Flash Apologetics in Mary’s Room

People trickled in slowly today. As such, conversation began with fluidity and not much intentionality. We briefly touched upon the ills of modern technology, the legalization of all drugs, the influence of Puritanism on American society and government, and the contradictions of organized anarchy. All these are fruitful topics, and perhaps they may resurface later.

The real discussion began with Steven introducing the Mary’s Room thought experiment: Mary is a girl who has studied the subject of color, and knows all there is to know about color. However, she has lived her whole life in a black and white room, can’t see herself, reads black and white books, and has a black and white computer screen, and therefore has never personally witnessed any color. Suddenly, one day, her computer screen malfunctions and displays a red apple. The question is: has she learned anything new?

The question seems to turn on epistemology. Is the experience of something different from the thing in itself, and is it distinct from other forms of knowledge, and does it count as “knowledge” to begin with?

Some of us said yes, and some of us said no. It seemed to me that to have something described to you, and then to actually experience that thing, are different. It also seems to me that experience could be classified as a form of knowledge, however subjective it may be. Mary now knows what it is like (for her) to see red.

This led back into our discussion about the forms. The form “red” exists separate from the objects that display it, but it is via those objects that we come to know the form through our senses. As in, when we look at a chair, we understand more about the chair than merely what we see–we have a sense of its structure, etc., we understand parts of the chair, we fill in the blanks of what we cannot see, which is ultimately the totality of our perception of it. Our perception is not limited only to the sensory data that we receive. The same is true of the forms. We cannot witness the forms in and of themselves, but we can come to know them through our perception of them as they are expressed by material objects.

As mentioned before, this flies in the face of the post-Hume empiricism which we’ve all more or less been indoctrinated with culturally. To my knowledge, Hume didn’t have solid “reasons” as such for why he denied transcendence (such as the forms, mind-body dualism), cause and effect, etc.– he just didn’t accept them.

In the midst of this discussion, I “came out” as a Christian, and Aramis pressed me on what the Christian perspective on the death penalty might be. I argued that an “eye for an eye” killing of a killer might be null under the covenant of grace. Additionally, ending a person’s life cuts short the potential, however slight, that they might repent and be redeemed.

This led naturally, if uncomfortably, into a discussion of the truth of Christianity in general, focusing mostly on the existence of God. This makes sense because, of course, if God can be disproved, Christianity crumbles. But the problem is, determining what constitutes “proof” or “evidence” for God is already to begin making statements about who or what God is in the first place. (At this point, I went about explaining what I understand to be the “presuppositional” apologetic. As before, I’m going to try to distill the argument, rather than trace its many twists and turns as they occurred in conversation.)

We all believe many sorts of different things, many of which are justified without the use of what we commonly refer to as “proof” or “evidence.” (And here I borrowed a little bit from Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief.) A scientific belief, such as that a certain substance changes from liquid to gas at a certain temperature at a certain air pressure, is one based on evidence. This belief depends on its repeatability, the soundness of the principle of induction, and rests on the assumptions of constancy in the universe and the existence of material causes. Another sort of belief, such as what you had for breakfast this morning, is based not on evidence, but on memory and perception. You don’t open your stomach and examine its contents or return home and examine the remnants on your unwashed plate–you just know, and what’s more, the knowledge is valid. It is a “properly basic” belief. Another sort of belief, for instance, is that the ad hominem fallacy is an invalid form of argument. How might that be proved true? Well, that’s difficult to do, because the classification of the ad hominem as a fallacy is part of the system that we use to determine truth in the first place!

So, there are some types of beliefs that could be said not to require “proof” or “evidence” in the conventional sense, but that are still nonetheless justified. So, saying that the belief in God requires a certain proof is to classify the belief in God into a certain category of beliefs–more along the lines of scientific knowledge. But is this categorization justified? Well, the only way to say so is to say something about God–if belief requires such-and-such, it can only do so on account of something about the nature of God himself. Therefore, since this belief determines what constitutes evidence and how you interpret that evidence, to say that you can’t believe in God because there is no evidence is really to say that you’ve already chosen not to believe in God at the outset.

If the beliefs in God and Christianity are more along the lines of those “properly basic” (as Plantinga argues at great length), not only would it be difficult to frame any sort of argument for them, but such an argument might not be justified. It would not be the case that belief in God could be validated by logical or scientific means, but rather that belief in logic and science are validated by the existence of God.

(As an aside: there are, of course, arguments for Christianity, most famously Aquinas’ proofs. But even those arguments turn on an Aristotelian understanding of metaphysics, something that is mostly in concord with the teachings of Christianity. Since Descartes, I think, Western philosophy no longer subscribes to that sort of metaphysic, which might be why many people find Aquinas’ proofs insufficient.)

There were also some other objections worth noting, including: why would God create some people only to send them to hell, why does he make people sick/sinful, why would he make creation with a plan for salvation that included the killing of his own son, etc. But I would consider these to be “internal” issues–they have to assume the existence of God at the outset in order to be meaningful. Furthermore, if you can’t think of a good reason for God’s doing something, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t one. Another question was, if humans are broken and sinful, doesn’t that mean they are worthless? The answer according to Christianity is no–the price paid by Jesus indicates the worth God finds in humanity. If something is broken, but can be restored, it doesn’t lose its worth. If I have a precious, rare vase that I break into a million pieces, it would be said to have lost its worth, but that’s because it can’t ever be restored to its original state. Christianity says that we can, through Jesus, be restored. The original worth can be recovered (and for the Christian, is in the process of being recovered by the sovereignty of God through sanctification).

The next question was, then, if belief is a choice, why should I choose to believe? My response here was sloppy. I tried to say something along these lines: Christianity would argue that its worldview encompasses and explains more than any other worldview. For example, a naturalistic worldview explains physical phenomenon very well, but it is at a loss to explain our sense of morality and justice. A humanistic worldview explains why morality is important, but it fails to provide an adequate response when humanity fails, or when suffering happens.

I used the example of Chesterton’s madman (from Orthodoxy). If Steven is a madman, and he believes that everyone is in a conspiracy against him, and I say to him, “We are not in a conspiracy against you,” Steven will interpret this as confirmation of his theory. “Of course you would deny it,” he will say. “You would never admit that you are in a conspiracy against me! That proves that you are, in fact, in a conspiracy against me!” But if Steven believed that everyone was not, in fact, in a conspiracy against him, this theory would explain the data as well: I am telling the truth. But unfortunately, there is no way to argue him out of it, and there is no way for him to reason himself out of the belief, since his reasoning is determined by the belief, and not the other way around.

All worldviews explain the world in closed, self-justifying systems, and therefore can’t be argued against per se, but some might be said to explain the world more completely than others. Why believe in Christianity? Well, why should the madman choose to stop believing that everyone is in a conspiracy against him?

There is, of course, more to say about why one might choose Christianity, but that was all we covered. The discussion ended there abruptly because we were over time. However, we pledged to continue it at the next meeting (as uncomfortable as I am playing amateur apologist). Perhaps we will look at some of the classical proofs for Christianity (i.e. Aquinas), or maybe we will pursue this presuppositional argument further and discuss the supposed benefits of Christianity as a worldview.