Thursday, October 04, 2007

Lord Oda's "Problem with Pain"

In his thoughtful comment to my blog Singhing the Greg Bahnsen Blues, Lord Oda attempted to tackle one of the points that I raised against Greg Bahnsen’s futile efforts to untangle “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’,” namely my point that Bahnsen nowhere explains how we can distinguish between what the believer calls “the supernatural” and what he may merely be imagining.

Now Lord Oda did not attempt to neutralize my challenge by pointing out where Bahnsen addresses it (Bahnsen certainly does not address it in his book Always Ready, where he should have), nor does Lord Oda attempt to answer it on his own behalf by explaining how we can distinguish between the god he claims to worship and what he may merely be imagining. No, that was not Lord Oda’s chosen route here. Instead, he sought to turn the tables on me by intimating that pain, which we know is real, cannot be distinguished from one’s imagination any more than a god can. Although at first blush this might seem to be a promising counter-approach, but upon closer examination we will find some fundamental oversights in such a maneuver. Broadly speaking, it does indicate that my challenge is very well placed.

Lord Oda began by quoting from my blog Singhing the Greg Bahnsen Blues:

But this simply raises the question: what objective inputs from reality suggest this?

In response to this, Lord Oda wrote:

"No man knows another's pain." This Scriptural view is contrary to the psychological expression of empathy.

I’m curious to find where the bible supplies this view. Lord Oda provides no indication, but scriptural references would help to secure the claim that it is in fact “Scriptural” if there were any which affirm it. But it would be a rather odd statement for the bible to affirm. It would mean that, on the one hand, one cannot know the pain of someone standing right next to you, but on the other he can know what exists beyond the universe (since the same textual source insists that men accept the claim that supernatural beings exist as truth), even though he has no way of determining, for instance, how many moons are orbiting a planet orbiting a nearby star. It is interesting how mystics seem to pick and choose what men can and cannot accept as knowledge.

Also, if it's the "Scriptural view" that "no man knows another's pain," then how can the Christian believer know how much pain that Jesus supposedly experienced on the cross? I've heard many believers - ministers, in fact - preach that no ordinary man has ever had to endure the kind of pain that Jesus experienced on the cross, that it was the worst pain ever suffered by any man in all history (presumably even more than other men who were executed in the same fashion). I don't know how one would be able to know this, but I have heard this claimed on many occasions.

Lord Oda continues:

So which is true? A man's pain is a subjective reality. He may know it as objective, but only in himself. He may even express it objectively to another. But, the other cannot know that pain which is subjectively experienced by the one expressing it.

For one thing, I don't think there's a such thing as "a subjective reality." There aren't multiple realities. The idea of 'objective reality' is a redundancy, albeit sometimes a necessary one, particularly because some thinkers apparently assume that there are in fact multiple realities.

Also, a man's experience of pain is real, and it is part of reality. No doubt Lord Oda agrees with this. He should, as it is essential to his case. But where Lord Oda and I differ at this point is on the matter as to whether pain is subjective or objective. In my view, pain is not subjective at all. Not even close. On the contrary, pain is objective in the sense that anything else in reality is objective: it exists independent of one's knowledge, understanding, wishes, desires, ignorance, denials, pretenses, imagination, preferences, etc. One may not know why he has pain, but he has it anyway; he may not understand what caused the pain, but he suffers it regardless. He may wish that the pain go away, or desire it to subside, but his pain does not conform to his wishes and desires. He may try to deny the pain, or pretend that it isn’t really there, but it’s there all the same in spite of his denials and pretenses. He may imagine that it isn’t there, or prefer that it’s really nothing, but the pain persists uninhibited by these feats of conscious activity. If pain were subjective, this would mean that the subject of consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over pain, and consequently one could, for instance, wish pain away (wouldn't that be nice?). But that's not the case at all. So pain is in fact not “a subjective reality,” but an objective part of reality that man has to learn to cope with, for it does not obey any subject’s intentions. That is because pain has a biological cause, just as pleasure does. It can be scientifically tested, understood and repeated. It can even be treated, such as with chemicals which inhibit pain receptors in the brain. A trip to the dentist would be far more unpleasant without the novocaine that he injects into your gums.

Now it is true that another man cannot feel the pain that I am feeling. But it does not follow from this fact that pain is subjective or that it is not objective. There are factual reasons why one individual does not experience another's sensations. A man is an indivisible unit. He possesses the faculty of consciousness, and he possesses only his own faculty of consciousness. His senses and nerves are connected to his own brain, not to someone else's brain. So we should not expect one man to experience another man's pain.

Lord Oda continues:

So, how do you establish that you are not just imaginining that you have pain?

