Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Chinese story and Three Mile Island for Tom Gilson

In a blog post today that has nothing really to do with me, Tom Gilson mentioned me so that he could talk about his current suffering (it's his blog, so that makes sense) and how it has helped him to realize something important about context. Thanks to the kind reader who pointed this out to me.

To make a point that stabs vaguely in the direction of the Problem of Evil, Gilson talks about his foot injury and "context," motivating the discussion by noting that I "played the context card" on him in a comment a while back (a point he raised on the "Deeper Waters" podcast recently as well, linked here for those willing to suffer through the listen).*

Tom culminates his post with the following deep thought, presented long-form to maintain the context.
We don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, out of sight, in the zone of the unknown. A stress fracture is good news when put up against a failed tendon transplant.

What if I’d had a stress fracture, though, without knowing that the alternative was a torn tendon? That’s pretty far-fetched for me in my current medical context, but what about the first time I had a stress fracture, back in the late 1990s? It happened while I was recovering from a lesser case of the same accessory ossicle issue. The treatment for that stress fracture then might have kept me from tearing the tendon then.

Or it might have kept me from a car accident. Or from accidentally hurting someone some other way. Or … who knows? Maybe it brought me closer to the Lord, and stronger in character.

Pain and suffering is a problem, no doubt, and atheists and skeptics often tell us that gratuitous suffering means there is no all-powerful, all-good God. Who knows what’s really gratuitous, though? Who knows what’s going on behind the scenes? My doctor was relieved when he found out my situation wasn’t what it might have been, but which one of us can compare our pain to what might have been? How could we know what might have been? [Gilson's emphasis]
This "might-have-been perspective" isn't new to Tom Gilson (or most teenagers when they stumble upon it for the first time), and he's right that it isn't terribly persuasive--except to the gullible and the desperate. It is, of course, a deepity, and it seems to get this quality from a sort of application of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy in that the bullseye is painted around the better outcomes instead of others, once they're known.

An old Chinese story

Once upon a time, a farmer and his son came out to find that their best horse, upon which they depended to do much of their work on the farm, had jumped the fence and fled. "This is a tragedy!" the farmer cried.

A neighbor, overhearing the farmer's lament, spoke up, "Good or bad, who can say?"

A few days later, the farmer heard an uproar in his fields and ran outside. What he saw amazed him. Not only had his best horse returned of its own volition, it had brought with it six fine and sturdy wild horses, each worth a great deal. "The neighbor was right!" the farmer exclaimed. "Who can know what is good and what is bad? This is great!"

The neighbor again spoke up, "Good or bad, who can say?"

As chance would have it, a few days later while the farmer's son was working with the new horses, trying to tame them, one of the wild beasts kicked him and broke his leg--and right before the critical harvest season when all hands would be needed. The farmer didn't miss a beat. "What terrible fortune! The old neighbor is right again! This is very bad!"

The neighbor again spoke up, "Good or bad, who can say?"

After caring for his injured son for a few days, a knock came at the farmer's door. It was a recruiter from the local garrison. The nation was going to war, and the farmer's son was to enlist. But there he was lying with a broken leg, and the recruiter saw him and gave the farmer's son a medical deferment. The farmer would not lose his son off in a bloody war. "What great luck!" shouted the farmer.

The neighbor again spoke up, "Good or bad, who can say?"

Three Mile Island

The story of the 1980 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility is familiar enough to require no telling, as are a couple of other nuclear accidents at this point. The "might-have-been perspective" about the Three Mile Island incident (and catastrophes at Chernobyl and Fukushima) might suggest that the event wasn't all that bad, say if it led to the kind of nuclear regulatory activity that would prevent a far more serious future disaster. The nuclear accident didn't kill millions, and the farmer's son didn't have to go to war. (Note that we don't know if the farmer's house burns down later, killing the son who would have been at war otherwise....)

This "might-have-been perspective" kind of thinking sort of has a name given to it by Daniel Dennett in 1996 in Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Dennett uses the phrase "Three Mile Island Effect" to refer to the notion that it is possible to consider the Three Mile Island accident an overall good instead of the obvious bad that it seems to be. And it's fair enough to bring up the challenge to certain lines of moral reasoning (as Dennett is doing).

The issue is--as Dennett points out--that we do not possess the necessary knowledge to use a Three Mile Island Effect argument as a context card that lets us do much of anything with it, and it certainly doesn't mitigate the Problem of Evil.

The Problem of Evil

Superficially, it seems that Gilson is just making an observation about perspective--how could we possibly determine whether our pain and suffering are good or bad? Our pain might cause us to avoid greater pain, or death. Our suffering might bring us "closer to the Lord."

But Gilson isn't making a case against particular lines of moral reasoning, and the statement he's making isn't vacant. He says, "This might-have-been perspective is just one way of looking at the problem of pain and suffering." Gilson, then, is appealing to the Three Mile Island Effect to poke at the Problem of Evil. Of course, it doesn't work. It's an argument from ignorance: "Good or bad, who can say?" The Rock of Atheism doesn't just go away because of an argument that effectively says that we can't prove that the bad is not a "might-have-been" good.

