Thursday, March 15, 2007

Dialogue With an Agnostic Concerning Relativist vs. Absolutist Morality and the Natural Law (vs. Jan Schreurs)

This dialogue - in its original form - was so long and multi-faceted (taking place over several weeks, in e-mail), that it has been impossible to present it in the preferred Socratic back-and-forth dialogical format without doing injustice to the context and original order of remarks in some cases. I have sought to make it "flow" (especially logically) in order for the reader to follow the thought of both participants. Jan Schreurs' words shall be in brown.


I. The Initial Philosophical Challenge

During a panel discussion on morality, the age-old question of absolutism vs. relativism came up. The panel consisted of four theology professors at Franciscan University of Steubenville and was moderated by their President, Fr. Scanlan, whose specialty is law, I believe. That makes five Catholic specialists on morality.

Among themselves, they concluded that all moral philosophies of relativism are doomed to failure because they are in error. There was no relativist on the panel to defend the other side competently.

In response, I submitted three questions to Fr. Scanlan and Dr. Scott Hahn, the only panel members I had addresses for, with the request that they would pass the questions on to the others present. The questions were submitted on May 23, 1999.

On June 1, I received a response from Marie Hosdil, on Dr. Hahn's staff, with her answers to the questions. I have no idea whether those answers represent the consensus of the panel or whether Dr. Hahn just passed the questions on to Mrs. Hosdil for disposition. In any case, those are the best answers I got to date.

I replied with my comments, showing that the answers did not address the challenge, or if they did, that they lacked specifics. That was sent June 2. I have not heard from FUS since and I assume that no further details are forthcoming.

So I pass the challenge on to any absolutist out there who wishes to provide better answers. Note that you may substitute your own church/government for the Catholic Church if you want. The spirit of the questions is to show, unless refuted by your answers, that there are no absolutes in morality that have withstood the test of history.

As question two specifies, lexical tautologies, which appear to be absolutes on the surface only, do not count. They lack moral content (information as to what is meant by the term in a specific culture/era).

Good luck.

It must feel good to feel "invincible," eh Yon? :-) But these are pretty much garden variety anti-Church polemics. It's not like you're the first one to bring up these objections . . . But beyond that, what really fascinates me is the almost zero possibility that you will accept our answers, anyway. I submit that there is virtually no answer we could give on any of your questions which would be sufficient for you. Is that true? If not, please provide some theoretical, hypothetical answers which the Catholic position could give you, which would make you seriously reconsider your skepticism towards it.

If we felt invincible, there would be no need to discuss. However, if we have to accept any answer you give us, there would be no need either. The problem is to find intelligent answers that are better than the ones we have got to date.

II. The Inquisition as a Christian "Problem"

For example, the Church could give us a moral definition of murder that has not changed since the times of Jesus. Note the difference between a moral definition and a lexical definition. The lexical definition you look up in a dictionary [murder means unjustified killing by definition]. The moral definition you look up in those books they plaster law offices with [including Church law offices].

I don't see how anything has changed in this regard. Perhaps you can explain further what you mean here. I deal with the complexities of the Inquisition [see The Inquisition: Its Purpose and Rationale Within the Medieval Worldview] and that whole line of thought. I don't think that is an essential change in the notion of murder. As I said, that represented an expansion (from what we have today) in the types of "crimes" which were regarded as a threat to society (to include heresy). Therefore, it was just a different (and yes, flawed) understanding of what constituted societal threats. As C.S. Lewis said, "the rules of chess create chess problems." The consistent relativist (that rarest of birds - perhaps even extinct) is free of such problems, as he has no standard to measure shortcomings by. We Christians, on the other hand, have the standard of Jesus and the Hebrew ethical tradition. So it is easy for outsiders to take pot shots at us - much harder to establish a coherent view which can hold its own against the Christian worldview - or indeed attempt to demonstrate its superiority.

[Question One] -- How does (or did) the Catholic Church justify torturing suspected heretics to get the truth and killing them if they didn't recant?

[Absolutist answer] -- Reveals some historical error in asserting that such actions were conducted by the Church as Church rather than by Christians/Christian governments. See John Paul IIs recent call for investigation into inquisitions for need of further repentance.

[Relativist comments] -- If I recall John Paul II's recent comments on the matter, he did also state that the Inquisition was a Church institution and that the Church should bear responsibility for its actions. However, even if you blame the torture and the killing on the lay governments, the Church sanctioned them as morally licit (often ordering the laymen involved to torture/execute the suspect/convict). So let's rephrase the question. How does (or did) the Church justify those actions of the Christian governments?

Fair enough. This was the thing that troubled me most about the Catholic Church before I converted, and it still troubles me in a moral sense (but not from the standpoint that it disproves Catholic claims). I now understand much better why these things occurred, and what the Church has learned in the subsequent centuries. It goes back to the mediæval mindset and worldview. Unless one makes some objective attempt to truly understand that, they will never remotely understand the Inquisition or the Crusades, as the sort of motives which propelled the mediævals are absolutely foreign to the modern relativist, indifferentist mental outlook - if not outright incomprehensible.

What you describe is precisely what relativism is. It would make no sense if we were dealing with moral absolutes.

I think I have just countered this assumption. If one was to go into this further, it would require a delving into psychology and motives for believing certain things. In the Middle Ages, all heresy was pretty much regarded as obstinacy and in bad faith; evil will, etc. The Church today takes a much more psychologically nuanced approach: much heresy is believed in good faith; hence the adherent is less culpable; hence not guilty enough to be punished, etc. (i.e., on the human level: divine judgment being something else altogether). We have also learned that coercion is pointless, which was the original Christian position, anyway (before heresy became wrapped up in civil disorder, such as in the cases of the Donatists, Monophysites, Arians, and Albigensians, among others).

What you have to explain to me is a rejection of the principle which didn't change in all this: that heresy can be every bit as dangerous to individuals and societies as physical crime is (in fact, much more so, assuming the background premises). You can simply disbelieve in the whole edifice of Christianity. But it is another thing to accuse us of internal inconsistency. You see this in the Middle Ages vs. today vis-a-vis the heretic. I have tried to show that the inner principle remained the same, while the application and particular understanding of it has undergone positive development.

III. Philosophical Premises and Application to Real Life

Of course I must point out the manifest absurdity of any modern criticizing the Church over these centuries-old scandals when every day in America 4000 innocent preborn children are being ruthlessly and legally slaughtered in their mother's wombs (some as they are emerging fully-formed out of their mother's wombs - they get to have their brains sucked out by "enlightened," "progressive" "doctors"). I think a little moral balance and a spreading out of righteous indignation is called for here. Even the Code of Hammurabi in 1800 B.C. from Babylonia condemned abortion.

Righteous indignation has no place in the theoretical discussion of whether there are or are not moral absolutes. Once we establish which moral principles there are and what they are based on, then it is time for righteous indignation. You are putting the cart before the horse.

No; I am going deeper and analyzing the logical and moral implications of your stated position (apparently before you have done so :-). In the Christian worldview (unlike, e.g., the pagan Greek or humanist philosophical outlook), there is no such thing as an abstract concept which exists in and of itself, to be bandied about as a sort of intellectual game (in its worst manifestations, this would be called sophistry, which Socrates - a forerunner of sorts to the Christian ethos - vehemently opposed). I am interested in becoming a better person, in making the world a better place, in helping to produce a civilized culture and society, with true justice, and love between human beings, and devotion to God our Creator, and discussions of moral philosophy and ethics ultimately have no other purpose for me than that.

Your motives are very worthy, as always. But intellectual games are very important if you want to do science and philosophy right. The games are small worlds that we can analyze fully. The real world is too complex to be analyzed without breaking it down into pieces first. After we break it down, of course, we have to put it back together. But that is the last thing we do, when we have our conclusions about the small world of our imagination (the game).

Very interesting. I don't have much to say in reply; I will listen some more . . .

As to Socrates, he did dislike the sophists, but not for the reasons you state. He disliked them because they took money in exchange for teaching. And the only debate between Socrates and a sophist recorded by Plato was won by the sophist. And Plato had great fun showing up his own teacher as a cranky old curmudgeon who could dish it out but who couldn't take even a teaspoonful of his own medicine. See the Protagoras.

!!!!!! LOL Good ole Socrates: one of my heroes (probably my favorite pagan and favorite philosopher). I will have to read the Protagoras, after this interesting background commentary provided by you. I know I did read it at least once.

What we call sophistry when we mean rhetorical tricks intended to fool people but logically unjustified comes from Aristotle. The sophists were actually good teachers, on the whole, but some of them were indeed for hire and ready to prove anything their patron needed proved. Those sophists were the lawyers of our time, and they got paid to get rich defendants off the hook. Nihil novum sub sole.

Sounds close enough to me - lawyers being the closest thing we have today to this sense of "sophistry."

IV. Is Abortion the Argumentum ad Absurdum of Relativism?

The tacit assumption in your critique of Christian moral theology is that we are internally inconsistent, morally incoherent, and self-contradictory. I have sought to explain that this is not the case. But unless you don't care about the concrete results in real everyday life of the hypotheses and theories which you think and talk about, you should be able to see the logical connection which has caused me to bring up the vexed subject of abortion. For it - above all - reveals the (literally) deadly self-contradiction which runs through humanist, relativist, merely philosophical or political (as opposed to religious) ethics.

First, I do not assume that Christian moral theology is inconsistent, incoherent or self-contradictory. Why would I do that? If Christianity is all that, those are things that have to be shown, and that can easily be shown if present.

Well, ok (somewhat shocked). I guess it stands to reason that with your relativist view, you would apply that to Christianity and hence arrive at a view of the history of our ethical views as non-contradictory, by your own criteria.

I have no problem with your bringing up abortion in answer to the questions that started all this. But now we will have to discuss that topic at length. And I agree that it is one of the best choices you could have made because it encompasses all the differences between relativism and absolutism.

I believe that the evil of abortion should be (and is at some level of consciousness) absolutely plain to any civilized person who possesses even the most rudimentary concern for their fellow man.

You say our system is proven to be deficient (beyond all repair?) due to the Inquisition. I have tried to show that this is not the case, and furthermore, I vigorously counter-attack by asserting that the heinous and ghastly crime of abortion is far more contradictory to your supposed "enlightened" ethics than the Inquisition is to ours. I am trying to get you to see that if you reject Christian ethics, you must have an alternative (if philosophizing is to be about real life at all, and not winning "brownie points" in an argument; playing "head games" for recreation, etc.).

I happen to think that the Inquisition was a mistake, true, but that was not implied in the questions that started all this. The question simply asked what justification there was for torture/killing of heretics, in the eyes of the absolutist Catholic theologians of Franciscan University of Steubenville. If you�re going to accuse me of incompetence, please be accurate and precise. Otherwise I'll have to waste a lot of time setting the record straight. [:-)]

:-) I accept your clarification. I think we both learn many things when reading those, and one can never assume that they fully understand all the ins and outs of an opponent's viewpoint.

If you are truly a relativist, then no moral dilemmas should trouble you at all. Child molestation, cannibalism, incest, mass murder, racism, slavery, rape, torture, or other assumed evils, even the dreaded "homophobia" (things usually assumed to be "wrong" or "bad" even by so-called "relativists") can all be explained as the perfectly legitimate choice by the atomistic individual in a meaningless, purposeless universe.

Again, you're confusing nonchristian absolutists with relativists. And there may even be relativists who haven't studied logic, who knows. Who says true relativism supports child molestation and all the other things you name? You do. I don't. And I'm supposed to be the relativist, not you.

You need to draw the contrasts here more sharply. I tend to differentiate between those who basically hold to what I consider the objective Moral Law, and those who have some or many beliefs contrary to it (and also whether one believes in God or not - when one does, this entails certain inherent obligations). You, on the other hand, appear to look at the views situationally, or in terms of how non-dogmatic, provisional, and "tolerant" one is in holding their ethical opinions. But my arguments are trying to drive home the point that the relativist position (understood as the opposite of "absolutist") logically leads to the things I describe. You say it doesn't (not surprisingly). But you have to show me how and why my argument ad absurdums aren't logically compelling.

But you do obviously care, and do think there are some moral absolutes. I don't care how much you protest to the contrary; otherwise you wouldn't be engaging in this discussion, unless - as I said - it is merely a game for you and not a search for truth and moral justice and the moral "good."

. . . . A long and roundabout way of saying that abortion crystallizes all these themes into a concrete example of injustice so obvious to any civilized person (theoretically removed from the mountain of pro-abortion propaganda of the last 30 years) that it is unarguable. Its brutality; its utter disregard for the rights of what any rational person has to agree is a human being (at least biologically, at the DNA level) is beyond dispute. Therefore, in my opinion, you must at some point defend this, as it is the end result of your position: the culture of death, personal expedience, and sexual license without any restraint, moral or otherwise.

You say it is off-topic. I say it is absolutely on-topic, and I have merely gone through the whole process of analyzing your ethical outlook and observing its obvious fruit. Skipping through all the details, I like to get down to brass tacks. You are rational; I think you are a decent person, so defend this slaughter of innocents in their mother's wombs! Be proud of it, after all, if you want it to be legal like all the rest do. If you insist on separating the legal entirely from the moral (in other words, the purely libertarian position), then defend that opinion, too!

V. Justified Killing

[Question Two] -- Murder is always wrong, we know that, but killing is not. Saying that murder is always wrong is an absolute, but it is not very informative. It is like saying that breaking the law is always illegal. The essence of morality is not a lexical definition of the word 'murder' [it means unjustified killing by definition]. The essence of morality is what distinguishes justified killing from unjustified killing. And that has changed over the ages and it changes from culture to culture as well. That is where the relativity lurks. And that is the only important part. Agree or disagree [with explanation if disagree].

[Absolutist answer] -- The essence of morality is what distinguishes justified killing from unjustified killing. The opinions of people change over time, but the essence of morality is not about opinions. If you don't start and end moral theology with the Trinity, all you have is relativism, and not moral theology at all.

[Relativist comment] -- So what is the distinction between justified killing and unjustified killing if it does not depend on the opinions of people?

The crucial distinction is the taking of a human life in a situation not involving legitimate self-defense, the execution of justice by the biblically-sanctioned civil powers (where deemed good for the society - e.g., the execution of a serial killer), or within the context of a necessary war (the traditional just war criteria: e.g., no deliberate killing of non-combatants, which is murder). In other words, there are clearly-defined situations where killing is not murder. There has been no change in this in Catholic doctrine through the centuries.

The killing of heretics was based on the notion that they were a menace to society, and would cause untold harm to society and souls, because in those days, heresy was considered as harmful and dangerous (if not more so) than physical crime is today. Humanists believe that the body dies and that is it. Christians believe that a deliberate, obstinate heretic will burn in hell forever; hence the high importance placed on preventing the spread of heresy.

