omnipotence #1: a new testament understanding of "all things possible"
10/24/2007 03:10:00 PM
This is the first in a series of post I am writing on omnipotence.

In the New Testament, there are several passages that talk about what God can and cannot do. At a glance, it would seem that the New Testament is contradicting itself. Jesus when he is speaking to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, says that with God, "all things are possible" yet Paul asserts that God cannot lie. If God supposedly can do all things, yet cannot lie, then it seems that either he can lie, or he cannot to all things possible, in that lying is a possible thing to do.

Before we can talk about what is implied by “all things possible”, it is best to investigate how First Century reader would have understood such statement. The original language of the New Testament is Koine Greek, which is not formal Greek but the Lingua Franca of the day. It is probably safe to assume that it was not the first language of many first century readers, but it was the most widely spoken language in the Eastern Mediterranean, therefore it made since to write the New Testament in this language, with all its caveats and idiosyncrasies. The statement first appears in Matthew 19, when Jesus is comparing man’s capabilities to God’s capabilities. Jesus says the often quoted verse: "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." This verse paints a dichotomy between what man is able to do and what God is able to do. The word translated "possible" here is the adjective δυνατός in Greek. The word occurs 35 times in the New Testament, and is most often translated, "possible", but can also mean "able", "mighty" or "strong". What is certainly implied from the world is the ability to do something, with no regard to the will to do that thing. The passage in reference here is talking about salvation. The disciples are asking Jesus, "Who can be saved then?" Jesus replies, implying that salvation is not the work of man, but the work of God, in that God is able to save when man is not.

The word translated "impossible" is the same word δυνατός with an alpha privative in front of the word. This negates the word in the way that an "a" in front of "theism" is "atheism" meaning "without theism". It is no different in Greek, in that αδυνατός is the inability to do something. The references here is into salvation, which is something that man cannot do, in that only God can save people. Another word that is critical to understanding all things possible is the word translated "all". The root of the word is πάς which is most often translated "all". The word is used over 1,200 in the New Testament, making it one of the most common words in New Testament. Although the word is used often, it does not really have any other meaning, other than to imply something is whole and complete, in that it is not lacking in any part. Often words that occur often carry a variety of meanings, but this one does not.

Another passage where these words appear in tandem is Mark 14:36. In context, Jesus is praying before he is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. He says, "Abba Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." Jesus here is stating that all things are possible for God, asking God to take the cup of the crucifixion from him if it be God's will. It seems that Jesus is suggesting that there might be another way, without actually revealing what that way is. The same words, πάς and δυνατός are translated "all things possible". In the parallel passage in Matthew 26:39, Jesus asks God in a different manner, asking "If it is possible". This passage does not make the statement that “all things are possible”, but like the parallel passage in Mark, seems to leave open the door for another possible way. The parallel passage in Luke 22 asks the question in a different way, saying "If you are willing". Jesus is recorded as not having used any form of δυνατός or πάς. He uses a form of βούλομαι which seems to be speaking having a desire to do something, not to ones ability to do something. In any case though, what seems to be going on in this episode with Jesus, he is asking God to remove the cup more so if he is willing to remove it rather than if he is able to remove it. Jesus is not calling into question God's ability to remove the cup, but rather asking if God is willing to remove the cup, then he could. In all cases here, God’s ability to remove the cup seems to be apparent, but Jesus is asking if God is willing to remove the cup. From Mark, we can see it is explicit, but in the other gospel it seems more implicit. We don’t know for certain if there was another way but it does seem to suggest that perhaps there may have been another way, still begging the question, could God have removed the cup from Jesus and saved humanity another way? I do not know if this question can be answered this side of eternity, but it was certainly God's will for Jesus to die in the manner in which he did to save men regardless of what God’s god could have done. This opens at least opens the doors for things that God can do but does not.

Peter Geach's sees God's omnipotence as "Almightiness". Almightiness in the New Testament stems from another word, but this one refers not to the ability to do something but the power over something as a king has power over his people. The word κράτως refers to dominion, and when coupled with a form of the word πάς, renders παντοκράτωρ which is translated "Almighty". This word, παντοκράτωρ is almost exclusively found in the book of Revelations and once other time in 2 Corinthians 6:18. In all cases, it is referring to Jesus as Lord or King over everything, seemingly in the form of a title, much like we refer to one as "Mister Smith" or "Doctor Evans". It is recognizing the proper position of God. While this view of God's power is certainly accurate concerning the realm of God’s power, it says nothing about particulars of what God can and cannot do. It says that God has power over all things, but it does not say that God can or cannot do particulars. This concern will be addressed more later on, but realizing this now will help address understand the intent of this work.

