How and Why to Decentralize the Internet: a Course

I am thinking of offering a new, independent online course about decentralization and freedom. The focus would be social media; perhaps a future course would focus on free encyclopedias. A proposed reading list is below. Interested? Have ideas about what we should read for this?

This could be considered an outgrowth of last year's work on the Declaration of Digital Independence and the social media strike. As I said in this Wired article, at some point after we do the strike, we should organize mass try-outs of a bunch of social media tools. I wanted to, but I never did this last year because doing it properly would take time, and time takes money.

A course could help pay for this, though. Maybe we could fund proper deliberations over social media tools by combining such deliberative work with a course. That seems like a good idea. My worry has been that I'd be on the hook to offer a course that not many people were interested in. But a friend just told me about a Gumroad.com feature: you can let people pre-order a product, but the user is not charged until the course begins. If enrollment gets up to a certain number, I will green-light the course, and people are charged when it starts. If there is insufficient interest, they are never charged. Perfect!

Combining deliberation about the best social media tools with a course seems like a good idea for an additional reason: I do not actually want to deliberate seriously about this important decision with people who are ignorant of the relevant issues. Indeed, I would like to seriously review all the relevant issues myself. We got into this Big Social Media mess by going in half-cocked. I propose that we should not do that as we decide what to replace Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter with.

General Course Information (tentative)

Tentative title: How and Why to Decentralize the Internet

Description: A two-to-three month upper-division-to-graduate-level course. focused on reading and discussion. You will read and closely analyze and evaluate many important source texts that go into understanding, appreciating, and making decisions about component projects of the free, decentralized Internet in general and social media in particular. There will be a dual focus on the relevant technology and on practical philosophy (or applied theory). The technical decisions before us must be made based on deep principles.

Instructor: Larry Sanger (Ph.D. philosophy from Ohio State, 2000; ex-founder, Wikipedia; serial Internet project starter-upper; Internet consultant). Maybe also guests/interviewees.

Possible course requirements: most importantly, weekly readings as well as online written, moderated discussions in a forum, blog, or mailing list (haven't decided yet), focused on the readings; probably a weekly video session; maybe 2-3 short papers (feedback offered if desired); probably, participation in choosing and trying out various social media tools, and then later helping to launch larger try-outs of our top choices of social media tools.

Grading: n/a
If you want a grade, I am willing to give you one based on written work.

Prerequisites: None checked, but you should be able to do upper-division college-level work, including (especially) coherent writing and careful reading; you must also be a "power user," someone who is not afraid to read about sometimes difficult technology concepts

Texts: all distributed free of charge; Larry Sanger's first book, Essays on Free Knowledge, will be given to all students.

Reading/Topic List (tentative, unfinished, additions requested)

NOTE: the following is not finalized in any way. If there are topics and readings you want included, please let me know!

I. Background

Internet Governance: History and Recent Developments

  • Laura DeNardis, The Global War for Internet Governance selections
  • Standards-setting bodies: W3C, IETF, IEEE, etc.
  • Governance/policy bodies: ICANN, WSIS, IGF, Dept. of Commerce, etc.

Technical Background: Internet Protocols and Standards

  • Laura DeNardis, The Global War for Internet Governance selections
  • SIntroduction to the Internet's protocols and standards
  • Languages in which standards are written: XML and JSON
  • Decentralized content standards: RSS and Atom
  • Older identity standards: oAuth and SAML
  • Self-owned(?) identity standards: DIDs
  • ActivityPub, ActivityStreams

Technical Background: Content Networks

  • Laura DeNardis, The Global War for Internet Governance selections
  • Old-fashioned P2P networks
  • CDNs
  • Modern torrent networks
  • Blockchain content networks and IPFS

II. The Theoretical Principles

Internet Freedom: Principles and Software

  • The very idea of Internet freedom
  • Eric Raymond, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”
  • Larry Sanger, "The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir"
  • The rise of git, Github, and modern open source software

Free Culture and Self-Ownership

  • The GNU FDL
  • Selections from Creative Commons website materials
  • Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture, selections
  • The "own your own data" movement

Internet Privacy

  • Wacks, Privacy: A Very Short Introduction maybe
  • Schneier, Data and Goliath selections (maybe)
  • Selection from Mitnick, The Art of Invisibility
  • What is digital privacy?
  • Why is digital privacy important?
  • European and Californian legislation
  • The NSA's spy programs
  • The Chinese social credit system

Free Speech, Censorship, and Neutrality

  • Mill, On Liberty, Ch. 2
  • Sanger, "Why Neutrality"
  • Assange, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet selections (maybe)

Online Anonymity and Pseudonymity

  • Selections from Mitnick, The Art of Invisibility
  • What encryption is, what it's for, why it's important, whether it's "too dangerous"
  • (maybe) Larry Sanger, "A Defense of Real Name Requirements"
  • (maybe) "The Rise of Digital Pseudonymity"

Digital Autonomy

  • Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget selections
  • Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion selections

Decentralization and Digital Identity

  • What is decentralization, anyway?
  • Gilder, Life After Google selections
  • What is “self-sovereign” identity mean and require?
  • The essential necessity of DID
  • The grave dangers of DID

III. Social Media

Critique of Social Media

  • The Social Network (2010 film)
  • Carr, What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains selections
  • Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now selections
  • Shoshana Zuboff, Age of Surveillance Capitalism selections
  • Newport, Digital Minimalism selections (maybe)

Decentralized Social Media Projects

  • IndieWeb and Mastodon
  • Conservative social media: Gab, Minds, Bitchute, and Parler

What Next?

