The Fool Says

by Brian 4. June 2018 03:02

Soon after becoming a follower of Christ, I ran across Psalm 14:1 (and Psalm 53:1). The author writes: "The fool says in his heart there is no God." Having just transitioned from non-theism, I thought this verse somewhat harsh. Afterall, I wasn't a fool at 30 and now suddenly wise at 31. All I could do at the time was put these words in the cognitive-dissonance category and move on. Today, I wholeheartedly agree with the writer. I realize I had years ago misconstrued a fool with one who is slow of mind. I similarly had the wrong idea about what it means to be wise. So what are wisdom and foolishness and why is the latter a defining attribute for the man who denies God?

 
 
Let's set some terms at the outset. Wisdom is poorly defined these days to mean not much more than common sense or good judgment. But what is common is not always good, and what is good, not always common. Such definitions are subjective and unclear. Taking an objective and scriptural position: Wisdom is the right application of knowledge such that it aligns with the Lord's intentions. The closer the alignment, the wiser we are. When we are foolish, we fail to apply rationality in ways that align with His purpose. The fool's thoughts are askew from God's.
 
Foolishness may arise from intelligence and careful deliberation. Wisdom may be discerned quickly and without forethought. Neither qualities are necessarily dependent upon our natural talents. A person might be highly intelligent and foolish, or have a sub-100 IQ and be wise. Since believers and unbelievers alike cover the full spectrum of intellectual ability, mental acuity is not a prerequisite, nor the lack thereof a preclusion, for acknowledging God. Something else drives the alignment of our understanding, regardless of how limited or how vast that understanding might be.
 
Scripture is clear that everyone ought to know God. Psalm 19:1 says: "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork." Romans 1:18-20 builds on this: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse." Not only is the denier of God without excuse, given the sufficient evidence for His existence revealed in creation, but Paul says unrighteousness leads to a suppression of truth. One commentator clarified this suppression as "Truth held in the bondage of immorality."
 
From Augustine to Nietzsche, noted throughout history is the primacy of will over reason. When desire fixates on what is contrary to knowledge, a capitulation of the intellect takes place. We twist the truth (rationalize) or enter into denial and stubbornness. Our understanding is at the mercy of our will and affections. This conflict takes place at our noetic core; a place Scripture refers to as the heart.
 
We might think the heart as that part of the soul merely concerned with passion and desire. But Jesus said that "out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts" (Mark 7:21). Luke 1:51 refers to the proud "thoughts of their hearts." So the heart is also involved in the higher parts of the brain. The heart can soften creating a humble desire for the light of truth. It can also harden where the intellect is wrestled into a darkened position and pinned to the mat. Ephesians 4 describes how obdurance leads to this futility of mind: "Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart." The intellect is downstream from the heart.
 
Another word oft misunderstood, unrighteousness, put simply, is the state of being in sin, a state contrary to the divine law which follows necessarily from God's nature. Unrighteous acts are sinful acts. Righteousness, on the other hand, is freedom from sin. Paul states in Romans 3: "No one is righteous, no not one." But it is interesting to note what directly follows: "No one seeks God." Again we see the linkage from unrighteousness to a foolishness that denies the Creator.
 
Piecing things together we can show a complete causal chain: 
 
Unrighteousness -> the heart hardens, grows dishonest, desiring darkness and things contrary to God -> the will wrestles the intellect into ignorance of God and misalignment with His intentions -> foolishness
 
Righteousness -> the heart softens, grows honest, desiring the light of truth -> the will stimulates the intellect into a diligent and open inquiry of God and His aims -> wisdom
 
The Holy Spirit plays a critical role in the causal chain to wisdom. Abiding in Christ allows us to walk by the Spirit who counsels us on precisely how to align our thinking with God's intentions. This counseling process, where His spirit testifies with our spirit, involves our noetic core in ways beyond what I'm prepared (or able) to write on here. Nevertheless, this interaction is an essential element of the process, and I would be remiss not to mention it. 
 