Here Lord Oda wants to place the burden of proving a negative on the shoulders of someone who reports to be in pain. (Suppose the author of Matthew, for instance, penciled in a witness to Jesus' crucifixion who asked, when the pinned up savior reports "I thirst," asks: "How do you establish that you are not just imagining that you thirst?") This is markedly different from the challenge that I have put before Christian believers. My challenge to them is to explain how one can distinguish between what the believer calls "God" and what the believer may merely be imagining. This challenge is philosophically relevant because "God" is supposed to be an actually existing entity independent of human nature rather than a figment of one's imagination. Lord Oda's response to this challenge is not to provide such an explanation, but to point to a phenomenon which nobody questions but which allegedly poses an analogous problem. Unfortunately, this doesn't work in favor of Christian theism, for man's pain is not an entity distinct from man, nor is it independent of man's nature. Below Lord Oda will deny that there is any difference here, but in fact there is a fundamental difference that he has clearly ignored.

So how does one know that he is experiencing pain? He knows that he is experiencing pain by means of his direct, firsthand experience of it. He may not have even identified it as 'pain' (he may be an infant who hasn't learned this concept yet), but he still experiences it. His experience of the pain gives him the objective inputs which serve as the initial units of the concept 'pain' once he does form it. Those inputs are just as objective, due to their causal nature, as any other sensory inputs in his experience.

But Lord Oda's question seems to be: How does one establish that he is not just imagining the pain he experiences to others? Interestingly, I've never had difficulty convincing my dentist that I was experiencing pain during a procedure. However, there are some reasonable questions we can ask to probe this apparent difficulty in the event of any doubt. For instance, are the others to whom one is attempting to establish the reality of his experience of pain human beings? Do they know what pain is? Do they understand that certain actions, such as those which damage the body in some way, can cause pain? Do they acknowledge that damage to the body which would result in pain has in fact taken place? Are they being honest? Etc. If the individuals to whom the hurting person is called to "establish" his experience of pain understand, at least basically, the causal nature of pain (and anyone who avoids an activity which has caused him pain in the past does), then all one needs to do is show that the causal conditions for the pain he reports have been fulfilled. For instance, if he's got a two-inch bleeding gash on his arm, he could point to it as the cause of the pain he is experiencing. He could also point to his own facial grimaces and squeals of distress as corroborating evidence. And although these can be faked, that would not necessarily indicate that the person is actually imagining that he is experiencing pain (he might want others to imagine it).

It is, in fact, quite difficult to constrain evidences of pain, especially if they are external. Try bringing a sledge hammer down on your pinky at high velocity and see if you can keep from blurting a yelp or a few expletive as it happens. But even if there is no apparent wound, a painful leg is hard to walk on, and a limp can be very difficult to conceal. Of course, if the pain is extreme, it could result in the victim falling unconscious or even worse.

Lord Oda gives his answer to his own question:

There are no external inputs to objectively establish your subjective experience.

In the case of pain, there very well may be external inputs (see above for examples), and in fact there often are. Quite frequently, testimony is not the only indicator of pain. There's the gash on your arm indicating damage that could only result in pain. An X-ray can show the break in a bone, and an MRI can show a tear in the right meniscus. It would be quite unusual for these causes not to result in pain. Even veterinarians can discern, by reference to objective inputs, when an animal is in pain. And yet, Lord Oda wants the person suffering from such injuries to prove that he's not imagining the pain. This demand is quite telling, coming from a Christian, for it demonstrates how he grants such power to the imagination.

Lord Oda continues:

The observations of another can only establish that he is observing what appears to be the experience of pain, but since pain can be faked, visual observation can not establish the existence of pain let alone the experience of it.

In other words, Lord Oda takes the possibility of faking pain (or more accurately, the faking of corroborating symptoms of pain, such as facial grimacing and yelps of distress) at face value, but he's not willing to take the actual experience of pain at face value. Does Lord Oda not think it's possible that one can in fact experience pain? Or, does he suppose that it's more likely that people will fake having pain when they report to be in pain than actually experience it? Perhaps Lord Oda has children who like to play hookie from school, and he has yet to learn how to discern when one of his little one's is legitimately ailing or just pretending so that she can get out of class for the day.

Lord Oda tries to exacerbate the problem:

Now, you may want to argue that with modern technology, pain centers can produce measures that when associated with self-reports, substantiate that pain is occuring. Yet with that, there may not be any physiological cause.

It's true - modern technology does shed light where pre-scientific cultures are left in the dark. (Such was the case in the Christian Dark Ages.) But for purposes of Lord Oda's question, this would be superfluous. A gash in the arm, or a fresh burn mark on one's finger, would be sufficient evidence of one's experience of pain. There is no reasonable doubt about the credibility of such evidence of pain.

Now it may be case that in a particular instance there is no known cause of the pain one reports to be suffering. Philosophically speaking, however, this is not problematic, certainly not in the way that Lord Oda might want to construe it for apologetic purposes. We already know that the capacity to experience pain is an objective part of human life, given our biology. And although the cause may not be known initially, it often can be discovered; as Lord Oda himself indicates, modern technology - such as ultrasound, X-Ray, MRI, etc. - can overcome many limitations in unaided perceptions.

Also, and importantly, the recognition that pain is possible is wholly consistent with the primacy of existence metaphysics. This cannot be said on behalf of god-belief.

