The Greatest Goods

I kind of like to bother people. More accurately I guess, I like them to be bothered. Not just because I want them to experience irritation, but because I want them to think, and then believe things for themselves, rather than absorbing and regurgitating whatever they’ve been taught without critically considering if what they’ve accepted is true or not. This is bothersome to folks of all worldviews.

It’s fun to do to Christians because they’ve already accepted a worldview that includes objective truth so they can’t get off the hook from having an opinion. One thing I’ve challenged Christian friends with lately is their traditional views of some things that are typically considered “good” or “bad”. The more I’ve tried to think critically about what makes a thing good or bad, the more I think we often attach goodness or badness to the wrong thing. I was thinking about this recently while I was running, and because of it, I think I suddenly had an epiphany about what Jesus called the two greatest commandments.

All three of the synoptic gospels record Jesus’ response when questioned about what the greatest commandment is (Matt 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:25-28). He says it is to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. The second greatest commandment is like it he says; to love your neighbor as yourself. These directives seem simple, but at the same time terribly complex. In order to take them seriously, one must first understand what it looks like to love something. I think generally, most people know what this looks like. The next task is to figure out what Jesus could mean by each of heart, soul, mind, and strength. For instance, I’m fairly sure that by strength Jesus isn’t interested how much I can bench press, and by mind I don’t think he means we should just think about God a lot. While I think a detailed discussion of what each of those things means is too lengthy for this space, what can be concluded from the complete set is that what is under this umbrella is your entire being. The very nature of all you are, everything you do, everything you say, everything you desire, and everything you think, should express love to God primarily, and then to other people. Quite often the two are intertwined. Really, it isn’t that profound, since Jesus says all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. It should be obvious, but it’s funny what can be missed.  It seems simple enough, but its actually an impossible task given that by his very nature, mankind is deeply selfish.

Although it is impossible to fully achieve, it seems to me the more I think about it, that attempting to follow these two “greatest” commandments will offer a morally right decision in all cases where a decision must be made. Ideally, no other instruction would even be necessary. Because we need to overcome our own selfish inclination though, and because sometimes we’re faced with competing moral choices, we need (and have been given) more detailed instruction. Generally speaking though, if the decision maker is to first ask, “How will this decision express my love for my Creator and Savior?” and then, secondarily, ask, “How will this express my love for other people?” then coming to the decision that best accomplishes those goals will always be the morally correct one. In other words, the moral value of something, seems to me to be exclusively tied to intent, rather than directly any action itself. In fact, it occurs to me that any decision that doesn’t take these questions into consideration may actually lead to what seems to be a right conclusion, but is actually a wrong conclusion, or vice versa. I believe we also get some things right or wrong some of the time by accident due to tradition and mistakenly tying morality to specific actions, rather than intents. Because we’ve switched off our minds, it leads us to generalizations that leave out final intent or consequence, and ultimately end up being incorrect.

In the following couple of posts I want to look at some examples where I think this happens. In the meantime, if you want a sobering look at how you actually go about using your heart, soul, mind, and strength, just try asking yourself how what you’re doing, thinking or saying shows love to God, or anybody but yourself. You’ll be surprised how far off you are! I know I am. I’m usually asking these questions after a decision to act a certain way, so instead of seaching for love based guidance, I end up seeking love based forgiveness.

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How vs Why

The other day I listened to a debate the took place at the University of Manchester back in October between philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig and chemist Peter Atkins. I was listening to this while camping somewhere up in the mountains of the North Cascades. Now leaving aside the obvious question, (what sort of weirdo listens to academic debates while they’re camping?) what really struck me about the interaction between these two is that Dr. Atkins’ empiricism leads him to believe that philosophy is useless, while Dr. Craig asserts that without the necessary assumptions that philosophy gives to science, science would be incapable of telling us anything. It seems the fundamental difference between the philosopher and the pure scientist, is that the scientist only wants to understand “how”, but the philosopher desires to go a step further and understand “why”.

While walking with my girls through the woods yesterday, we came upon one of my favorite native flowers. It’s a little pink/purple orchid called a fairy slipper (calypso bulbosa). I don’t see them very often. They’re easily missed because they’re so tiny, and typically standing alone. You can see one in the photo I took that accompanies this article. If you look at it carefully, you can see why it is called a fairy slipper. It resembles a delicate little shoe. It’s seemingly intricate design is impressive. It’s a little natural work of art. Botanists and biologists probably have all sorts of impressive things to relate to us about how this little flower came to look this way; how it develops and reproduces; how it’s appearance lends to its functionality; etc. What science fails to explain to me, is why. Not why does this flower do anything it does, because they would tell me that it’s appearance is merely part of the mechanics to aid in its survival. The “why” I’m really interested in though, is really a more profound why I think. Why do I find it beautiful?

I don’t think empiricism can adequately answer this question.  Sure Dr. Atkins and his scientific colleagues may be able to tell me some things about the neurochemistry of the brain and how I find it beautiful, but why I find it beautiful, or what beauty even is, seems a deeply philosophical question. I believe there is a lot to be learned about reality, not only through testing and observation which is clearly a valuable epistemological pursuit, but also through self-reflection and metaphysical realities I observe from within my own mind.

Some people, like Dr. Atkins, will say that the pursuit of philosophical knowledge, by those like Dr. Craig, is a worthless one and that nothing can be known that can’t be tested and observed using the scientific method. This is a patently absurd self-defeating statement though, since the statement itself is, in fact, a philosophical one! Until these philosophical naysayers show me the experiments that prove empirically that the scientific method is the only way to knowledge, I’ll be skeptical of their ability to even handle the question of “how” properly, let alone “why”.