  • Larry Sanger, "Toward a Declaration of Digital Independence" and "Declaration of Digital Independence"
  • Fair methods for organizing mass try-outs of social media tools


Toward a Superior News Service

Do you run a news startup that features original reporting—not just news aggregated from other sources? Do you want to make it a standout, the sort of service people will point to as "the best solution to all the problems with fake news"? Then I want to give you some free advice. And look in the comments to see if anyone agrees that this is a good idea. Maybe not. We will see.


No sensible reader accepts the claims of journalists without question anymore, if ever they did. Considering their track record, especially in recent years, this is only appropriate. Journalists might not like this state of affairs, but it is not likely to go away anytime soon. The reason we are more aware of journalistic malpractice today than ever before is that sources are often as close as the reporters who report on them. Besides, reporters wear their bias on their sleeve. It follows that responsible news consumption must be critical.

It follows that we need new and better tools to decide whether various claims made are actually accurate. And that is really the root of the insight I want to give you:

Stop thinking of journalism as writing a story. Start thinking of it as sharing research notes.

What does this mean?

Well, what is the purpose of journalism in the first place? I propose to back to basics: let us set aside the ideological purposes of journalism and think about the more essential function or activity, both from the reporter's and from the reader's perspective. The reporter is trying to introduce the reader to some new facts as accurately and efficiently, preferably in a narrative that captures the reader's interest, perhaps while advancing an editorial angle (not that I approve of the latter). Surely, as old school journalists think, that is enough.

The reader is indeed trying to apprise himself of new facts. But he has to negotiate at least three issues that are at the forefront of his mind:

  1. Importance: How important is this news, really? What might make it important, if it is? Has it been blown out of proportion?
  2. Credibility: Is the purported news credible? Is there adequate evidence, especially in terms of sourcing, to believe it? What is the confidence level of the news?
  3. Neutrality: Are there important facts being left out? Would other sources disagree?

I do not think reporters dwell much on these needs of the reader. For one thing, standard journalistic practice in 2020 is fixated on creating narrative, as if they were novelists or something. In so doing, a reporter might give enough background necessary to appreciate the importance of the story; it might say enough about sources to establish the credibility of the information; it might lay out the context sufficiently that the reader can appreciate that a complete, appropriate range of views are being presented in a way that invites the reader to make up his own mind.

But these days, most news stories do none of this. Stories are presented as if they were all uniformly important, for often undisclosed reasons. Articles tend to lead with sensational claims, without considering why sources (or journalists) might exaggerate. Sources are frequently anonymous, and even when a source is fully identified, key information—specifically why they are in a position to know—is hidden or obscured. The most relevant scientific data, video evidence, documents, etc., are only sometimes included. As to neutrality, that has mostly gone the way of the dodo; but it is still something readers desperately want. This is not a quirk. Responsible readers know they must have the whole story, told from all sides, if they are to come to a rational opinion about it. Otherwise they know they are probably being manipulated.

Imagine, instead of this sort of hit-or-miss news article, readers were presented a news research summary, which featured:

  • Bullet points summarizing the main facts, in order of importance (together with sources).
  • A collection of key quotations from source interviews and documents.
  • A list of sources (people), with their most specific relevant qualifications in the relevant subject matter fully stated, at the top of the article. If a source is anonymous, then as much information as possible (such as that a person is "a retired U.S. intelligence official").
  • A list of any available supporting media, including images, videos, links to or copies of documents and polls, etc. A nice subsection would be a list of relevant tweets and other social media sources (assuming they are newsworthy).
  • A list of previous reporting consulted.
  • A background narrative or, perhaps better, answers to likely questions about matters necessary to understand in order to appreciate the news, its importance, relevant controversies, etc.
  • Recent commentary on the issues involved, scrupulously divided into competing sides as necessary.
  • Now, if in addition to this you wanted to have a traditional news narrative, that would be OK, as a "nice-to-have"; but I suspect that, once all these other resources were marshaled, the narrative would be regarded as a boring aside that is better skipped.

In short, what we really need is a resource that we can use to research and come to our own conclusions. Of course, a news research summary could be made just as biased as traditional journalism; but if done well, it would be exactly the sort of thing professional fact-checkers need to do their work. In any event, a startup that developed such resource pages should use trial and error to determine precisely the best format; it is not especially clear to me what the very best format would look like. Certain kinds of reports would have specific requirements; for example, a report about a poll should include a section, with both summary and details, about polling methodology and about the pollster.

If done well, I and I think many people would be willing to put down good money for such reporting.

Theoretically, this could be crowdsourced, e.g., on a wiki, but offhand I am inclined to think a crowdsourced version would not work out very well for the simple reason that people do not generally volunteer to do difficult gruntwork, and compiling this sort of resource would be quite difficult work indeed. But maybe; I could be wrong.


God Exists

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Wikipedia Is Badly Biased

The Uncyclopedia logo. Maybe more appropriate for Wikipedia itself now.