Lord Oda then tries to complicate the matter in order to weigh the burden even further:

Another problem of course is in the objective measures of quantity and quality, for which, there is yet no means to establish a baseline for the experience, individually, which can be used acrossed populations. In the end the experience of pain is just your imagination by any external measure.

Here Lord Oda has shifted the matter from merely identifying objective inputs for one's experience of pain, to developing a method of measuring "quantity and quality" (did he mean intensity?) of one's experience of pain. This is an altogether different matter, and ceases to bolster his objection for it's not germane to the issue that he has tried to raise against my challenge to theists.

Lord Oda shows that he's anxious to ratchet up the onus when he states:

Your example of a drip simply involves you in the infinite regress.

What infinite regress does Lord Oda have in mind? This is not clear from anything he says.

Lord Oda shows a tendency to allow his anxiety to confuse him:

You state the processes that can be observed without discovering the source of those processes. You simply presuppose their existence, eternally, unsuccessfully avoiding the tautological, recursive, said so is so, redundancy.

Let's review what I wrote in my example of the drop of water:

But consider: when a drop of water falls from the leaf of a plant in the early morning dew, why suppose that some conscious activity makes this happen? Sure, one can imagine that a magic being is causing this. But this simply raises the question: what objective inputs from reality suggest this? The lack of objective inputs does not stop a thinker from imagining that a magic consciousness resides "behind" everything in the universe. But that's one of the major points which Bahnsen continually fails to confront: since there is a fundamental distinction between what is real and what is imaginary, those who assert a god need to explain how a thinker can distinguish between what the believer calls "God" and what the believer may simply be imagining.

So what is Lord Oda talking about when he says "simply presuppose their existence, eternally, unsuccessfully avoiding the tautological, recursive, said so is so, redundancy"? It appears that Lord Oda is attempting to manufacture some non-problem. If he had a legitimate objection to raise against my position, he wouldn't have to do this. What's clear is that he does not answer the question I have posed in my blog.

Lord Oda then suggests:

You might likewise presuppose that because you experience pain, that there must be an objective measure of its experience.

I did not "presuppose" that "there must be an objective measure of its experience," and I don't see how Lord Oda gathers that I "might" have done so from what I have written, or how it bears on the discussion. But I am certainly open to the possibility that a method of measuring pain can be developed (assuming one hasn't already been).

Lord Oda muses some more:

You might even presuppose, that since technology advances, what was unable to be observed, since it can be experienced, that some day there may be a means to objectify it.

No, I didn't "presuppose" this either.

Then Lord Oda issues his personal ruling on the matter:

There is no such thing, and never will be.

Three cheers for Christian optimism... Isn't it odd, though, how Christians assert the existence of invisible magic beings, magic kingdoms, magic torture chambers and the such, and expect us to accept such claims as truth, but then turn around and say things like this.

Lord Oda drifts around another turn:

The only true measure of pain is always, and ever will be, relative to the subjective experience of it. So, how do you know that pain exists, as opposed to your just imagining it does?

Now Lord Oda has brought the issue back to how I as the one who feels the pain can "know that pain exists, as opposed to... just imagining it does," where earlier the issue was presumably how I can establish my experience of pain to others. But the answer here is quite simple: I know by experiencing pain directly and identifying by means of an objective process (cf. the objective theory of concepts). Also, while experiencing the pain, I can imagine that I'm not feeling the pain, and if the pain persists, this would indicate that the pain is not resulting from my imagining it.

Lord Oda asked a question:

Or, how do you know what you know of pain?

By relying on an objective means of knowledge (namely reason).

Lord Oda asked another question:

Or, what is the basis of your epistimology of it?

The primacy of existence.

Then Lord Oda asked yet another question:

Similarly, how can an observer know what you know?

Similarly, by relying on an objective means of knowledge (again, called reason).

Lord Oda attempted to preempt certain avenues of response by anticipation:

Like pain, he can only experience the knowledge of what you say you know.

Actually he can do more than this, if he really disputes my pain. He can reproduce in himself what caused the pain in me. E.g., if my pain resulted from burning my finger on a hot stove, my disputer can do the same and experience the same thing: pain. If he really didn't think my burnt finger hurt before, he would be quite foolish to dispute it now. Of course, if his scepticism about the pain in my burnt finger took him so far as to need to burn his own finger as well to confirm that a burnt finger is in fact painful, I'd say he's already pretty foolish. But I am a patient man, and would be willing to help him learn without destroying himself.

Lord Oda states:

He cannot experience your knowing it.

And he can also experience his own pain as well.

Lord Oda asks:

So, how does an objective observer establish that you are truly knowing what you say you do.

See above.

Lord Oda states:

You may be able to argue that you do.

Yes, I may do this, if I wanted to.

Lord Oda again:

You may be exact in your expression of any given data.

If need be, yes.

Lord Oda asks:

You say you exist, another may observe that you exist, but how do you establlish for the observer that you know you exist[?]

Just by using concepts which refer to myself (as I am doing in this very sentence), I establish beyond all reasonable doubt that I know I exist. Knowing that I exist is a fundamental precondition to using concepts which refer to myself as an existent.

Oddly, Lord Oda states:

The observer cannot know with certainty that which he cannot see, namely your experience.