There is also a feedback loop to consider: Foolishness leads to more sin and unrighteousness. This loop has the potential to drive our spiritual state into utter depravity. Similarly, there is a feedback loop with wisdom within the causal chain. John 3 illustrates this concept: "The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” Doing what is in alignment with God's aims draws us further into the light.
 
We see the writer's claim is justified. The foolish deny God, and their state of ignorance is not unexpected given Scripture. Righteousness leads to wisdom, unrighteousness to foolishness. The Holy Spirit plays a crucial role in leading us into the light. Sin is dangerous as it gives birth to foolishness and more sin, creating a positive feedback loop driving one into darkness. God has carefully ordained the world with enough knowledge of himself so we are without excuse. As Pascal wrote: "There is enough light for those who only desire to see and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition." But there are greater forces at work than mere evidence upon our intellect pushing us off the fence of general revelation.

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Ideologically Sound

by Brian 15. November 2017 02:59

According to Jordan Peterson, "Ideologies are pathological oversimplifications; clubs, the kind you hit people with, as well as the clubs you belong to."  Considering the level of polarization we see in our country today, with the ideological divide vast and growing, it is tempting to think Dr. Peterson is right.  Wouldn’t the world be better off if we would just loosen the shackles of ideology?  Can’t we all become free-thinkers, open-minded and impartial?  No more worldview. All opinions equally valued; a culture poised for progress!

But what is an ideology?  Is it conceivable or even desirable to rid ourselves of them entirely?  While I believe Dr. Peterson is warning of the genuine danger posed by uncompromising ideological assumptions, I doubt he would want to dispose of an essential aspect of rational thought necessary for thinking beyond the childish and the petty. Since we are bound to have an ideology, it is worth knowing how to obtain a good one.
 
An ideology is a systematic body of concepts. A worldview is a comprehensive conception of the world. These are the belief structures everyone uses to make sense of the world. We need them. They are part of our properly functioning cognitive faculties and necessary for productive, meaningful thought. There are no purist freethinkers; only the unabashed-dogmatic and the deluded-dogmatic who virtue-signal how unbiased and broad-minded they are. Few ideas of any merit start from the atomic and axiomatic. No one gives the story of their life like Bugs Bunny: "In the beginning...two tiny amoebae." We nearly always conceive on top of the previously-conceived.
 
If I've learned anything in the past thirty years as an electrical and software engineer, it is that large complex systems would be impossible without component-reuse. From your iPhone to your computer's OS; modern hardware and software systems are developed using nested hierarchies of components within components. No engineer in the world could design the iPhone one transistor at a time. The microprocessor alone is 3.3 billion of them! It is itself an assembly of modules within modules, refined and optimised by developers over the years. Complex architectures build on the past success of prior complexity. The same goes for ideology. Freethinking from a handful of axioms cannot a substantive-worldview make. Ignoring the established ideas and philosophies of the past ensures a foundation both sparse and shallow. Sound ideology builds on the history of thought.
 
So how do we separate the wheat from the chaff? What are some guidelines for a sound worldview? First and foremost we start with solid ground. If your first-principles do not correspond with reality, then you are building on sand. It does not matter how consistently your ideas mesh with your core beliefs if those beliefs are false. So just as technological advancement rides on top of the tried and true discoveries of the past, a substantive worldview builds on a bedrock of propositions that have withstood the reasoned and experiential tests of time. While drawing from history is not contrary to progress, ignoring it might be. Modern ideology often neglects the venerated and tested foundations of rock, for the shifting sand of cultural acceptance, iconoclasm, and a hatred of tradition. Such bias leads to the chaff of repeated-error and cognitive dissonance against the backdrop of historical fact.
 
We ought to feed our ideologies that which corresponds to reality rather than that which favors culture or personal preference. In The Prince, by Machiavelli, we see idealism is not merely passed over by realism; the cultural ideologies of the day are considered irrelevant compared with objective historical fact and what it takes to survive as a prince. Machiavelli writes: "A man who wishes to live up to his professions of virtue in every circumstance soon meets with what destroys him among so many who are evil." According to Machiavelli, you can keep to the conventions, follow the ideology of the day, or you can survive by concerning yourself with the cold hard facts. Unfortunately, we see this less and less today. It remains tough to get through to a culture more interested in feelings than in finding the truth. As Thomas Sowell puts it: "It is usually futile to try to talk facts and analysis to people who are enjoying a sense of moral superiority in their ignorance." But facts must take precedence over feelings to form a sound ideology.
 
