«

L.B.: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

Left Behind, pp. 395-397

After hearing Rayford Steele’s impassioned sales pitch for faith in “the Antichrist and all,” Buck Williams is rethinking his own beliefs. At the same time, Jerry Jenkins is busy rewriting the preceding 21 chapters of his book, letting us know, retroactively, about things he had neglected or even denied earlier.

Part of that rewriting process here involves a fuller picture of the substance of Rayford’s speech. Based on the rather sketchy accounts of that speech we’ve gotten so far, his key point was that the Trip and Die guys were a (disappointingly flameless) version of something predicted in Revelation, meaning the Antichrist would be here soon.

If one heard Rayford’s speech the way it has been thus far described, and if one believed him, then the reasonable response would be something like stockpiling food and water and heading for the hills. That is, in fact, exactly what Jesus says to do. In the “mini-apocalypse” in Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 24), Jesus says:

When you see standing in the holy place “the abomination that causes desolation,” spoken of through the prophet Daniel — let the reader understand — then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now — and never to be equaled again.

Many biblical scholars will tell you that the “abomination that causes desolation” is a reference to Antiochus Epiphanes’ desecration of the Temple and to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., but that’s not important here.

What matters here is what Rayford, LaHaye and Jenkins believe this passage means. They believe this corresponds to the rise of the Antichrist as described in their End Times Checklist. The abominable Nicolae Carpathia may not yet be standing in the holy place — Rayford and his friends may still have a little time to go back for their cloaks — but he’s quickly slouching in that direction, so what are they still sitting around for? No one heeds or even seems to notice Jesus’ explicit, and very logical seeming, advice for those in what they believe is their precise situation: Run! Run for your lives! Fly, you fools!

These aren’t the sorts of things the authors want Buck to be contemplating as he paces through the night. They don’t want him worrying about famine, plagues, locusts, the seas turning to blood, the Mark of the Beast, or any of that. They want him to be worrying about the salvation of his soul.

From what we’ve seen so far, Rayford didn’t say much of anything to Buck about salvation or souls. No problem, Jenkins will just go back and insert it from here in the following chapter.

Thus we get the following Standard Christian Fiction Conversion Scene. These two paragraphs could have been (and maybe even were) lifted verbatim from any Christian Brand work of fiction available at your local Christian bookstore. All Jenkins did here was insert the names of his own characters:

Buck was on a personal quest now, looking to satisfy deep needs. For so many years he had rejected the idea of a personal God or that he had need of God — if there were one. The idea would take some getting used to. Captain Steele had talked about everyone being a sinner. Buck was not unrealistic about that. He knew his life would never stand up to the standards of a Sunday School teacher. But he had always hoped that if he faced God someday, his good would outweigh his bad and that relatively speaking, he was as good or better than the next guy. That would have to do.

Now, if Rayford Steele and all his Bible verses could be believed, it didn’t make any difference how good Buck was or where he stood in relation to anybody else. One archaic phrase had struck him and rolled around in his head. There is none righteous, no, not one. Well, he had never considered himself righteous. Could he go to the next level and admit his need for God, for forgiveness, for Christ?

This is the masculine version of the standard preconversion scene, hence the football-coach lingo there — “go to the next level.” The feminine version tends to read more like something from a romance novel with lots of talk of “finally yielding” and “surrendering” and “offering herself up” (to Christ, of course).

This boilerplate doesn’t fit here. It doesn’t fit with Buck’s character (to use that term generously) as we’ve seen it developed (to use that term extremely generously) over the previous 400 pages. Buck, as we’ve come to know him thus far, is a man whose self-concept is wholly out of proportion to his actual self. He’s a 30-year-old virgin who imagines himself a worldly wise rogue. He’s an unprincipled coward, willing to cut a deal with his friend’s murderers to save his own skin, yet he imagines himself a hero. And he’s a deadline-skipping, story-burying hack who imagines himself the subject of his peers’ jealous fantasies.

That gap between who he really is and who he imagines himself to be is not sustainable. At some point, maybe just out of the corner of his eye, Buck is going to catch a devastating glimpse of who and what he really is. That will be an epiphany he may not even survive. That realization really would give him the sweaty chills and set him pacing through the long, dark night. Compared to that, the abstract argument of “Rayford Steele and all his Bible verses” is weak tea. Rayford’s pitch, as described in this boilerplate insert, could never convince Buck to “admit his need” because Buck has never felt such a need. Need isn’t something you can be easily talked into.

The mention of Buck’s “personal quest … to satisfy deep needs” might hint at some previously unsuggested longing for meaning on his part, but I’m not buying that either. Buck’s pursuit of meaning and purpose, such as it is, has taken the form of his work, his vocation as a reporter. In Buck’s case, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, that source of meaning has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried. It’s too soon for Buck to give up on his notion that being a great reporter might give his life meaning because he’s barely even trying to be a great reporter.

It may be that Buck is heading down a dead end street, but he is making so little progress doing so that he shouldn’t yet realize that he’s going to have to turn around. Buck isn’t all that different from the vast majority of those who suspect that, platitudes to the contrary, money might buy them happiness. Most such people will never have enough money to credibly test that theory. Until they do, they will never think, “Ah, I should look elsewhere for meaning,” but only, “How can I get more money than I have now?” A counterfeit dream, half-heartedly pursued, is indistinguishable from a real one.

Nor does this awkwardly inserted Standard Conversion Scene fit, at all, with what we have been previously told of the actual contents of Rayford’s speech. I’ve previously mentioned Rayford’s strange confusion of evangelism and “prophecy.” His idea of evangelizing, up until now, has been portrayed as offering an outline of the End Times Checklist while insisting, without ever demonstrating, that it has all been foretold in the Bible. He’s never mentioned Jesus, sin, salvation, God’s love, forgiveness or redemption.