If it's the case that "the observer cannot know with certainty that which he cannot see," then why do Christians affirm with certainty that their god is real, when they themselves admit that no one can see it?

Lord Oda opines:

Empathy is a false reality. We say, "I feel your pain." The reality is that "No man knows another's pain."

While I don't think there is such a thing as "a false reality," I can certainly understand the concern that Lord Oda wants to express here. One's conscious experiences are private. The pain I feel is pain that I feel. And only I feel my own pain. But again, this does not make pain "subjective." Pain is very much a real and objective phenomenon, it has a causal nature, and our knowledge of it is objective.

Lord Oda continues:

Now, you would not deny that anyone but yourself can experience pain simply because you cannot know their experience of it.

Of course I wouldn't. Pain has a causal nature, and our capacity for pain is an inherent attribute of our nature as biological organisms.

Lord Oda rushes to judgment:

You've experienced pain, so you presuppose that others do, also.

Correction: I have experienced pain, and I have learned that others experience pain also. I did not "presuppose" this. I discovered it. There is a vast difference here.

Lord Oda asks what he probably thinks is the clincher:

What is the difference between your presupposition of the existence of the experience of pain, (your presupposition of eternal existence), and another's presupposition of the existence of God?

There are many points that can be raised here to underscore the vast differences between the two. For one thing, as I have pointed out, pain is an objective phenomenon and has a biological cause. It can be studied scientifically, it can be treated medically, it can be reproduced, too. Our capacity to experience pain is inherent in our biological nature, and is physical. Also, we can know that it is not dependent on imagination, because when experiencing pain we cannot make the pain go away by imagining that it will stop. If pain obeyed imagination, we wouldn't need over-the-counter painkillers, nor would we be so careful to avoid injuring ourselves because of the pain that can result.

If I break my leg, for instance, it's going to hurt no matter what I imagine. Anyone who disputes the fact that a broken leg is painful can break his own leg and settle the matter. And anyone who claims that he cannot distinguish between my experience of pain and my alleged faking it or imagining it, can break his own leg and settle the matter. Most likely the disputer won't do this, because he knows that it will result in terrible pain. His decision not to pursue the recommended course of action to settle the matter (e.g., breaking his own leg) indicates that he really doesn't dispute the fact that my broken leg is painful.

The notion of a god, however, couldn't be more different. Unlike pain, which one feels directly and is an inherent part of our nature as biological organisms, a god is supposed to be an entity distinct from the universe and everything within it, including human beings. Pain is an aspect of our experience which comes and goes depending on certain conditions, while a god is supposed to be an eternally existing and unchanging consciousness separate from man and existing independent of man's conscious activity. As such, a god would be a consciousness distinct from man's own consciousness, not an aspect of his experience that undergoes what man undergoes. Since "God" is supposed to be a distinct entity separate from man, an objective process would be required to discover its existence and acquire any understanding of its nature. To dispute this is to concede that god-belief reduces to subjectivism.

Also, as has been pointed out, pain is independent of imagination, it can be reproduced, and its causality can be scientifically understood and medically treated. In contrast to this, theistic belief has no alternative but to rely on the believer's imagination to inform it. Even according to advocates of belief in a god, its existence cannot be discovered by a perceptually based cognitive process (e.g., by means of reason), and that it is not subject to scientific study, testing, evaluation, experimentation, etc.

But Lord Oda, without providing any rationale behind his opinion, disagrees with me. In answer to his own question above, he asserts:

There is none. You simply, out of blind predudice deny that God exists. Because of that, you deny that anyone can know Him.

I also deny that the Tooth Fairy exists. Does this condemn me of “blind [prejudice]”? I don’t think so. But in the minds of those who insist that the Tooth Fairy is real, it probably does. Likewise I deny that Valhalla is a real place. Does this also condemn me of “blind [prejudice]”? Those who wish that Valhalla were real probably think so.

I simply don’t believe there is a god, and accusations such as the one that Lord Oda recites here are not going to change this. Accusations are not going to intimidate me. People claim to have knowledge from another reality, and under scrutiny such claims fall apart at their very roots (since they assume the primacy of consciousness). Does not believing that Geusha exists constitute “blind [prejudice]”? I don’t think so. What Lord Oda calls “blind [prejudice]” is actually my honesty and the integrity of my rational judgment, both of which Christianity would have me sacrifice on the altar of pretended piety and submission. Believers will of course resent me for my unwillingness to sacrifice my honesty and rationality, so they accuse me of “blind [prejudice].” Since they cannot defend their position rationally, they have no alternative in continuing the discussion but to attack my character. Have they stopped to consider that they themselves are guided by a “blind [prejudice]” against reality? After all, someone who insists that a fiction is true is very likely going to accuse those who do not accept his fiction as truth of some nefarious bias of one sort or another. Christian apologist Phil Fernandes himself admitted how prone believers are to fabrication when he stated (in his debate with Jeff Lowder):

I just believe that we are very good about lying to ourselves, and only accepting, uh, or interpreting the evidence the way we would like to.