Granted, being ideological comes with risk. Working from a substantive worldview is problematic. Cognitive dissonance may cause us to tune-out and dig-in. We may end up stuck on sources filtered by our confirmation-bias. It is much easier to be incorrigible than to experience a shift in worldview, especially when ideas challenge the foundation of our belief-structure. The taller the Jenga tower, the bigger the crash when a load-bearing block from the base is yanked out. If we have erected comprehensive ideology, it is much harder to accept a contrary foundational truth. 
 
If we are to build at all, however, the risk must be taken. The alternative is triviality or the fetters of skepticism. Extreme open-mindedness will not mitigate the risk or even help us on our journey. As Chesterton aptly put it: "Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid." If we want our ideologies to be sound, we must take the risk, engage honestly in the marketplace of ideas, and grab hold of the truth.
 
We need humility as we engage others. When I switched from a foundation of atheistic materialism to Christian theism, it was very humiliating. Radical paradigm shifts require us to admit we are wrong at the very core of our thinking - and no one likes to hear they are wrong. Nevertheless, our ideas must be open to the sort of critical rationalism one finds in Karl Popper. We ought to welcome the falsification of a bad idea; the error-correction process leading to refinement. Desiring only the confirmation of others stunts development. The fascist movement on today's college campuses, where any unwanted speech is considered "hate" and therefore censorable, is precisely the wrong environment. We need a free exchange of ideas while remaining unoffended and humble to foster healthy ideological development. Seek out those who think differently but are capable of having a cordial and thoughtful exchange.
 
Therefore, despite the dangers, we ought still to view ideologies as essential to deep, meaningful thought. Rarely are revolutionary ideas built from the ground up. We develop our substantive worldview on a solid foundation of truth and recognize the historical development of knowledge. Personal preference and cultural pressure must take a back seat to the cold hard facts of reality. We accept the risk and proceed with humility, being receptive to correction when the truth leads us in a new direction. These are the guidelines for the development of a sound ideology. It pleases me to know these harmonize well within our life in Christ. Though the deliverables of science, philosophy, and politics shape much of our worldview; the significant questions of origin, purpose, morality, and destiny find their ideological support around the core view of God, and how we come to know Him. Christ himself is to be our ideological foundation.
 
Christ is the Logos; the Word made flesh. He is the solid rock, the foundation upon which to build a substantive worldview. We lay down our soul, the locus of will, intellect, and desire. We place it, and the cares and worries of the world, at the Cross, taking every thought captive to Christ. This commitment allows truth to drown out the noise of culture, lies of the Enemy and the Sirens of desire. We find an increasing love of the light and hatred of the darkness. What is true becomes of higher value than what is expedient. We are willing to take the risk and accept the persecution that comes with holding it firmly. Christ in us produces humility and a softness of heart where a correction may be received. In the book of John, Jesus said: "everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice." The Good Shephard guides us and shapes the clay until his work is complete; until our ideology is sound.

The Anecdotal Fallacy

by Brian 29. August 2015 22:58

Personal bias can hinder our ability to reason through social, political and religious issues. Though the dishonest and unreflective always seem to find a happy union, it is a challenge for the honest man to divorce his feelings from the analysis of certain controversial matters. I recently read a story of police abuse, and I was moved by what happened to the couple in the story. The testimony began with an important disclaimer: “What you are about to read is not a philosophical argument. It’s personal testimony.”  Why mention this? The answer is obvious: A personal statement is not an argument per se, yet in some cases; individual testimonies and anecdotal accounts often become the basis of implicit arguments. This false inference happens not only with prickly political subjects but in apologetics and philosophical discourse. How we deal with personal testimony and anecdotal experience versus cold facts is important. When it comes to sympathy, it should not be so lacking we ignore the former nor so generous we discount the latter.