Elsewhere in Scripture, the word "pas" appears with the word ἰσχύω, which is translated "can do". This word similar in meaning to δύναμαι which means "I am able". δύναμαι is the verb form of the word, δυνατός that we have been discussing thus far. Paul in Philippians 4:13 makes the statement, "I can do all things through Christ". Taken as is, it would seem that Paul is saying he is omnipotent through Christ. In context though, I do not think this is what Paul is talking about. Prior to this verse, he talks about being in need and having plenty, being comfortable and being in the most dire circumstances, and other such disparities. Such are literary devices to show contrast, similar to John's use of Alpha and Omega. When Paul is talking about "all things", he is talking about all circumstances that he encounters, with form of πάς referring to these circumstances. This is somewhat unique from the aforementioned passages, with particular regard to the Mark 14 passage. In the same verse, Jesus talks about a singular scenario: men saving themselves, but then says all things are possible with God, referring to a larger group of scenarios. Similarly, with the episode in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is referring to a set of scenarios broader than the one at hand when referring to what God can do.

From these passages, we can establish that as Geach has suggested, God is the Almighty, in that he has dominion over all things and that with God all things are possible. The question remains however, what is included in all things possible? Is "All things are possible", "All things possible" and "All possible things" the same thing? In Greek, being verbs are generally optional, so from this point of view, these three phrases would essentially communicate the same thing. One could come up with several other permutations of these and other related words to communicate the same idea. What we really need to do then is focus on what is meant by "all things possible".

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infinite punishment for finite sin
8/14/2007 12:47:00 PM
One of the most purported objections to one becoming a Christian seems to be the injustice invoked by God. Some see eternal (thus infinite) punishment in hell as unjust punishment for finite sin. On the surface, this objection seems to have warrant, and would naturally lend one not to trust in a God that is suppose to be loving and just. But I think such is a view doesn't take the whole picture into account. What I want to do here is perhaps clear up or at least finish the picture as to how God is justified in sending people to hell for sin, on the basis that God judges not quantitatively, but qualitatively, and in doing is just.

First, it is probably best to define what I mean when I stay "quantitative" and "qualitative". Something that is quantitative is essentially something that is countable or comparable in some fashion. Quantitatively, 4 is greater than 2. One could also say something like quantitatively, black is darker than charcoal but charcoal is darker than gray. The quantity in question here is the amount of darkness in a color. One could also say that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all times based on statistical analysis of his records compared to all other basketball players of all times. All these examples attempt to use quantities of various attributes to define somethings.

Something that is qualitative has a certain attribute associated with it that defines it. Going back to the prior examples, 4 and 2 are are both divisible by 2, so based on that quality, we say they are even numbers. Charcoal and black are both dark colors because they have the qualities that make something dark. One could make a qualitative judgment based on qualities as such. I could say they Picasso's art is better than my art, because great art enjoys international renowned, studied in academic settings, and mimicked by aspiring artist. My art enjoys none of these things, so my art is not great art.

Going back to the original objection, many people say God is unjust for inflicting infinite punishment for finite sin. As most see it, the punishment for a given crime should be equal to the crime committed. A more serious crime should be punished more seriously than another crime. Let the below diagram represents two sins: M is for murder, and P is for theft of a peanut from a peanut stand. Obviously, murder is a much more serious offense than petty theft. The size of the circle represents the degree of the sin, comparatively speaking.

I used the disproportionate circles to represent the difference in the degree of the two crimes. In any case, nobody would expect P to spend life in prison or face capital punishment, nor would someone let of M with merely a slap on the wrist. In most cases, one would want P to be a slap on the wrist and M to be punished severely, such that the degree of punishment is equal to the degree of the crime committed, as in the diagram below.

The objection see to God sees things in a similar fashion, expect the degree of punishment for the given crime is exuberantly disproportional to the degree of crime. It would impossible to show the size of the punishment in this medium or any medium because the punishment is infinite, but for illustrative purposes, imagine that G is God's punishment for sin, which is obviously much larger than M and P, or even M and P combined, which would seem to make God unjust because the punishment is excessive.