One certainly does not need to prove that the non-existent does not exist. One can simply and honestly just point it out. What’s clear is that nothing in Lord Oda’s comments reasonably establishes what he claims here. It is not a conclusion which follows from anything he has hitherto presented. Moreover, I have already answered the charge (unargued in your case) that my atheism is borne on “blind [prejudice]” by exploring how one of Christianity’s “finest” apologists (according to Christians themselves) attempts to explain how he can “know the ‘super-natural’.” (See here.) If Lord Oda agrees that there is a fundamental distinction between what is real and what one may merely be imagining (and maybe he doesn’t), then he should also agree that it would be of fundamental importance to provide a means of distinguishing between the claim that a god exists and what one may merely be imagining (as I have done in the case of one’s experience of pain).

Lord Oda then asks:

But, how is it, that you cannot know another's pain and establish that they can know it?

That's simple: consciousness is one of my worldview's axioms. Consciousness is an inherent attribute of man, and the capacity to experience pain is universal to mammals (of which man is a species). Why would I dispute someone's claim to be in pain, for instance, if I saw that he had a fresh laceration on his arm? I know enough to realize that had I the same laceration on my arm, I would be in a lot of pain.

But if that same person said that the gash was caused by Zeus throwing thunderbolts from the clouds, why would I suppose he is not either imagining or simply pulling my leg? Even Lord Oda should see that there is an astounding difference here, and yet he exclaims that "there is none."

Lord Oda drones on:

They cannot show you their subjective experience, they can display it, you might even be able to demonstrate scientifically that pain is materially happening, but you cannot demonstrate by any means a value of experience.

It seems contradictory to say, on the one hand, “they cannot show you their subjective experience,” and, on the other, to then also say “they can display it.” Also, if one "might be able to demonstrate scientifically that pain is materially happening," as Lord Oda concedes, then there's no problem on my side. Science deals with reality by means of an objective process.

Lord Oda strains his loins even further:

Conversely, though you use all your means to demonstrate that you do not know that God exists and therefore cannot know that God exists, you cannot demonstrate that another does not.

I hope Lord Oda does not propose this as a serious defense of his god-belief. But maybe he does. (Again, I do not assume that reality conforms to my hopes.) For one, I have never argued that one "cannot know that God exists" if this is to mean one “cannot know whether a god exists.” I am an atheist, not an agnostic. Furthermore, since I argue that god-belief is irrational, it would be inconsistent for me not to suppose that someone who claims to know that a god does in fact exist is either irrational or dishonest. Philosophically, as I have shown time and time again in my writings, god-belief assumes the primacy of consciousness. But this view is self-contradictory and invalidates any claim which assumes it or reduces to it. Charitably, I can say, then, with full confidence, that anyone who claims to "know God" has misidentified whatever it is he is calling "God." Typically what has happened is that the believer has confused his imagination with reality. Lord Oda's response to my challenge shows that he has no answer to my challenge for believers to explain how we can distinguish between what they call "God" and what they may merely be imagining. I don’t think his is an isolated case.

Lord Oda goes on:

The problem with pain is that it can only be truly known by the individual experiencing it.

And all individuals can experience it. And I’ve not met one who has not experienced pain.

But Lord Oda invests this fact with theological significance:

The problem with knowing God is likewise. Unless one experiences God, he cannot know. This is faith.

Of course, anyone believing in any invisible magic being can use this defense. The Muslim can just as easily say that he has experienced Islam’s Allah. The Lahu tribesman can likewise say that he has experienced his deity Geusha. The Wiccan says she has experienced the God and Goddess of Wicca. Etc. Lord Oda’s preferred approach supplies no safeguards against contradiction or ad hoc, arbitrary claims which simply have no bearing whatsoever to reality. He figures that, if one can experience pain, then he can experience invisible conscious entities which exist independent of himself. But this is a most dubious non sequitur if there ever were one.

Lord Oda makes an appeal to the storybook defense:

Jesus put it this way, "You study the Scripture because in them you think you know God. But, they are that which speak of Me."

If one "knows" the Christian god through reading or studying the bible, then my point stands unscathed. Similarly, one can "know" Harry Potter by reading a Harry Potter book. The narratives found in the gospel stories, for example, supply inputs for one's imagination to enlarge on. These are not the same thing as objective inputs indicating the truth of what one reads in those stories. To miss this is to miss the distinction between fact and fiction. But this is endemic to religious experience, so I expect believers to resist this in some way.

Lord Oda admits:

Just like pain, apart from experiencing it, God cannot be known through objective means, alone.

It is good that Lord Oda admits that his god "cannot be known through objective means." Tacking "alone" at the end of this confession does not alleviate its subjective implications. However contrary to Lord Oda's insinuation, this is not at all like pain. Pain is not an independently existing entity. But "God" is supposed to be an independently existing entity. This is a fundamental distinction which Lord Oda fails to integrate into his case.

by Dawson Bethrick

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Lord Oda on Faith


Attentive readers will recall my response to the commenter “Singh” where the commenter assumes that I “despise Christians.” On numerous occasions I’ve had to correct this common misperception. For if there were no Christians, my blog would probably lose some of its entertainment value. Indeed, at Incinerating Presuppositionalism, Christians provide the entertainment, for they are the entertainment.