Which worldview has produced more basic justice, human rights, and a respect for life, in your opinion, Yon? And you want to quibble about abstract philosophical distinctions in the face of the most murderous century in the history of the human race, by far?

Since you ask, I would much rather live in a world where relativists rule than in a world ruled by absolutists. By the way, Hitler, Stalin and kin were absolutists too. It is just that they were not of the Catholic persuasion when they committed their atrocities. As a coincidence, both Hitler and Stalin learned their moral principles in Catholic schools. I don�t hold that against Catholic schools. I hold that against absolutism.

Please describe in some detail this relativist Utopia of yours. Has it ever existed? What did it produce? What were its principles (if it had them, are they not absolutes?). If it hasn't existed, what do you imagine it would be like? How would the laws be set up, e.g., if they are all relative? But I'm not particularly interested in pipe-dreams. I wanna know how this world can be improved, in reality.

I never promised you a Utopia. And the most relativistic societies I know of are those that rejected Christianity as the only correct standard in Europe and here. However, they still suffer from centuries of past absolutism and have a long way to go to get rid of all the traces. That�s unavoidable. You can�t turn a tanker around in mid-ocean on a dime. It takes time to change.

Rather than answer my questions carefully (as I certainly would have done if you had asked me a series of sincere questions), you jump upon my semi-rhetorical use of the word "Utopia" as a means to merely "preach" rather than counter-reply with reason and particulars.

VI. Proposed Moral Absolutes

[Question Three] -- Describe one moral absolute that is not a lexical tautology. I'll endeavor to show that it is not a moral absolute by Church history.

[Absolutist answer] -- Why bother? Is the only thing that is absolute is that there are no absolutes?

[Relativist comments] -- Lexical tautologies aside, yes to your second question (which makes the statement relative, by the way). And the challenge is that the Church seems to agree with my assertion in actions, although not in words. Unless you can cite a counterexample. That should answer your first question (why bother).

Note that you said "Church history," not "history" period. Thus, I took it that you were seeking to find inconsistencies in the Church's understanding and teaching, as opposed to comparing a moral idea across different cultures, as in the anthropological method. Two completely different endeavors . . .

Examples:

    1. It is wrong to kill preborn children.
    2. It is wrong to annihilate thousands of non-combatants with a nuclear bomb.
    3. It is wrong to be unfaithful to one's spouse after vowing before God to remain faithful to them.
    4. It is wrong for people to go hungry when we have the means to sustain them.
    5. It is wrong to bear false witness, steal, cheat, betray one's friends.
Etc., etc.

Of course, these concepts go far beyond merely Christian morality, and have been accepted in most cultures throughout world history, which is precisely one more reason why we believe them to be objectively true: part and parcel of the moral law, which is "out there," of which God is the embodiment.

As to the assertion that these concepts did not derive from Christianity, you are correct. They derived from reasoning based on the question "how can we live together in the most agreeable way"� And just as in astronomy, early analyses were rather wrong. Those in power just thought that they had the correct absolutes. And that caused all the trouble history tells us about.

In answer to my third question, you give the following as examples of absolutes that have withstood the test of history unchanged (or so you think).

    1. It is wrong to kill preborn children.
Already discussed in some aspects. History is ambivalent on the point.

So what? We are not engaged here in an anthropological enterprise (at least not from my end). I thought we were "doing" moral philosophy. Of course it is obvious that different cultures have practiced abortion, infanticide, and child-killing. But the Catholic Church's record is perfectly consistent with regard to abortion. Whether it is wrong or not must be determined philosophically and religiously, not by simple observation of history!

So is ancient Church teaching.

Prove it. I say it is not.

Whether we want to adopt practices used historically is determined by our present concepts of right and wrong. The practitioners of the morals you call despicable undoubtedly considered them right. In most cases, they thought the gods had ordained those practices. Remember Abraham and Isaac?

Yeah; I also recall that this was a test, and was prevented from being carried out.

    2. It is wrong to annihilate thousands of non-combatants with a nuclear bomb.
Not in the opinion of the US government in WWII. It saved millions of lives, by military projections.

But that's irrelevant. You asked for unchanging principles, and I offered them. The abuses of them by fallen human beings doesn't affect them in the least, as they are grounded in the sinless nature of God. This is also a non sequitur in relation to your original challenge. Who cares what the US government thinks! That ain't philosophy . . .

I agree it is not philosophy. But neither was your proposed absolute. The nuclear bomb has existed only half a century or so. And you want to use it in an absolute for all time past, present and future?

The principle remains the same: the slaughter of non-combatants, prohibited by the traditional Christian understanding of the just war.

By the way, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers cared a lot about what the US government thought at the time.

I'm sure they did, but the ends don't justify the means.

    3. It is wrong to be unfaithful to one's spouse after vowing before God to remain faithful to them.
The definition of "faithful" clearly has changed over the ages. Solomon had a thousand wives and concubines, for example. The definition also changes with culture. In some countries, men can have many wives and add as they see fit or can afford.

More "anthropological ethics" which neither concern nor interest me. Again, this ties into my earlier reasoning that quibbling over minutiae of definitions and parameters doesn't defeat the existence of a widely-held moral concept, in this instance, marital faithfulness.

    4. It is wrong for people to go hungry when we have the means to sustain them.
Sure, but nobody knows what you mean by that in practice. It is obvious that we cannot feed all the hungry in the world all the time. Even Jesus did not do that.

I didn't say we could, or that Jesus did. I said "if we have the means." So the principle stands.

I don�t think you mean that being hungry is wrong. So you probably mean that it is wrong for me to let people go hungry if I can feed them. Even that no moral philosopher would subscribe to. It all depends on what my resources are and who else needs them first, for example. I would certainly feed my family first. And if I want to feed them tomorrow too, it may not be wise to feed others today, even if I have the means today. If you want a debate in economics, I can do that too.

Most of your answer is already pre-answered by my phrase "when we have the means."

    5. It is wrong to bear false witness, steal, cheat, betray one�s friends.
Lexical tautologies of the first kind.

Not if one goes on to define them.

So what do we live by, without absolutes? You tell me. I say it is impossible to do. You can never produce such a system which isn't self-defeating from the outset, let alone objectively moral and just. A system can hardly work in real life if it isn't even sensible and coherent, and varies from individual to individual, by definition. That is anarchy, which isn't a system at all, but the absence of a system.

We live by relative truths often mistaken for absolute truths by absolutists. That's the problem.

When can I expect to see you "flesh this out" and give me a "vision," so to speak, of your ideal society, such as presented in Plato's Republic or More's Utopia? I've gotten exactly nowhere demanding this in the heat of debate, so now I am asking nicely. :-))))

VII. Theological Rabbit Trails (Second-Guessing God)

How pregnant with implication the following two short sentences are, coming from a skeptic . . .

The problem is that the Church claims divine inspiration.

No, the Catholic Church claims divine guidance, in the form of infallibility (not impeccability, i.e., sinlessness), and that only under limited conditions. Inspiration (in theology) is a technical term which refers to God-breathed Scripture (but I realize you were probably not using it in that sense).

My mistake. I wanted to write "inspiration and guidance" but hurried on. I almost sent you a second copy with guidance included but I thought nah! Dave is smart enough to fill that in himself.

Definition is fundamental, as always . . . we do pretty good, all things considered.

God could do a little better, I would think.

He sure could. The trouble is, in this instance He is working in and through humans who have a free will to obey or disobey Him. That is the monkey wrench in the whole process. But God obviously thought it better to have free creatures capable of sinning than automatons who can't sin (but who also can't truly love). Expecting widespread human perfection, even in the Church, is an incredibly naive approach. Expecting an overall improvement, however, in individual lives as a result of Christian commitment is a more reasonable expectation (and much more likely to be fulfilled).

We can have a glorious time debating free will too. Just think of an incredibly intelligent artisan who builds herself a sandbox world populated by creatures she programmed (robots) in such a way that they can make decisions based on input signals they receive from the sandbox world. Would such an artisan build a sandbox world in which things happen that she did not want to happen?

I contend that she would not. And if any scientist in our world built a sandbox in which things happen that she does not want to happen, we would not hold the robots responsible but the artisan.

However, that has nothing to do with the relative/absolute debate. That is just so that you won't accuse me of skipping over your arguments without comment.

Relativism is quite a big and "lumpy" enough discussion at the moment, thank you. Free will is a much more philosophically technical area, and I would defer to some of my apologist friends more trained in philosophy, or theistic philosophers in general.

So the objection that "God could do a little better" doesn't really fly. If you wish to say that the people in the Church are more sinful than those outside it; I don't buy that (and my previous arguments pertain to such a thesis). But - all things being equal - I would fully expect to see sin and scandal in the Church, knowing salvation history (and general human history) as I do. Christians believe in original sin. It is much more difficult to establish the superiority of humanism, with its assumption of the essential goodness of mankind. That is perhaps the most palpably false psychological/sociological grand theory in the history of ideas: all the evil in the world is the result of social conditioning, etc., rather than (primarily) an inner propensity to do evil, as the Christian believes.

I can't speak for all the evil in the world but my analysis is that most of it comes from people who think they are doing the right thing. The trouble is that they don't realize that other people may have different goals, different beliefs, different priorities. It is imposing my absolutes on you (or vice versa) that you (or I) object to. That's why relativism recognizes private and public morality. Public morality is embodied into law. Private morality is what is left to families, churches, volunteer groups, associations of all kinds to determine for themselves.

This also is a whole 'nother discussion. We would tend to differentiate between coercion (the power of the state to enforce its laws - in turn ostensibly based on religious or philosophical principles and ethics) and non-enforceable morality such as contraception and sexual practices. We wouldn't say, however, that these are two different brands of morality. In any event, there was far more consensus in American moral norms and laws for its first 170 years or so, even under a pretty much secular worldview, than in the last 50 years. I would contend that the secularist "chickens" have now come home to roost. It took a while, but as the Christian public influence in America waned, the humanist ethos has come to dominate; hence the moral chaos and rampant immorality which we see all around us today.

VIII. Malcolm Muggeridge's and Soren Kierkegaard's Cultural Analyses / Debate on the Nature of the Ad Hominem Logical Fallacy

Malcolm Muggeridge (also citing Kierkegaard) well sums up the essential silliness, gullibility, and sheep-like nature of post-Christian modern man:

    Our twentieth century, far from being notable for scientific scepticism, is one of the most credulous eras in all history. It is not that people believe in nothing - which would be bad enough - but that they believe in anything - which is really terrible. Recoiling, as they do, from accepting the validity of miracles, and priding themselves on seeing the Incarnation as a transcendental con-trick, they will accept at its face value any proposition, however nonsensical, that is presented in scientific or sociological jargon - for instance, the existence of a population explosion, which has been so expertly and decisively demolished by Professor Colin Clark of Monash University. Could any mediaeval schoolman, I ask myself, sit through a universally applauded television series like Bronowski's Ascent of Man without a smile of derision at such infantile acceptance of unproven and unprovable assertions?
{Vintage Muggeridge, ed. Geoffrey Barlow, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985, pp. 74-75, "The Bible Today," from a lecture delivered on 7 October 1976}
    Marx and Kierkegaard, the two key voices of the twentieth century. The curious thing is that though Marx purported to have an infallible scientific key to history, almost all his prophecies have failed to happen. On the other hand, Kierkegaard's forecasts have been fulfilled to a remarkable degree. Take for instance his profound sense that if men lost the isolation, the separateness, which awareness of the presence of God alone can give, they would soon find themselves irretrievably part of a collectivity with only mass communications to shape their hopes, formulate their values and arrange their thinking . . .

      [Kierkegaard:] Day in and day out the daily press does nothing but delude men with the supreme axiom . . . that numbers are decisive. Christianity, on the other hand, is based on the thought that the truth lies in the single individual . . . . . Not until the single individual has established an ethical stance in despite of the whole world, not until then can there be any question of genuinely uniting. Otherwise it gets to be a union of people who separately are weak; a union as unbeautiful and depraved as a child marriage.
{A Third Testament, New York: Ballantine Books, 1976, pp. 104-106}

Malcolm Muggeridge, I'm sorry to say, never read a science text and wouldn't have understood it if he tried.

Nice try at an ad hominem non-answer. Maybe you will deal with what he actually wrote next time.

The gullibility he is referring to exists now as it has always existed, but it exists in nonscientific circles primarily. Journalists do not rank very high in analytical skills, just listen to radio talk shows. However, if that is your speed, be my guest.

:-) I enjoy at least the comedic value of your ad hominem attacks.

I see I'll have to explain what an ad-hominem argument in rhetoric refers to. If we cannot express an opinion on a writer you bring up, we might as well not talk. You seem to forget that you panned Asimov, Russell, Gould, Galileo and numerous others in your articles and your emails to me. :-)

Their opinions, rather. Big difference. I rather respect Gould in many ways. He is certainly a brilliant writer and thinker. I don't recall saying anything about Galileo one way or the other (I deferred to others on that subject). I discussed Russell's opinion. Perhaps with Asimov my remarks approached yours, :-) , but one major difference is that I offered a lengthy quotation for you to analyze, and in reply you simply made a derisive personal remark about Muggeridge. Thus, you "argue" (notwithstanding the semi-humorous intent) by utilizing the following means:

    1. An altogether silly lie ("never read a science text");

    2. An insult of his intelligence ("wouldn't have understood it if he tried").

Irving M. Copi, in his standard work Introduction to Logic (5th ed., NY: Macmillan, 1978, p. 89) defines the Argumentum ad Hominem fallacy (" 'abusive' variety") thusly:
    It is committed when, instead of trying to disprove the truth of what is asserted, one attacks the person who made the assertion.
Now I rhetorically ask anyone reading this if your remark about Muggeridge had anything whatever to do with his argument, and if it was not an attack upon his person and his intelligence? And I ask you to overthrow the above airtight reasoning, drawing from a standard textbook of logic.

At any rate, in the quote, Muggeridge was very condescending about science, and quite wrong. So the criticism was to the point.

No, he was condescending about two manifestations of what he and many others would consider pseudo-science, Bronowski's Ascent of Man and the "population explosion" (i.e., the dire predictions formerly made). If you read the quote objectively, he was quite accepting of true science (the centrality of actual evidence, etc.). You take the same approach with me. You can't imagine the thought that anyone would have a critical view of evolution as foreign to the scientific mindset and method, so you simply define any attack against evolution (a subset of science as currently defined) as an attack on science itself. But - as you know - my critique is based upon the philosophical premise that evolution is bad science, not that science is a bad thing, therefore evolution goes down the tubes with it.