Wikipedia's "NPOV" is dead.((The misbegotten phrase "neutral point of view" is a Jimmy Wales coinage I never supported. If a text is neutral with regard to an issue, it lacks any "point of view" with regard to the issue; it does not take a "neutral point of view." My preferred phrase was always "the neutrality policy" or "the nonbias policy.")) The original policy long since forgotten, Wikipedia no longer has an effective neutrality policy. There is a rewritten policy, but it endorses the utterly bankrupt canard that journalists should avoid what they call "false balance."((On this, see my "Why Neutrality?", published 2015 by Ballotpedia.)) The notion that we should avoid "false balance" is directly contradictory to the original neutrality policy. As a result, even as journalists turn to opinion and activism, Wikipedia now touts controversial points of view on politics, religion, and science. Here are some examples from each of these subjects, which were easy to find, no hunting around. Many, many more could be given.

Wikipedia's favorite president?

Examples have become embarrassingly easy to find. The Barack Obama article completely fails to mention many well-known scandals: Benghazi, the IRS scandal, the AP phone records scandal, and Fast and Furious, to say nothing of Solyndra or the Hillary Clinton email server scandal—or, of course, the developing "Obamagate" story in which Obama was personally involved in surveilling Donald Trump. A fair article about a major political figure certainly must include the bad with the good. The only scandals that I could find that were mentioned were a few that the left finds at least a little scandalous, such as Snowden's revelations about NSA activities under Obama. In short, the article is almost a total whitewash. You might find this to be objectively correct; but you cannot claim that this is a neutral treatment, considering that the other major U.S. party would treat the subject very differently. On such a topic, neutrality in any sense worth the name essentially requires that readers not be able to detect the editors' political alignment.

Not Wikipedia's favorite president

Meanwhile, as you can imagine, the idea that the Donald Trump article is neutral is a joke. Just for example, there are 5,224 none-too-flattering words in the "Presidency" section. By contrast, the following "Public Profile" (which the Obama article entirely lacks), "Investigations," and "Impeachment" sections are unrelentingly negative, and together add up to some 4,545 words—in other words, the controversy sections are almost as long as the sections about his presidency. Common words in the article are "false" and "falsely" (46 instances): Wikipedia frequently asserts, in its own voice, that many of Trump's statements are "false." Well, perhaps they are. But even if they are, it is not exactly neutral for an encyclopedia article to say so, especially without attribution. You might approve of Wikipedia describing Trump's incorrect statements as "false," very well; but then you must admit that you no longer support a policy of neutrality on Wikipedia.

I leave the glowing Hillary Clinton article as an exercise for the reader.

On political topics it is easiest to argue for the profound benefits—even the moral necessity—of eliminating bias in reference works. As I argue in my 2015 essay, "Why Neutrality," we naturally desire neutrality on political and many other topics because we want to be left free to make up our own minds. Reference, news, and educational resources aimed at laying out a subject in general should give us the tools we need to rationally decide what we want to think. Only those who want to force the minds of others can be opposed to neutrality.

"Prior to prohibition, cannabis was available freely in a variety of forms," says Wikipedia, helpfully.

Wikipedia can be counted on to cover not just political figures, but political issues as well from a liberal-left point of view. No conservative would write, in an abortion article, "When properly done, abortion is one of the safest procedures in medicine," a claim that is questionable on its face, considering what an invasive, psychologically distressing, and sometimes lengthy procedure it can be even when done according to modern medical practices. More to the point, abortion opponents consider the fetus to be a human being with rights; their view, that it is not safe for the baby, is utterly ignored. To pick another, random issue, drug legalization, dubbed drug liberalization by Wikipedia, has only a little information about any potential hazards of drug legalization policies; it mostly serves as a brief for legalization, followed by a catalog of drug policies worldwide. Or to take an up-to-the-minute issue, the LGBT adoption article includes several talking points in favor of LGBT adoption rights, but omits any arguments against. On all such issues, the point is that true neutrality, to be carefully distinguished from objectivity, requires that the article be written in a way that makes it impossible to determine the editors' position on the important controversies the article touches on.

Gospel reliability is "uncertain," Wikipedia says, neutrally.

What about articles on religious topics? The first article I thought to look at had some pretty egregious instances of bias: the Jesus article. It simply asserts, again in its own voice, that "the quest for the historical Jesus has yielded major uncertainty on the historical reliability of the Gospels and on how closely the Jesus portrayed in the Bible reflects the historical Jesus." In another place, the article simply asserts, "the gospels are not independent nor consistent records of Jesus' life." A great many Christians would take issue with such statements, which means it is not neutral for that reason—in other words, the very fact that most Christians believe in the historical reliability of the Gospels, and that they are wholly consistent, means that the article is biased if it simply asserts, without attribution or qualification, that this is a matter of "major uncertainty." In other respects, the article can be fairly described as a "liberal" academic discussion of Jesus, focusing especially on assorted difficulties and controversies, while failing to explain traditional or orthodox views of those issues. So it might be "academic," but what it is not is neutral, not in the original sense we defined for Wikipedia.

Of course, similarly tendentious claims can be found in other articles on religious topics, as when the Christ (title) article claims,

Although the original followers of Jesus believed Jesus to be the Jewish messiah, e.g. in the Confession of Peter, Jesus was usually referred to as "Jesus of Nazareth" or "Jesus, son of Joseph".[11] Jesus came to be called "Jesus Christ" (meaning "Jesus the Khristós", i.e. "Jesus the Messiah" or "Jesus the Anointed") by later Christians, who believe that his crucifixion and resurrection fulfill the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament.

