Friday, September 18, 2015

The Moral Boats of C.S. Lewis

It’s not too often that I read spiritual books written by non-Catholic thinkers, but I’ve gotten around to reading “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. Lewis’s astute writing style and use of clever analogies reminds me a bit of Catholic apologists Frank Sheed and G.K. Chesterton. I have read “The Screwtape Letters”, but this is quite different.  The book is based on a series of radio broadcasts Lewis gave during WWII, talking about the Christian faith from a common sense perspective.

The theme stays with the basic ideals of Christianity without digging into the doctrinal and denominational differences, hence the “Mere” in the title. In the beginning of the book Lewis used an analogy of a great hall with many rooms leading out from the hall. The hall is Christianity itself and the many rooms are all the different denominations. He explains how his goal is to get people into the hall, and once inside, they can choose which doors to knock on and which room to finally go into. He cautions that the decision should not be based on which room looks best and has the most comfortable furniture. Rather, one should ask which is the "right" door and the "right" room.  As a Catholic I can certainly agree with that, but I would add that once inside a room, one should continue to study the denomination, its history and its founders. Study the history of the authority and the drill down to the base premises of the faith and see how well they stand up to reason.

The three parts of morality found in Book Three, Chapter I, also employ a clever metaphor involving boats. You have heard the Golden Rule, which is to do unto others what you would have done unto you, but have you heard of the Silver Rule? It says, “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you." In other words, do what you want as long as you do not hurt others. This is the first part of morality according to Lewis; I think of it as the first stage, since it involves just coexisting peacefully with others. Imagine a bunch of boats traveling together. Many would agree that as long as you do not hit the other boats traveling with you on life’s journey, everything is fine. Few would agree with the Benny Hill rule; “Do unto others, then run.”
Of course, the meaning of “hurt” can lead to an endless game of “point-counterpoint”. Doesn’t abortion involve hurting others? No problem; just change the definition of “others” and magically turn some “others” into “non-persons”. How about assisted suicide? Isn’t that hurting others? Of course not, we just call upon the Dogma of Consent. Does the death penalty hurt others? Some call it justice, but doesn’t it fall more along the lines of revenge in many cases? And what of sadomasochism; hurting others for depraved pleasure is certainly okay, right?

The second part, or maybe the second stage, of morality involves harmonizing what is inside of each individual. Besides not “hurting” others, how should I behave when I am alone? How should I treat myself when alone or with others? Where do my idle thoughts go? Does it matter what my ship is like on the inside as long as I do not hit other ships? It makes some sense on the surface, but stop and think for a moment; if you can’t handle your own boat, how can you possibly expect to avoid collisions with other boats?

The third part ,or third stage, is concerned with the purpose of the journey. What is the nature of the boats and of the ocean itself? Are you really the owner of the boat or are you only a steward?  What is the final destination of the fleet and what is the best course to get there? Erroneous beliefs about the nature of boats and the ocean will lead to wrongheaded thinking; wrongheaded thinking leads to bad boating behavior; bad boating behavior leads to bad boating habits; bad boating habits lead to a bad sailing character; a bad sailing character will lead to a lost fleet and a hopeless journey.
“You cannot make good men by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society.”
- C.S. Lewis