You may argue that I am factually wrong, but it is another thing altogether to criticize someone for being supposedly anti-science, due to a dislike of evolution. That would be like saying that I don't care for Jimmy Swaggart, so I must be "anti-religion" or "anti-Protestant." This involves another fallacy on your part - and quite plainly so, I might add.

I have not engaged in ad hominem attacks any more than you have. And not at all by the rhetorical definition. In rhetoric, an ad hominem attack would be that I bring up your wife's youthful mistake in a discussion of tax reform, for example. It is irrelevant to the discussion. It involves you by implication. And it diverts the audience's attention from the topic at hand. However, if you bring up your wife first, there are certain things I may say about your wife and it would not be engaging in an ad hominem attack, especially if you bring up your wife's opinions to counter mine.

I have clearly shown that you engaged in the ad hominem fallacy against Muggeridge, according to the well-known logician Irving M. Copi, of the University of Hawaii. Your definition is too narrow. You attacked the man rather than his argument: that's all that is necessary to commit the fallacy. Just admit it! When was your last confession? :-)

And when I told you what Einstein thought about God, you dismissed him just as summarily as I dismissed Muggeridge. All that proves, you said, is that Einstein can be wrong too when he steps outside his field. Or words to that effect.

But, you see, that isn't an ad hominem attack. It is a statement of opinion about his belief (though not an argument - I never said it was). I didn't say "he wouldn't understand an argument about God even if he read one," which is a sweeping attack against one's intelligence and credibility.

And when I told you what Sagan said, all you had to offer was that it was exactly what you would expect of Sagan the Pagan. I'm not complaining. But please don't use a double standard.

LOL With Sagan, I admit that I do have a pronounced bias, so chalk up one for you. But again, I am willing to admit that I made these derogatory remarks about Sagan and Asimov; you, on the other hand, still will not own up to the true nature of your remark about Muggeridge. You want to fight tooth and nail my contention that it was ad hominem. So the double standard is your unwillingness to admit you did this. Besides, you were dead serious about your remark, as far as I can tell (I could be wrong about that, tho). My remarks about Asimov, Einstein, and Pagan were always at least half-facetious; in other words, I would think that it was understood they were not meant to be arguments.

We have different definitions for what constitutes an ad hominem argument. In my book, it means that the person attacked is you, the one I am debating.

When I cite someone and you reply to it, in effect you are debating that person at that time. Instead you made a snide remark about Muggeridge's intelligence and intellectual abilities. I cited Copi as to the definition of ad hominem - surely he has more expertise on the subject than your "book" does.

If you bring in a thousand quotes, I don't have to argue with all the quotes as I have to argue with you.

But you might occasionally deal with one or two sentences of them . . . that would be nice. I make it part of my argument in the very act of citing it.

For one thing, I can�t ask the author quoted questions. If I was debating Muggeridge, for example, I would have dealt with him the way I deal with you.

You can ask me the questions, as I cited the thought in agreement with my own views. If you could rationally reply to Muggeridge in person, surely you can reply to his quotes. This whole defense you are putting up makes no sense to me.

Who is a perceptive cultural analyst, in your opinion? And who would you rate as the most perceptive and thought-provoking Christian one, I wonder?

As to thought-provoking Christian writers, let�s begin with Augustine of Hippo, Origen, Ockham, Aquinas, Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, Newton, just to name a few, and not necessarily in that order.

Good start. Could you name any who are still alive? :-) That's more what I meant.

Once again, you completely bypass the "meat" of the [Muggeridge + Kierkegaard] citation in your reply . . .

I have a lot of respect for Kierkegaard but Muggeridge probably did not understand him either. It is correct to say that morality starts with the individual. It is agreement (not discovery of given truths) that makes individuals drive on one side of the road rather than the other. Society requires some universal agreements while leaving other matters to the individuals. That is the hitch.

IX. G.K. Chesterton's Critique of Modern Man

G.K. Chesterton also hit the nail on the head, more than once:

    The mind of modern man is a curious mixture of decayed Calvinism and diluted Buddhism; and he expresses his philosophy without knowing that he holds it. We [i.e., Catholics] say what it is natural for us to say; but we know what we are saying; therefore it is assumed that we are saying it for effect. He says what it is natural for him to say; but he does not know what he is saying, still less why he is saying it . . . He is just as partisan; . . . just as much depending on one doctrinal system as distinct from another. But he has taken it for granted so often that he has forgotten what it is. So his literature does not seem to him partisan, even when it is. But our literature does seem to him propagandist, even when it isn't.
{The Thing, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1929, p. 120}

This does not make any sense to me. Do you know what it means?

Chesterton is saying in a roundabout way what this proverb states: "the most dangerous philosophy is the unacknowledged one." The humanist or agnostic tends to think that his way is simply the "thinking man's way," the enlightened, progressive path, so that any dissent is obviously out of lack of intelligence, Christian brainwashing, or reactionary stupefaction - in other words, a blindness to evident reality. Christians can't think because they have dogma, believe in the supernatural, and absolutes (hence are "intolerant" by definition). These are almost cardinal sins in the idyllic humanist Utopia we find ourselves in today (with intolerance being the "original sin" - the one which ruins the paradisal humanist earth which would be here but for the muddleheaded, bigoted, arrogant, hypocritical, holier-than-thou Christians, who care about such mundane things as the right to life of preborn children and some semblance of sexual discipline and sanity).

I'm glad you explained that to me. I would never have got that out of the quote (honest). Perhaps the rest of the book would make the quote understandable. However, I haven�t read Chesterton yet.

    A world in which men know that most of what they know is probably untrue cannot be dignified with the name of a sceptical world; it is simply an impotent and abject world, not attacking anything, but accepting everything while trusting nothing; accepting even its own incapacity to attack; accepting its own lack of authority to accept; doubting its very right to doubt. We are grateful for this public experiment and demonstration; it has taught us much. We did not believe that rationalists were so utterly mad until they made it quite clear to us. We did not ourselves think that the mere denial of our dogmas could end in such dehumanised and demented anarchy. It might have taken the world a long time to understand that what it had been taught to dismiss as mediaeval theology was often mere common sense; although the very term common sense, or communis sententia, was a mediaeval conception. But it took the world very little time to understand that the talk on the other side was most uncommon nonsense. It was nonsense that could not be made the basis of any common system, such as has been founded upon common sense.
{G.K. Chesterton, The Well and the Shallows, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935, pp. 79-80}

Same as before. No idea what this means. Certainly nothing I recognize as having anything to do with the relative/absolute debate.

Which is to be expected. The fish never knows that it is in water till it is taken out of it, and that is such a shocking act, that a certain disorientation occurs . . .

Correct.

X. The Causes of the Littleton School Massacre

Hence Littleton is "explained" solely by the ubiquity of violent movies and availability of guns, rather than the breakdown of the family and Christian / traditional moral values, the removal of God from the classroom, the dearth of heroes and a positive, meaningful ethos in the popular literature and what remains of cultural myth, etc. Anything other than a Christian analysis is considered sufficient to explain our society's ills. But it has not gotten much better, has it? Humanism and secularism and hedonism and narcissism have gotten us to where we are today, not traditional Christianity.

I was forwarded this piece, which Paul Harvey read on his radio show:

    For the life of me, I can't understand what could have gone wrong in Littleton, Colo. If only the parents had kept their children away from the guns, we wouldn't have had such a tragedy. Yeah, it must have been the guns.

    It couldn't have been because of half our children being raised in broken homes.

    It couldn't have been because our children get to spend an average of 30 seconds in meaningful conversation with their parents each day. After all, we give our children quality time.

    It couldn't have been because we treat our children as pets and our pets as children.

    It couldn't have been because we place our children in day care centers where they learn their socialization skills among their peers under the law of the jungle while employees who have no vested interest in the children look on and make sure that no blood is spilled.

    It couldn't have been because we allow our children to watch, on average, seven hours of television a day filled with the glorification of sex and violence that isn't fit for adult consumption.

    It couldn't have been because we allow our children to enter into virtual worlds in which, to win the game, one must kill as many opponents as possible in the most sadistic way possible.

    It couldn't have been because we have sterilized and contracepted our families down to sizes so small that the children we do have are so spoiled with material things that they come to equate the receiving of the material with love.

    It couldn't have been because our children, who historically have been seen as a blessing from God, are now being viewed as either a mistake created when contraception fails or inconveniences that parents try to raise in their spare time.

    It couldn't have been because our nation is the world leader in developing a culture of death in which 20 million to 30 million babies have been killed by abortion.

    It couldn't have been because we give two-year prison sentences to teen-agers who kill their newborns.

    It couldn't have been because our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have [evolved] out of some primordial soup of mud by teaching evolution as fact and by handing out condoms as if they were candy.

    It couldn't have been because we teach our children that there are no laws of morality that transcend us, that everything is relative and that actions don't have consequences. What the heck, the president gets away with it.

    It couldn't have been because we will give clean needles to drug addicts and safe places to kill themselves.

    Nah, it must have been the guns.

Another journalist [Paul Harvey] who has never analyzed anything more complicated than a mousetrap. I don't mind. I just hope that our scientists are not bound to admire such shallow reasoning.

I don't care a whit about your personal opinions of Harvey, or your opinion that it is "shallow reasoning." What I care about is why you consider it such (preferably minus the ad hominem attacks). Is that so hard to comprehend? Too much to ask? I have to explain to a scientist that reasoning and logic and things such as evidence should prevail in a discussion, rather than mocking attacks on individuals (first Muggeridge, now Harvey)? Many more refusals to answer (like this one), and this dialogue is over.

What was there to answer? That guns were not the problem? That doesn't even need to be argued. So Harvey was using a cheap rhetorical trick. Since guns obviously are not the problem, he contrasts everything he detests with the guns, implying that those things were the problem, even if they weren't either.

I submit that there was substantially more in that one quote than what you have given me as your position. I continue to await that.

As to criticism of people you bring up, see earlier in my answer to the Muggeridge comments. As to your ending this dialogue, you don�t need an excuse for that. Any time you have had enough, for whatever reason, just let me know.

If all you have is critiques of Christianity, then just say so, and this dialogue shall have run its course. It is much more difficult to construct a building, compared to tearing down another one. Anyone with a bulldozer, a cannon, or some dynamite can do the latter; the first requires some thinking, planning, and a blueprint, and an understanding of how one floor is built upon the story below it . . .

As to bulldozing buildings down, you're doing pretty well yourself, I say admiringly. Just count all the words you devoted to mocking, criticizing, deriding humanism and relativism. Put against them the count of words I used against Christianity. If it is not pretty even, I bet you win in the count.

Christianity - it seems - is everybody's "whipping boy." Perhaps that is because so many were raised in it (i.e., against their will or forced). I was quite religiously nominal (or secular altogether) till the age of 19, so I don't have that axe to grind from my early childhood resentments; mean nuns, hypocritical pastors - the whole nine yards of the stereotypical resentment against Christianity. I just thought that Christianity was intellectually weak and unnecessary for the "good life," until I started studying apologetics and found out quite otherwise.

XI. Theological Rabbit Trail #2: Jesus' Claims

What exactly do you seek to prove in this debate? That human sin and hypocrisy disproves Christianity / Catholicism? That Christianity produces nothing any better in the world and people than non-Christianity? That Jesus wasn't who He claimed to be?

The second. Christianity is no better than any other human institution or society.

Prove it, then. You have made the assertion, now tell me why you believe it.

And Jesus did not claim to be God, by the way. No Jew would do that, and Jesus was a Jew to the bone.

On what basis do you assert this? Is your second sentence your entire rationale? Do you state this on the basis of the information in the NT texts as received, or do you pick and choose which texts you regard as genuine (as did the last agnostic I debated)? Of course if it is the latter, we have to go into the (inevitably subjective) methodology you use to determine genuineness of this verse and falsity of that . . . I would be absolutely delighted to engage in such a debate, but let's finish this one first, please.

Ask yourself which Jesus claimed to be: (1) Messiah or (2) God.

Both.

Well, in Jewish interpretation of the Sacred Writings, the Messiah could not be God and God could not be the Messiah.

Yes, that's how their thought developed. However, I have shown through extensive cross-referencing, that "Messiah" (OT), "God the Father" (OT), and "Jesus" (NT) are presented in essentially a synonymous fashion. See my paper: The Holy Trinity: Biblical Proofs.

XII. The Implications of Relativist Rules

You have a long ways to go in proving any of these assertions, in my humble opinion. But I will always say: if you don't like Christianity (or like it but feel you can't believe in it), show me something better which I can live by and place my trust in . . .

I cannot speak for you.

I'm not talking strictly about me. I'm talking about your system and how it can supposedly make the world a better place - better than the world Christianity produced, at any rate.

I am perfectly happy with science and relativism in morality. I obey public law and I respect the privacy of other people. It works very well here.

Then if it works for you, why would it not work for the society at large (is it those darned Christians again, messing everything up?)? In which case, you can certainly lay out such a scenario . . . If you wanted to take your alleged "relativism" to its full logical outcome, you wouldn't discuss the matter at all with me. As it is, you are obviously trying to persuade me (and my website readers) that your way is best (thus betraying an actual absolutism - as is always the case). So, then, show me a better way. Don't try to avoid the brass tacks and roadblocks by retreating into the comfortable, non-threatening living room of your own little thought-world.

And our children never got into any serious trouble either.

Did you train them in right and wrong? What did you tell them? Could they stay out all night, as a principle of "private morality?" Could your son (assuming you have a son) - say, at the age of 18 or 21, date-rape a woman on the same basis ("stay out of my bedroom affairs," etc.)? Or go on a joy-ride drunk? Or burn a cross on a black person's lawn? Or punch you in the face? As you see, numerous examples could be brought up to make this point.

As I said elsewhere before you sent me the present reply, your idea of relativism is totally wrong.

Why?

Your idea seems to be that there are no rules. Of course there are rules.

What are these rules, and why are they not absolutes? Are they binding on all people at all times? If so, they are moral absolutes. If not, then they are determined situationally, or subjectively (existentially), or on utilitarian grounds, or hedonist premises (take your pick). At that point, your task is to explain to me how an overarching morality is to be grounded philosophically, and enforced societally. Why was Hitler wrong, if that was his chosen thing? Etc. As soon as you regard things as wrong, period; in and of themselves, you are an absolutist, and you are only playing a mind game, fooling yourself, pretending that you are a supposed "relativist."

But they are based on human reason and logic, not on divine revelation. And I think we both agree that human reason is fallible.

Fine; the above problems remain. We say there is no dichotomy between reason and revelation; they are complementary. I see a glaring contradiction, however, between reason and relativism consistently carried out.

Specifically, our son was not to stay out all night when he was still subject to our supervision.