This article weirdly claims, or implies, a thing that no serious Biblical scholar of any sort would claim, viz., that Jesus was not given the title "Christ" by the original apostles in the New Testament. These supposed "later Christians" who used "Christ" would have to include the apostles Peter (Jesus' first apostle), Paul (converted a few years after Jesus' crucifixion), and Jude (Jesus' brother), who were the authors of the bulk of the epistles of the New Testament. "Christ" can, of course, be found frequently in the epistles.((Both in the form "Jesus Christ" (e.g., 1 Peter 1:1, Jude 1:1) and in the form "Christ Jesus" (1 Corinthians 1:2).)) Of course, those are not exactly "later Christians." If the claim is simply that the word "Christ" does not appear much in the Gospels, that is true enough (though it can be found four times in the book of John), but it is also a reflection of the fact that the authors of the Gospels instead used "Messiah," and quite frequently; the word means much the same as "Christ." For example, he is called "Jesus the Messiah" in the very first verse of the New Testament (Matthew 1:1). Clearly, these claims are tendentious and represent a point of view that many if not most Christians would dispute.

It may seem more problematic to speak of the bias of scientific articles, because many people do not want to see "unscientific" views covered in encyclopedia articles. If such articles are "biased in favor of science," some people naturally find that to be a feature, not a bug. The problem, though, is that scientists sometimes do not agree on which theories are and are not scientific. On such issues, the "scientific point of view" and the "objective point of view" according to the Establishment might be very much opposed to neutrality. So when the Establishment seems unified on a certain view of a scientific controversy, then that is the view that is taken for granted, and often aggressively asserted, by Wikipedia.

Neutral information, representing a scientific consensus with no dissent, I'm sure.

The global warming and MMR vaccine articles are examples; I hardly need to dive into these pages, since it is quite enough to say that they endorse definite positions that scientific minorities reject. Another example is how Wikipedia treats various topics in alternative medicine—often dismissively, and frequently labeled as "pseudoscience" in Wikipedia's own voice. Indeed, Wikipedia defines the very term as follows: "Alternative medicine describes any practice that aims to achieve the healing effects of medicine, but which lacks biological plausibility and is untested, untestable or proven ineffective." In all these cases, genuine neutrality requires a different sort of treatment.

Again, other examples could be found, in no doubt thousands of other, perfectly unexciting topics. These are just the first topics that came to mind, associated as they are with the culture wars, and their articles on those topics put Wikipedia very decidedly on one side of that war. You should not be able to say that about an encyclopedia that claims to be neutral.

It is time for Wikipedia to come clean and admit that it has abandoned NPOV (i.e., neutrality as a policy). At the very least they should admit that that they have redefined the term in a way that makes it utterly incompatible with its original notion of neutrality, which is the ordinary and common one.((That it was Wikipedia's original notion, see the Nupedia "Lack of Bias" policy, which was the source of Wikipedia's policy, and see also my final (2001) version of the Wikipedia neutrality policy. Read my "Why Neutrality?" for a lengthy discussion of this notion.)) It might be better to embrace a "credibility" policy and admit that their notion of what is credible does, in fact, bias them against conservatism, traditional religiosity, and minority perspectives on science and medicine—to say nothing of many other topics on which Wikipedia has biases.

Of course, Wikipedians are unlikely to make any such change; they live in a fantasy world of their own making.((UPDATE: In an earlier version of this blog post, I included some screenshots of Wikipedia Alexa rankings, showing a drop from 5 to 12 or 13. While this is perfectly accurate, the traffic to the site has been more or less flat for years, until the last few months, in which traffic spiked probably because of the Covid-19 virus. But since the drop in Alexa rankings do not seem to reflect a drop in traffic, I decided to remove the screenshots and a couple accompanying sentences.))

The world would be better served by an independent and decentralized encyclopedia network, such as I proposed with the Encyclosphere. We will certainly develop such a network, but if it is to remain fully independent of all governmental and big corporate interests, funds are naturally scarce and it will take time.



Idea: A Bible Question-and-Answer App

"I had an idea." Will I ever stop saying that? Probably not.

I think we—whoever is excited by this idea—need to get together to make the world's first nonprofit, open source/open content Bible question-and-answer app/website. Think of it as "The Bible meets Wikipedia and Quora, but with responsible editors." Interested? Read on.

Background. In five days, I will finish reading the Bible all the way through in about 100 days (for the first time). I have had many questions about this fascinating volume. In the last few months, I chased down answers in study Bibles and commentaries, but, well...I think it can be done better. Moreover, I really want a go-to place where I can ask specialized questions that I can't easily find answered elsewhere.