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Mother of ALL Questions

There are many BIG questions in life like…
  • Why are we here?
  • What’s the meaning of life?
  • What’s the best way to live?
  • How can I have lasting happiness?
  • Are you saved?
I would suggest that there is one question that acts as the mother of them all…
How do we know what’s true?
I recently finished a book called "Ten Universal Principles; A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issues", by Fr. Robert J. Spitzer. I was immediately struck at how the first three principals were very similar in concept to the problem solving methodology we use where I work. I was surprised, but then again not so surprised, because in the end coherent logic is coherent logic.
In problem solving we want to know, “Why did it happen?” in regard to a certain object(s) or system(s) with a deviation or multiple deviations. Other modes of thinking also ask “why?” but go beyond objects and deviations. Disciplines like philosophy, theology and metaphysics also ask “why?” and can begin to tackle a question like “How do we know what’s true?”
Regardless of the thinking discipline, some things are universal to any thinking process. The first three principals are the “Principles of Reason” which underscore the universality of rational thought.
The Principle of Non-Contradiction (Plato & Aristotle)
Valid opinions or theories have no internal contradictions.
If I said I was a married bachelor and we were clear on the meaning of “married” and “bachelor”, then a married bachelor is an internal contradiction. There would be no need for you to investigate my life to see if my claim was true or false. It would be the same situation if I said I can draw a square shaped circle. If we are clear on the definition of these shapes, then we know that drawing a square circle is not possible. No further probing required.

An awareness of contradictions can help problem solvers to hone in on potential causes without incongruities and move towards a valid solution. Suppose you came home one dark and stormy night and noticed your front porch light was out. Since the light is on every other night, you think the storm has caused a power outage. As you walk into the house you see the digital clock on the microwave oven lit up with the correct time as usual. Unless there is some other power supply for the microwave, maintaining your theory of a power outage in the house would be contradictory.
In terms of faith & reason, you’ll find no contradictions in Catholic teaching. Once objections and over-generalizations about the faith are separated are clarified, what might appear to be a contradiction is actually not. I won’t attempt to list the many misconceptions about Catholicism here, but let’s ponder a couple of things.
The development of doctrine can create the illusion of contradiction. If the Truth does not change, why has the Catholic Church changed or added to its teaching over the centuries. Imagine a dimly lit room; you can barely make out the shape of the room and the faint outline of some furniture. If we turn up the lights, we see things more clearly, even the color of things, the paintings on the wall and all the knickknacks on the coffee table and end tables. The room did not change, we just see it better. It’s the same idea with the development of doctrine. The Truth has not changed, it is better understood.

Do the four different gospel accounts of the life and times of Jesus and his miracles contradict each other? Consider the resurrection as written in each gospel. All four have a different take with different details. Is this evidence that the resurrection is a farce? I think it’s exactly the opposite; it’s evidence of its authenticity. From my experience, whenever I hear different people describe the same complex and puzzling situation, mixed in with some emotional baggage, the gist of the problem is the same after some deliberate questioning, but many of the details are different. In fact, I would be surprised and even suspicious if each account was exactly same.
No one can be forced to accept Catholic dogmas, but they cannot be validly rejected via the principle of non-contradiction. This is not so for at least one other non-Catholic Christian dogma. Anyone who accepts the dogma of Sola Scriptura (Bible alone) runs into the wall of contradiction and most likely does not realize it. If one believes that all matters of Christian doctrine and practice should be based on the Bible alone, then one accepts a contradiction. The problem is that this doctrine is not found in the Bible (it’s unbiblical), so you need some other non-biblical source of authority to declare it. If this wasn’t clear enough, the Bible itself points us to another authority. In 1Timothy 3:15 the pillar and foundation of Truth is said to be the Church, not scripture itself.

In a way contradictions are beyond not true; they are meaningless. They cannot be, therefore they have no “being”, and therefore they are no-thing; they are nothing… and nothing is impossible with God.
Don't think about this pic too long.
It'll drive you nuts.

The Principle of Objective Evidence (Plato & Aristotle)
Non-arbitrary opinions or theories are based upon publicly verifiable evidence.
Data accessible only to you is subjective. Data accessible to everyone is objective. This is not to say that data only accessible to you is not true; it's just not good objective evidence. When problem solving, this concept can be embodied in something called a problem specification. Without going into all the excruciating details, a problem specification is a formal way of sorting relevant data from irrelevant data, documenting the specific facts and making them "visible" to everyone. Grade schools teach this basic principle to children via the activity of “Show & Tell”. Telling is not good enough; we must learn to “show” and show in a public way.

