Archive for October, 2009

who is not Great?

Posted: October 27, 2009 in Philosophy, Politics, Theology

Christopher Hitchens has no faith.  I haven’t read his god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, partly because of the (deliberate) typo, and partly because he once called Ronald Reagan a “lizard,” but also because he doesn’t understand criticism.

His critics have noticed that Hitchens makes plenty of moral evaluations of religion, but does not produce any objective grounds for moral evaluation, or at least fails to do so in a convincing way.  So how can he rationally look down his nose on religion when he himself, as an atheist, has no leg to stand on? 

Despite these criticisms, god is not Great turned out to be a bestseller.  Some have thought that its buyers are just people who don’t like public displays of religious emotion.  I’m not sure if this really explains it, though.  I’m a Christian and I’m usually uncomfortable around public displays of religious emotion — it would have been called “enthusiasm” in an earlier day.

Maybe the success of the book has more to do with Hitchens’ refreshing lack of political correctness, his entertaining if brutal rhetoric, and his writing ability.  At least that seems more likely than any dry “leave me alone” libertarianism.

I’ve been tempted to go out and read the book, but the lizard comment about our former Magnificent President left me angry with Hitchens.  I just haven’t found the heart to forgive him yet — or fork over a large sum of money for his book.

Maybe someday I’ll repent of thinking in my heart that Mr. Hitchens is a toad.  It is not a charitable sentiment, I know, and I’m sorry for it, I really am.  It’s just a failing in me that I think of him as a toad.  And it’s because of this that I’m required to humbly confess that I’m not great myself — at least on some particular occasions.

One of the criticisms of linguistic philosophy is that it smuggles nominalism in under the guise of analysis. The idea is that philosophical problems can only be solved by analysis of grammar and word meaning, how words and expressions are used in philosophical discourse. The emphasis then becomes clarification and puzzle solving, philosophical method as “therapy” for metaphysical ailments.

Much of this stems from the later Wittgenstein, who famously used the example of “game” to illustrate relativity in meaning. This was a denial of the idea of real definitions and resulted in a nominalistic conception of meaning. There are no substantial realities corresponding to our terms, but only the way we use language. Standards are now regarded as field-dependent. Clashes between worldviews are not substantive but based on inability to understand one another’s “language.” So now the task of philosophy is to engage in linguistic archaeology.

Multi-perspectivalism is a method of doing theology or philosophy and has been popularized by the theologian John Frame.  For summary essays, see:

He is not as extreme as the general run-of-the-mill analytic philosopher, but one can still see the influence of this way of thinking on his theology.  “[A]ll of our perceptions of the world are influenced by our interpretations…” he says.  (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, p. 100.)  According to Frame, Christians know there is an extra-interpretive world, but only by faith. We only have contact with this world through our interpretations. “[T]he world we live in is to some extent of our own making.”

The philosopher Immanuel Kant had also said: “[I]t still remains a scandal to philosophy and to human reason in general that the existence of things outside us (from which we derive the whole material of knowledge, even for our inner sense) must be accepted merely on faith, and that if anyone thinks good to doubt their existence, we are unable to counter his doubts by any satisfactory proof.”

Like Kant, Frame regards faith as the evidence of things seen rather than the evidence of things not seen.  Frame’s solution, like Kant’s, is to suggest that instead of discovering the world, we in some relevant sense, make the world.  Wittgenstein would have agreed with this, except that it would be through language that we create our world, not through ideas, as in Kant.  Frame would not go as far as Kant or Wittgenstein, to be sure, which is why he uses the phrase, “to some extent.”  It’s only to some extent that we are world-makers.

Now the whole idea of intra-personal justification, getting from ourselves to the world outside — or more precisely, justifying the out-there from the in-here — is the legacy of the Cartesian program in philosophy.  It involves an a priori separation of consciousness from the “external” world, and then tries to find a connecting bridge between the “inner” consciousness and the outside world.  Obviously, this makes the problem worse by using spatial metaphors suggestive of inner/outer, internal/external, and so on.  Kant and Wittgenstein’s solution was to give up trying to cross that bridge, and admit rather that we create our own world.

In theology, this leads to an overemphasis on interrelatedness, a move away from sharp distinctions.  This is seen in Frame’s claim, for instance, that any sin violates every commandment.  It’s seen in his dislike of theologian Charles Hodge’s view of systematic theology as exhibiting scripture in “proper” order.  Instead, Frame says that theology’s task is not to place Scripture in an “ideally perfect order” but to apply it to different situations. (Ibid., pp. 76, 79; 184.)