That approach, as we discussed earlier, is completely unrecognizable to most evangelicals who tend to think of evangelism as presenting the gospel through some formal construct like the Four Spiritual Laws, the Romans Road, the Wordless Book or the Bridge Illustration. Rayford’s “evangelism” hasn’t followed any such standard approach. He hasn’t even made use of the requisite Hypothetical Bus even though, if he were right about the checklist, he could point to a fast-approaching Rider on a Pale Horse and note that the current best-case scenario involves his listeners meeting their maker in less than seven years.

But now, suddenly, we’re told that Rayford did, in fact, work some kind of more traditional gospel message into his speech about the checklist and “the Antichrist and all,” including quoting Romans 3:10, “There is none righteous, no, not one.”*

I am trying to imagine how this could work. “Jesus loves you, your sins are forgiven” is not easily combined with Wormwood falling from the sky and locusts given the power of scorpions to torture men and the plagues of fire, smoke and sulfur from the mouths of horses with heads like lions. “So you see, Buck, God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Well, not for your life. Your life, the six years and 11 months that’s left of it, will consist of suffering divine wrath in the form of seven seals, seven trumpets, seven plagues and seven bowls, each worse than the last. Let me describe those for you in detail …”

The only way I can imagine fusing those two messages into one would be to promise Buck that he will experience Hell on earth and Heaven when he dies (soon, and violently). That’s a connection through disconnection. It’s a message so heavenly minded that it’s no earthly good.

As Jenkins continues to revise and extend Rayford’s earlier remarks, we learn that he also somehow worked good old Chapter 3 of the Gospel of John into his Antichrist speech:

Was it possible? Could he [Buck] be on the cusp of becoming a born-again Christian? He had been almost relieved when Rayford Steele had used that term. Buck had read and even written about “those kinds” of people, but even at his level of worldly wisdom he had never quite understood the phrase. He had always considered the “born-again” label akin to “ultraright-winger” or “fundamentalist.” Now, if he chose to take a step he had never dreamed of taking, if he could not somehow talk himself out of this truth he could no longer intellectually ignore, he would also take upon himself a task: educating the world on what that confusing little term really meant.

Note again the contrast between intellect and intellectual honesty — the two are constantly presented as opposites in Left Behind.

I’m not sure why Buck “had never quite understood” the meaning of “born again” or why he finds the term “confusing.” Born. That word we know. Again. That one, too. Born again. Not terribly complicated. As the other John said, it would be just like starting over. The idea of starting over, a second chance, a clean slate — that’s not at all confusing.

What is confusing in the paragraph quoted above is what Buck takes this to mean now that, he suggests, he finally really understands the phrase. That confusion isn’t specifically the authors’ fault. It’s part of a larger confusion in American evangelicalism that we’ve discussed before as the pyramid marketing scheme of the contentless gospel: “The good news is that now you can tell others the good news.” (Yes, but what is that news? “To tell others the news.” But this news you’re going to be telling them, what is it? “That they can tell others the good news, too.” Yes, but …)

Buck nearly grasps something even more confusing. The hyphenated compound adjective “born-again” has become a label for attitudes and connotations that seem wholly incompatible with the simpler, more obvious implications of the term. Here’s a group of people that chooses to self-identify with a phrase that announces that they have themselves needed a second chance. They are proclaiming that they are the second-chancers, the do-overs, the mulligan-takers, the fuss-ups and muck-ups who have had to return to Square One. We’d expect that such a group would be marked by a generosity of spirit toward others that reflected the generosity they have, themselves, benefitted from. Yet instead we find, as Buck says, a group of “ultraright-wingers” whose foremost defining characteristic for those both within and without the group — according to the born-againers at the Barna Research Group — is “excessive contempt and unloving attitudes.”

Buck says he intends to start “educating the world on what that confusing little term really meant.” I wish by that he meant that he wanted to start correcting this contradiction of being the unforgiving forgiven. But, of course, what Buck really means is that he’s decided the ultraright-wingers are right and so therefore he intends to become just like them.

That contradiction — the contrast between what it ought to mean to refer to oneself as a second-chancer and what it actually seems to mean in our culture — somehow reminds me of this:

The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of $100,000. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.

The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, “Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.” Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.

The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him $10. He seized him by the throat and demanded, “Pay up. Now!”

The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, “Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.” But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.

The king summoned the man and said, “You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?” The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt.

That parable illustrates part of why I find Buck’s soul-searching so unconvincing. As impressed as he claims to be with “There is none righteous, no not one,” he still sees himself more as somebody owing $10 than as somebody owing $100,000.

That’s also related to why the connotations of “born-again” are so different than what the phrase would seem to suggest on its own. The label brings to mind people who are convinced that they owe God $10, but that everybody else owes him a lot more. Those others, they seem to think, really deserve debtor’s prison, or Hell, or Tribulation. Those others deserve to be Left Behind.

- – - – - – - – - – - –

* St. Paul himself was quoting the 14th Psalm, so evangelists have to be particularly careful when citing this passage. If they were to open their Bibles to Psalms rather than to Romans, they might accidentally convert someone to Judaism instead of Christianity.

  • http://msm.grumpybumpers.com mcc

    The reason you can’t locate it is that it didn’t happen
    Froborr, did you know that despite having been an outspoken atheist his entire life, Richard Dawkins converted to Christianity on his deathbed? It’s true.