Recent comments by a visitor to my blog, who posts under the moniker Lordodamanor, are no exception. This fellow kindly dropped by to offer his comments, and they are well worth exploring. Also, although I think his moniker is quite creative, I decided to shorten it for the purposes of my interaction with his comments.


Now, in my essay Faith as Belief Without Understanding, I had written:

One is that the bible is painfully ambiguous in its use of the word 'faith'.
Lord Oda lifted this one statement from my essay and offered the following response to it:

Thanks for proving that you've never read, or have never understood Scripture. Unequivocably Jesus states, "You will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free."

And I thank Lord Oda for proving that he has to ignore everything else I said beyond what he had quoted in order to conclude that I have “never read, or have never understood Scripture.” Believers love to accuse not only non-believers of failing to “understand Scripture,” but other believers as well. This naturally implies that he accuser believes he understands it in order to make such statements about others. Unfortunately, however, because of overuse, it loses credibility quite quickly.

But I will say that knowing the truth has in fact set me free. Learning just how false Christianity is has indeed set me free from the psychological sanctions and cognitive disabilities which this horrific worldview uses to decapitate man’s spirit.
Lord Oda continues:

You quoted Hebrews 11.1, but inacurately expound it. "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Estin de pistiv elpizomenwn upostasiv, pragmatwn elegxov ou blepomenwn. To unpack this: Pistis is derived from a root that means immovable, the foundation, the rock, the essential, basis, elemental, base knowledge. Hupostasis means that which is the substance, again, elemental. Elpizo, is the thing expected. To put this back together, faith is faith is faith, or knowing is knowing is knowing, or faith is the essence of hope. Or, faith is the possession of the thing hoped for.

Here Lord Oda clearly thinks that “faith” has to do with “knowing,” for his summary of his interpretation of the Greek text of Hebrews 11:1 equates “faith is faith is faith” with “knowing is knowing is knowing.” But the definition given in Hebrews, even Lord Oda’s parsing of the original Greek, does not support this interpretation. Immovable foundations (let alone rocks!) do not necessarily mean “knowledge” or “knowing”; nor does “substance” or “the thing expected.” It says nothing about “knowing” or “knowledge” (and even less about conceptualization). Christians are habit-prone to casually assuming this is the case (as common parlance clearly indicates this), but even the several models of faith that the rest of Hebrews 11 holds up as examples of faith are not examples of “knowing”; on the contrary, most are examples of acts of will.

For example, look at Hebrews 11:4:

By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain

Making an offering is an example of an act of will. It states nothing about “knowing” something or acquiring “knowledge.”

Look at Hebrews 11:7:

By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house

Again, we have another example of an act of will. “By faith Noah... moved with fear, [and] prepared an ark...” This is an example of action, not “knowledge.” Moreover, fearing something is not the same thing as knowing something. Emotions are not knowledge, nor are they a means of validating knowledge claims.

Hebrews 11:8 is especially damning for Lord Oda’s association of faith with “knowing”:

By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.

Here we have as an example of faith an act of will (“By faith Abraham... obeyed...”), and it states explicitly that this act of will was performed without the benefit of knowledge (“not knowing whither he went”). In fact, the only instance of any form of the word “know” which occurs in all of Hebrews 11 (the so-called “faith” chapter) is specifically to indicate a lack of knowledge rather than a possession of it. If this example of faith is any indication, it is better defined as the willingness to act on an assumption even though you don’t know it’s true or simply don’t believe it.

The example of Abraham’s faith, which Hebrews upholds as a model for all believers to emulate, shows just how dangerous faith is. Hebrews 11:17 makes this crystal clear:

By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,

Here the author of Hebrews alludes to the story found in Genesis 22, where Abraham is ordered by his god to prepare his only son as a burnt offering, a sacrifice to a deity that wouldn’t need any offerings in the first place. With such stories the bible shows that when a person guides his life by faith (in this case, action without understanding), it poses a direct threat to one’s values. (See also my Notes on the Story of Abraham and Isaac in Gen. 22.)

Now none of what Lord Oda states here challenges what I had stated in my essay Faith as Belief Without Understanding.

Curiously, Lord Oda also said:
Analogously, water is H2O.
I guess I fail to see the analogy between faith and "water is H2O."

Now, if faith is best defined as "the possession of the thing hoped for,” as Lord Oda has indicated, why doesn’t the bible define it in this manner rather than in the manner that Hebrews 11:1 defines it? Blank out.

Lord Oda continues his parsing of the Greek in Hebrews 11:1:

Pragma, means fact, a proven thing done. Blepo, has a wide variety of meaning, but for this context it simply means to observe and coupled with Ou meaning not, ou blepo expresses the unseen.

Same problem here: “fact” does not mean “knowledge” or “knowing,” and neither does “the unseen.” Indeed, what Lord Oda gives us here simply shows us that whatever faith does mean, it slashes off one avenue of objective input by which knowledge of reality is gained by human beings, namely eyesight.