The objection could be stated, "I can't believe a God that would allow infinite punishment for for finite sin." Considering what I have discussed so far, the objection could be rephrased, "I can't beleive in a God that would allow quantitatively infinite punishment for a quantitatively finite sin." When I am talking about a quantitatively infinite punishment, I am talking about a punishment that in same fashion is will never end, such that if it were to begin now, it would never cease for all eternity. In the same manner, integers are quantitatively infinite, in that they can be counted eternally so as long as one has all eternity to count them. Comparing God's judgment to sin would be the same as comparing infinity to 10 or even 10 million to. In either case, infinity is much larger than either number. Both numbers infinity and the numbers are quantitative values. in the same manner, God's justice and the given sin would be quantitative too. In such a frame work, it would be true that the punishment was excessive, if indeed this is how God punished sin.

I propose, however, that Gods' infinite punishment again sin is not quantitatively infinite, but qualitatively infinite. Most people would ask, "What's the difference?" The difference between the two is a categorical difference. Remember, to refer to something as quantitatively infinite, is to refer to it as being measurable in some way so long as one has an infinitely long ruler to measure the line or all eternity to count it in some. To refer to something as qualitatively infinite, we are not talking about a measurable attribute, it a categorical attribute. A categorical attribute would be something such as light and dark or hard and soft. A qualitative infinite would be an attribute that never changes, in that it is always the same.

Sin to God is as such. When I think of God, I think of him being without sin. I could use "without sin" as a working definition for "holy", and to have sin would would be not holy. It is on these grounds that God judges. An holy being does not have sin, so it is impossible for such a being to have any degree of sin. An infraction against an infinitely holy being would mean that whoever committed the infraction is infinitely unholy. To illustrate, imagine a spotless sheet. A spotless sheet by definition has no spots. The minute the spotless sheet gets a spot, it becomes spotted. It would categorically fall in the same category with a sheet with thousands of spots or just two spots, no matter how small or large the spot is. All that is sin no matter how large or small, like the spots on the sheet make the sheet spotted, make the sinner unholy. God's judgment is against directly proportional to his holiness, therefore infinite. To remove such unholiness, the punishment must be infinite. Let S represent unholiness. S would include M and P, and many other sins, but is doesn't matter what how many sins are in S or the degree of sins in S. In any case, S is always unholy so as long as God is holy, and the punishment therefore is equal.

How then, can human justice be maintained in such a view of sin? It would seem that any sin, no matter how small would make one unholy. P and M are both worthy of eternal punishment in hell. If they are as such, then it seems that we should treat all crimes the same or not treat them at all. In either case, justice doesn't exist. However, remember that God is judging based on the state of a person's holiness, not the quantity or degree of his or her sins. Human justice in such a framework can still be maintained simultaneously. It isn't concerned with individual's holiness but the degree of the crimes. Even if a person makes reprimand for a crime, he or she is still a criminal. God is essentially judging a person on that basis that he or she is a criminal, regardless of the crimes that person may have committed. To mix holiness with human justice would be a categorical error.

One question still remains: Is such a view of God's judgment biblical? I think so. In the Old Testament, we find numerous laws requiring specific reprimand for specific crimes. Some crimes are more serious than others, and therefore are punished more severely than others. Such justice is finite punishment for finite sin, and would be the first framework of justice described. However, even crimes are reprimanded, God still deals with sin according to his holiness. According to Romans, the wages of sin is death. It doesn't specify the degree of sin or the minimum requirements in order to receive the death sentence. It is a categorical statement for all sins. But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus. Jesus on the cross made an qualitatively infinite sacrifice to rectify the qualitatively infinite unholiness on our behalf. This satisfies God's justice and makes makes humans holy again, even though they have sinned.
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what about those who don't hear?
7/02/2007 12:02:00 AM
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast. Ephesians 2:8,9

One of the classic struggles debates in Christianity throughout the centuries has been over the fate of the unevangelized. There has been everything from a universalist approach under which all are saved to hyper-Calvinism, which suggests that God damns some and saves others. I am certainly not one who thinks that God saves all. I think the scriptures are clear: those who don't believe are not saved--even the ones who don't hear. At the same time, I am not one who thinks that God is in the business of damning people to hell either (I'll talk more about this later).