How is this "relativism?" It is saying that there is such a thing (an absolute) as abstract "wrongness" in the act of a child staying out all night, under a certain age. Parents pretty much all agree on this. You're arguing my side for me!

Nor did we tell him he could rape a woman or drive when he was incapable of driving safely.

Ditto.

Nor could he join absolutists enforcing their prejudices on others and burning crosses on the lawns of any people, including African Americans.

The racist believes absolutely in his position; you and I believe absolutely that he is wrong, and hateful, and harmful to individuals and society. I don't see any purely logical distinction (although there is of course a huge moral difference). That very moral distinction in what is considered "right" and "wrong" is moral absolutism. You don't say that the racist is only wrong inside your subjective brain. No, you say he is wrong, PERIOD! You don't qualify it at all. The consistent relativist would have to say: "well, their opinion on the subject of race is just as valid as yours or mine. Who are we to judge it? It's their life and their view," etc. Of course, precisely this sort of "reasoning" is used with regard to any number of issues, such as homosexuality, or drug-taking, or political views. The relativist simply applies it inconsistently, mixing in absolutes where it suits their particular viewpoint, however arrived at.

This is good; now you're starting to "flesh out" your position . . . Thanx! Perhaps you are using "relativist" as a synonym for utilitarianism or libertarianism. That would make sense of your view. Both of those views, however, have their absolutes as well. No one is fooling anyone here . . .

Nor could he punch me in the face except in self-defense, which was never necessary since I never attacked him physically either. As you see, we would agree on many things, just for different reasons.

XIII. "Anthropological" vs. Philosophical Ethics and Moral Norms

So tell me, then, how would you suggest this particular brand of morality could and should be applied to everyone (enforced?), for the good of society, without introducing moral absolutes which to us is synonymous with Natural or Moral Law, grounded in God? How would you argue philosophically, reasonably, e.g., morally against the practice in Saudi Arabia of a father killing his daughter or her boyfriend due to adultery / fornication, or forced abortion in China?

There have been many changes over the centuries, as any historian will tell you. That you don't count them as changes, or that you don't see them, or that you don't remember them does not change the facts. Just one example? OK. Killing witches was mandatory in the OT. It is forbidden today (unless they commit a crime that is punishable by death, but just being a witch is no longer a capital crime). Again, what you describe here is relativism. What is morally licit and what is not changes over time.

No; per the above arguments, which I still want to see you grapple with. You are - surprisingly enough - being far too philosophically simplistic in your analysis.

It also changes with culture. In some countries, it is perfectly legal for a husband to kill his wife and her lover if found together in bed. In other countries it is not.

And the Hindus burned widows, and various African tribes perform clitorectomies, etc. The Aztecs had mass human sacrifice, and the pre-Columbian aboriginal population of the Caribbean habitually engaged in gruesome cannibalism. There is a general moral consensus, but various cultures have various ethical blinders on (which I would fully expect). Ours is abortion at the moment (whereas previously it was slavery and the genocide of the Indians). In almost all cases, the prevailing and guiding assumption is that a certain group is either less-than-human, or less entitled to certain fundamental rights.

Precisely. And the Christian missionaries could not understand that either. I'm referring to the ancient practices, all examples of how what is relative is mistaken for absolute truth by its practitioners. And when absolutist meets absolutist, bloodshed is sure to follow. Unless they happen to believe in the same things, which is not likely if there was no previous contact between the cultures.

Tell me why these things were wrong (or not wrong)? As for bloodshed, of course you put Stalin and Hitler and all the rest in my camp, whereas in truth their premises much more resemble yours than they do mine.

What is funny is that the absolutist invariably thinks the other guy is the one who has the blinders on. Slavery, incidentally, was considered morally licit by the Church for a very long time.

Not the sort that was practiced, say, by Portugese slave traders, etc. Those things were uniformly condemned (and I document that on my website). The Bible does speak of "slavery" but it is in the sense of an indentured servant, who was to be treated with full dignity - nothing remotely approaching the extraordinary wickedness of a slave ship, or the separation of families.

Racism, or the belief that certain groups of people were less worthy than others, was practiced in Christian Europe for centuries. Most races thought that, and some still do, but the funny thing is that they invariably think their own race is on top of the heap. That is a consequence of the relativism of the concepts. Unfortunately, the practitioners mistake if for absolute truth.

What is "less worthy" than a preborn child whose very right to exist and to be born is utterly denied by your cohorts and yourself?

Discrimination, or the belief that some people have more rights than others, was inherent in all cultures that I know of, including the Church and Christian Europe. The Hebrews of the OT were very racist and class-conscious. Not that they were the only ones. So saying that everybody was racist would not be too far off the mark.

Welcome to original sin. Do you consider this the defense of your own views (I still have little clue what they even are, apart from some child-rearing tenets where we have agreed thus far, and your support of abortion)?

Now comes the difficult part. While I say that everybody was racist, the various races did not hold the same racism. For example, the Hebrews thought they were God's gift to mankind. The Europeans thought they were better than the rest of the world. The Chinese didn't think much of the Europeans and so on.

The absolute was that racism and hatred was wrong. People violated it. How does this establish a relative morality, pray tell?

Legitimate self-defense has changed over the ages too. You could consider the adultery example as one of self-defense. Today, such self-defense is not considered reasonable in most cultures.

Again, self-defense as a principle is the absolute; the details of what constitute it are important, but not of the essence, therefore absolutism is not overthrown. We have never claimed that it applies to all the particulars and ins and outs, in the sense in which it applies to everyone, as the Moral Law.

I think we have the confusion of definition. You seem to be adopting an anthropological view of ethics and morality, whereas I am approaching it philosophically (with my Christian worldview obviously influencing that).

I'm not sure I understand the difference. Please explain.

The simplest way to put it is that you seem to be approaching the question of morality from what is (historically or cross-culturally; hence "anthropologically"). I approach it, on the other hand, from the idealistic standpoint of what should be, according to philosophical reasoning and Christian theology. So you say that the Church once called for the killing of heretics, whereas now it does not; ergo: it has contradicted itself and is relativist.

I, to the contrary, have sought to show that it is much more complex than that; that there are underlying principles which have remained the same, while the application and "disciplinary" action of the Church has changed. But as the essence lies in the principles, therefore, no contradiction has occurred, nor has relativism been established in these examples. The same applies to the development of doctrine, which many incorrectly understand as an evolution of one doctrine into another.

To us, relativists, if a justification or reasoning (including what punishment is appropriate) depends on history and culture, we are dealing with relativistic morality. If that is not how you understand relativism, please explain your definitions of absolute and relative morality.

Again, as I have stated many times, it is the overall concept (the wrongness of murder) which is the absolute; the rest is details and "problems" (which we would fully expect) and non-essential. You have apparently made all the details essential. If that is true, there are scarcely any two ideas in the world which can be considered identical or "absolute." So this is the crux of our disagreement.

In general philosophy class, however, the refutation of a proposed absolute can use any history.

As long as the interpretation of that history is accurate (including the rationale which the practitioner himself would have offered up, which is indispensable in this instance). It seems clear to me that you (like virtually all non-Christians and secular academic types) are unfamiliar with much of the reasoning which lies behind the Inquisition. That's why I said from the outset that the mediæval mindset must be understood to some extent for one to ever hope to comprehend the Inquisition and Crusades with any semblance of objectivity and fairness; this applies even the Galileo incident to some extent (though that is technically post-mediæval).

XIV. Summaries, Axioms, and Reiterations

Again, you neglect to recognize C.S. Lewis's maxim that "the rules of chess create chess problems." The crucial point is that self-defense itself is considered a right. The particulars may vary, but the principle remains the same. Likewise with the frowning upon betrayal, or incest, or extreme selfishness, or deception, or any number of things. The parameters vary a bit; the central ethical principle remains well-nigh universal. And this is one reason why we accept the existence of an objective moral law.

Correct. But if those were absolutes, they would still be valid today. And I doubt that any Church official today would advocate returning to that reasoning. Again, you are giving the relativist argument. You just don't realize it yet.

Nice try. :-) I continue to await your reply to my arguments, rather than trying to take the easy way out by simply calling my analysis "relativism" when it clearly is not. You don't have to agree with my argument, of course. But I would hope that you at least understand it and truly interact with it, on its own terms. Isn't that what dialogue is about? Your reluctance merely confirms in my mind that you have no case.

For my comments on the chess dictum, see an earlier message in this series. As to the crucial point that self-defense is a right found universally in all morality, no argument here. I've invoked it many times in these discussions and I couldn't live without it. And if we weren't so busy thinking that we scored when we didn't, we would now pause and try to understand what the other side is really saying.

I've tried, believe me, I've tried. We have laid out the essential differences in principle. I want to know how your system works out in its particulars. How about a list of what things are wrong in your view, why they are wrong, and why you call that "relativism"?

For example, you could tell a friend that self-defense in chess is very important and fully sanctioned by the rules of chess. Would that tell your friend, who has never seen a chess game, let alone played one, how to move the pieces on the chess board in legal moves? I think not.

The Church has a fully-worked out moral theology which does get to particulars, based on the foundation of the broad moral precepts (just as the ancient Jews formulated their morality).

The rules of chess have changed many times in the history of the game but we still call it chess, although the original players would not recognize the game if they saw us play it. We call it the same game only because we can trace its development. But no chess player would claim the the rules haven't changed.

Fair enough. :-) This was the broadest of analogies in the first place . . .

Now we can ask whether the older versions of the game were played wrong? Of course not. They were just different games. Chess in the fifteenth century was played by fifteenth century rules and chess today is played by today's rules. As long as both sides know which rules apply, there is no problem.

But the variant rules are "absolutes" themselves. :-) You can't escape this reality! You are bound by logic . . .

The moral law (like all philosophical first principles) consists of axioms in the first place. Each has to be backed up by lengthy analysis. You can play around with linguistic analysis (one of my least favorite branches of philosophy), but you know full well that most cultures in most periods accepted these principles. That is what the moral law or natural law is about: real principles in the real world, held by real people . . .

Principles are like empty boxes that have to be filled with practical instructions. You have a set and I have a set, each labeled. Any label in your set can also be found in my set and vice versa. Now we fill each with specific instructions, independently. Some of the recipes you put under the label "sexual relations" will also be in mine. Others will not be common to both.

Fair enuff.

Hence the three questions.

I still think that you ultimately want to critique the Church, not just present a relativist/humanist outlook (or whatever you would call it). E.g., your intense interest in the Galileo question . . . if that's not absolutely classic, quintessential contra-Catholic apologetics, with the implication that the Church is "against" science and free inquiry, what is?

Half right. I have never written to any Catholic theologian, moralist, apologist or philosopher unless he first aired an attack (or perceived attack) on science, pro-choice, or relativism. That's why I wrote to you. What you wrote about creation/evolution was, in my opinion, science bashing in many respects.

As you know, in my mind I am, rather, defending true science over against the excesses of evolutionism-gone-awry into gross philosophical materialism. A person's own perception of what they are attempting to do should surely count for something.

The Galileo case is extremely important in the science/faith debate. You can't avoid it if you want to enter that debate. And I hope you will eventually get around to at least reading what I sent you on that issue. Most Catholics are still in denial.

I would love to, if we could ever finish this debate. So far, I feel like I am spinning my wheels. But remember, my task is to defend the Catholic Church in all its aspects; indeed all of Christianity to the extent that it is over against secularism. So I have a lot to do. You can restrict yourself to matters of science and abstract relativist philosophy.

The first asked what the justification was for torture/killing of heretics. If there was none, they and you could have said so. None of you did.

There were plenty of reasons indeed. But they were based upon the flawed premise that all heresy was believed in bad faith, and in obstinate opposition to the truth of God. It is not as simple as you make it out to be. The Catholic apologist must clarify these things, as the misunderstanding, distortion, and historical revisionism regarding this topic is rampant. It is our duty.

Same here when we feel attacked unjustly or unfairly. But that's why we're in this debate, isn't it? And I thank you again for your responsiveness.

You're welcome.

I understand the time considerations. But as a teacher, I also know that when a student has questions or objections, the teacher should address them, either privately with the student, or publicly at the first opportunity. I've been at this for six-seven years now, and legitimate objections to about fifty different "teachers" have never found their way to the same forums in which the objectionable /questionable material was published or aired. You are one of the few exceptions.

Thanks. If I persuade you, then I have helped to save you from error and possible damnation! If you persuade me, then you have gotten me out of the most diabolical institution ever conceived by the mind of man (at least as bad - as you contend - as Stalinism and Naziism) - the Catholic Church. I would certainly get out of it, if only I believed your rhetoric.

XV. Divine Revelation and Humanist "Onions"

And I so noted in my introductory remarks, which opened the questions to any absolutist, not just Catholics.

I'm prepared to debate the issue however you want to define its parameters. I'm just as confident of my position as you are of yours, and I look forward to exposing the utter weakness of the relativist position. It is (as is so much of humanism) like an onion: you keep peeling it, looking for the core, only to discover that there is none - it ends in nothing. Humanism can only live and thrive on a negative critique of something else (inevitably Christianity or the conservatism and traditionalism which derives from it). It has - in the final analysis - nothing original to offer in and of itself except fallacies, falsehoods, and Utopian pipe dreams incapable of being realized from the outset (due to the flawed premises of the inherent goodness of man and the root causes of evil and trouble in the world, etc.). Whatever in it is good is already present in Christianity in fuller and more consistent measure . . .

The essence of the onion is what you keep peeling away. No wonder you end up with nothing.

If what you have given me thus far is the "essence" of humanism, then it is even more insubstantial and pitiful than I thought. Curious . . . perhaps I give it more credit than it deserves (in my desire to be honest, fair, and openminded). I thought that at least the humanist had the courage of his convictions, and could defend it against any lowly Christian.

As to your remarks on humanism, if you mean morality based on reasoning and logic rather than divine revelation, I must strongly disagree.

As to the importance of reasoning and logic; we are one. This remark just goes to prove what I stated earlier: viz. that the humanist (like today's political liberal) casually assumes that his school has a lock on reasoning and logic (and compassion); therefore whoever dissents must lack those qualities. Thanks for the confirmation . . . I would say, rather, that the hallmarks of it are relativism, anti-supernaturalism, agnosticism, libertarianism - often leading to self-absorption and unbridled hedonism (Hefner and Trump and Ted Turner), and logical positivism. Those things represent false, fallacious, lousy reasoning (including faulty ethics), which is precisely why I reject them - on rational and ethical philosophical grounds, before one even has the need to get to Christian theology, which is a whole 'nother discussion. I can demolish the house of cards of humanism without ever necessarily saying a word about Christianity (though we have the great philosophical advantage of being able to offer the inquirer something far better and consistent, if they are interested).