The basic idea is this: A collaboratively-built clearinghouse of the very best Bible commentary, in which users can ask their own questions, too (but without messing up the resource). "How could this possibly work?" you ask. "The cranks and idiots will ruin it." No, they would not! Here is how:

  1. Chapter and verse. Each chapter and verse of the Bible has its own page.
  2. Selection and question. It is possible to select any word, phrase, verse, or set of verses, and then ask a question about it. Anyone can submit a question relevant to fully understanding the text (i.e., matters of interpretation, relevant doctrine, problems, etc.).
  3. Question approval. A group of volunteer editors edit and approve public questions before they are posted publicly. (Eventually there would also be "private questions." See below.)
  4. Quality control through scoring and expertise. Anyone can answer the question, but:
    • The answers must be scored by other users. (We might make a special feature for real Bible scholars so that users could opt to view only their answers and ratings.)
    • An answer does not appear publicly until it has been endorsed with a score above some minimum.
    • Answers are put in rank order by score. How much fun will it be for readers to rate answers? Lots! And Bible scholars can choose to view only those answers rated by their fellow Bible scholars. Maybe there could even be a way to sort answers based on different denominations or theological outlooks.
  5. The same system should organize existing public domain commentaries. It is permitted—indeed, strongly encouraged—to include the content of existing public domain Bible commentaries into the system.
  6. Editors and professionalism. Named and vetted editors encourage volunteer participation, but they are responsible for the final (or rather, ongoing) product, so that it displays professionalism, consistency of style, and usefulness.
  7. Private questions for individual or group study. Ordinary Bible readers would be encouraged, not discouraged, to use the same interface to add their own questions, whether or not they have been asked and answered before, soliciting help from others. By default, these more informal questions would be open only to those who opted to see them, and they would not be displayed by default. Nor would they be open content (or even public) unless the user opted for them to be.

A few tech notes. Basically, we would need to reproduce what sites like BibleHub.com and BibleGateway.com have done (a Bible reader with multiple versions), and then add Hypothes.is to it (i.e., a tool that allows users to add annotations to Bible pages), and then add (a) the ability to add multiple competing answers to the same question, (b) the ability to rate answers, and eventually (c) the ability to sort answers based on user categories, especially scholarly expertise. Basing this app on an existing Bible app would probably be the easiest way. If it is built from scratch (e.g., by volunteers), I wouldn't care what tool you use as long as it gets done!

How will this ever get done? The only way this will happen is if other people step up to the plate and become full partners with me in this project. I am eager to share leadership. While I can serve as project manager/editor, I can't spend a lot of time on this as a volunteer for the simple reason that I'm developing my consultancy business (hey, need any help?). Roles I anticipate needing filled include:

  • Coders
  • Designers
  • Managers/entrepreneurs
  • Fundraisers :-)
  • When ready, editors and participants

If you have the resources, you can make this happen. A few rich folks and publisher types follow me. If you are one of those people and you like this idea, you can make it happen. I won't take a huge salary, but I (and my family) gotta eat. But if you can pay my way, and I am pretty sure I can organize the rest, whether in terms of volunteers or as project manager of a team.

Next steps. Is this going to happen anytime soon? Unless people come up with a bunch of cash or firepower, nope. I will be starting to read the Bible again on March 18, with a new reading group (here, there are 14 of us so far, and you're welcome to join). This time we'll go through the Bible in one year (OT once, NT twice). Going more slowly, I (at least, and probably other members of the reading group) will be using the awesome Hypothes.is tool to record my own questions and answers (started here). This should give us a better idea of what we want the tool to be like, and it will help tide over the appetites of those of us eager to start using the tool.

Interested? Add your name and what you might be able to do for the project in a comment below, and if there are enough people...maybe something will happen.


"Being understood by the things that are made"

As I read through the Bible once quickly, I try to take it as an interpretive principle—which is just an extension of the principle of charity—that I should try to understand the text in a way that will make it come out true, on the theory that that is more likely to be what the author meant.

Now I recently began reading the Epistle of Paul to the Romans. In the first chapter, I came across this very famous, philosophical text:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who [d]suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because what may be known of God is [e]manifest [f]in them, for God has shown it to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and [g]Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like [h]corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.
Romans 1 (NKJV)

I had read this passage several times before, being one of relatively few texts in the Bible that contain something approaching an explicit argument for the existence of God. Even more remarkable is the claim that the unbelievers and pagans "are without excuse" because they "knew God" who is "understood by the things that are made." In the past, I always frowned at and moved on quickly from this startling claim, as something it is unlikely I am able to understand, if indeed there is anything to understand. Frankly, it sounds absurd: atheists surely do not understand God through the creation, let alone "know God." Nor do polytheists understand the nature of a personal monotheistic deity through the creation, surely.

But this time I asked myself, "Suppose this is true. What could Paul possibly have meant?" So I looked out the window at "creation," and there I saw some bare March trees and yellow-green grass and patchy grey clouds, and I asked myself what it would be like to see the creator in that. I saw a sort of stark beauty. It was easy enough to remember more spectacularly beautiful scenes. Of course, such scenes are not God. But if Paul is right, perhaps he means that our reaction to them—one of pleasure, joy, delight, sometimes awe and wonder, and even sublimity—is a reaction, in some sense, to God.

Our sense of beauty is something we are well aware of, but of course we might deny that it is a reaction to God. And yet Paul writes that God is known in some common way, no doubt "both to the wise and to the unwise" (1:14), and hence it is not likely that the manner in which we come to know God (if we do) is something particularly intellectually challenging, knowable only to scientists and philosophers, for example. It is more apt to be something emotional or "spiritual." If "what is known of God is manifest in" us "by the things that are made," then it seems likely that indeed the beauty of the world is that through which, Paul claims, we come to know God.

That is very interesting; it is as if aesthetics were a key to metaphysics. Through our sense of beauty, we come to know God—that, I suggest, is what Paul is saying. But if so, what could that possibly mean?