What doesn't seem fair however is that some get to hear the gospel and some don't. The ones that hear the gospel at least have a chance to reject it, while the ones who don't hear the gospel don't get that chance. On the surface, this complaint seem to be founded. There does seem to be an imbalance between those who hear and don't hear, and God is some how responsible. When I started to think about it, I realized that perhaps I've got the picture all wrong. What struck me was that the gospel isn't something I am entitled to, but it a gift of grace on God's part. When I looked at it from this perspective, it changed everything.

What I really deserve isn't pretty. The scriptures are clear that the wages of sin death. As I said, I am don't think God is in the business of condemning people to hell. People go to hell as a result of there own action, and no action of God. The bitter reality of sin is that if we truly got what we deserved, we would suffer in hell, apart from God for all eternity.

When I look at the gospel as a gift and not as something I am entitled to, it doesn't seem fair that God should have to die on my behalf. If God caused me to sin, then perhaps I could expect him to die for me, but he didn't cause be to sin, and he voluntarily died for me. This was not an act of obligation, but an act of love. When God offers the gospel to a person, he is offering a gift. A person may choose to accept or reject that gift at that point, but that too is their own doing and not one of God's. The one who gives the gift isn't obligated to give everyone a gift, not unlike me when I when I give a gift. As a giver, I am able to dispense my belongings to whomever I please. I am not unfair in doing so, by giving a gift to one and not giving a gift to another. The same is true for God - as a giver, He is able to dispense his grace to whomever he pleases He is not unfair in doing so, by giving a gift to one and not giving a gift to another.

Matthew speaks of a vineyard owner who hires people early in the morning, at midday, and just before sundown, and he pays each one of them the same wage. Yet, the ones who had been working all day complained, saying they had worked all day and received the same pay as the ones who had been working only a few hours. Then the landowner spoke
But he answered one of them, "Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?"
While this passage isn't speaking directly to what is at hand, I think we can get a picture in our minds. The landowner is under no obligation to pay those who had been working all day anymore than those who had been working only an hour because it is his money to dispense. God as the landowner has no obligation to dispense his grace, and we as humans have no right to complain about how he dispenses it.

I think the best thing to do however is to stop speculating as to what will happened to the unevangelized and eliminate the question altogether. If everyone had a chance to hear the gospel in his or her lifetime, we wouldn't have to worry about this question.
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what if e.t. believed in god?
6/15/2007 05:30:00 PM
I was driving down the road one day thinking about another post, and wondered, how would the discovery of aliens affect my beliefs in God? I responded along the lines that it would probably depend on the religious beliefs of aliens. With that in mind, I divulged my mind into thinking up possible case scenarios and their implications on the theism/atheism debate. Here are 6 that I came up with. This is by no means definitive, but I think it at least a good start.

The first possibilities are those related more to atheism:

Possibility #1: The Aliens are Atheists -- By this, I mean that the aliens had at once believed in God, and at one point disbelieved in God for some reason, similar or dissimilar to the reasons given by many atheists. If the aliens were atheists, I don't think I would it would add to either case, because it wouldn't add anything new to the debate.

Possibility #2: The Aliens are Apatheists -- They have no concept of God. This is distinct from atheism, because atheists disbelieve God. The aliens in this case have nothing to disbelieve, so there is no disbelief. If the aliens were indeed apatheists, then I think this would give some credibility to the argument that God is a delusion, something created by human imagination, thus be in favor of atheism.

There are three distinct possibilities under theism:

Possiblity #3: The Aliens are Autotheists -- They think of themselves as God or gods. If anyone is familiar with the Stargate franchise, you know that the premise behind the series is that many of the gods of mythologies were in fact aliens that had propped themselves up as gods, and enforced the delusion through technological marvels and other means. The aliens may present themselves as gods with full knowledge they are not gods, or they may present themselves as gods and be fully convinced they are gods.

There are several implications here. In this case, we could implement C.S. Lewis' trilemma: either they are liars, lunatics, or gods. If they are liars as Stargate proposes the gods are aliens who are posing as early humans and lying about it. I think this would help explain many of the objections raised by atheist, in that the plurality of gods shows that perhaps there isn't a single god, but that all gods are fictitious. It could be that the aliens are delusional in thinking they are gods. From the human perspective, this wouldn't be a whole lot different from the aliens posing as God and being liars, but from the aliens' perspective, humans would be blaspheming gods should they deny the deity of the aliens. The last possibility is that they are indeed gods. I find this highly unlikely. Such beings wouldn't really fit the traditional definition of what a god would be.