  • http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/news/article-23434850-details/Flight+to+London+makes+emergency+landing+after+co-pilot+suffers+mental+breakdown/article.do Elmo

    Life imitates “art”

  • http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/news/article-23434850-details/Flight+to+London+makes+emergency+landing+after+co-pilot+suffers+mental+breakdown/article.do Elmo
  • hapax

    Iorwerth Thomas, a thousand thanks for the link. I’m a devoted reader and a dabbling writer of metafiction, and this article is just bursting with delicious thematic goodness.

  • Bugmaster

    You disavow attributing to me neo-Platonist tendencies, but I think you may in fact be doing just that.

    Well, I guess it depends on what you mean by neo-Platonism. In the general sense, your notions of “perfect forms” and nonexistent objects are fairly Platonic in nature; but I realize that there are many specific where you may disagree with the bona-fide neo-Platonists.

    Sort of. There’s a demarcation problem between physics and metaphysics, somewhere about where you start to speculate on the meaning of the probabilities in quantum mechanics or whether relativistic space-time is a ‘thing’ or a set of relations between things.

    The demarcation is fairly clear, IMO. Physics doesn’t deal with questions such as “what is a ‘thing’”, because they are unfalsifiable and the answers would not be ultimately informative. From the point of view of physics, “how does gravity affect space-time” is a much more important and meaningful question than, “is space-time the conduit of intentionality”, or something like that. Personally, I think that the questions that deal with things that affect the world we live in are more interesting than questions that deal with things that affect nothing; I guess I’m with Froborr on this one.

  • aunursa

    Froborr: There might exist something we would describe as “God” or “gods”, but there is no reason to believe such a thing exists, and even if it did it would not resemble the puerile imaginings of human religion.
    Is that position related to agnosticism?

  • Bugmaster

    @aunursa:

    Is that position related to agnosticism?

    Not really; at least, not in the original sense. I’m an atheist in the same way that I’m an a-spiritualist, a-alienist, a-Elvisist, a-dragonist, a-teddy-bear-in-orbit-of-Alpha-Centauri-ist, etc. It’s possible that any or even all of these things exist, but until I have some reason to believe that they do, I’ll just act as though they don’t. In fact, there’s a nearly infinite number of things that could, potentially, exist; if I were to believe in all of them, my brain would probably deadlock.
    This is different with being an agnostic, though, because an agnostic would say that there cannot be, in principle, any reasons for believing or disbelieving in X (where X is Elvis, or God, or that teddy bear, etc.). For an agnostic, the existence of X is not merely unknown (and therefore highly unlikely by default), but also completely unknowable.

  • Iorwerth Thomas

    Physics doesn’t deal with questions such as “what is a ‘thing’”, because they are unfalsifiable and the answers would not be ultimately informative. From the point of view of physics, “how does gravity affect space-time” is a much more important and meaningful question than, “is space-time the conduit of intentionality”, or something like that. Personally, I think that the questions that deal with things that affect the world we live in are more interesting than questions that deal with things that affect nothing; I guess I’m with Froborr on this one.
    That’s a prescriptive view of what science or physics is, though, not a descriptive one; the way actual scientists work bears little resemblance to it [1]. The demarcation problem came about pretty much because Popper (the source of the whole business of falsification) noted that there not so much a clear boundary between metaphysics and science with a line saying ‘this is falsifiable’ down the middle so much as a continuum with difficult borderline cases. In physics, you may sometimes find yourself making unfalsifiable statements as a part of your research program that aren’t so extreme as “is space-time the conduit of intentionality”. Some research in the Foundations of QM counts here (particularly stuff that’s relating philosophical concerns regarding context dependence, the meaning of probability and almost certainly Many Worlds); also, the notion of species concepts and function in biology (for which you’d be advised to check out http://scienceblogs.com/evolvingthoughts/ for more); these do have an effect on theories and how we view and construct them and yet they are in a sense metaphysical, because they aren’t falsifiable. You can’t just dismiss this stuff merely because Heidegger said something incomprehensible once, as the logical positivists did, or because out there on the fringes people say things that have nothing to do with anything you care about.
    Conceptual analysis is important, and probably unavoidable, particularly if you don’t want to be mislead by bad metaphors. Don’t throw out the baby with the bath-water.
    [1] See Harry Collins’ ‘Gravity’s Shadow’ for a detailed case study.

  • Bugmaster

    That’s a prescriptive view of what science or physics is, though, not a descriptive one; the way actual scientists work bears little resemblance to it

    I haven’t read Gravity’s Shadow, but I’d argue that “actual scientists” normally work by looking at numbers a lot. Most of the time, they’re asking themselves, “why in the hell am I getting a peak on this graph where there shouldn’t be a peak ?”, not “what is gravity” or “what makes things possess thingness”. At least, this is how they work, not why. In general, scientists are more focused on doing the actual science, than on discovering the metaphysical underpinnings of science itself.

    In physics, you may sometimes find yourself making unfalsifiable statements as a part of your research program that aren’t so extreme as “is space-time the conduit of intentionality”

    I guess it depends on what you mean by “unfalsifiable”. Unfalsifiable given the size of your research grant ? Unfalsifiable given the sum total energy output of every powerplant that exists on Earth as of today ? Or, unfalsifiable a priori ? String Theory is still catching a lot of flack for ending up on the wrong side of this spectrum.

    also, the notion of species concepts and function in biology…

    AFAIK, the notion of “species” is not really used in biology, other than as a short-hand that helps scientists organize data into human-readable chunks. The notion of a phylogenetic tree is much more useful; such trees are usually based on synteny between organisms (or populations of organisms, if you want a more general view), however, and not on any pre-conceived hierarchy of species.