The text itself is not silent; it does give us a clue. It says "His invisible attributes are clearly seen...even His power and Godhead," and moreover, the proper reaction to such an act of perception is glorify god and to be thankful. What we experience as beauty (or sublimity) is our quite natural and even universal reaction to the "attributes" of the godhead, with the one attribute being his "power." We witness the works of great power indeed with awe and pleasure at beauty; and we witness evidence of the greatest power with a sense of sublimity. The experience of sublimity in the presence of the awesomeness of nature just is the experience of God's power. And you are without excuse, Paul says, if you do not immediately conclude that God is there—that the creator of the universe delights in, intends, and is responsible for the beauty that you see.

Some philosophers will be quick to say, "Of course that does not follow." That would be the category of philosopher I have been in. But if you stop there, then perhaps you will not understand what Paul is saying. For his part, Paul says you are a fool if you do not understand.

Let me suggest that Paul might not be merely doctrinaire and bigoted (and arguing ad hominem) when he says such "wise" philosophers are "fools" for failing to see God in the sublime beauty and power of the creation, something that the "unwise," even (or especially) little children, are perfectly capable of seeing. Again, let us be charitable and try to come up the very strongest construal of his point of view. What could he possibly mean, that would make him turn out to be right, perhaps to the consternation of the philosophers?

He would mean not that we understand some analogy, some design argument, since the philosophers probably do understand such arguments well enough, as far as they go. It would have to be something more basic. And what leaps to mind here is something very basic indeed: there is what, in epistemology, we call a direct perception of God in certain states of affairs in the world. A sense of beauty or sublimity, the thing we cannot deny, is not a reaction to a random configuration of stuff. You can try to reductively explain it, perhaps, in terms of such things as balance and color and whatnot, but even then you still have not explained the gestalt, the overall impression we have of a beautiful scene, let alone why the aspects of a scene should strike us, or some of us, so profoundly.

For some reason, I always think of my childhood piano teacher when I think about "seeing God in nature": she said she believes in God because of the design evident in the creation. I always thought she was endorsing a design argument. But no, not necessarily. The reason many people believe in God, even deists who do not believe in the Bible, is not that they draw a conclusion from their perception of divinity in nature, but rather because of the perception itself. In other words, it is not a conclusion. It is, as two much-admired philosophers, Alvin Plantinga and the late William Alston, put it, a basic belief, rooted in something very much like a perception of God. Alston even wrote a book called Perceiving God. Now I have a better idea of what he meant. This belief is based, Paul suggests, on the direct, unreasoning witnessing of God's power in creation, something we naturally react to with delight and awe, and which we should react to with reverence and gratitude. God, Paul tells us, made a sort of very basic knowledge of himself, the power behind what is observed, available to even to little children. We can see God in creation, he says, as plainly as we can see the trees, grass, and clouds.

But we can, of course, deny this knowledge. "Wise" fools do, Paul suggests; they simply deny this fact staring them in the face, which of course they may do.

So that is approximately what Paul meant in that passage from Romans, I think.

I will leave you with this question. If the creation does naturally (again, if we let it) leave us with reverence and gratitude at God's power, how might that natural reaction help to cultivate the humility, moral ambition, and faith in this power that the Bible wants us to have? Are these things connected? It seems that they would have to be if the God we see in creation is also the God of the Bible.


An Explanation of Divine Sacrifice

At the heart of Christianity is a set of doctrines that appear to be deep and compelling for over a billion souls on earth. But divorced from their context, the same doctrines can sound primitive, ridiculous, unfair, and even insane to the modern mind. In this essay, I want to see if I can do justice to these basic Christian theological tenets. Note, though, that my intended audience is nonbelievers and people deeply confused about these doctrines. Any Christians in the audience are welcome to correct my mistakes, of course.

If you look online for answers to the questions, "Why did God require blood sacrifice in the Bible?" and "Why did God sacrifice his own son for our sins?" then the following are the sorts of confident yet (to the uninitiated) puzzling claims you will find in the answers:

  1. God is absolutely holy and good.
  2. God created man in his own image and loved him dearly.
  3. This meant that God gave man free will and thus the opportunity to sin. And sin he did—a lot.
  4. God, being holy and good, was absolutely enraged at the evil men did.
  5. So God allowed men to perform animal blood sacrifices (and food sacrifices) that atoned for (covered over) their sins. So God forgave them. But eventually, this sacrifice became a meaningless ritual that did nothing to appease God's righteous wrath.
  6. So God came to earth (which was his plan all along: see Old Testament prophesy), incarnated as his "only begotten son" Jesus Christ, in order to make a "perfect sacrifice" of himself.
  7. This perfect sacrifice atones for our sins just as ritual blood sacrifice once did, but in a more perfect way and only if we accept Jesus' sacrifice, which entails believing that Jesus is the son of God. And if you do not accept this sacrifice, you will burn in eternal hell fire.