In fact, Christian morality itself is, in our opinion, devoid of divine revelation. You ascribe it to divine revelation, but without proof and quite unreasonably.

This is an entirely different discussion. I can more than ably defend myself on this one (without ever thinking for a second I could convince you about it).

Why dare we say that? Because older traditions than the Bible already have all the elements of the Ten Commandments.

Indeed. That's why we say the Natural Law is not confined to Judaism or Christianity.

Those traditions also claimed divine revelation, but both you and I agree that their gods were human inventions, don't we?

For the most part, yes, as they don't have the historical, rational, miraculous, philosophical, prophetic arguments which the Christian can put forth. The Muslim, e.g., offers little reason to accept the Koran, other than that Mohammed passed it down, having allegedly received it directly from Allah. We, on the other hand, offer a ton of reasons for why the Bible is divine revelation.

Note that arguing that relativism is bad does not prove that there are absolutes.

What is the alternative, then? Chaos and nonsense? No confidence or assurance of any ideas, even one's own? Let's face it: everyone tacitly accepts some absolutes, whether they want to play word games and head games about their supposed avoidance of them or not. It is inescapable. The truly consistent relativist couldn't even open his mouth and utter an opinion about anything other than himself ("valid" only for himself and no one else). But such people belong on a mountaintop (contemplating their belly button) or in a lunatic asylum (as indeed some of them who were bold enough to consistently apply their worldview did end up).

Note also that Aristotle and Plato and other philosophers have their own opinions, which are not those of modern moral philosophy, let alone mine. Citing other philosophers in support or disagreement is a good start, but they can be wrong too.

Oh, I couldn't agree more (and I have taken several courses in philosophy, by the way; even engaged in discussion in groups of philosophers on occasion, at my alma mater, Wayne State University, and elsewhere). My own ultimate yardstick, of course, is Christianity (whereas "pure" philosophers have none but their own admittedly fallible opinions). That doesn't mean that Christianity is fundamentally opposed to reason and philosophy (as someone like Bertrand Russell casually and disdainfully assumes); no; rather, it incorporates it within a reasonable framework but with certain lines which philosophy is not permitted to cross over.

I say that Christianity is the reasonable view of the universe and that humanism or agnosticism is ultimately quite unreasonable (as well as leading to despair and massive injustice if thought through properly and consistently acted upon). All my horror stories about the results of non-Christian ideologies in history were meant to illustrate what I feel to be the logical end-results of your position. Of course you would disagree. But I have yet to see a decent argument that relativism should not and does not lead to such things.

Incidentally, the questions are questions put to moral philosophy students at secular universities, although not limited to Catholic history. I explained why I restricted the original questions to Catholic history. I am now sorry that I didn't change them back to general history before sending them on because it made you feel like your Church was being attacked.

Given your past expressed opinions on agnosticism in general, your own personal history of belief, your emphasis on Galileo, and your dislike for certain well-known Catholic apologists and clergy whom you claimed couldn't or wouldn't answer your skeptical inquiries, my assumption was quite reasonable and to be expected, no? Besides, in your first reply, you did subtly attack the Church in your statements such as "God could do better."

I think I know what lies behind such rhetoric, as I am thoroughly familiar with both the secular mindset (remember, I majored in sociology and minored in psychology - extremely secularized fields) and the traditional critiques against the Catholic Church (some of which I used to engage in myself). I even lived as a thorough-going practical agnostic or secularist for many years during a certain period of my life. I used to be a political liberal, a pro-feminist, a pacifist, a pro-abort, a sexual liberal, an evolutionist (granted, not very informed about any of those things - but then I see many proponents of these things equally as uninformed and disinformed as I was).

I will also go again over your list of proposed absolutes, in somewhat greater detail this time. Apparently, the short answers don't satisfy you.

Correct. You obviously came itching for a debate on these topics (and, as you said, you - as I - "love a challenge"). I have responded in kind, and I expect you to do the same, or else concede, or revise your original intention and "program" (whatever it was). Tough words? Maybe, but what would you expect of a Christian apologist, in the face of a claim that Christianity is no better in what it produces than any other system of belief, such as Communism or Naziism? When I hear stuff like that, I respond vigorously and with passion.

I think I now see better what our problem is. What you call absolutes are not absolutes to me and what I call relative standards are not relative standards to you. No wonder we�re having trouble understanding each other.

Then I hope you will define your terms for me (and reply to my arguments - especially the direct challenges/questions), as you apparently are speaking with more philosophical precision than I am.

Read and understood. The definition of terms will take some time, since the implied definitions in previous messages didn't do the trick. If I skipped any direct challenges/questions germane to the absolute/relative problem, I'm not aware of it.

I am incorporating philosophy, theology (somewhat) and socio-political cultural analysis (as well as an orientation towards history of ideas and "comparative worldviews") into my thinking here. And as I said, I simply don't have the time to organize my posts as rigorously as I no doubt should, considering the weightiness of the topic. Even so, my letter of two nights ago was mentally and emotionally exhausting to me (discussing abortion always wears me out, as it is such a hideous and diabolical evil- and, I think, obviously so).

Let me begin by disagreeing more clearly with one of the first statements you made in reply to my first message (the three questions submitted to FUS). You said those were pretty much garden-variety anti-Church polemics. You did so because the Inquisition was alluded to in question one and Church history was mentioned in question three.

However, question two posed the problem in general terms: moral philosophy. The church was not mentioned there. It is a purely philosophical problem. And it would be the same problem if the Church had not existed. Both Plato and Aristotle discussed the problem and they were not worried about any biblical or Christian religion.

Ok; thanks for clarifying. I still maintain, however, that you relish demonstrating "shortcomings" of the Catholic Church. We all like to take pot shots at our ideological opponents (or present more serious critiques) - myself definitely included.

Agreed. However, the pot shots should be relevant to the problem. I may sin against that too, I agree. Maybe we should outlaw the pot shots.

I say, speak your mind freely. If you have something to say about my Church, by all means say it, so I can defend myself and my Church. Why hide any true intentions or opinions? I don't mince any words about humanism and agnosticism! Nor do I intend to . . . These opinions deserve all the intellectual and moral disdain us Christians can give them. My overall thrust is that a decent, intelligent person such as yourself (and I mean that quite sincerely) should ditch such indefensible views and become a Christian! :-)

XVI. Morality on a Deserted Island: A Crash Course in Secular Ethics

====================== 1. Preliminaries ======================

1.1. Semantics ---------------------

A poet and a peasant went for a walk in the woods. The poet remarked happily that the fish were singing particularly beautifully in the trees this morning. To which the peasant grunted that fish don't sing. Of course they do, replied the poet, just listen!

That is called a semantic problem. Once the poet and the peasant agree what they will call the things they are talking about, they can go on to the finer points of the beauty of what they both heard. Whether they will get any further there is another matter.

Amen! Preach it, brother!

1.2. Practice vs. Analysis ------------------------------------

Everybody obeys the laws of gravity, whether she knows it or not. However, not everybody can do problems of gravity correctly on paper. That is the distinction between practice and analysis.

The pool champion can whip any theoretical physicist in a game of nine-ball, but that does not mean that he understands the physics of bouncing balls, which happens to be the subject that the physicist teaches at the local university.

Yep.

1.3. Problems in Moral Philosophy ------------------------------------------------

Everybody deals with morality, but that does not make everybody an astute moral analyst. The study of morality is to good living what linguistics is to good writing or physics to good pool playing: almost irrelevant.

However, physics is relevant to building better machines, to name only one thing. Linguistics is relevant to producing better dictionaries and understanding old texts. And the philosophy of morality is relevant to writing better laws and to avoiding unnecessary conflicts. Those are just examples of relevance. There are more but they will still be of limited interest in terms of people affected or induced to study the specialties.

As in any other specialty, both problems mentioned [semantic and practice/analysis] have to be faced when we do moral philosophy.

I agree. And the practical import you cite is precisely why I have argued that to me this is not just abstract philosophizing a la the Greek pagans (especially the Sophists). Good philosophy has as its aim not only discovering metaphysical truth and the results of logical analysis and applied rational thought, but also making the world a better place. I hope we can agree on that much, before we embark on the myriad particular disagreements which no doubt lie ahead. Christianity agrees with that end, and also ambitiously seeks to reform the hearts of individuals and to get them to serve God, love their fellow man, and saved - i.e., hopefully ending up in heaven for eternity. As you know, we regard philosophy in the final analysis as the "handmaiden" of theology. :-)

====================== 2. Isola Morality ======================

21. After a shipwreck, a man finds himself the sole survivor, stranded on a deserted island. There is lush vegetation and animal life, but there are no people on the island other than our man himself. There are no human conflicts on this island, which on the ship�s maps was called Isola. Whatever the man decides goes. There is no opposition. There is unity of purpose, unity of beliefs, unity of priority setting, unity of planning, unity of execution of plans, unity of blame if plans fail.

There is also loneliness . . . LOL

22. After a year and another shipwreck, a woman arrives on Isola.

Now they can play Adam and Eve! LOL Sorry . . .

Other people on her ship either are lost at sea or made it to other islands. Isola now has a population of two. The man and the woman now have to set some groundrules for cohabitation. Either that or one has to kill the other, or exile the other back to the sea, which amounts to the same thing since the nearest livable island is 400 miles away. The first conflicts have been created. The woman does not always want the same things as the man. She does not always believe the same things. She has different priorities once in a while. She thinks of different solutions to problems, likes different plans of attack to the same solution, and likes to blame the man if things go wrong because the man always insists on doing things his way anyway. And the man is stronger so he usually gets his way.

Sounds like a parable of all human history, and of gender differences.

23. Even though the woman complicates life, the man decides not to get rid of her because she comes in handy for certain tasks. The woman, who could easily kill the man in his sleep if she wanted to, decides not to do that either, for the same reason. A little cooperation is to the advantage of both parties. You guessed it. They fall in love and start a family.

This is typical humanist, libertarian, utilitarian ethics: everything is decided on the basis of a cold, cruel "cost-benefit analysis" [and I used this description even before I saw that you used the same phrase below] - based on how another human being can be used. Of course, I need not point out how Christian morality is entirely opposite in its approach and motivation (and far more successful and fulfilling in its results).

24. Five years and two children later, another family gets washed ashore in a lifeboat. Our originals decide to let them stay since another pair of adults might be advantageous.

Yeah; better see how we can use more human beings to our own advantage . . .

But more rules and agreements will be required. Certain things will belong to each family. Other things will be common resources. The parents will make the decisions for their own children but not for the children of the other set of parents. Each family will have its own private area, where the other family does not enter uninvited. Communal decisions will be made by consensus if possible. If no consensus can be reached, seniority on the island gets priority. That last rule, by the way, is for practical purposes too. The originals have dealt with local conditions longer and presumably know things the newly arrived don�t know yet.

Well, this stuff is consistent with Christian morality and the normal rules and norms set up by all civilized societies.

ASSESSMENT ---------------------

Nobody on Isola has ever heard of the Bible or of Christianity.

They don't have to, since they are made in God's image, and have His laws "written into their hearts" (Rom 2:13-16). This doesn't excuse them at all from the responsibility of right behavior, justice, mercy, and love. All societies have shown a broad-based agreement as to what constitutes the basic nature of right and wrong.

They make up their own rules as they go along and as circumstances change. Those rules are based on benefit/cost analysis of each adult concerned and agreement among the adults. The children, being too inexperienced, will have to be educated before they get a voice. Their parents speak for them.

This assumes that man starts with a tabula rasa (clean slate), which is, of course, nonsense, and extremely difficult to establish, even on purely secular philosophical (logical positivist) grounds. We're not a bunch of Mr. Spocks or Thomas Malthus's or Machiavellis or Stalins or Clintons. We are human beings made in God's image, and we are to love others as He loved us, not see them as strictly means to a less-than-noble end.

If the scenario sounds like a cheap novel in the making, that's only because it describes the oldest plot in the world. All novels, epics, dramas and tragedies are based on conflict and on the resolution of it (or lack thereof).

And if a committed Christian was the author, the underlying slant would be entirely different. They would approach it more in the way in which I have; starting with our axiom that man was made by and for God and that he knows this - regardless of how hard he tries to deny or repress this innate knowledge.

If we repeat the experiment a thousand times, we will get a thousand different agreements in the details but some general patterns will emerge, especially if we let the populations grow beyond a handful or two.

Well, there is still original sin, too. It is clear that the same old sins have been repeated over and over by mankind. But there are also glorious exceptions to the rule, too. That's where God's grace comes in . . .

Most island communities will leave it to parents to make decisions for their children. They will all develop some rules of property and laws against taking property away without justification. Most will have rules against physical violence that is not acceptable behavior while considering other physical violence acceptable as punishment or as self-defense. Almost all will try to regulate sexual relations in some way to avoid settling the matter with fights all the time. And to settle disputes they will almost always develop a court system, where bearing false witness is a serious crime.

All of this is consistent with the Moral Law.

Those simple principles can be found in all ancient codes of law that we know about, including the Ten Commandments.

Precisely. You say it is because of the humanist cost-benefit analysis and the results of hard knocks and corporate human experience. And this is partially true (which is why so many people readily accept it as the entire explanation - "environment over heredity," so to speak). I say it is primarily because God gave us a conscience and a consciousness of Himself and His Moral Law, which is why the commonality exists in the first place (excepting - broadly speaking - cultures which have digressed into total decadence and degradation).

Those same codes will also regulate worship of gods, as do the Ten Commandments. So are they the absolutes of morality that absolutists talk about?

Essentially, yes. They are fleshed out by (but not originated by) God's revelation of Himself in deed and word.

To the moral philosopher, those principles are not absolutes. Why not? Because they are not informative. Take a family from one island and transport it to another, for example. While both islands have laws against "stealing" for example, stealing on one island does not mean the same thing as stealing on the other. The transplanted family will have to learn new rules anyway, even if both concern the same category of crime, namely stealing.

So what. You concede (apparently without knowing it) the argument here. It is the consensus that stealing is wrong which constitutes the absolute and the particular tenet of the Moral Law, or Natural Law. Let the lawyers, theologians, and philosophers figure out all the fine print. That doesn't change the principle. The very fact that there is a problem of definition and application is itself a proof that absolutes and unchanging standards are being brought into play ("the rules of chess create chess problems"). The relativist is freed from all such problems, as all comparisons under such a self-defeating axiom are nonsensical from the outset. Thankfully, so-called "relativists" are never consistent in this, and are inevitably forced at some point by reality and logic to adopt an absolute, while ridiculously claiming that they have not . . . You continue to approach this issue anthropologically, rather than philosophically. I wonder why?