    Conceptual analysis is important, and probably unavoidable, particularly if you don’t want to be mislead by bad metaphors.

    I’m not sure what this means, so it’s possible that my next question is off-topic.
    Let’s say that I construct a machine that makes clouds in a bottle, because I enjoy looking at clouds. I notice that, when I bring my cloud-bottle in proximity to a chunk of radioactive material, oddly-shaped trails form inside of it. I want to know what’s causing this. At what point does conceptual analysis about the nature of reality, and the relationships between nonexistent immaterial objects, etc., become useful to me in this endeavour ?

  • http://funwithrage.livejournal.com Izzy

    Personally, I think that the questions that deal with things that affect the world we live in are more interesting than questions that deal with things that affect nothing; I guess I’m with Froborr on this one.
    It’s interesting how many of the atheists/agnostics I’ve interacted with are people who really *don’t* see the point of/take an interest in metaphysical questions. Which is not a bad thing, mind you–just a curious trend. I think everyone has some areas they can’t be bothered with, and that they don’t quite get other people’s interest in. For me, it’s CS/Calculus/hard mathy stuff*; for you, and my boyfriend, and my dad, it seems to be existential/metaphysical questions.
    Which is fortunate, really, because, while I have no problem with atheists as such, the existential atheists I *have* met tend to be pretentious melancholic wankers who need a good punch in the teeth. (“Stop QUOTING SARTRE at me, DICKHEAD” is a thing I should have said more in college.)
    *My attitude to my computer is basically the same as a lot of people’s attitude to the universe. I know it works; I know how to make it do what I want, roughly; I don’t need or want to know more.

  • Bugmaster

    Which is fortunate, really, because, while I have no problem with atheists as such, the existential atheists I *have* met tend to be pretentious melancholic wankers

    Sweet ! Now I have something to put on my business card :-)
    Anyway, I’m interested in metaphysics, of course, in the same way that I’m interested in Harry Potter or the internal rules of the world of Simoun. I just don’t think the questions that are answered — or, much more often than not, not answered — by metaphysics have anything to do with the world we actually live in. As such, they are less important than scientific questions, IMO.

  • hapax

    just don’t think the questions that are answered — or, much more often than not, not answered — by metaphysics have anything to do with the world we actually live in.
    Tonto: What do you mean by “we”, white man?
    In my universe, questions that can be answered by empirical materialistic investigation (What’s for lunch? How does it taste? Do I have the cash to pay for it? Will it make me fat?) are very important indeed. But questions that can’t be answered that way (Do I feel like a healthy salad and crackers, or shall I go for the donuts left over from morning break? When does brunch become lunch become tea? Is it better to skip lunch and work on my reviews? If I eat lunch at my desk while working, would it be ethical to take off an hour early? Why bother to eat anyway? Why bother to do anything?) are a great deal more important.
    I’m not saying that I’m right and you’re wrong. But it is possible that we don’t live in the same universe.

  • http://funwithrage.livejournal.com Izzy

    Bugmaster: Hee! Admittedly, I may be biased–most of the Srs Bzness Atheists I encountered were in college and high school. And it didn’t help that my first boyfriend was an excessively tiresome Baylor-fundie-turned-protoEmokid-atheist. We’d have these conversations. roughly paraphrased:
    Youthful Izzy: “Wanna make out?”
    Boy: “Oh, but life is so meaningless and transient! We are as dust in the wind!”
    YI: “So…we should make out now. While the making out is good.”
    Boy: “The gaping maw of nothingness yawns before us WOE.”
    YI: “Fuckwit.”
    I just don’t think the questions that are answered — or, much more often than not, not answered — by metaphysics have anything to do with the world we actually live in. As such, they are less important than scientific questions, IMO.
    Ah, fair enough. Whereas I do, to some extent–and am, OTOH, quite willing to leave the scientific stuff to other people. I like science; I believe in scientists; I just feel no urge to poke at it, and am content to let the technical discussions woosh gently over my head, whilst I sit around writing bad romance novels.
    That said, I do the same with most highly technical philosophy.* Make of that what you will.
    *I number three and a half philosophy majors, three of ‘em grad students, among my acquaintance. Someday, we’re going to get them all drunk, lock them in a small room, and amuse ourselves by periodically shouting “DEATH PENALTY” or “FREE WILL” through the door and listening to the ensuing battle.

  • hapax

    Youthful Izzy: “Wanna make out?”
    Boy: “Oh, but life is so meaningless and transient! We are as dust in the wind!”
    YI: “So…we should make out now. While the making out is good.”
    Boy: “The gaping maw of nothingness yawns before us WOE.”
    YI: “Fuckwit.”

    I hereby volunteer to read any “bad romance novel” that you have written that you care to send me.

  • Bugmaster

    I second that. Metaphysically speaking, those five lives of dialogue are perfect. :-)

  • Bugmaster

    But questions that can’t be answered that way (Do I feel like a healthy salad and crackers, or shall I go for the donuts left over from morning break? When does brunch become lunch become tea? Is it better to skip lunch and work on my reviews? If I eat lunch at my desk while working, would it be ethical to take off an hour early? Why bother to eat anyway? Why bother to do anything?) are a great deal more important.