Possibility #4: The Aliens are Anthropotheists -- They think of humans as gods. Humans aren't gods, although some might think of themselves as such, so the aliens would be deceived.

Possibility #5: The Aliens are Traditional Theists -- This like Possibility #1 would seem to add to the fray without significantly changing it.

Possibility #6: The Aliens like earth have a hodge-podge of religious different beliefs -- Again, this like Possibility #1 would seem to add to the fray without significantly changing it.

I think the odds are in favor for the propagation of atheism, should aliens land and we learn that are like Possibility #2 or Possibility #3, but all in all, I don't think such an event would kill religion or theism for that matter.

Thoughts? Other Possibilities?
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theological implications of fermi's paradox and the drake equation
5/30/2007 03:04:00 PM
I am an avid science fiction fan. I was talking to some friends the other day around a game of Diplomacy, and the topic of Star Trek came up. It quickly became apparent to many that I was perhaps the biggest Star Trek geek at the table. After leaving, I started to wonder some things about the implications extraterrestrial life on theology. This is by no means scholarly and will probably sounds just as much like science fiction as Star Trek, but these are my musings nevertheless.

When considering Star Trek, Star Wars and other science fiction franchises, we usually get a galaxy teeming with intelligent extraterrestrial life. Encountering a new species make a good story line and opens the door for endless imagination and possibilities for character creation, varying species, and many other things, as such. Science fiction as such has often influenced the minds thinkers and has certainly played a part in attempts to discover alien life in reality. Two things that are very familiar to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence are Fermi's Paradox and the Drake Equation. Any casual science fiction fan has probably at least heard of these things, but I will assume you haven't and explain them according. Fermi's paradox, simply put is the apparent contradiction between the seeming possibilities of thousands of sentient species in the galaxy, yet to date, there has been no conclusive proof that any other intelligent species exist other than our own. With this in mind, there are perhaps two possibilities we can come up with: either they do not exist, or we have not made contact them yet. There have been a number of suggestions that have attempted to reconcile the paradox, but generally speaking, most of these fall under the second of the two possibilities, in that for whatever reason we haven't made contact yet.

On the other hand, there is the possibility that human beings are a unique occurrence in the universe, and against all odds have come into existence. Theologically speaking, human beings are the special and unique creation of God, such that there is nothing else like them in all creation. This would seem to rule out the possibility of other sentient life forms in the universe from a theological standpoint. But we are not speaking theologically, but more (or less!) scientifically, and thus there is a need to substantiate such things.

In 1961, Frank Drake came up with the Drake Equation, a proposed way of estimating the number of sentient species capable of transmitting radio communication into space. The Drake Equation is a type of Fermi equation, which are used in physics and other science to identify key aspects of a given situation in order to predict possible outcomes. Here is a summary of the key aspects of the Drake equation:

N = R * fp * ne * fl * fi * fc * fL

N: the number of communicating intelligent species at this time

R: Number of "suns" that develop in the galaxy per year

fp: the percentage of R with planets

ne: number of planets capable of sustaining life

fl: fraction of ne on which life would evolve

fi: fraction of fl on which intelligent life would evolve

fc: fraction of fi of which the intelligent life would learn to communicate with radios

fL: the number of years such civilizations would exist

Here are my assumptions:

R: 1 -- Scientist estimate that 1 "sun" develops in the galaxy per year.

fp: 75% -- Recent evidence shows that planets are not a rare occurrence as they once thought. There have been a number of exoplanets, planets outside our solar system, discovered in the past 15 or so years.

ne: 50% -- This is a guess. It is suggested that every star has what is called a habitable zone. This region surrounding a star where water can exist on a planet as liquid, thus providing the bedrock for life to form as we know it. The discovery of life around hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean and in near boiling temperatures around geysers suggest that the habitable zone is rather large, rather than narrow as it was once thought to be. About the only kind of starts that would not be habitable are those that produce dangerous radiation. Even if planets formed in the habitable zone with liquid water, life is unlikely to form because of the radioactivity of the nearby star.

fl: 100% -- fraction of ne on which life would evolve -- I tend to think that if life can evolve, it will.