Perhaps it is clearer in the worship laws. While there may be worship on all islands, the gods worshiped will very likely not be the same gods. As the islanders who have traveled would say, worship is everywhere, but the gods are not.

But this doesn't concern morality per se. This is comparative religion, or metaphysics, if you will. The universality of religiosity constitutes, in my opinion, a strong indication that man has an inherent religious sense, which ties into our theology of being made in God's image.

The most important part, however, is that our labels "absolute" or "relative" do not alter the fact that there are rules and standards on Isola and on any other island like it.

Precisely. And these are human absolutes, which approximate to more or less degrees the absolutes of the Divine Moral Law.

As I explained in the island allegory, isolated groups of people will develop the same categories of concerns on every island, even though the various groups never communicated. That's the nature of the beast. Even monkeys, apes, lions and tigers do that, not to mention ant colonies. But the lions and the apes and the ants have different opinions, if we can call them that, on what to do about those concerns.

Ok; keep going.

On a one-man island, any morality works equally well. I am assuming that the island is big enough so that the man can do no permanent damage to the ecology, the plant life and the animal life there. In other words, when the man dies, flora and fauna on the island go on pretty much as they did before the man arrived. The rock formations have not been drastically altered by the man, the rivers still flow pretty much as they would have if the man had never been there and so on. Two centuries later, when the next man washes ashore, he has all the options the first man had. If he lives in a drastically different way, nobody is going to stop him either. The two different isolation moralities work equally well.

He doesn't have a child to kill, for one thing . . .

When we have groups of people on each island, group moralities will work better than isolation moralities. That is, moralities of cooperation within the group are superior to moralities that destroy the group. In group morality, the following areas of concern are obvious: the raising of children; the justifications for killing others; the regulation of sexual behavior; the regulation of property rights; the regulation of information in court; the regulation of planning to acquire wealth.

Agreed.

There are many more that I could have named. I limited myself to the ones found in the Ten Commandments. I also made sure they were phrased is such a way that it becomes clear that no problems have been solved yet. The solutions will be different on the different islands if there is no communication among islands.

So (to introduce another consideration) "evil" is a non-entity? Stalin was simply undereducated in proper morals? Hitler needed to know more Jews and Slavs personally so he would grow to like them? Is malevolence, hatred, and hostility simply the absence of moral principle, however defined?

The morality lies in the solutions adopted, not in identifying the areas of concern. For example, the Hebrew Torah list 613 laws that clarify the Ten Words or the ten principles or the ten areas of concern. Without those 613 specific laws, the ten principles mean nothing.

Development of the bedrock principles. But I would disagree that the foundation means "nothing" until it is elaborated upon.

You have no idea what the relativism/absolutism debate is all about in moral philosophy.

Teach me then . . . But I have already told you that I don't arbitrarily restrict myself to a single discipline if the logic and the facts transcend it.

XVII. Libertarian vs. Christian Ethics

The battle-weary Christian crusader stumbles on . . .

You totally misunderstand relativism. We have a lot of work to do. You cannot refute what you don�t understand.

Please enlighten me, then.

I invite you to describe one absolute you claim I tacitly accept, provided it is a moral absolute and it is not a lexical tautology. I have already conceded the existence of the useless absolutes (like murder is always wrong). Unless I know which killing shall be considered murder and which not, you have done nothing but teach me English. You have not taught me morality.

    1. Rape (forcible intercourse against a woman's will) is always wrong.
    2. Child molestation (forcible fondling or even more despicable sexual acts with an underage child - say under 16) is always wrong.
    3. Torture (the imposition of physical or psychological harm upon another person for sadistic or coercive purposes) is always wrong.
    4. Cannibalism (the digestive consumption of human beings) is always wrong.
    5. Ritual human sacrifice (killing born human beings - knowing that you think abortion a fine, permissible thing - for purely religious ceremonial purposes) is always wrong.
    6. Genocide (the desire to annihilate an entire ethnic or national or racial group of people) is always wrong.
    7. Nuclear destruction of entire cities is always wrong.
Or do you disagree with any of these? If so, please explain why. If not, rest assured that you believe in absolutes.

I can tell you what the laws of the land are and what will happen to you if you don't follow them and get caught. Relative morality says only that those laws may be different in different countries, at different times.

More of your anthropological morality (which I don't consider germane to the discussion) . . . Sociology and anthropology offer mere description, not prescription.

And there may be good reasons for the differences. I can also tell you that it is none of your business to invade my home just to see that I don't do anything you don't approve of.

Which is, of course, an absolute that you would wish to apply to all cultures, if you could.

There are legal procedures to follow if you have good reason to suspect that I'm a danger to society or that I'm doing something illegal.

Which is somewhat contrary to your previous statement, no? Why? Because "illegality" is precisely a projection of corporate societal morality: it manifests what society (which consists of individuals) "don't approve of." This is one of the many glaring fallacies of the libertarian position, which accepts the silly, self-defeating notion that every individual is an atomistic unit with no particular inherent connection to the society or world in which he lives.

And no, the alternative to absolutism is not chaos or nonsense or insanity or anarchy. It is morality based on human reason and logic.

As opposed to morality based on coercion and mythological revelation by a projected "god." How stark you draw the contrasts! How black and white! You must see this as a "holy war," eh? The intelligent, enlightened, rational, elitist, educated, progressive, non- or nominally-religious ones (i.e., the superiors) vs. the intolerant, backward, absolutist, ignorant mediæval reactionaries, out to ruin everybody's rights, freedoms, and fun (i.e., the inferiors). Onward, humanist soldiers!

To outsiders, of course, the Christian opinions are just as fallible as any other opinions.

But that's a non sequitur in the present discussion. I am saying that Christian opinions and reasoning in this instance are superior and far more consistent, not infallible.

If there are certain lines which philosophy is not permitted to cross, what are they? Just show me one or two to give me an idea.

Simply, that which it has no "authority" to deal with: matters of theology or science in which philosophy comes to the end of its own purview (consistent with my view that science itself has limits where its authority ends). You resent when we Christians "intrude" into your philosophical arena (which agnostics always assume is primarily "theirs" from the outset). We in turn resent when agnostics deign to interpret the Bible, and Christian theology, and in so doing make fools of themselves, exposing their utter ignorance of our field of study (e.g., when you asserted that Jesus never claimed to be God).

I hope they are pertinent to morality. I'm not interested in matters of faith and theology that have no bearing on living together on earth.

Nor am I interested in idle humanist speculation (oftentimes derived from mere received caricatures and stereotypes) about what Christians supposedly believe, or do, or are "supposed" to do. As far as I can tell, in this debate I have confined myself to your thought-world, rhetorically speaking. I need not bring in explicit Christian theology. This battle can be won by logic alone, and the exposing of the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of your position, with no need to introduce mine. This is how I have always approached apologetics and philosophical discourse (since 1981). I try to get inside the head of the other, and engage in argumentum ad absurdum, or find analogies to demonstrate that my opponents' views are incoherent, implausible, or irrational (and that their insinuations that my position is unworthy of belief are false).

However, if Christians claim divine guidance, what good is it if the Christians with God on their side cannot do better than the pagans and barbarians without God's help?

If indeed that were true, you would have a point, but of course it isn't true. And your side has to lie about and distort history in order to pretend that it is true. But as for much sin among Christians: guilty as charged. I would expect that, given original sin and the existence of the devil and the negative influences of this world.

As I noted already elsewhere, I don't see any improvement over that of some other beliefs. If there were such a clear improvement, everybody would be Catholic by now, or at least Christian.

That doesn't follow at all (please bear with me as I give an overtly Christian perspective on this). Satan rebelled against God when he had everything he could have needed or wanted, in heaven. Likewise, the human race in its infancy rebelled from a position of paradise and the absence of problems and sin. The essence of unbelief is a false conception of what God has to offer vs. what the "world" or agnosticism / humanism / whatever has to offer. It is not usually a rational decision to reject God. Rather, it is a raw determination to exercise one's will in order to usurp the prerogatives of a Divine Creator for oneself. This was what caused the Fall. Human pride; human stubbornness; human unwillingness to submit to a Higher Order.

I can't speak for all the evil in the world but my analysis is that most of it comes from people who think they are doing the right thing.

But of course! As I just said: human pride, etc. But they define "right" for themselves, as you do - not according to God's Law: the Moral Law of the universe.

The trouble is that they don't realize that other people may have different goals, different beliefs, different priorities.

People know that. Any idiot could figure that out. What they oftentimes believe falsely, however, is that all variant views (or nations - i.e., leaders of nations) are morally equivalent.

It is imposing my absolutes on you (or vice versa) that you (or I) object to. That's why relativism recognizes private and public morality. Public morality is embodied into law.

One needs to define "impose." I say it is the force of law; coercion in that sense. Thus, all law is coercive and "forcing morality." It is a matter of whose morality. And that goes back to the public consensus: the democratic process. But above all, it is silly and fatuous to imply that only Christians and conservatives "impose" their morality, while relatives and liberals are content to sit back, be tolerant, and "live and let live." Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, in all my years of political and cultural observation, I would say the truth is quite the opposite (though it is a huge generalization to make).

If I know anything, I know that liberals and non-Christians - considered as a whole - are not particularly tolerant people at all. I have found them to be quite dogmatic and closed-minded (not to mention quite prejudiced and hostile against those such as myself who differ). I could give a hundred examples: the general tone of feminist rhetoric, the treatment of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, Marxist and socialist intransigent nonsense (I have attended many Sparks meetings to rile things up a bit), 10,000 examples from the supposedly "objective" media, the dripping disdain for pro-lifers and creationists, persistent anti-Catholicism, caricatures of Protestant fundamentalism and evangelicalism (and I used to be one of those), the pathetic portrayal of Christian clergymen of all stripes, the caricatures of Orthodox Jews and Muslims, etc. ad infinitum. It is quite fashionable to despise Tradition, in whatever form it is found.

Private morality is what is left to families, churches, volunteer groups, associations of all kinds to determine for themselves.

We've been through this. This is based on the fallacious premise that what an individual does behind doors has no relationship to others, or the larger society. This is where character comes in. Character, which is formed in private every bit as much as in public, affects others. We have learned a whole sad lesson about character with all the Clinton nonsense. Having sex with Lewinsky won't affect the Presidency? Making shady business dealings? Raising lying to heretofore unknown and sublime heights, almost to an art form? Yeah, right . . . One could go on and on about Clinton and his pathetic "personal morality" and the multiple lessons it affords us. And yes, it is magnified because he is the President (God help us), but the principle is the same: "private" morality can never be confined solely to the private sphere: it always comes out in one way or another, directly or indirectly.

XVIII. The Culture War: Battle of the Competing Worldviews

As to your perception of the "good old days" that is a common perception held by absolutists. It has been held since the times of Socrates, who was accused of undermining the morals of the Athenian youth (and condemned to the hemlock cup for it). Every century since then, some writer or other made the same complaint you just made. Galileo was also accused of undermining the morals of the youth of Italy, both in Rome and in Florence.

If you want to make the case that the state of culture and morality in America is higher now than it has ever been, or equal, at any rate, please do so. I would love to see that. How do you measure it? Numbers of babies killed, or children born to unwed parents, or how many kids on the street are shot down? How about discussing date rape? Or wife-beating? Or child abuse? How about the tragic breakdown of the family (especially in the black community) , and the frightening societal implications of that - borne out by many sociological studies of divorce, one-parent homes, abusive parents, etc.?

If, as all those writers over the centuries have claimed, moral values were lost and none gained, there wouldn't be many moral values today. And there wouldn't have been many left when you were young or when I was young. And I was a picture poster Catholic when I was young.

This is easily explained by the demonstrable cycles in history of decadence and revival (even considered apart from religion). Currently we are rushing headlong into decadence. But it is in such periods that the bankruptcy and delusional, deceptive nature of relativism and immorality make themselves known. Consequently, there begins a move back to traditional morals, as a reaction. I think we are just at the beginning of that now, but it is a slow process - measured in centuries.

As I said elsewhere, Christianity itself is based on human reasoning, not divine revelation.

Actually, both. But primarily the latter, which is its axiom, one might say. Since (I assume) you deny the latter (assuming you accept the possibility of a God at all), of course you will assert that Christianity is merely the invention of the mind, whims, wish-fulfillment, and imagination of man. But that is no argument (as you must know). Like Hume's "argument" against miracles, it is merely a redefining of something away - arguing in a circle.

The only problem is that the Christians mistake their morality for a system based on absolutes.

So we are really relativists and don't know it? That's delicious . . . :-)

As to your remarks about relativists, we, rarest of birds, measure shortcomings by logic and reason.

Such "logic and reason" leads you to vilify Hitler as a murderer, but somehow not the execution of 4000 human babies a day (one might diabolically assert that Hitler owned the Jews in his camps, just as a mother supposedly "owns" her baby as property, to be disposed of at her whim and fancy). Some reasoning . . . The other inconsistencies I have pointed out throughout do not lead me to believe that your view is particularly "reasonable," if I do say so (with all due respect).

And to say that we have no standards to go by is not knowing which birds you are talking about.

I'll let my reasoning compete with your bald assertions. :-)

All measuring standards in science are relative. But they are standards, and we slowly learned how to make them consistent. They work very well, by the way.

Is the formula e=mc2 relative? Is the speed of light relative? In fact, as I understand it (which ain't much), doesn't Einstein's theory of relativity presupposes the speed of light as an unchanging constant? Wouldn't that overcome your assertion above, if so?

You Christians, on the other hand, have the standards of Jesus and the Hebrew ethical tradition, you write, so it is easy for outsiders to take pot shots at you. Why would that make it easy if we're dealing with obvious absolutes and God is on your side? This sounds like a regret on your part that you have to spend all this time reinterpreting the standards of Jesus and the Hebrew ethical tradition. At least, that's what it sounds like to us.

I would have to go see the original context of my remark, but off the top of my head, I think I was making the point that there is a double standard exercised by the humanist, since he gets a charge poking holes in our absolutes, while equivocating and being less than open about his own absolutes - which he seeks to deny outwardly.

And that is precisely what relativists have to do. They have to review the laws of the past and adjust them as necessary. But they do not insist that the rules of the past were absolutely valid, always, for all time, for every person, in every place. They say that the rules need revision and that, when they are revised, they have been changed. That is much easier to live with later than pretending that no changes were made.

Obviously you have a sliding scale of morals, since at one time or another (in our wonderful modern, secular, increasingly-humanist epoch) whole categories of people like Africans, American Indians, non-Communists, Christians, Jews, and preborn babies have been defined out of the human race, so that these people can be killed. Of course the Church never sanctioned any of this - having spoken strongly about the injustice of slavery, the unjust treatment and massacre of native peoples, the slaughter of the innocents, and of the Jews (Pius XII continues to be grotesquely slandered, whereas the Jewish writer Pinchas Lapide estimates that he is responsible for saving 850,000 Jewish lives - more than any other country or relief organization by far).