Thus we have a movement from the abstract to the concrete, from theory to application, from systematic order to “poetry, drama, exclamation, song, parable, symbol.” (Ibid., p. 85.)  It turns out that Frame’s multi-perspectival method is vapid in the sense that one can prove just about anything with it.  Law is gospel and gospel is law?  Heaven is hell and hell is heaven?  It all depends, I guess, upon one’s multi-perspective.

I can’t help quoting from Vern Poythress, a primary practitioner of Frame’s multi-perspectival method: “Thus, within Aristotle’s system, syllogisms can operate only with unitarian ontology.  Hence syllogistic reasoning is itself tacitly unitarian. Only so can one claim that the reasoning is mechanically valid.” (”Reforming Ontology and Logic in the Light of the Trinity: An Application of Van Til’s Idea of Analogy,” Westminster Theological Journal, 57/1, 1995.)

This is what multi-perspectivalism comes down to, a rejection of, or denigration of, logic.  My view is that our goal is not to be multi-perspectival in our thinking and scholarship, but to be accurate, and syllogistic reasoning is indispensible in that quest.


Was Thomas Kuhn right that reality changes in a massive way with a change in paradigms?  Philosopher of science Peter Munz appears to deny this.  He said:

“If there really were no meaning invariance it would have been impossible for Max Planck to invent the Quantum discontinuity.  When Planck started to consider the problem of Black-Body Radiation, he began by considering an experimentally determined distribution of this radiation expressed by the formula [omitted].  How, he began, was this distribution to be explained?  There had been several attempts at an explanation in terms of classical theories.  Planck, however, changed the paradigm by introducing the idea of what has become known as “Planck’s constant” and provided the now famous solution [omitted].  One will notice that in spite of the paradigm shift involved in the discovery of the constant, his solution is not a solution of a new observation, but a solution of the old observation [omitted] made long before the shift in fundamental concepts took place.”  (Our Knowledge of the Growth of Knowledge: Popper or Wittgenstein, 1985, p. 154.  Note: the omissions are technical formulas.)

Munz’s point is that the problem situation arising with Black Body radiation did not change.  That is to say, the observation of the physical reality captured by the (omitted) mathematical expression did not change.  What changed was a different way of looking at the observations, not the observations themselves.  Reality is thus invariant, but interpretations of it vary.

On the other hand, Munz went on to claim that Planck’s intial observation was theory-laden because it was made with the help of other theories—i.e., that third theories were involved in the introduction of the constant.  He believed theory-ladenness was all right as long as it is derived from theories that are not involved in the question of the moment.

It seems to me, however, that this is a needless admission.  Munz is depending on Karl Popper’s argument against the “myth of the framework.”  Popper had correctly stated that we are not trapped within frameworks, that if we choose, we could very well escape from our particular frameworks.

 But he undermined his position by saying we could only do so by entering into another framework, or into a wider framework.  (Karl Popper, “Normal Science and Its Dangers,” in Imre Lakotos and Alan Musgrave, eds., Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, 1970, p. 56.  See also Popper, “The Myth of the Framework,” in Eugene Freeman, ed., Abdication of Philosophy: Philosophy and the Public Good, 1976.)

This expansionist concept of framework relativism, however, does not seem to be much of a gain over Kuhn.  Popper’s falsificationist theory of science cannot work if the means of escaping one framework leads us into a wider (possibly false) framework.  Does it not need a neutral observation pool that is theory-independent?  Otherwise, what would be the point of falsification?  Falsification would be irrelevant because any proposed falsification would itself be theory-laden.

The problem of self-referential incoherence infects all relativist schemes, whether Kuhnian or Popperian.  If Kuhn or Popper’s relativistic notions were true and applied to their own claims, then their own claims would be theory-laden, incommensurable, and forever trapped within wider intellectual prisons.

A better metaphor for the discovery of truth (though not original with me) might be this: The search for truth does not consist in breaking out of one intellectual prison into a larger, wider intellectual prison, but consists in following a straight and narrow course until the final destination is reached.

I don’t deny, of course, that bias and intellectual imprisonment occur, and are in fact quite widespread.  And true there are also many biased and prejudiced people who think, and claim loudly, that they are unbiased and free from prejudice when in fact they aren’t.

But that some people don’t live up to the ideal is no reason to give up.  It’s why responsible thinkers have recommended a scientific and logical methodology in the first place — to reduce the amount of bias.  While some bias might still creep back into the process — like a masked Jason from the Friday the 13th horror movies — it’s just a risk one has to take, like suffering through another bad sequel.

