguist friends, retired University of Chicago librarian David Bade, notes a very interesting development in the field of linguistics:

“Language is a natural system to be studied as an object of natural science: this is the assumption that oriented lingusitics in the 19th century as it did during the 20th century and continues to do so today. Ironically Chomsky’s desire to develop a “hard science” of linguistics has been strenously defended in a recent textbook which declares grammar to be “magic”: “syntax has a biological base, and that human beings, from whatever language community, sociocultural background, or millennium, are all bound together by the same basic grammatical magic”. Hall, Christopher J. 2005. An Introduction to Language and Linguistics: Breaking the Language Spell. [United States]: Bloomsbury Academic, p. 197.

So is linguistics science or magic? Evidently, one can ask the same question of things like “artificial intelligence” or any technology for that matter. As Bryniolfsson and McAfee quote Arthur C. Clarke in their recent book the Second Machine Age: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Brynjolfsson, Erik. 2014. Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in the Time of Brilliant Technologies. [S.l.]: W W Norton, p. 13.

[xxi] I would even go so far myself to say that not only are we not a gadget (Lanier), but the gadgets will never even approximate us.



Posted by on March 10, 2015 in Uncategorized


Habitual Sin and Perpetual Pardon, Power and Progress

First of all, I’m developing a Twitter habit (you can follow me here, but please understand if I don’t follow you).  I resolved to pay less attention to blogs this year (nothing wrong with blogs, just need to be doing other things), but now I’ve been sucked into reading Twitter posts (again, nothing wrong with Twitter….).  Here’s what’s on my mind this morning….

Lutheran convert Daniel Emery Price just yesterday sent out a tweet that has become quite popular:

“Show me a man who won’t admit he’s a habitual sinner and I’ll show you a man who has a low view of God’s law.”

I can see why it has quickly gained in popularity.  That is some real jarring truth.  Right after that, he sent out this gem from Luther:

“Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be seen as a sinner, or to be one. For Christ dwells only in sinners.”

As Lutherans are apt to say, this is most certainly true.  Even as Luther told us to perpetually drive out the sin that remains within us (as the Israelites were to drive out the Jebusites), we are also to have a realistic view of our condition: to realize that we are all – Christians as well – slated to pay the wages of sin, and to die the “first death” (not the “second death” though – eternal damnation).  The root of our evil – original sin – will not be removed until the last day.

It is worth stating this again: evil desire will remain – even as, apart from Christ, this desire itself wins us death and hell.

Should such evil desire not bother us?  No, it should bother us indeed – we need to realize our culpability and the wages that follow even for this.  It is for this sin that Christ went to the cross….

It is because of this that such sin must never lead us to despair, but always to Christ, the friend of sinners.  As I also read this morning in one of the [freshly translated] Luther devotions from Lutheran Press:

When you are to pray, you may feel offended by your own unworthiness and think: Alas, I have too many sins and am worried that I may not be Christ’s brother. Lash out and defend yourself as much as you can, lest you give room to these thoughts. For you are in grave danger of sinning against the Holy Spirit. Only say confidently and stubbornly against all this suggesting by the devil: I know full well what I am, and you do not need to tell or teach me this. For it is not up to you to judge me. Therefore, be gone, you miserable lying spirit! I shall not listen to you. Yet here is my Lord Christ, God’s own Son, who died and rose from the dead for me. He tells me that all my sins are forgotten and that he now wants to be my brother and that, in turn, I am to be his brother. He wants me to believe this wholeheartedly without any wavering.

And we are free!  But, we may often think, “What about the evil desire that remains – and that creates the thoughts, words, and deeds by which we hurt our neighbors and offend God?”  Is there any hope at all for improvement here?  Even if the evil root – “old Adam” – will remain?

There certainly is, otherwise the Apostle Paul would never say to the Ephesians, for example, that “sexual immorality and any impurity or greed should not even be heard of among you, as is proper for saints.” (Eph. 5:3).  We should believe in spiritual progress not because we detect some of this in our own life, but because the Scriptures assert that Christians are those who are increasingly transformed into His image (see 2 Cor. 3:18).

But how does this genuine progress take place?  A couple key points.

First and foremost, there is the medicine of the word of God and the sacraments.  As Luther says in his explanation to the third commandment: “We should fear and love God that we may not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it.” Here is where we receive our bread – the words that are Spirit and life. (particularly in the words of Christ crucified for sinners).

Second, we can pray not only using simple words like “thank you” or “help” (sometimes very desperately) but in ways that remind us always of God’s eagerness to show us and others pardon and power.  In my own life, I have found it helpful to pray the following prayer when dealing with one of my habitual sins, impatience and anger, with my five boys:

“Love is patient, love is kind…. Christ is for me – forgiven.  Christ is in me – forgive them.”

Holy Spirit, make us thine in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ.



Posted by on March 7, 2015 in Uncategorized


My First Post on patheos: Facing Hostility, Can Some Christian Colleges Boldly Continue to Welcome All?

A very important editorial from Michael Gerson, “An Appeal for Patient Pluralism”, appeared recently in the Washington Post.

Christian colleges and universities are increasingly being asked – or pressured to – allow for groups where LGBTQ[….] causes could be advocated. This, more than anything else in the past I think, is forcing necessary ethical – and yes, political – reflection.*

I think that it is extremely important that Christian colleges and universities boldly advocate for the rights they should have in their own homes, as genuinely private institutions.

It is with this in mind that I have written for consideration 13 theses for Christian colleges and universities who in some way advertise that they want to both honor Christ and welcome all. This is the first post that I am putting up on patheos, as a part of Pastor Jordan Cooper’s “Just and Sinner” blog.

I invite you to take a look at them and weigh in….

My theses start with:

“Students who have choose to attend distinctly Christian colleges and universities have a right to hear it emphasized that…”

Read more:…



*Note also the recent joint statement of the Presidents of the Colleges of the Lutheran-Church Missouri Synod as well: “CUS Presidents Embrace Identity Statement”.

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Posted by on March 4, 2015 in Uncategorized