Now, it is clear that Hebrews associates faith with hoping, and Lord Oda goes so far as to suggest that “faith is the essence of hope” or “faith is the possession of the thing hoped for.” There is in fact an intimate correlation with hoping when someone affirms a religious position on faith (he affirms it actually because he hopes it is true). But that correlation, as we shall see, is not quite as Lord Oda would have it, nor does this correlation comport with Lord Oda’s association of faith with knowledge. It must be stressed that hoping is not the same thing as knowing. In fact, we have to know something before we can hope for anything, but when we hope for something, that is not the same thing as knowing it. As I pointed out in my essay,

Hoping for something does not produce assurance. I could hope for a million dollars, but there’s no assurance in this of receiving it. Needless to say, my hoping does not assure its own fulfillment.

Christian faith, then, is the hope that the gospel story is true, nothing more. It is the hope that Jesus was real, that Jesus really died for the sinner’s sins, that Jesus really rose in resurrection, that there really is an afterlife, and that the promise of living in paradise for eternity is really the reward for devotional worship, etc.

Of course, one can hope all he wants, but reality prevails; reality will not conform to one’s hopes. Pointing such facts out, however, simply makes atheists a bunch of spoilsports in the minds of those who would prefer to indulge these hopes. But in fact, it is better for man’s life and his need for values that he conform his hopes to reality as much as possible (e.g., I hope the business meeting I have this afternoon goes smoothly), rather than breaking from reality in preference for hopes which are simply untrue and have their basis in mystical fantasies (e.g., I hope an invisible magic being will guide my steps and vanquish all my enemies). With the latter he invites the cognitive hazard of confusing his fantasies with reality, and such misidentification of reality can easily lead to destruction. But perhaps destruction does not concern Christians; after all, they are taught to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (cf. Mt. 6:10), which of course - on most interpretations - would entail the wholesale destruction of the earth as it is now. And as I have already pointed out, the lesson of the story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis chapter 22 shows just how dangerous faith in invisible magic beings can be.

Also, Lord Oda’s interpretation of Hebrews 11:1 as suggesting that “faith is the possession of the thing hoped for,” seems difficult to harmonize with Paul’s understanding of the essence of hope, which he gives us in Romans 8:24-25, where he writes:

For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.

Now first off, it should be clear that this verse is entirely compatible with my interpretation of Christian faith as “the hope that the gospel story is true.” But is it consistent with the view that “faith is the possession of the thing hoped for”? It would not at all be unnatural, in light of what Paul writes here, to suppose that “hope that is possessed is not hope: for what a man possesseth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we possess not, then do we with patience wait for it.” This would be a natural reading because both Paul's version as given in Romans and the version I have proposed here reduce to the same common principle: we don't hope for what we already have in hand. Ironically, what Paul says of hoping, the same can be said of coveting. For one does not covet what he already possesses.

So Paul and the author of Hebrews – if Lord Oda’s interpretation of Hebrews 11:1 is correct – seem to be quite out of sync with each other. But this would not be a first by any means.

Lord Oda then states:

So, the bible is not "painfully ambiguous." It is exacting, expansive, extensive in its definition.

Unfortunately for Lord Oda, parsing Hebrews 11:1 is not sufficient to remove ambiguity from the bible’s use of the notion of faith. When I say that “the bible is painfully ambiguous in its use of the word ‘faith’,” I mean the bible as a whole. I am certainly not restricting my evaluation to merely one verse of one chapter of one book of the bible (e.g., Hebrews 11:1) as Lord Oda seems to think. And it’s true, various passages in the bible use the word ‘faith’ to indicate a wide assortment of things. So explaining how just one passage in the bible conceives of faith, does nothing to address the larger picture as I have indicated.

For instance, some bible verses treat faith as an act of will (e.g., the examples of faith given in Hebrews 11), while others as a kind of force endowing believers with some special power or ability. Examples of this would include the episode in Mt. 9 where a woman who “was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years” (vs. 20) was healed when she touched the hem of Jesus’ robe; the author of the gospel has Jesus say to her, “thy faith hath made thee whole” (v. 22; see also Mk. 5:34, 10:52, Lk. 8:48, et al.); elsewhere the ability to receive miraculous healing is affirmed as an expression or result of faith (e.g., Mt. 9:29, Acts 14:9); or the ability to cast mountains into the sea (cf. Mt. 17:20). Peter’s ability to walk on the sea with Jesus (cf. Mt. 14:28-30) is also suggested to be made possible because of faith, for when Peter grew frightened and began to sink as he was trying to walk on the sea, Matthew has Jesus rebuke Peter with the oft-repeated slogan “O thou of little faith,” indicating that had Peter more faith, he wouldn’t have been able to walk on the sea just as normally as Jesus did.