At eighteen I worked at a fast-food restaurant as a backup manager. I closed the store late one night and was heading home on my motorcycle. It was freezing out, and I was still in my uniform and did not have a jacket. I lived only a few minutes away so I figured I could get home quick and warm up. There was no one on the road that night as I pulled out of the parking lot and rolled through a stop sign. A police patrol officer stopped me. A young white guy got out of his car and collected my driver’s license and registration.  I was fully compliant and respectful. The officer noted how cold I was with a grin on his face as he sat in his warm car. About ten minutes went by, and he finally got out to issue me a ticket. By this point, I was shaking noticeably.  He then told me I could go, but then stopped me at the last moment. He returned to his vehicle to write a protracted second ticket for a burned out light over my license plate. I finally made it home without hypothermia, but this heartless officer abused his power. That night for me began a long and negative opinion of law enforcement. I drew a compelling inference from this one experience: Cops were power-hungry jerks. Thirty years and many positive experiences later helped me to shed this sophomoric view.

Recent events have conjured disturbing examples of this sort fallacious reasoning. I’m not referring to activists who benefit from the declining relationship between law enforcement and the citizens they protect. Nor am I thinking of the race-baiting profiteers who want to see this as a disproportionately white on black issue. I am not even referring to the ignorant who post unhelpful memes of angry white officers juxtaposed with seemingly innocent black children. Rather it is otherwise reasonable people who jump on the bandwagon after reading a testimonial that caught my attention. As I said, I read the testimony, and it was powerful. But should sympathy deter us from the most basic questions? Is it the case law enforcement is abusing their power more today than ever?  Is this abuse systemic and racially-motivated? The honest answer is that we do not know based solely on what the media tells us or what personal testimonies convey. To claim otherwise would be to commit the anecdotal fallacy.

Here is what we do know: We have a few cases where blacks are killed during interaction with law enforcement. In some of these, there is police abuse. In others, the actions taken by law enforcement are justified. We have a handful of personal statements since the raising of awareness. We have a few high-profile cases over the past year. Time magazine lists 14 since Zimmerman shot Trevon Martin in 2012. The justice department, over a six-year period, recorded about 4,800 arrest-related deaths out of a whopping 98 million arrests (less than 0.005%). Of the 800 incidents per year, how many are the result of what a fair interpretation of the law would deem an abuse of power? And of those, how many were racially motivated? We don’t know! Nor do we know if this is a worsening or improving situation. What is the baseline? What if there is adequate punishment for abuses of power? How do we know the problem is worse for law enforcement than it is for other professions where the citizen’s life is on the line? In other words, is this a systemic problem with human nature or is it one of a particular occupation? At over 200K per year deaths from medical malpractice; are doctors killing blacks disproportionately by giving them secondary care? Are firefighters responding to fires in black homes slower than whites? Do military leaders send blacks into more dangerous scenarios than whites due to racial bias? The bottom line is we do not know if abuse of power in the US, racially motivated or not, has been worsening, getting better or staying the same. Based on my own experience and those that I’ve spoken with, the level of racial hatred has become far better over the years. But of course to make an argument solely on this evidence would be to commit the very same anecdotal fallacy.

I am using this recent issue as an example of how highly-charged matters are susceptible to an improper inference from personal testimony and anecdotal evidence. Of course, there are plenty of other scenarios one could point to including ones falling into evangelism and apologetics. A neighbor says: “I had a bad experience in church once” and therefore “all Christians are judgmental.” Or a coworker says, “I heard this preacher try to make a mockery of science” therefore “faith and science will never reconcile.” Even though these arguments are obviously weak and commit the anecdotal fallacy; this does not mean we jump right to pointing out their error. We ought to first listen with a sympathetic ear and have an honest conversation, and be being willing to consider possibilities suggested by their poor argument. Perhaps they are on to something, or maybe not. Level-headed discourse with a desire to listen to others combined with a fair and objective inclusion of the facts is more likely to develop agreement and understanding. All of this said, however, posting irrational innuendos and memes on Facebook merely creates an environment where the anecdotal fallacy flourishes.

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About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

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