    Most of those questions seem like empirical questions to me. Sure, they don’t warrant anything as heavy as the full-on application of the scientific method, and you probably wouldn’t get a research grant for solving them, but still, they deal with objects that exist in the world, and that have an immediate and noticeable effect on the world (as long as we assume that you are part of said world). “Why bother to eat anyway” is, in fact, a question that can be easily answered through experimentation :-)
    Some of the “deeper questions” you list are “when does brunch become lunch become tea ?”, and “why bother to do anything ?”. The first question is really just a question of taxonomy; as such, it has the same answer as other questions of its type, namely, “when you feel like it”.
    The second question is, indeed, not empirical, but I’d argue that it’s meaningless either way, because you can never do nothing (at least, not until you achieve Nirvana). Even when you’re sitting on your couch, staring at the ceiling, you’re still doing something. So, the real question you’re asking is, “which of the many activities available to me should I engage in, and at what times ?”. I think I can make a case that empirical evidence will be instrumental in answering this question for you — even if you don’t end up consciously going out and looking for it — much more so than any musings on the nature of intentionality that you could conceive of.

  • Froborr

    Questions of the form “what should I do?” are neither metaphysical nor empirical; they are prescriptive, and therefore fall under the heading of ethics. “Should I have a salad or donuts?” may not seem like a very weighty ethical question, but it is nonetheless an ethical question. Now, “Will I have a salad or donuts?” is an empirical question, shortly to be answered when you actually eat one or the other.
    Answers to questions of “Why” are either trivial — “You eat because you want to” — or meaningless, as they presuppose purpose in the absence of agency or design.
    On metaphysics, I’m with Bug: it’s an amusing game that can allow the construction of very pretty fairy castles, but there are no right answers to the questions being asked. Nothing of substance can come of it.

  • Bugmaster

    On metaphysics, I’m with Bug: it’s an amusing game … but there are no right answers to the questions being asked.

    In the spirit of metaphysical discussion, I would like to point out that it’s possible that the right answers do, in fact, exist; however, there’s no way for us to check (even approximately) which answers are right, which are wrong, and which are nonexistent because the questions themselves are meaningless.

  • Anonymous

    In my universe, questions that can be answered by empirical materialistic investigation…are very important indeed. But questions that can’t be answered that way…are a great deal more important.
    Both types of questions are important for different reasons. My issue with theology is that it seems to claim that the answers to the second type of questions also dictate the answers to the first type of questions.

  • Tonio

    That was me at 10:28 a.m.

  • Froborr

    In the spirit of metaphysical discussion, I would like to point out that it’s possible that the right answers do, in fact, exist; however, there’s no way for us to check (even approximately) which answers are right, which are wrong, and which are nonexistent because the questions themselves are meaningless.
    Gotta disagree there. A right answer, by definition, is one that accords to some external standard and can therefore be checked against it. For example, the question of “Does Froborr like chocolate?” has a right answer because it can be checked against an external standard, namely my behavior. The question of “What is real?” does not have right answers, because there cannot possibly be any external standard against which to check any of them.

  • Izzy

    Bug and Hapax: Why, thank you!
    I’ll keep this in mind when I finish the one I’m working on. (Plot: Edwardian gentleman who dabbles in the occult and has recently had one of his ex-friends go all Dark Side meets warrior-woman from a post-apocalyptic future that ex-friend’s Necronomicon-style book created, who has been, of course, Sent from the Future to Change the Past. Sometimes, I’m on drugs.)

  • Bugmaster

    As long as he doesn’t have a plucky talking animal sidekick, it’s all good…

  • Dorothy

    I think metaphysical beliefs are not adopted, they are discovered. Things seem a certain way to people and there’s not a lot they can do about it. – McJulie
    I can kinda-sorta understand the beginning of this statement, but why the “not a lot they can do about it?” I don’t get that.
    For instance, I slipped from agnosticism to atheism while reading up on climate change. But since then, I’ve taken the time and effort to examine my belief system from different angles (one reason I hang out here) looking for reasons to discard or modify it. Yeah, the initial inspiration was like a discovery, but I never felt like I was stuck with it.
    ——————————————————–
    “why in the hell am I getting a peak on this graph where there shouldn’t be a peak?” – Bugmaster
    You just described two entire years of my life.

  • Iorwerth Thomas

    I haven’t read Gravity’s Shadow, but I’d argue that “actual scientists” normally work by looking at numbers a lot. Most of the time, they’re asking themselves, “why in the hell am I getting a peak on this graph where there shouldn’t be a peak ?”, not “what is gravity” or “what makes things possess thingness”. At least, this is how they work, not why. In general, scientists are more focused on doing the actual science, than on discovering the metaphysical underpinnings of science itself.
    Bear in mind that as a computational physicist who started out doing lattice QFT simulations, I do have a fairly good idea of what my work involves from day to day. ;)
    I’d suggest that you read Gravity’s Shadow, because it’s about how scientists reach consensus on issues (science as a social process — that is, science as practised by scientists, not as by clones of Karl Popper), and empirical evidence is only one of several determining factors in that, and it’s also very good. (I’d also recommend Duhem’s The Aims and Structure of Physical Theory; it’s a bit dated but the problems he outlines regarding falsificationism as the essence of science are spot on.)
    ‘What is gravity?’ by the way, is the sort of question that gets you into the strong equivalence principle and General Relativity; Einstein and others made a fair bit of progress by clarifying what was meant by ‘mass’ and ‘acceleration’ here.
    I guess it depends on what you mean by “unfalsifiable”. Unfalsifiable given the size of your research grant ? Unfalsifiable given the sum total energy output of every powerplant that exists on Earth as of today ? Or, unfalsifiable a priori ? String Theory is still catching a lot of flack for ending up on the wrong side of this spectrum.
    Questions on the precise meaning of probability in QM are probably unfalsifiable a priori. I do not think that that mandates moving Chris Fuchs and his Bayesian comrades to the philosophy department and forgetting about them, though. Nor would it, I think, mandate doing the same to Chris Isham and his attempts at clarifying just what a physical theory has to be in light of quantum mechanics using topos theory (though, to be fair, one of his frequent collaborators is a philosopher of physics).
    The dissatisfaction with string theory (as a program of unification, not as a method of getting a handle on the strong interaction) is AFAICT as much because it seems to be turning or has turned into a complex mess (for the second time running) as it is because it’s not provable. If it were a nice, simple equation that could be written on a T-shirt, I’m not sure that anyone would mind half as much. There’s also all the usual academic politics as well, of course.
    I’m not sure what this means…
    Maybe this question will help make things more clear: to what degree is it meaningful to talk about selfish genes or a gene’s eye view or genes as information in genetics?
    Answering this question is going to involve at least some clarification of the concepts of ‘gene’ ‘information’ and how it relates to the ontology of various genetic theories, as well as how analogies and suchlike work in science. The answers may have no empirical relevance whatsoever, but it’s a good idea to be clear on these things because they may have effects on your worldview and behaviour outside of the laboratory.