It's likely, in fact, that Tom Gilson agrees with the view presented by (somehow) noted theologian and philosopher Alvin Plantinga in this insane interview with Gary Gutting in the New York Times, The Stone, Opinionator. Plantinga waxes positively giddy about the Problem of Evil, painting one of the best portraits of Doctor Pangloss seeing the world through Jesus-Colored Glasses that has ever been expressed in print. Tom Gilson is very likely to agree with this madness:
I suppose your thinking is that it is suffering and sin that make this world less than perfect. But then your question makes sense only if the best possible worlds contain no sin or suffering. And is that true? Maybe the best worlds contain free creatures some of whom sometimes do what is wrong. Indeed, maybe the best worlds contain a scenario very like the Christian story.

Think about it: The first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might — e.g., having them boiled in oil — God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified. And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures.

I’d say a world in which this story is true would be a truly magnificent possible world. It would be so good that no world could be appreciably better. But then the best worlds contain sin and suffering.
Here's news for Alvin Plantinga and Tom Gilson with him: Three Mile Island isn't getting you from here to there, and neither is a stress fracture in your foot. The Problem of Evil doesn't go away because of a raving call that maybe, indeed, this world is the best possible world, or that, hey, it could have been worse. To possess the imagination to understand that it could have been worse is to be fully equipped to see plainly that it could have been better too, and that's an analysis that an all-good God cannot survive.

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*The "context card" I played on Gilson referred to his understanding of the Doubting Thomas story from the Gospel of John (20:24-29). I had asserted that a plain reading of the story indicates that Jesus advocates believing without adequate evidence. Gilson's reply is that in context, the story has Jesus mildly "rebuking" Thomas for doubting given the testimony of the other disciples, which Gilson argues should have been sufficiently good evidence for Thomas to believe.

I'll give Gilson this: he is interpreting the context of the story correctly. Then again, so was I. Thomas was presented with one of the most extraordinary, unlikely claims in the history of the world--and Christians not only realize this, they cherish it, taking the Resurrection story of Jesus to be uniquely true while the dozens of others strewn throughout ancient literature are just ridiculous myths or legends. The only evidence Thomas had for this literally unbelievable claim was the testimony of other people he knew to be zealots in the Jesus movement, and Thomas rightly concluded that for the claim, it wasn't good enough.

Jesus--a.k.a. God--disagreed. Jesus reportedly** said to Thomas, after allegedly providing him with solid evidence, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." 

So--in context--the Doubting Thomas story does not admonish people to believe in Christianity on no evidence, it admonishes people to believe on bad evidence. 

In Thomas's case, the evidence is testimony, which we know is horribly flawed due to all sorts of peculiar biases and other psychological issues human beings have, not to mention lying. (Commenters at Gilson's place seem to like to bring up the role of testimony in courts of law, but they're advised to note both that our criminal justice system is far from perfect and that testimony is always trumped by good evidence like DNA.) In the case of the Evangelist "John," we're very likely to be relying heavily on hearsay already, probably several times removed and, shall we suggest, embellished (see **). In the case of Tom Gilson, though, we're talking at least another step of removal, perhaps several, depending upon how we count them. In all of these cases, the evidence is bad. Bad, bad, bad, and it is stacked against a claim so extraordinary that it is literally ridiculous. Thus, we have Jesus allegedly admonishing Thomas (and by extension all Christians--something he surely knew?) to believe on testimony and hearsay of testimony (that we know possibly has been tampered with), which is to say very bad evidence.

Gilson, then, didn't play the context card; he employed the term "context" as a talisman meme--an easily reproduced idea that is waved about defensively to shut down incisive discussion. Of course, my awareness of this fact can be seen rather plainly in the original comment I left that seems to have bothered him so.

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**It should go without saying, but even most Bible scholars consider the Gospel of John to be a legendary enhancement of whatever core narrative captures whatever constitutes the real Jesus story, if there was one. Indeed, the non-synoptic-but-canonical Gospel has been referred to (by John W. Loftus, I believe) as an outright "Christian manifesto," an assessment I fully agree with. That said, "reportedly" and "allegedly" are the best that can be said of the words and actions attributed to Jesus by that story.

1 comment:

  1. Based on his blog posts and replies to his critics, Tommy G. clearly doesn't understand the terms "context", nor "evidence," nor "circular argument," etc. I think that he hears these criticism so often leveled effectively against his posts that he does indeed mistakenly believe them to be some kind of talismans, and he brandishes these charges with all the wit and ken of the very, very dull.

    Context is very simple; if something has contrary or very different meaning separated from it's larger part, then one could fairly make a case for it's being "out of context." However, unlike this, what Tom typically means with his "out of context" charge is that you have pinpointed his contradictions, or that your interpretation merely does not agree with his.

    "Context, context, context!" With apologists, and Gilson in particular, you know that you've targeted, bagged, and labeled yet another shameful contradiction when they start running forward, waving their hands, shouting that.

    Come to think of it, I believe that NonStampCollector does a nice job with this particularly weak protest made by the apologists. (At least I think this is the link I watched a long time ago: