Saturday, November 25, 2017

Quote of the Day (37)

The very articulate Stefan Molyneux hosts Freedomain Radio, the most popular philosophy show on the Internet — not that he has a lot of competition in that department. Molyneux has described himself as an atheist, though these days he seems more of an agnostic than a hard-nosed denier.

Earlier this year I picked up a copy of his book Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, figuring I might review it here if it turned out to be of interest. The case for ethics apart from God is a tough one to make, and I was curious what sort of evidence Molyneux might produce.

I like Stefan, so I hope it doesn’t come across as snarky to describe his book as neither “rational” nor “proof”. I’ve struggled through it three times now, only to find that he asserts a great deal but demonstrates next to nothing.

As evidence for a secular, rational system of ethics, it simply doesn’t get the job done.

But the other day I was watching Dave Rubin interview Stefan on his own show, and Stefan said this:
“I think that [people] believed in religion because it gave a structure of self-restraint that is essential for civilization ... This is why one of the first things I did as a public intellectual was work on a rational system of ethics, because we need to have a reason to have self-restraint. If we don’t have a reason to have self-restraint, our inner apes come out and it just becomes about power and control.”
That’s interesting, and explains a lot. He’s come at the whole thing backwards.

When you assume your conclusion before starting your quest for truth (in this case, that self-restraint can be justified by a rational system of ethics), confirmation bias is almost inevitable. This holds true in philosophy, ethics, science and probably every other domain of reasoning — most especially theology.

If you want to know what the Bible teaches about the end of the world, it is counterproductive to start with an “-ism”, or even with a writer with an established system of approach like Hal Lindsay, John Walvoord or William Kelly (and yes, I know, one of those things is not like the others). The unbiased examination of evidence has to come before the formation of conclusions, otherwise there is great danger that one only sees what one is looking for. It is best to make yourself familiar with Bible prophecy first — with the words of holy scripture themselves — if you can possibly do it that way.

Now, that’s not always an easy place to get to intellectually. We tend to form opinions first, and gather evidence to support them afterward.

But if we are going to be rigorous in the search for truth, we have to remain open to the possibility that our opinions are wrong and our desire for reality to operate in a way that pleases us is going to end in disappointment, because that’s always a strong possibility. If we must begin with theories about what we will find, we need to hold onto them very loosely and allow them to be transformed by accumulating data.

I struggle with this myself on a daily basis in Bible study. I come across a verse that seems to say something helpful, so I dig into the Greek or Hebrew in the hope that it says what I think it says. Sometimes this is precisely what I find. Other times, it turns out my hypothesis was entirely off base. But that’s only a problem if I obdurately refuse to accept the linguistic evidence in front of me and adjust my original theory to accommodate it. If I’m willing to do that, I may not end up with the blog post or article that I thought I was writing. I may even end up saying the opposite of what I originally intended to say.

But I’ll certainly end up with something useful.

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