fi: .0000001% -- Now here is the catch: Although life may be abundant, intelligent life perhaps is not. What seems to be true is that higher-order life has a narrower band of existence, such that the ranges required for sustaining intelligent life are narrower than those required to sustain lower-order life such as bacteria. Such things would be temperature variation, the existence of lower-order life for the survival of high order life, and the necessarily resources (tool making materials, etc) needed to sustain life among other requirements.

fc: 50% -- I tend to think that if intelligent life evolves, then it is highly probable that such life will develop the technology to use the eltro-magnetic spectrum to communicate.

fL: 200,000 -- Our civilization has only been using radio communication for about 100 years, and our civilization is estimated to only be about 10,000 years old. Our species is relatively young too: an estimated 200,000 years old. This means humans existed for 190,000 years prior to developing civilization and 199,900 years prior to developing eltro-magnetic communication. Given the resilience of the human race, I'd would at least say humans will exist another 200,000 years a species if they don't destroy themselves or face destruction by some other means.

N: .00375 communicating civilizations

If I go based on my guess, then human beings are the only communicating civilization at this time, and that only happened by a .375% chance. Accordingly the human species is indeed rare.

But here are a few problems:

The equation doesn't take into account the possibility of life in other galaxies. There are an estimated 100,000,000,000 galaxies in the which would drastically increase the probability of intelligent life forming.

The equation does take into account the possibility of an intelligent species who can't communicate via radio. If civilizations are anything like humans, then they have only been able to communicate via radios .05% of their entire existence. We don't know however how long humans will continue to exist with this ability. We don't know if we are at the apex of our technological achievements, or if radio communications is just a baby step in technological development.

The equation doesn't take into account the possibility of all civilizations for all time. Scientists estimate that the universe has existed for some 15,000,000,000 years. Taken that into consideration, we could estimate that life began to evolve around 10 billion years ago. If we consider this, then it is possible that intelligent life has existed for 6 billion years ago, taking into account that is perhaps how long it took life on earth to evolve.

With these considerations, we could modify the Drake Equation with these values:

R: 100,000,000,000 -- 1 new "sun" per day per galaxy

fp: 75% -- unchanged

ne: 50% -- unchanged

fl: 100% -- unchanged

fi: .0000001% -- unchanged

fc: -- remove this from the equation to take into consideration aliens that don't develop radio communication

fL: 6,000,0000,000 for all time; 200,000 for current civilizations;

N: 225,000,000,000 for all time; 7,500,000 for current civilizations;

With these new assumptions, there even with the low probability that life evolves into intelligent species, it is still very likely that there are a number of intelligent species in the known universe.

Now consider Fermi's paradox: In spite of the significantly large number of possible civilization, we have no conclusive evidence that such civilizations exist. While this is merely speculative, I think that we can at least consider the possibility with some degree of certainty that perhaps humanity is a unique occurrence in the universe. Going back to the two original possibilities, either aliens don't exist, or we made contact them yet, I think we can rule out that we haven’t made contact with them yet, and conclude that they don’t exist. This doesn't show the theological implications to be true, but certainly leans towards such a thing.
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greer-heard review 5: more problems with memes
4/09/2007 11:52:00 PM
McGrath was quick to point out that the entire discussion of religion as Dennett paints it is focused on the meme. Dennett bases his entire paper on the concept of the meme, and it is on that issue that his house will stand or fall. As discussed and McGrath points out, memes are based on an analogy: memes are to information as genes are to biology. Like most analogies, they break down at some point. Analogies generally speaking not represent their analogs in every aspect, and are generally used to aid understanding, but they cannot be the analog entirely. The analogy between memes and genes is no different. To McGrath's analysis, I would add a few things.

First, I would add that genes are not irreducible. In other words, genes are self-contained—one cannot make a new gene by combining other genes and one cannot make another gene by deconstructing a gene. If the gene is combined or deconstructed, it will not be useful in biological terms. They can be no more complex or simpler than they already are. Because of this, one can map genes, locate genes, manipulate genes, and count them. Because of these properties, there are only a finite number of genes in any given organism.

Memes, however, are not irreducible. Given a meme, it can be broken into smaller memes, and those smaller memes can be broken into even smaller memes, perhaps with no end in site. Dennett uses the analogy of words. Words can be broken into letters, letters reduced to symbols, and symbols reduced to abstractions. Take for instance the sentence, "Memes can be scientifically observed and manipulated." If a word is a meme, then this sentence could be reduced to, "Memes meme meme memeficially memed meme memed." Then one could reduce the letters in the same way accordingly. Such a sentence could perhaps contain more memes than there are genes in the entire human body, depending on how a person wants to look at the words.