This may be where the materialist or atheist thinks he has the deist cornered. There is no publicly verifiable evidence for the existence of God, right? People always “tell” and never “show”. Even if we exclude evidence via the historical method, witnesses of events past and present and those today who witness with their very lives, there are still many proofs for the existence of what Catholics would call God; they are also publicly verifiable and the thinking is made “visible”. A good and rather lengthy five-step proof can be found in another book by Fr. Spitzer called "New Proofs for the Existence of God". The beginning of the proof can be found at THIS LINK. The reality of these proofs does not mean that all who read and understand them will have faith in God, but they are publicly verifiable evidence nonetheless.

As a side note to any Christian or Deist, if you were to say “God told me ABC” or “The Holy Spirit taught me XYZ”, it may be perfectly true, but it is not good objective evidence since it is data only accessible to you.

By the way, if you ever wondered why it takes the Catholic Church so long to declare a saint a saint, it is because they are sorting relevant data from irrelevant day, looking for publicly verifiable evidence and making the thinking “visible”. These things take time.

The Principle of Complete Explanation (Socrates, Plato & Aristotle)
The best opinion or theory is the one that explains the most data.
When a number of possible causes of a problem have been identified, problem solvers are challenged to identify the best opinion or theory as the most probable cause by looking at any assumptions that have been made and documented. The most probable cause will have the fewest number of assumptions, the most reasonable assumptions and the overall simplest assumptions.

The world view of materialism does not explain the most important “data” found in the human condition. Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Morality, Love, Justice, Purpose, etc. cannot be reduced down to only physical elements of matter and energy if they are to have any meaning. Everything about life cannot be explained by merely seeking biological opportunities or avoiding biological dangers without some serious gaps. To avoid these data gaps some will simply wave the evolutionary magic wand. For example, how can evolution explain homosexuality in terms of a species surviving and reproducing? I was once told that having a certain homosexual percentage in the population prevents overbreeding, and thus helps the species as a whole. So there you have it, and how can anyone argue with such a firm wave of the evolutionary magic wand.
Consider too the data from design. No matter how much evidence of purposeful design is found in our finely tuned universe and planet, the data is explained away by “dumb luck”. Additionally, the origins of life cannot be explained by the survival of the fittest, because in beginning there was nothing alive to survive to be the fittest. The random jostling of matter and energy will have to do as the explanation. Chance is used to explain away any data which points to deliberate design, but how well does randomness really explain all the data as compared to an intelligent cause?

Non-Catholic Christians are in the unenviable situation of trying to explain a lack of Christian data from shortly after the Book of Acts was written to around the time of the Protestant Reformation; about 1,500 years. Did the Holy Spirit abandon the Church for 1,500 years and then finally reemerge in the hearts of Martin Luther, John Calvin and others to guide them to all Truth? If so, the reformers and their descendants would surely agree on doctrine, and all non-Catholic Christians would follow their teachings today with no further divisions needed, right?

Or perhaps the real Church went underground to hide from the oppressive Catholic Church and was finally able to resurface after 1,500 years. If we are to follow the previous principle of reason, we should ask, “Where is the publicly verifiable evidence for the existence of this 1,500 year underground church?” What if we claimed that the Church Christ founded has had a lot of problems over the centuries, but has never stopped being the one universal and apostolic Church on earth and it is called the Catholic Church today? Which explanation of Christian historical data has the fewest number of assumptions, the most reasonable assumptions and the overall simplest assumptions?
In his book, Fr. Spitzer recounts how, when he taught philosophy to university students, he would ask, “Are all opinions equally valid?” Most students would answer yes, in the spirit of fairness and equality. Then Fr. Spitzer would use principles, like the three listed above, to demonstrate how some opinions are more valid than others. Catholicism is an all-encompassing worldview that can be examined by using classic, rational thought, and it all stands to reason. If God is the source of reason, then the reality of God and his Church will not violate the basic principles of reason.