Likewise, it is commonly acknowledged that it was Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan (the traditional conservative) who did the most to bring down Soviet Communism. So we see - as always - that your relativism leads to all these outrages of justice, genocides, and massacres, while Christianity has always opposed these things and has done by far the most to bring them to an end. We see the leadership of Christians in the abolition movement also: Quakers, William Wilberforce, many vocal clergymen, etc. Examples could be multiplied many times over. And what has your vaunted humanism brought us? Drugs, free love, the curse of Communism (officially atheist) and Jack Kevorkian? Even the science you so admire (and rightly so) was altogether formed in its modern manifestation in a thoroughly Christian cultural and philosophical milieu.

Let's not forget, either, the glorious French Revolution, which worshiped the so-called "goddess of reason" over against the Catholic Church, and which ended up in hundreds of severed heads rolling down the streets of Paris. A perfect compact parable of the fruits of the worship of "reason" over against God . . . The American Revolution, on the other hand, having a much more Christian base (relatively speaking) didn't end up that way at all. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson carried on a long correspondence about the nature of the French Revolution. Jefferson at length was forced by the facts of history to concede that Adams was right about its insideous nature. It took a while, though . . .

As to a coherent view that can hold its own against Christianity, you won't find it as long as you keep confusing nonchristian absolutists with relativists. We are not the same kind of bird.

But you have a common ancestry, ideologically and philosophically speaking.

I think you are making the wrong assumption that we don�t know or don't understand history. The theory of relativism of morality was invented by students of history who couldn't find any absolutes (constants) in what they saw regarding moral codes, except for the general categories of moral concerns that had to be dealt with (children, life, sex, property, etc.).

Who "invented" this theory? And when? And what is the moral code of today (which I understand can change)?

Here is part of an article forwarded to me, which has some relevance to our dialogue:

    First, for the liberal culture, language is not a vehicle for truth and "dialogue" is not a way of finding the truth, because absolute truth cannot be known, and so all truth is relative. This is the death of real dialogue, which must include the possibility of coming to a final decision. If there is no truth, then every viewpoint is equally valid and entitled to speak without contradiction. Our culture insists that everyone have his say�his "place at the table"�and treats language merely as a political tool for maintaining "community" by the sharing of feelings and experiences, which are all (with a few exceptions) equally valid. Keeping everyone and every viewpoint on an equal footing is a political arrangement, a distribution of power. But this arrangement cannot allow anyone to say that any other view is wrong, because that would be seen as an attempt to deny others the equal validity of their viewpoint and thus their right to speak, and thus limit their power.

    An additional effect of this relativism is that it reduces language to a way to gain power, and so liberals assume that conservatives' claims about absolute truth are only attempts to gain and then to monopolize power over others. They must view truth-claims not only as rejections of "dialogue" but as actual offenses against human freedom.

    Second, our culture closely identifies perspectives and ideas with the people who promote them. The viewpoints at the table of dialogue represent the personal experiences, stories, and perspectives of the participants. A conservative who challenges one of these viewpoints is seen as questioning the legitimacy of the personal experience behind it, and therefore attacking the person holding the view. Since for conservatives, most ideas worth defending do not arise from personal experience but have been received from tradition, they do not (or should not) take personally any attack upon any traditional idea they espouse. But this is not the approach of the liberal culture, so conservatives are routinely portrayed as launching personal attacks on others.

    Third, our culture assumes that the use of power�from politically motivated rhetoric (regardless of its truth) to judicial power to the use of deadly force�lies at the base of all attempts at problem- solving. So whenever a conservative becomes "critical" or "upset", he not only is maneuvering to gain power but also is planning to use that power to enforce his views. Liberals routinely portray conservatives as plotting within their "vast right-wing conspiracy" to force their views on everyone else. Even a person who merely speaks of absolute truth is encouraging violence by disturbing the dialogue and may even be blamed for acts of violence. Consider how James Dobson was held responsible by some in the liberal media for the murder of Matthew Shephard.

{"Why Conservatives Can't Win," James M. Kushiner, from: Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity}

XIX. Apologetics, Methodologies, and Gripes

This is slow going, so please be patient. I'm getting there.

Alright. I've been very impatient, I know, and I wish to sincerely apologize for any overly-caustic or uncalled-for remarks. Even so, I never meant them personally; I'm just passionate about the debate, and anxious to get to what I consider the "bottom line." And I always feel the pressure of time. My perfectionism forbids me from giving short answers, when relevant thoughts come into my head. I want to get them down for myself, as well as for the sake of the debate - as this helps me work through my own position also (and that is part of the intellectual thrill and stimulating challenge of debate, which I love so much). I have to remember that you are the dispassionate, understated scientist. :-) I don't have any such academic restraint, so I am free to barrel ahead and make a fool of myself. LOL Thanks for letting me be me, tho, and to express myself freely, cynical and sarcastic remarks and all (must be the Muggeridge influence). You've been very patient . . . :-)

What I felt was off-topic was the apologetic attitude you assumed from the start following the challenge questions. We can�t discuss the whole world all the time. The absolute/relative question was carefully pared down to specific issues, not intended to involve a defense of Christianity but a theoretical issue of moral philosophy.

Well, then you never should have mentioned the Inquisition in that context (what does that have to do with philosophy per se?). You have explained that, so it's water under the bridge. I was reacting to that and also past opinions expressed by you which led me to believe that was your purpose here.

I had no objection to your bringing up the abortion issue or any other moral absolute you deemed proves your case. It's the apologetics I can do without, in this context. I'm looking for rational reasoning on the issues, without trying to defend Christianity per se. There are plenty of other systems that are absolutist. China is one today. Stalinism was one. Nazism was one.

I said from the outset that I can't separate Christianity totally from my analysis, even when I am doing philosophy. That would involve a rigid compartmentalization of knowledge that I have always opposed as false to reality. I'm willing to go as far as I can with you on this principle, as long as I don't violate my own intellectual and Christian principles in so doing. Also, I am much more the apologist than the philosopher anyway, so that surely comes out. I'll try my best. I simply answered each argument of yours the way I would spontaneously answer without having to be self-consciously primarily "philosophical."

However, if you�d rather do apologetics for your Church, we can do that too. I'm flexible. But we'll get to the abortion issue faster if I don't have to spend so much time parrying other blows.

My energy in this debate is winding down somewhat (ha ha!). I have enjoyed the installments I replied to tonight more than previous ones, tho, because you are stating your opinion more so than replying to mine. The more you take the offensive, the more you can shape the direction of the debate to your liking. I'll try to be flexible and sensible to that, too. It's been a pleasure. This is a rare treat: to really interact in great depth with a different viewpoint. I don't like at all many of your views (obviously) but I always appreciate your willingness to discuss calmly and at length, and your stimulating arguments. You have long since gained my respect as a thinker and a "gentleman."

There have been many changes over the centuries, as any historian will tell you. That you don't count them as changes, or that you don't see them, or that you don't remember them does not change the facts. Just one example? OK. Killing witches was mandatory in the OT. It is forbidden today (unless they commit a crime that is punishable by death, but just being a witch is no longer a capital crime).

This falls under my reasoning for the Inquisition. But it also involves exceedingly complex matters about the relationships of the OT and NT; the Jewish Law and the Christian Gospel, etc. And again, my understanding is that you (ostensibly) wanted to avoid Christian apologetics. You are making it quite tough for me to do that, but I am bravely holding up as best I can.

I have suspected for a while now that you�re mistaking universals for absolutes. Oops. Let me rephrase that. I have suspected for a while now that you call absolutes what I call universals. If that is all it is, we finally put our index fingers on the semantic problem we're dealing with.

Good. I have never claimed to be speaking with philosophical precision. I would be happy to have definitions clarified in that sense, if you wish.

XX. Recapitulation: Bottom Line Issues

By a Christian measuring standard, nothing but a Christian morality is good, of course.

Not in the sense that whatever is good, might be shared by any number of religious or ethical systems. In fact, the notion of Moral Law itself presupposes this.

That is the absolutist measuring relative concepts. By the Communist standard, Christianity was far worse than communism.

That must be why they killed so many of us, then (this century is actually far more the age of Christian martyrs than the first).

Looking from the outside, space aliens would ask themselves what the difference is and why we're so dumb as to think there was a difference worth arguing about.

Yeah; who would be so dense as to propose any particular moral difference between Lenin and Stalin vs. Jesus and Paul?

You haven't troubled me, be assured of that. But the more you wrote, the more I got the suspicion that we were not communicating. So I tried to find out where the trouble was located. Trouble-shooting can be very tedious.

As usual, the humanist response to the person who doesn't bow at their altar, is that they are ignorant or "unenlightened" or "reactionary" (trying to "turn back the clock," as you put it). You are trying in a very nice way to say that I just don't "get it." In fact, I "get it" very well, and I don't agree with it. Big difference. But your failure to answer my basic questions does not encourage me that this dialogue will be very constructive. I've learned that you want to take your time in these things, build your case brick by brick, but even so . . . .

Relativism is a theory of morality, not a morality in itself.

What is this theory? (Is that a short enough reply/question, so that you will answer it?).

We consider Christianity itself to be relative.

On what basis?

So you adopted relativism long before the modern humanists did.

How? When?

You just deny that it is a relative morality that changes as we go along.

I trust that I have shown that this is false. You guys are denying that you believe in absolutes. The sleight-of-hand is all on your side, in my opinion.

I'm glad you mention freedom of conscience, since that is what I will use in the abortion debate. Freedom of religion too, of course. The remainder of the paragraph is just more fuel on the fire of change in morality.

Conscience has limits, and can be abused, as I'm sure you would agree, or else it can easily reduce to relativism as I have defined it.

We agreed on murder being wrong from page one.

That is absolutism. So as far as I am concerned, you have forfeited the argument.

We obviously disagree on what is included under the heading "murder".

These are the particular definitions and applications which are the result of the "problems" created by the existence of absolutes in the first place.

Where did I say that a contradiction was involved? All I claim is change of the notions of what constitutes justified killing and what does not.

Ok.

I cannot argue that Nazism or Stalinism are impossible in relative moral systems since I claim that all moral systems are relative.

Then how can they be classified as "absolutist" (as you have done)? Did I miss something? If every absolutist system (including Christianity) is deluding itself (i.e., it is really relativist), then again, you forfeit this argument, too. You're handing me this debate on a silver platter! :-) My work is easy in light of these latest "gifts" from you! Now we're getting to the self-defeating nature of your views. Thank you.

And we don't want to go back to some of the ancient practices you mentioned elsewhere either.

Why? You can't say they were "wrong," so there must be another criterion.

The problem I see is that both Hitler and Stalin thought that they had the absolute truth and were, therefore, justified to impose it on adults who did not agree with those truths. They had to use force to do it.

Ok (let me try to think like you for a moment); so they were really relativists. My system is really relativist. And of course yours is. All systems are. The difference is that most of us pretend we are absolutists when we are not. Fine; now tell me how we judge which system is better for individuals and the world than another. How does one choose? By what criterion?

We do not seek to impose our morality on you.

Oh, but you certainly do. This is where you are deluding yourself. Homosexuality is increasingly being imposed on those who disagree with it. Radical secularism (and the prohibition of God) is imposed on children in public schools. Incessant liberal bias is imposed on almost all who watch the TV news, read the newspaper, or attend college. Affirmative action and quotas are imposed; all attempts to oppose these on principle or the fact that they haven't accomplished their ostensible purpose are met with the charge of racism, etc., etc. I could easily give a dozen more examples. "Political correctness" is the most obvious example of this coercion of supposed "oh-so-tolerant relativists." And of course the preborn children have your "non-coercive relativism" imposed on them, to the extent that their deaths are "imposed" upon them.

The reason you think you�re spinning your wheels is that you haven't understood yet what the absolute/relative question is all about. It is not Christianity against hedonism, or morality versus immorality, for example. It is whether any system, yours, mine or my neighbor's is absolute or relative.

And if indeed I haven't understood it (which I deny) it is precisely because you continually reply with patronizing answers like this, regularly avoiding my pertinent questions, even now making arguments that my replies are too long and rhetorically "tricky"; therefore you can't answer them.

I didn't realize that you didn't see that until quite recently. So the fault is mine too. I should have made it clearer from the start.

Now you're getting somewhere. Perhaps you will start soon to actually present your view so that an dense ignoramus like myself (fond of quackery) can begin to understand it.

I had no desire or knowledge to write for your website. In fact, I just found out that I apparently am. The challenge that started this was sent to several people.

Sorry about that; I assumed that you knew that I liked to post debates on my website (like our evolution debate), and that I wouldn't have spent this much time otherwise (I never would have argued against abortion, e.g., nearly as vigorously). Aren't you pleased with your answers? Aren't they ready for public consumption? Aren't you happy for further opportunity to reveal the falsity of the Christian/Catholic position?

Many of your arguments have nothing to do with the original question, namely whether any morality, Church or other, is absolute. We contend no morality is based on useful absolutes, not even that of the Church.

I'm well aware of that; I continue to await your fuller presentation and defense of your view, beyond the summary statements and bare assertions, which you have made about 50 times now (BIG YAWN). Failing that, I will opt out very soon, as repetition and unwillingness to truly interact with another position bores me real quick. Sorry; just a quirk in my personality, I reckon.

Relativists don't believe in diabolical institutions either, just as they don�t believe in divine institutions.

That's okay; the devil is delighted to use like puppets people who don't believe in him. Whatever rationale they offer up to kill babies or disbelieve in the divinity of Jesus and the Resurrection, the devil's end goals are accomplished.

But you never agreed or disagreed with what the paragraph said. It said that knowing that murder is always wrong tells us nothing. It is a tautology. Like saying that doing wrong is bad.

You speak the language of "tautologies" when we give our view. But you quickly retreat to anthropology when you give your view (as if what is establishes what should be). Yet when I subject your view to philosophical and logical scrutiny, you want none of that. I attempt to rationally defend my view in the greatest detail, and you come back with "but you never understood my view, or that yours is really relativist." This dialogue is becoming downright farcical; comic; absurd.

And as I have stated from page one on, that murder is wrong is an absolute so self-evident that it contains no information whatsoever.

How could it be self-evident but contain no information. Without information, how could it be evident at all?

The aborigines who killed the missionaries agreed that murder is wrong but they were not committing murder, in their morality. They were defending their culture, their beliefs, their territory, what have you.

Exactly as in my position. Thank you.