  • McJulie

    Even famous atheist Richard Dawkins admitted (in an interview/debate/discussion which I can’t readily locate) that he thinks there might be some greater power or mystery behind the universe, he just believes that all human religions are necessarily wrong about it.
    The reason you can’t locate it is that it didn’t happen.

    Thanks for the trollbait, Froborr, but it does exist and I did read it, I just can’t remember the kind of specifics that would allow me to locate it on Teh Interwebs. Like, I can’t remember if it was Newsweek or Time or whatever, and he was having a very civilized kind of debate/discussion with a fairly liberal theologian — the article was basically a transcript of the debate with a brief introduction explaining who they were.
    If you had read the article and my memory of the specifics was off and you can correct my data, that’s one thing. Like everyone else, my memory has a tendency to turn to mush. But please don’t insult me by assuming that I am lying.

  • Tonio

    McJulie and Froborr, in defense of both of you, it didn’t sound like to me like McJulie was lying or that Froborr was accusing her (him?) of lying. My theory is that McJulie read a hoax some time ago and didn’t realize that it wasn’t true. There are many such hoaxes, such as Ashley Pollack and the alleged Christian martyrdom of Cassie Bernall.

  • Froborr

    McJulie: I was indeed not accusing you of lying, but of falling prey to an urban legend. There are a *lot* of urban legends about atheists “admitting” they aren’t really atheists, none true. Deathbed recantations are particularly common; when Carl Sagan died his wife got so fed up with them she actually issued a press release affirming that no such recantations had taken place. Occasionally a prominent atheist-to-theist conversion does take place (C.S. Lewis springs immediately to mind), but for some reason the person’s prominence nearly always comes *after* the conversion.

  • McJulie

    First, Tonio, thanks for the (sort of) defense, but my point is that this is not a hoax that I read. This is an article that I read, a primary source in a major general-interest magazine.
    I, personally, read it. I read that particular quote out loud to my husband, because I thought it was so interesting.
    Now, people get misquoted all the time, so there is always that possibility. And I could easily have misunderstood quite what he meant, that also happens all the time. However, you and Froborr both seem to assume that I am merely repeating some third or fourth-hand urban legend as fact, which I find personally insulting. Surprisingly insulting, actually. Being accused of wanton urban-legend propagation really puts me in a cranky mood. Particularly when I have already pointed out that no, this is not one of those cases. My admittedly fuzzy memory is of the original source material, not something I heard somewhere or saw reprinted somewhere without attribution.
    Second, my original point was not to claim that Dawkins is “secretly a theist.” In the particular quote I am thinking of, he does not name the “something” as a god or gods. The way the interview was constructed, the theologian made some comment like “how can you know for certain there’s nothing, isn’t that intellectually arrogant” and Dawkins responded with something like, “of course I don’t know and there might well be something, but all religions making a claim to know the nature of that something are necessarily false.”
    Now, I don’t imagine Dawkins would normally make such a rhetorical concession, and I got the impression in this article that he had an unusually friendly and respectful relationship with whoever the theologian was. That’s why it struck me as such an interesting quote. It seemed to reveal that at the heart of it Dawkins’ beliefs are much closer to those of many people who would describe themselves as agnostics, yet he finds championing the cause of atheism to be very important, which most agnostics don’t.
    Similarly, I have met people who regularly attended Christian churches who — if you probed their beliefs in a similar fashion — also reveal their beliefs to be fairly close to agnosticism. And yet they find it important to observe the rituals in obeisance to a god they aren’t entirely sure they believe in.
    My point was that even people who call their beliefs by the same name don’t necessarily believe the same thing as each other.

  • McJulie

    Things seem a certain way to people and there’s not a lot they can do about it.
    I can kinda-sorta understand the beginning of this statement, but why the “not a lot they can do about it?” I don’t get that.

    It’s because I think metaphysical beliefs are a lot like one’s artistic preferences. Sure, they can change over time and change with exposure to new ideas and so on, but there’s a point where you reach a wall of personal preference — where no amount of exposure or education will ever make, say, that Justin Timberlake song about sexy backs sound good to me. I could get people knocking on my door on Saturday mornings with colorful charts to explain to me how I just haven’t seen the light yet and clearly Justin Timberlake is the way to eternal happiness, and it’s not going to change my mind.

  • Froborr

    Apologies, McJulie. I encounter such urban-legend mongering so often regarding atheists-who-are-secretly-theists that I’m over-sensitive to it.
    Now that I better understand what your point is, I can see that it is an excellent one. I hope you do find the article, because I’d be interested in tracking down the entire dialogue. Richard Dawkins actually being civil (as opposed to his usual smug, arrogant, casual nastiness when he’s talking about religion) is a rara avis indeed.

  • Dorothy

    The way the interview was constructed, the theologian made some comment like “how can you know for certain there’s nothing, isn’t that intellectually arrogant” and Dawkins responded with something like, “of course I don’t know and there might well be something, but all religions making a claim to know the nature of that something are necessarily false.”
    It seemed to reveal that at the heart of it Dawkins’ beliefs are much closer to those of many people who would describe themselves as agnostics, yet he finds championing the cause of atheism to be very important, which most agnostics don’t.
    – McJulie
    All due respect, but I think you are confused about the difference between agnostic and atheist.
    “That you cannot prove God’s non-existence is accepted and trivial, if only in the sense that we can never absolutely prove the non-existence of anything. What matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn’t) but whether his existence is probable.”
    …Let us, then, take the idea of a spectrum of probabilities seriously and place human judgements about the existence of God along it, between two extremes of opposite certainty. The spectrum is continuous, but it can be represented by the following seven milestones along the way.
    1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God,
    2. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent
    3. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism.
    4. Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic.
    5. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism.
    6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist.
    7. Strong atheist.
    …I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7 – I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.”
    The God Delusion, Ch. 2
    Not that I want to get in the habit of championing Dawkins – as Froborr said, he can be pretty noxious. I just don’t like to see him misunderstood.

  • aunursa

    1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God,
    2. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent
    3. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism.
    4. Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic.
    5. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism.
    6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist.
    7. Strong atheist.

    I’m not sure about the usefulness of this chart (no pun intended.) Level 1 would seem to be certainty of the existence of God, while level 7 would be certainty that no God or gods exist. Level 4 would seem to be absolute uncertainty. But a true agnostic is not just uncertain, but maintains that the nature or existence of God or gods is impossible to know. A person could be unsure about the existence of God but nevertheless maintain that God’s existence or nonexistence could be somewhat demonstrated or understood (just hasn’t yet come across such a demonstration).
    Or perhaps my understanding of agnosticism is lacking.

  • Jeff

    First, Tonio, thanks for the (sort of) defense, but my point is that this is not a hoax that I read. This is an article that I read, a primary source in a major general-interest magazine.
    The two are not incompatable. Time and Newsweek (and the other news mags) have been known to print hoxes as truth (Swift Boat Liars, frex). So even if you read it as “a primary source in a major general-interest magazine”, doesn’t mean it’s true.
    Doesn’t mean it’s not, but caveat emptor, as the man said.

  • Dorothy

    aunursa- Yeah, this is where it gets sticky, and I am no expert, just quoting Dawkins. And yes, I will back off the “All due respect, but I think you are confused about the difference between agnostic and atheist.” That was obnoxious.

  • Dorothy

    But a true agnostic is not just uncertain, but maintains that the nature or existence of God or gods is impossible to know. A person could be unsure about the existence of God but nevertheless maintain that God’s existence or nonexistence could be somewhat demonstrated or understood (just hasn’t yet come across such a demonstration).
    I wanted to make the point that Dawkins could have made the statements that McJulie recalls, without being inconsistent with his own notions of agnosticism and atheism. Dawkins does distinguishes between what he calls “Temporary Agnosticism in Practice” and “Permanent Agnosticism in Principle” and argues that agnosticism about the existence of God belongs firmly in the TAP category.
    But at this point, I’m out of time (and steam) and recommend others to get the book if interested.

  • McJulie

    It seemed to reveal that at the heart of it Dawkins’ beliefs are much closer to those of many people who would describe themselves as agnostics, yet he finds championing the cause of atheism to be very important, which most agnostics don’t.
    All due respect, but I think you are confused about the difference between agnostic and atheist.

    Er, I really don’t think so. My surprise was that I had always gotten the impression that Dawkins was at a clear 7, possibly an 8, on the scale you quote. It surprised me to find out he was a mere 6.5.
    But then, I haven’t read The God Delusion.

  • Bugmaster

    ‘What is gravity?’ by the way, is the sort of question that gets you into the strong equivalence principle and General Relativity; Einstein and others made a fair bit of progress by clarifying what was meant by ‘mass’ and ‘acceleration’ here.

    Yes, but that’s a completely different question from something like, “do nonexistent objects possess thingness”. When you ask, “what is gravity”, what you’re really asking is, “is there a unifying formula that can tie together several separate theories (one of which is gravity), without contradicting any existing data, and will this formula allow me to predict results of future experiments better than I can do today ?” In other words, the answers to “what is gravity ?” can be tested for correctness against some external source. That’s what makes them different from concepts in metaphysics.

    If it were a nice, simple equation that could be written on a T-shirt, I’m not sure that anyone would mind half as much.

    Hmmm, I’m not sure. “God did it” and “we are all brains in jars” are also nice, simple statements that can be written on a T-shirt, but I don’t think many scientists would accept them as informative answers to anything.

    Answering this question is going to involve at least some clarification of the concepts of ‘gene’ ‘information’ and how it relates to the ontology of various genetic theories…

    Sorry, I’m still not sure what you mean. The word “information” has a very specific meaning in genetic research; it can even be measured, just by counting nucleotides (yes, I realize that it’s an oversimplification). It absolutely has empirical relevance; it affects the melting temperature of RNA, for one thing.

  • Rosina

    Even famous atheist Richard Dawkins admitted (in an interview/debate/discussion which I can’t readily locate) that he thinks there might be some greater power or mystery behind the universe, he just believes that all human religions are necessarily wrong about it.
    I think there is a difference between conceding a possibility in a debate in order to make a far more telling point – “There might be a mystery behind the universe, but it isn’t what you or any earth religion calls God” and actually believing that there is, or even might be, a greater power in reality.
    It is a shame that civilized debate is almost impossible now because any point conceded for the purpose of moving a discussion forward is leapt upon by opponents and media with a “Na-Na, Na-Na” as if the debater had admitted being in error. Discussions here are most civilized when questions about the nature of God do not automatically descend into drawing up battle lines about the existence of God (I mean if an atheist asks “Why do you believe that about God?” rather than “There is no God, so you are just deluded when you imagine what he is like. Na-Na.” Or vice versa, of course.)

  • Tonio

    The way the interview was constructed, the theologian made some comment like “how can you know for certain there’s nothing, isn’t that intellectually arrogant” and Dawkins responded with something like, “of course I don’t know and there might well be something, but all religions making a claim to know the nature of that something are necessarily false.”
    Thanks for the clarification. That position os close to my own, which I’ll explain in a moment…
    The spectrum is continuous, but it can be represented by the following seven milestones along the way…
    I also question the basis for those milestones. My position has been labeled “soft” atheism. It would be intellectually dishonest of me to reject all possibility of gods, however remote the possibility. However, the possibility approaches zero and thus can be considered irrelevant since there’s no evidence for any gods or what those gods’ natures would be. If new evidence surfaced, obviously then I would re-evaluate. I’m saying that the question of gods is a question about the physical universe and thus involves empiricism rather than belief.

  • Dorothy

    Discussions here are most civilized when questions about the nature of God do not automatically descend into drawing up battle lines about the existence of God. – Rosina
    Dang. Just when I was starting to think that the flamethrower goes well with my gingham dress and pigtails, Rosina has to go and take it away from me.
    *sulks*

  • Tonio

    Just when I was starting to think that the flamethrower goes well with my gingham dress and pigtails, Rosina has to go and take it away from me.
    “We’re the flame warriors…Don’t wanna flame no more…”

  • http://profile.typekey.com/coppercorn/ coppercorn

    McJulie, was the Dawkins interview in Discover Magazine? (They were actually reporting on an meeting sponsored by the New York Institute for the Humanities.) Full article here:
    http://discovermagazine.com/2005/sep/darwins-rottweiler/
    With relevant quote:
    “Einsteinian religion is a kind of spirituality which is nonsupernatural,” he told the gathering at New York University. “And that doesn’t mean that it’s somehow less than supernatural religion. Quite the contrary. . . . Einstein was adamant in rejecting all ideas of a personal god. It is something bigger, something grander, something that I believe any scientist can subscribe to, including those scientists whom I would call atheists. Einstein, in my terms, was an atheist, although Einstein of course was very fond of using the word God. When Einstein would use the word God, he was using it as a kind of figure of speech. When he said things like ‘God is subtle but he’s not malicious,’ or ‘He does not play dice,’ or ‘Did God have a choice in creating the universe?’ what he meant was things like randomness do not lie at the heart of all things. Could the universe have been any other way than the way it is? Einstein chose to use the word God to phrase such profound, deep questions.
    “That, it seems to me, is the good part of religion which we can all subscribe to,”

  • Tonio

    Coppercom, thanks for the quote. Einstein’s description of the god metaphor is close to my own stance. I’ve often been tempted to use the word “God” in exactly that manner. But I suspect that I would inadvertently lead people to assume that I believed in a personal god. I see myself as having reverence for the universe without believing it to be a god or to include a god.

  • Ken

    Antiochus Epiphanes pre-dated Jesus by a good two centuries. He was a Seleucid king from around 200 BCE. The Maccabean Revolt was made against him. I did a paper on it to finish up my B.A. — Geds
    Antiochus Epiphanes is also used as a type example of Antichrist by PMDs. Many-many years ago in a Christian Bookstore’s “Fiction” section, I encountered a novel called Antiochus that is best described as Left Behind: 200 BC. Allegedly a historical novel about the Maccabean Revolt, it parallels PMD Tribulation Dystopias to the point Antiochus has some sort of amulet with three identical Greek numeral-letters on it and decrees (among sacrifice to himself in the Temple in Jerusalem) that all his subjects must wear the same.
    It ends with Antiochus’ death, drowning in some river after being led there by the “voices” he’s been following all through the novel (who promise him he will return to rule again) — not sure whether it was koinkydink or suicide. Then comes an epilog, set Twenty Minutes into the Future, where we see a resurrected/reincarnated Antiochus as Head of the UN/President of United Europe/Peacemaker/Whatever, on the eve of His Great Coup of World Takeover — an obvious pre-LB Nicky Mountain, preparing to do to the entire world what he did to Seleucid Syria 2200 years before. Even stops in the middle of this to give an idiot-conversation speech (with the same speechwriting talent) about how he has discredited the Bible with Modern Scholarship as Part of His Plan…

  • Tonio

    Thanks for the post, Ken. I’ve never heard of Antiochus Epiphanes. The epilogue from “Antiochus” sounds like a PMD version of “Pinky and the Brain.”

  • hapax

    a resurrected/reincarnated Antiochus as Head of the UN/President of United Europe/Peacemaker/Whatever, on the eve of His Great Coup of World Takeover — an obvious pre-LB Nicky Mountain
    Shouldn’t that be Andy Olympus?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X