Many of these points—especially 5-7—sound utterly bizarre to the modern secular mind lacking any theological context. At the risk of sounding heretical, a risk the nonbeliever is all too willing to take, God sounds like an unfair and irrational bully. "So," the atheist snarks,

your God creates these playthings that he loves, even though he must know they will be broken and nasty, so he gets mad at them. That makes sense. Then, instead of punishing them, he allows his playthings to substitute dead and bleeding animals in their place. Sure, that makes sense too. Then your God comes to earth and allows himself to be killed on a bloody cross—essentially, pretending to kill himself, since he comes back to life after three days—and this makes the bloody slaughter of animals unnecessary, never mind that it was bizarre that it was ever necessary in the first place. But you want me to accept this "gift" I didn't ask for, and then...I won't have to slaughter animals anymore? And that will make all my bad actions all right, no problem? And that is why I have to believe in Jesus? And that will stop me from burning forever in hell? No, really, that doesn't make any sense at all. Your religion is absolutely insane.

Anti-Christian atheists have often indulged in variants on this theme. If their criticism is rooted in ignorance, it would be very important for Christians to remove that ignorance. Indeed, all believers must eventually, sooner or later, ask, "Why sacrifice, of all things?" They deserve a good answer. Since there are still a lot of believers, and since, contrary to the atheist, the average sincere Christian seems to be perfectly sane, I think that the atheist must be failing to understand something rather important. But what?

As it happens, this whole body of doctrine is easy for anyone misunderstand. I am sure I do not understand it all perfectly myself, but in any event, here is my explanation of the seven claims above. By the way, in the following I do not argue for the claims or to justify them rationally, but only to explain what they mean. But the proper explanation, as we will see, makes them more credible—or at least not "insane."

1. The Holiness of God

From a metaphysical point of view, if God exists, the distinction between mind and body is not the most fundamental one. The most fundamental distinction would be that between God and the creation. Spacetime cannot exist without matter, so if God created all the matter in the universe, he also created spacetime and lives outside it, just as the theologians say. More to the point, if God is the creator of the universe, he cannot be part of or have an existence that is dependent upon the universe. All this means he exists outside of space and time (he is eternal) and exists independently of the universe.

To say that God is holy, as in the original Hebrew word (qodesh), is just to say that God is utterly apart from his creation. That he is holy in this sense is plain from the previous paragraph. But if that is so, then why should the holiness, the "apartness" or specialness of God as described, make God also an object of veneration, of something perfectly good?

I am not entirely sure if this is quite orthodox, but let me share a theory. Think of some things for which we are praised the most: writing a great book, making a world-changing scientific discovery, building a tremendously useful invention, and let us not forget raising a good child. People who are most famous for such achievements are received by lesser mortals—maybe especially by young people and their admiring students—with something approaching veneration.

So, whether or not you do, imagine you actually thought God existed. He actually created everything you see around you. If all you see around you is man-made, remember that God made men. He made all of nature in all its complexity, all of the earth, all of space. He wrote the laws of nature that scientists think themselves clever for discovering. Imagine there were an actual person who made all that—remember, you must at least pretend to believe, if you want to understand this—then how much more would you venerate such a person, and how much higher, and apart from you and your concerns, would such a person seem to be? Much more. Your respect would go beyond veneration to worship, worship of a being the holiness of which is obvious and awesome.

2. Man Created in the Image of God

God and creation are mentioned in the first sentence of the Bible. In the first chapter, as God's final and greatest (mentioned) act of creation, he made man "in our image, after our likeness." (Genesis 1:26) Elsewhere in the Bible it is made clear that, although God might "appear in his glory" (e.g., Psalms 102:16) and is "made flesh" (John 1:14), in his own person and nature, God is a spiritual being. So it is understood that our souls in some way resemble the great soul, or spirit, that is God.

It is not surprising then that God might have "blessed" the first man and woman (Genesis 1:28), and counted us among those things in his creation that were definitely "very good." (Genesis 1:31) Indeed, throughout both testaments God is said to have great affection for us. This is not surprising, I say, because if you had created the whole dumb mechanical universe and then whipped up some talking, intelligent beings, complete with souls like the great soul that you are yourself, then you might have a special place in your heart for this most complex and interesting of creations (well, except for the angels). You might well consider them your children, to want the best for them, and to want them to be, well, good.

3. Man's Misuse of His Free Will Means He Is Fallen

As the Garden of Eden story expresses, God was pleased to walk alongside Adam and Eve—perhaps only in spirit, or perhaps he was "spirit made flesh" here too. The living was easy and the rules were few: do not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. All was well until the humans ate of that tree. For this, they were cast out of the Garden and made mortal (in the Garden, the fruit of the Tree of Life made them immortal).

What are we to make of this? Why put a corrupting Tree in the Garden? If it must be there, why even make it possible for man to eat its fruit? And if this is the Original Sin, why think it is fair for us to be tainted by the Adam and Eve's sin? Generally, why would God make man only to cast him out and let him shift for himself? As it turns out, the explanation for these questions works regardless of whether you think the Garden of Eden was spiritual (i.e., not a physical place), metaphorical (a didactic symbol of our first relationship with God), or an actual place in Mesopotamia.

There are different ways of understanding the image of the Tree and the doctrine of Original Sin, but here is how I currently think about it. God could have created more instinct-driven animals or automata, but he chose instead to make beings with souls and free will. What it means to have free will is to have the freedom to choose from a variety of options, and in life, indeed, sometimes options are very bad. The "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil" was not an ethics class in a piece of fruit. The place where they were, and the innocent things they were doing there, were already good. The fruit of the tree provided an acquaintance with evil—forbidden, because corrupting. Knowledge of evil was knowledge of how to be evil.