As to Hefner, Trump and Ted Turner, although they probably call themselves humanists, they hardly qualify as the philosophers of relativism. What would you say if I took for Christian philosophical thought what Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have to say?

I didn't say they were philosophers; I used them examples of the logical outcome of the position: hedonism, narcissism, and liberal propagandizing and grandstanding, respectively.

The essence of my argument was stated in the original challenge, or at least implied. It is that there is no absolute morality. More precisely, there are no useful absolutes in morality that have withstood the test of history. I have stated that at least five times in different words, but you don't think that is correct. That you disagree is one thing. That you fault me for not stating the essence of my argument is quite another.

Poorly phrased on my part: I think you need to flesh out your view and subject it to scrutiny in its particulars, as I have called for times without number. Indeed you have stated its essence in brief proclamations. But they are hardly more substantive than you say our dictums like "murder is always wrong" are.

I would like to stress, for your readers, that I just learned of your intentions to put this on your website. Next time, please tell me in advance.

Sorry again; but how would you have argued any differently, I wonder? If you like, I can take out your portions and simply post mine. I thought you would appreciate the airing of your views on a Christian website, since you complain vociferously that Christians are reluctant to present opposing viewpoints in their own forums. Do you wish to argue differently, knowing that many Christians will read this? I can give you space to clarify and summarize your viewpoint, if you like.

XXI. Mini-Debate About True Science and the Place of Reason in Christianity

If you are able to distinguish true science from quackery, I would be all for it. However, what you have shown me on your website and in your messages does not support that. And you get just as frustrated with objections from people about Bible or Church that you think unqualified.

(Shaking head). This is breathtaking in its condescension. I will let our readers decide if my view of science reduces to an espousal of "quackery" in one of the longest papers on my website -our previous debate: "Debate With a Scientist on the Methodology of Citing Evolutionists With Regard to the Fossil Record as a Potential Disproof of Evolution."

Are (materialist) evolutionists literally incapable of imagining any alternate view of origins and biological diversity as being anything other than "quackery" or "pseudo-science" or "thinly-veiled fundamentalism," etc.? I must confess that I expected at least a rudimentary fairness from you, with regard to dissenting views, but I have been deeply disappointed. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. You have just turned out like virtually every other agnostic materialist evolutionist I have come across (with very rare exceptions, such as Robert Jastrow).

Thank you for you great confidence in my knowledge and understanding of history. And you may find plenty of non-Catholic scholars to support you, but they will be Christians. Much of what the Christians learned in the Middle Ages came to them from Islam. Islam also preserved old manuscripts that had got lost in Christianity or that sat rotting on some forgotten monastery shelf. Aquinas learned about Aristotle from Latin translations of manuscripts brought to Spain and Italy from Africa.

So because Christianity drew intellectually from Islam, therefore we can minimize its crucial role in the origins of science?

The first physicists we know about were the Ionians of the sixth and fifth centuries BC. We know about Thales, Anaxagoras, Anaximander and a few others. That just to say that Christianity was not a prerequisite for serious scientific thought.

I didn't say that. I said modern science developed in a Christian milieu.

Most advances in mathematics were made in Islamic countries before they made their way into Europe.

Mathematics is not science, in that it is not directly empiricism. It is only about relations, like logic is. This is irrelevant to the point I was making.

I don�t know enough about Islamic apologetics to judge their arguments but I doubt that they are as simple as you make them out to be.

They have little apologetics, as the position is essentially fideism and faith without necessarily reasons. They do vigorously attack Christianity in various ways, just as you have offered little but critiques of others - your own view being full of holes and rationally unsustainable.

However, I have heard most Christian arguments, and they don't convince anybody but Christians. So that's probably a wash.

It is true that apologetics (in actual effect) is far more for Christians themselves or true inquirers (as opposed to controversialists and polemicists and Christian-bashers). I've known this ever since I have been doing it (now 18 years). I discussed this earlier a bit. We are commanded to "give an answer" for our faith. We are under no illusion that unbelievers are likely to be convinced by our arguments. But the person "in the middle" who is willing to consider both sides impartially (insofar as such is possible) may very well be positively affected (hence the purpose of posting these debates).

XXII. Disputes About Evasiveness, "Rhetorical Tricks," and the Nature of True Dialogue

<<>>: To me it is simply a matter of replying directly to the opponent's arguments, especially if they are set forth in a pointed question form, i.e., as a challenge. It seems to me that on several occasions during this dialogue you have simply avoided answering my arguments, and instead made simple summary statements which do not constitute a "counter-reply" at all.

Other times you refuse to offer any answer whatsoever, and instead level ad hominem attacks on the people I cite (e.g., Harvey and Muggeridge). I thought the Harvey quote was filled with relevant, provocative thoughts, regardless of whether or not one agrees with the gist of it (which is beside the point, where relevance is concerned). Muggeridge is certainly thoughtful and colorful, whatever one thinks of him or his opinions. I think his observations deserve some rudimentary consideration. He did not get to where he was because he was a blithering idiot. Would you say that Christians such as Solzhenitsyn, Richard John Neuhaus, George Gilder, William Bennett, Michael Novak, Joseph Sobran, or Chuck Colson (cultural commentators all) are equally irrelevant to our discussion? Or that I am more equipped to argue all these things than they are?

I certainly hope that you are better equipped than Colson, Sobran, Novak or Bennett, or we are indeed wasting our time.

I am not. So does that mean that this debate is now over?

I don't know Gilder. I would pay attention to Neuhaus if the argument was pertinent.

So he is one Christian who isn't dead that you would pay attention to (besides me). Some progress . . . . :-) Muggeridge, Colson, Bennett et al are all immediately dismissible.

The impression I get is that you like to back up your arguments with authority. But they make the same argument anyway, so if I answer your argument, I have answered your quotes too, with few exceptions.

In this instance, I was simply asking what Christians you thought were worthy to be listened to (anyone can see the original context not too many paragraphs above) - after you had savaged Muggeridge with a truly silly ad hominem attack. Hardly an appeal to authority. I have quoted a few other Christians because I thought they made a point thoughtfully and eloquently. This isn't an appeal to authority per se. If I wanted to do that, I would quote the Bible or Trent or papal encyclicals (which I know you don't care beans about in the first place LOL). You still have ignored 90% of the substance of the quotes I have offered. This excuse won't do, in my opinion.

Besides, it is almost an insult to me, since I obviously quoted these guys because I thought they offered something relevant to our discussion. So for you to blow them off in the manner in which you did is somewhat offensive to me (from the intellectual, dialogical standpoint). I would expect that you would and could reply point-by-point, just as I have been attempting to do all along. It is almost a matter of courtesy. If you think a great deal of my points are not even worth answering at all, then we are both wasting our time with this. Good and constructive dialogue, in my opinion, presupposes a certain minimum level of respect for the opponent - enough to motivate one to reply to all their points. It seems to me that continued evasion by an opponent can only mean one or more of three things:

    1. He is unable to answer;
    2. He is unwilling to answer, for one reason or another;
    3. He considers the opposing argument too unworthy for a response.
Four. Your paragraphs are much too long to answer every statement in them. The best way not to get answers to every argument you make is to flood the opposition with arguments. It is a well-known rhetorical trick. Maybe one will stick. And if not, you can always accuse the opposition of not addressing all the arguments.

This is fabulously ironic, and quite humorous. You start all this business with (in effect) a complaint about how the Catholics never want to answer you. Throughout our debates you have frequently alluded to the fact that theologians and priests (and creationists and pro-lifers) - some quite prominent figures indeed - have never replied to your arguments, or only in a cursory, unsatisfactory manner (which you in turn confidently demolish with your counter-reply). You have particularly singled out Karl Keating (one of the leading Catholic lay apologists) for your disdain in this regard. No one answered you when you were a Catholic, so you left the Church, etc. Now you have a Catholic quite willing (and I hope, able) to answer at length everything you throw out, and I think you don't quite know how to react to that (it jus' ain't sposed ta happen!).

So now, your "response" to one of my lengthy paragraphs is an accusation that I am utilizing "a well-known rhetorical trick." This is flat-out false, for at least five reasons:

1. The "rhetorical trick" charge - in my opinion - applies only when the opposition introduces a number of unrelated topics in order to evade the opponent, digress, and/or obfuscate. I despise that methodology myself, and always point it out when it occurs (I describe it as "1001 topics" or "the slippery fish" - I've done so in this very debate). But of course my replies - though admittedly long, and maybe overlong - are on subject and deal directly with your preceding remark. That's my style, as a Socratic. This very answer itself is an example of this. Nothing here is off-topic, let alone an attempt to obfuscate or obscure the subject at hand.

2. If there are in fact five or ten countering points relevant to the argument you make, then it is not at all improper to introduce them. If you don't like that, that's too bad - life is tough. Make a better argument, and it won't have to be subjected to five or more distinct counter-arguments. If you offer a compelling argument, I guarantee you I won't waste my time writing two paragraphs of mere "tricky" rhetoric. I would just say I have no answer to it (as I have done more than once in the present debate).

3. Oftentimes, your argument is merely a stereotypical charge against Christianity - well-known from pop secular culture and the standard contra-Catholic arguments which have been making the rounds for hundreds of years, as if they were invulnerable. These are not often addressed, though they are repeated endlessly (because they work with people unacquainted with the background factors and historical facts involved). To answer such arguments, replete with factual errors, falsehoods, and logical fallacies, takes a lot of ink. It's not my fault that any particular point of yours turns out to be untrue, upon close examination. To overcome that takes many words. I write whatever is necessary to refute my opponent thoroughly and hopefully unanswerably (unless he instead persuades me of the wrongness of one of my positions, as when I converted to Catholicism). I make no apologies for that - especially because your goal is to refute Christianity. As a Christian apologist I do everything in my power to see that you and your fellow nonbelievers fail in that unworthy endeavor. You do the same when you are confident about something, whether it be evolution, or the Galileo incident, or child-killing. "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen."

4. If anyone has engaged in this "tactic," it has been you, by introducing at various stages of the debate numerous (not directly-related) garden-variety polemics against Christianity and the Church (e.g., "Jesus never claimed to be God," alleged contradictions in the Bible, etc.). At the same time you stated that you didn't wish to engage in apologetics in this debate, so what am I to do?

5. As for your implication that I engage in the following: "Maybe one will stick. And if not, you can always accuse the opposition of not addressing all the arguments," this is also untrue. I don't introduce entirely new arguments off-topic to set you up and accuse you of not answering. That would be silly and childish. No, what I have called for repeatedly from you is the simplest answers to the most basic questions of this debate: what exactly is relativism?, how does it work out in real life?, how does it reply to ethical propositions x, y, z,? etc. You have been unwilling to illustrate to me your most fundamental premises. Instead you keep repeating the charge that I don't know what relativism is. Rather than respond directly to my sincere questions (in a teacher-to-student fashion), you come up with this stuff about me writing answers too long to answer at all, and utilizing rhetorical tricks for their own sake, just like the Sophists I have said I despise. This will not do . . .

That, incidentally, was another reason why I dismissed your Harvey quote. He offered forty-two reasons for the Columbine tragedy. How many reasons do you need?

Let me see if I can follow this logic: the more reasons offered for a position, the less likely it is to be true, and the less responsibility to offer counter-replies. Hmmm . . . very curious and odd. So if you present 40 "compelling" arguments for evolution, I should give that less credence and attention than if you offered 20 reasons. According to you, the second case would be the stronger proof . . .

XXIII. Plain Speaking: The Sour Conclusion

When I was a freshman at the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium), we had a marvelous logic teacher by the name of Florquin (professor). One day he explained Boolean algebra to us, saying that in Boolean logic 1 + 1 = 0. One student raised his hand and said that Boolean logic obviously had to be wrong since every child knows that one plus one is two. Florquin adjusted his lame leg (a war injury we supposed) and looked at the student while measuring his reply. "Sir," he finally said, "if you want to know only what every child knows, you shouldn't be here." On at least four occasions, you threatened to end this discussion unless I did this, that or the other. To me, that indicates that you are quite willing to talk but not to listen.

I did indeed want to end it on many occasions. That much is true. But let's look at the real reason for my wanting to do that. For the record, my grounds were that a double standard was being applied (viz., that I answered all your arguments while you refused to deal with many of mine, or to fully lay out your position for critique). But in any event look who actually ended it! :-) I was still going strong, despite increasing exasperation . . . Conclude what you will. My overall views and demeanor (warts and all) are apparent to all who read this whole debate, I think. After all, does it not indicate that one is willing to "listen" when they respect their opponent enough to carefully reply to every point he makes? On the other hand, it is lack of courtesy or respect at the very least, which causes one to ignore or dismiss large portions of an opponent's comments, in the course of a supposed two-way dialogue.

There are other indications of the same intention. One is that you prescribe what the opposition has to admit to before you will consider us honest.

Being dishonest and not being consistent with one's own premises (consciously or not) are two entirely different things. It seems that you are equating the latter with the former. To my knowledge I have never charged you with the former. If I have I was wrong to do so.

Another is that you want to prescribe what an ad hominem argument is even if there are definitions other than yours.

Not mine (who cares about my definitions?!) - that of Irving Copi, author of the well-known textbook Introduction to Logic. But even if your remark about Malcolm Muggeridge wasn't technically an ad hominem fallacy (which I continue to deny), it was still undoubtedly a personal attack.

Your latest replies don't indicate any better understanding of our position than you had at the start.

And of course that works both ways. Again, I shall let the reader judge.

That may be my fault, of course, in which case I should reevaluate my teaching methods.

It may also be the fault of your position being false, therefore not able to be agreed-upon by one seeking truth; one who is able - by God's grace - to see through the fallacies, false premises, and immoral tenets entailed by your position. Since I don't agree with your opinion, your only conclusion (judging by this letter) is that I am stubborn and ignorant and unwilling to learn. Couldn't it possibly be that we simply have an honest disagreement?

However, this one instance is unlikely to override thirty years of experience in the teaching field, ranging from illiterate recruits in the army to graduate students. You are just a nut too hard for me to crack (in the idiomatic sense). That's why I will stop wasting more time trying to explain our position to you.

Which is good news in a sense, knowing what I know now about how you approach this debate. May God bless you abundantly. I'll put the whole thing (probably broken down into three or more debates, topic-wise) on my website (editing out only extraneous materials such as our gripes at each other). I think the exchange will be quite informative and revealing on many levels. Thanks for the opportunity to engage in such in-depth dialogue. I had hoped that you would explain your position in even more depth (much more), but that wasn't to be. I can say with no exaggeration whatever that I was perfectly willing to give you your say on my website - at the greatest length (having spent several dozen hours of my time on this debate with you). I wish you the best.

Compiled from e-mail discussions between Dave Armstrong and Jan Schreurs: June 1999.

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