Philosophy: September 2009 Archives

Every once in a while I run into someone criticizing the Bible because it contains some depiction of someone doing something immoral, usually when the text never endorses that act or even if it's clear from the general context that the narrator considers the act downright evil. For example, Richard Dawkins objects to the story of Jephthah's rash vow, that if God gives him victory he'd sacrifice the first thing coming through his gates to greet him as he returns home, only to be greeted by his daughter, so he sacrifices her. His reason for objecting? Well, Jephthah did something obviously wrong. So the Bible must not be a good guide to immorality.

As has been said many a time, Dawkins would fail an introductory philosophy or religion course if he submitted materials from his book or similar quality work for such classes. This idea that the mere inclusion of an immoral act in a narrative somehow makes that narrative immoral is downright crazy. No one really believes that. Murder mysteries would suddenly because evil, for instance, because a murder does take place in them. You couldn't have crime-fighting stories of any sort, because those would contain evil acts to be fought against.

Nevertheless, despite this idea being absolutely ridiculous, it apparently comes up in contexts that have nothing to do with the Bible. There's been a campaign against the forthcoming Stargate Universe, the third (and I think what may well be the best) series in the Stargate franchise. Darren Sumner of Gateworld has an excellent discussion of what these objections are and why they fail completely.

Aside from the fact that it's pretty dumb to criticize a show you haven't even bothered to wait to see when you have at best partial information, the argument itself seems silly. It's been rumored that there will be some temporary body-switching, with the consciousness of one person controlling the body of someone else in a different galaxy (which the Stargate franchise has done several times before), only this time the controlling parties will have sexual encounters using other people's bodies. That raises obvious moral questions, in particular if the owner of the body in question didn't consent to have their body used this way. But merely depicting them something doesn't imply endorsement, and it's almost certainly true (given what I know from the Stargate writers) that they will want us to question whether this is ok, again assuming no consent (and we haven't been told if there will be consent to use each other's bodies this way by mutual agreement, which for all I know will be part of the arrangement).

The claim (see the comments) is that it's rape, and they shouldn't be depicting it. Well, we don't know if they'll be depicting it. But they do depict rape on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, or at least they sometimes come close enough. They did depict rape on Battlestar Galactica. There were people who objected to the latter, but I never understood why the mere depiction of rape, especially when it's absolutely clear that the people doing it are being downright evil, is somehow wrong. It was, in that case, an easy way to show the morally degenerate state of the Pegasus crew under Admiral Cain's command. The Galactica crew were certainly not perfect, but the Pegasus crew had gone well over the edge to true evil. That scene made that abundantly clear, and it was good storytelling.

The difference here, as some commenters in that thread point out, is that main characters carry this out. But main characters can be morally flawed in a good story. They can even be pretty evil. Why is it immoral for a storyteller to have a main character do something as bad as raping someone? I see no argument for this claim anywhere in any of these discussions.

But comparing these two kinds of fallacious criticisms at least helps me understand that such shoddy thinking isn't present just among those seeking to have any argument, no matter how bad, against the Bible. Those who want to have any argument, no matter how bad, against a forthcoming TV show will resort to the same tactics. So maybe this isn't a problem just among those who want to attack Christianity, the Bible, or religion. It occurs much more generally than that.

William P. Alston (1921-2009)

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I heard late last night about William P. Alston's death earlier in the day, strangely not through any departmental channels but through a friend who never met him. He was one of the professors I've most respected in my entire academic career. He wrote his dissertation with Wilfred Sellars on the work of Alfred North Whitehead but spent most of his career on philosophy of language, philosophy of religion, and epistemology. Along with Alvin Goldman and Alvin Plantinga, he helped spearhead the externalist/reliabilist revolution in epistemology, a tradition that I think took things in the right direction. He also was one of the most important figures in the revival of philosophy of religion in the last four decades from a point where it had become looked upon as a joke except to reject traditional religious views to a point where some of the most important philosophers today are Christians or other theists. Alston himself was not a Christian when he began his philosophical career, a path shared with several other notable Christian philosophers (Norman Kretzmann and Peter van Inwagen come to mind).

It was always encouraging to me to think about how successful he was in philosophy given his personality and philosophical temperament, which I think are similar to mine in a number of ways that I'm not like most of my philosophical colleagues. He wasn't a system-builder. He wrote about what he had something to say about but wasn't trying to put together a comprehensive philosophical view on every issue he could have something to say about.

Most of his work didn't involve coming up with brilliant views on cutting-edge issues that no one had ever thought of before (although I think there are a few occasions of that in his work, especially in his most recent work in epistemology). He tended to favor traditional views, sometimes so traditional that the majority in philosophy had left the view so far behind that they considered it a joke until people like him came along to disabuse them of such notions by defending the views in novel ways.

Some of the most important philosophical figures are noteworthy for one or both of those reasons (system-building and novel views). Alston, however, filled a role of simply doing good philosophy, often in small but important details. He might see a fallacious argument that was nonetheless popular and apply an important distinction, perhaps one known to the medievals but often ignored by contemporary philosophers, to show why the argument fails. He found elements of competing views that might be compatible and explained why a moderating position might be better than either original view. He applied new arguments in epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, or metaphysics to some problem in philosophy of religion to show why a new trend in a completely different area makes Christian belief more favorable (e.g. his application of functionalism, a recent view in materialist philosophy of mind, to explain how language about God can be literally true even if not used in exactly the same sense as the same terms are used for us).

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