It would not be possible to discover bias if there were no neutral observation framework.  In fact, the very idea of bias would no longer have any meaning if theory-ladenness could never be escaped.  For a defense of the autonomy of the observation pool, i.e., reality, see Thomas A. Russman, A Prospectus For the Triumph of Realism, 1987.


Gary North at his best

Posted: October 12, 2009 in Economics

I have serious disagreements with Gary North, especially with respect to his view of the American Founding, but the following satire on academia is one of the reasons I used to like Gary’s writings so much:


Purist libertarians are constantly barking at Abraham Lincoln, who was so evil as to liberate millions of people from slavery.  Now, they’re after biblical Joseph, whose great crime was in saving Egypt and the rest of the world from starvation and miserable death.  See:

It’s true that Joseph oversaw the process that saw the Egyptians giving up most of their money, personal property, and real property, as well as their service, to the king of Egypt, plus paying an excise of one-fifth of the produce from all Egypt.

But surely if the purist libertarians weren’t so caught up in fantasies of stateless, taxless, libertarian utopias, they’d see that the Egyptians had only two choices, either pay up or starve — a good example of the importance of subjective-marginal utility in making economic decisions.

In our opinion, Joseph served under 5th dynasty king Unas.  The following is from our essay, “Egyptian Chronology 3”:


As noted before, if Courville is right that MB1 represents the Exodus & Conquest, and the end of MB2c represents the destruction of Shechem by Abimelech in the late Judges period, we should expect to see Deborah somewhere in the middle of these two periods.  Sure enough, we read in the Mari letters of the MB2b period mention of one Jabin, king of Hazor.  Therefore, on the other side of MB1, we should expect to see evidence of a famine a couple hundred years or so before MB1, a famine that took place in the late Old Kingdom of Egypt.  And of course, this is what we find.  A famine is recorded in the reign of the last 5th dynasty king, Unas. “[O]ne of the most curious, and at the same time, absolutely unique representations, is that of some wretched, famine-stricken men and women.  The curious scene, which was found in a trial sondage over the lower…part of the causeway [of Unas], is puzzling.  The persons represented seem to be foreigners, but nothing remains to afford us a clue as to their identity or the cause of their wretched plight.  Most of the figures are nude, but a few wear narrow girdles, and they are most arranged in groups; they are emaciated in the extreme.” (Nicholas Reeves, Ancient Egypt: The Great Discoveries, quoting Selim Hassan, p. 187; see also, Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs, p. 87; Peter Clayton, Chronicle of the Pharaohs, p. 63; and Cambridge Ancient History 1:2, p. 189; emphasis added.)

If then we take this as our starting point for unraveling the chronology of the pre-MB1 period, we should then correlate this to Joseph and work out who the pharaohs of the Oppression and Exodus could be.  Joseph was 30 when he obtained ruler-ship in Egypt, and he was 110 at the time of his death, and thus ruled in Egypt for 80 years.  Moses was born 64 years later, and led the Israelites out of Egypt 80 years after that, and died after about 40 years in the wilderness, at the beginning of the Conquest of Canaan.  If we match up Joseph as one of Unas’s viziers, or vizier-like official, it is likely that Joseph came to his position after Unas had been on the throne for about three or four years, and thus Unas would have died shortly after the death of Jacob.  The following is a chart to express the possible relations between the biblical patriarchs and the Egyptian kings:

King Manetho Bible Age Event
1.  Unas 33 yrs Joseph 30 famine of Joseph’s time
2.  Teti 30 yrs   59  
3.  Pepi 1 53 yrs   110 21st yr of Pepi 1
4.  Merenre 7 yrs      
5.  Pepi 2 99 Moses 1 Oppression begins; 42nd year of Pepi 2
6.  Pepi 2   Moses 40 flees Egypt, 82nd of Pepi 2
7.  Pepi 2       Pepi 2 dies 17 yrs later.
8.  Merenre-Anty. 1 yr Moses 57  
9.  Nitokerty (Nitocris) 12 Moses 69 foster-mother of Moses
10.  Neferka [1?] Moses 70  
11.  Nufe 2 yrs Moses 72  
12.  Ibi 4 yrs Moses 76  
13.  lost 2 yrs Moses 79  
14.  lost 1 yr Moses 80  
15.  Achthoes 1st yr Moses 81 The Exodus begins.