Other passages suggest that faith is a kind of epistemic faculty. For instance, in II Cor. 5:7 the apostle Paul famously notes that Christians “walk by faith, not by sight.” Let’s hope they stay off the streets if that's the case. This is how faith seems to be understood in much common parlance among Christians themselves in their daily walk as Christians. Very frequently I have myself heard Christians speak as if they “know” some truth on the basis of faith. Lord Oda’s own interpretation of Hebrews 11:1, where he suggests a semantic kinship between “faith is faith is faith” and “knowing is knowing is knowing” indicates that he may be this kind of Christian himself. Just how faith is supposed to work as an epistemic faculty is never explained, either in the bible itself (which tends not to explain much of any use of the word in the first place) or by Christians who employ the term in this manner. Faith is thus used as a kind of non-cognitive putty which shores up gaps of ignorance in order to underwrite one’s affirmations with an air of piety. Often the goal is to fetch a series of "Amen, brother!" exclamations from one's peers, thus signaling the verification of club membership. Agreement with other minds is often more valuable to the devoted believer than actually validating his verdicts.

Sometimes ‘faith’ seems to denote an entire belief system taken as a whole. For instance, we read in Romans 1:5 where the apostle Paul writes of “obedience to the faith”; and in Acts 6:7 where “a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.” In Acts 13, we read of a sorcerer who sought to turn a believer away “from the faith” (v. 8).

Interestingly, according to some gospel passages, faith is something that can be seen (cf. Mk. 2:5, Mt. 9:2).

And yet other passages use the word ‘faith’ to indicate the degree of commitment adherents might have to the devotional program of the religion (cf. II Cor. 1:24, I Thes. 3:5, James 1:3, Rev. 13:10).

Of course, there are times when ‘faith’ seems to equate ‘belief’ – especially belief that is approved and commanded to be accepted as true (apparently the command of an invisible magic being is supposed to serve to “justify” such beliefs). For instance, it is telling that some versions (e.g., the KJV) translates Mk. 6:6 to say “he marvelled because of their unbelief,” where others (e.g., the NIV) translate the same passage as saying “he was amazed at their lack of faith.” Similarly, in Jn. 20:27 (the only verse in the KJV version of this gospel to come back as a result in a search for the keyword ‘faith’), the evangelist has his Jesus console Thomas the doubter with the words “be not faithless, but believing.” Apparently on this view, faith as "believing" is subject to command.

What’s clear, however, is that Hebrews 11:1 is the only point in the whole bible where an author attempts to provide an explicit understanding of what faith is supposed to mean. Virtually all the other passages, while contextually indicating a wide variety of meanings, clearly assume that the reader “just knows” what is meant by the term in question. Many passages simply repeat faith-based slogans (e.g., “O thou of little faith”), and others similarly emphasize the supposition that there are various degrees of faith; faith can be great or weak, increased, etc. Such passages offer nothing in the interest of understanding just what faith is supposed to be, thus perpetuating the ambiguity I and many other active-minded critics have observed.

So in fact the meaning of the notion of faith is indeed shrouded in ambiguity throughout the bible, and this ambiguity is a result of varied usage in widely disparate contexts conveying different meanings which no single definition (e.g., the one found in Hebrews 11:1) can suit. In fact, the variety in meanings of ‘faith’ is a result of many authors working from different theological assumptions and backgrounds contributing works which were later stitched together as if they were all affirming the same “truths.”

Lord Oda also wrote:

Calvin in his Institutes takes an entire book, along with many references elsewhere to explore the meaning, not obliquely, but rather exegetically, with incurrence, understanding the critical nature of faith's percise definition and operational application.

I'm aware of the fact that various theologians throughout history can spend volumes slicing and dicing words and phrases ad nauseum as they contend for their desired outcome in the battle to see who can fit the most angels on the head of a pin. But that just underscores the problem here: If the bible were so “exacting” as Lord Oda asserts, why would Calvin need to devote a whole book to “explore the meaning” of faith? The volume that a theologian seems to need to get to the bottom of an issue only suggests that the issue in question is not quite as simplistic as popular defenders might like to make them out to be.


Personally, I see faith as a covering term for a most unsightly symptom which is inherent particularly to religious practice. That symptom is the believer’s devotion to the primacy of consciousness metaphysics as expressed in various religious talking points, such as mystical belief in the supernatural, prayer, affirmation of so-called “religious truths” like the resurrection, the afterlife, the existence of invisible magic beings and places like heaven and hell, etc. As a covering term, its function is to disguise the fact that such mystical beliefs and practices have their basis in hopes which make a sharp departure from reality and turn inward into one’s own imaginative fantasies. Passages such as Mk. 11:22 where Jesus commands his disciples to “have faith in God,” suggest that faith is a kind of make-believe switch that the believer can flip on when things get emotionally difficult. The word ‘faith’ thus acts as a kind of signal for the believer to disengage from reality and turn on his religiously-infiltrated imagination to effect the mood swing that is Jesus. Corporately, use of the word ‘faith’ is a signal for other believers nearby to retreat into the imaginary realm of religious devotion, for only in that realm will they see “the truth” of what is being spoken; for what religion considers "truth" is not of this world, not of this reality, but of a fantasy that has no basis in fact. Faith is thus the doorway to the cartoon universe of theism.

by Dawson Bethrick

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