On these terms, the analogy breaks down. It would virtually impossible to treat memes in the same manner one treats genes; one cannot identify them, count them, or change them according. This doesn't make for good science, because there is no means to quantify, analyze or even recognize memes.

Second, I would add that the whole concept of a meme is somewhat self-defeating. As aforementioned, genes are a particular item: they are self contained, can be counted and worked on. The processes that work on genes are not genes themselves, but other biological processes, such as mutations, DNA replication, and protein building to name a few. Likewise, genes undergo selection, whether it is artificial or natural. Bad genes are weeded out of populations by selections and vice versa for good genes.

Memes however are different, because the processes that manipulate memes are memes themselves. If these processes are memes themselves, then it is possible that the processes will themselves be weeded out or replaced if the processes are deemed bad. If meme selection is a meme itself then it is possible that the standard for evaluating memes may change. It is even possible that the concept of meme themselves get weeded out. (It would essentially be the suicide of the meme!) Whatever happens in memetics, it seems that memes ultimate evaluating memes because viciously cyclical or self-defeating altogether. The processes that govern genes are independent of the genes themselves, and therefore are not subject to the same volitions genes are. This is not true for memes, so again the analogy breaks down here.

Third, even if memes are mutually exclusive and not self-defeating, what does one gain from using memes? McGrath pointed out that scientist and social scientists can and have applied evolutionary paradigms to other sciences without the use of memes, such as Freud and Marx. If memes catch on, it could perhaps slow, not help the process of science because sciences will have to be reframed in terms of memes. It would like going through the Manhattan Phonebook and giving everyone a new name in German. Such processes can over-complicate the issue unnecessarily, and not to mention the time that would be needed to undertake such projects. In the end, it seem that memes are neither necessary nor beneficial to the overall scientific project.

If Dennett were to abandon the idea of memes, and approach his analysis of religion from other more developed science, such as anthropology, then he may be able to build a case. As it stands right now though, his entire case seems to be internally inconsistent because of it dependence upon memes.
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greer-heard review 4 :analysis of mcgrath’s arguments on dennett
4/07/2007 08:54:00 PM
In McGrath's lecture, he addresses some critical issue in the relationship of science and religion. This particular relationship has been of great interest for McGrath. He has a number of titles on the subject, including his three-volume set, A Scientific Theology, and a primer of the subject called, Science and Religion, and Introduction. He is perhaps one of the most qualified people on the subject.

Although McGrath's resumé is impressive, it does seem that his presentation did have at least one internal contradiction. When he suggested that religions are difficult to define and that one should look for the essence of religion, and then critiques Dennett and Dawkins for not having a clear definition for memes, it seems that he is muddying the water for religion, and attempting to clear for memes. It is almost an imperative that one needs clear definitions in science as to what something is, and it is probably just as important to have one when discussing metaphysical matters. The problem with metaphysics though it that it is a subjective project, and definitions will vary. Perhaps the solution would be to have some sort of middle ground: working definitions and qualified attributes. A working definition is not necessarily a dictionary like definition, but one that is clear enough and understandable enough to uniquely identify something in the context of discussion. The qualified attributes would be cataloged characteristics that the items in discussion all have, such as the object of worship for a given religion. This is admittedly daunting, but one thing that any aspiring philosopher learns quickly is that clarity of the utmost importance.

McGrath does a sufficient job of pointing out that Dennett's work is really lacking in science. He points out that Dennett has theories but fails to back them up. All Dennett does is appeal to the analogy that he uses through out as the science, and for McGrath, that isn't science at all, and it is as if Dennett is expecting the analog to genes to be the science and do the science for the argument.

On memes, McGrath excelled. He proposes a catalog of objections to memes, some which are lacking. Of the eight that were mentioned there were at least two could be scrapped, but he would still have a case. The idea that there is no testable model is implied by the fact that there is no definition for memes. It seems to be implied. The other one that could be dropped is the suggestions that memes make great use of circular explanations, and offers not explanation as to how they do this. Even if these two are dropped, that still leaves six objections, all which he develops rather well.
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