This is doubtless a metaphor, but I think it is a metaphor for man's free will itself. God's will, being perfectly good, is such that simply doing anything he says not to would be bad. Merely eating a certain piece of fruit, regardless of what Adam and Eve did, made rebels of them—and the one person you do not rebel against is God.

God, in his infinite wisdom, did not want anything that had chosen evil action in his holy presence. God is, again, absolutely holy. He is much greater, much farther "above us" in power and goodness; as the creator of all that is good, his actions are the very standard of goodness. Therefore we had to leave his presence. He wanted to have nothing to do with evil.

4. God's Wrath

Now this—the fact that there was any punishment at all—might in itself be hard to fathom, especially for those of us with a very permissive upbringing and living in a very liberal society. Why should God, if he is so much higher than us, care about a few human foibles? Why not let us stay with him, sins and all? And if we smell bad, then why the wrath? Why the threats of punishment, and indeed of eternal hell fire (references are throughout the Bible)? Why does God care so much about every little sin? What about equity—making the punishment fit the crime? Heck, you might wonder, what makes God think he even has the right to judge us?

Let us begin with the latter question. Perhaps the most important thing to notice is an obvious consequence of theism itself, but which secular minds have difficulty wrapping their minds around: if God created us, particularly if we are among his highest creations and made in his own image, then he regards us as his to dispose of. Jesus compares us to sheep and goats (e.g., Matt. 25:33)—herd animals of which he is the shepherd.

The liberal frame of mind naturally wants to regard the relationship between two souls, yours and God's, as one of equals, but that is not how God views it and, surely, his reported stance is perfectly just and understandable. On the view we are examining, God is not your parent. He created you. You are literally his creation and living in his creation. So he clearly has the right to stand in judgment of you. You are his to dispose of.

Notice, I am saying this about a creator and a creation. The point does not apply so obviously between parents and children, for example. It applies to God and to you because he shaped of your very nature and reality.

Very well, even if we concede that God has the right to be our judge, why should he care about our sins? Why would he want to act as our judge? The answer is that, again, he is holy. That he cares at all can be seen—if God is the author of human nature and the human situation—in the fact that standards baked into the creation itself. That is, a certain pattern of honest and responsible behavior will, generally, lead to success. A contrary pattern will lead to failure. But these are just the natural standards for happiness that can be inferred from human nature and the human situation. God's final judgment, by contrast, is based on his holy and perfect standards—is own standards, not those of his creation and certainly not those of our whims or preferences. He judges us by his own impossibly high and perfect standards.

Why? Why not judge us by a lowlier standard? This seems like an important question, and I am not entirely sure, but I have a theory that is maybe in line with Christian doctrine. One thing is clear from the scriptures: God wants us in his immediate spiritual presence. That is part of his plan. But clearly, you are not ready. He wants only perfect things in his presence. But why? Perhaps he could tolerate a bit of slop. No?

Here is the thing: scripture also makes very clear that, on the Christian view, you are still under construction, still being, at least spiritually, created. The Bible is full of references to God's improving, testing, helping, and judging us. Why? Well, here is another point to consider: one of the biggest reasons some people have for doubting the existence of God is called the Problem of Evil. That is, why would a good, indeed perfect, God create something with so much imperfection and even evil in it? Answer: he would not. He is not finished with us. He is perfect, and he wants us to be perfect, like him—not merely "very good." As Jesus said, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." (Matthew 5:48)

But if you bear in mind that God is omniscient and omnipresent—he knows all and can be found everywhere in creation—and if you consider that he surely regards our world as part of what he intends to be a perfect creation, it follows that his work is not finished.

So, in short. Question: How could a perfect God create an imperfect creation? Answer: he could not. Having finished the initial creation of the heavens, the heavenly host, the earth, and man, is still in the process of creating, i.e., by perfecting fallen man. God is a perfectionist, and he is not done with us yet.

And if, in the end, you are not made perfect, you will not be part of the creation when he is finished. That is a key to understanding much of this.

God's perfectionism perhaps allows us to understand his wrath: it is a tool to improve us. Whether his anger in any way resembles human anger is unclear. It is certain that his anger is not out-of-control or irrational. Certainly, unlike human anger, it is completely well thought out and, as he is our creator, perfectly just.

(By the way, I am aware that more argument is needed here: it seems prima facie possible for the creator of this universe to be unjust, like a cruel master. But this is a bit of a side-issue and not as challenging as the rest.)

After decades of secular cultural forces telling us that all anger is bad, that there is no objective morality, and that God does not exist, the very idea of justified (and frightening) moral outrage from an deity seems strange and foreign at best—positively archaic.

But it certainly makes sense, given the Christian doctrines outlined so far. Given those assumptions, it should be neither surprising nor particularly objectionable.

The only seemingly problematic issue left on this head is the notion that God will burn damned sinners forever in hell fire. This, in my humble opinion, has always seemed extremely hard to reconcile with divine justice. Why would God torture finitely sinful souls for an eternity? If God is aiming for a perfect creation, it seems their presence in Hell will still be sullying creation. Why not simply eliminate them after an equitable length of punishment?

My view for now is that a respectable case can be made that the Bible does not require eternal torture in hell. This is a view called annihilationism. A few things make it tenable. First, the modifier "eternal" when applied to hell fire might refer to the fact that "the fire is not quenched," i.e., it is always stoked and ready to destroy a damned soul. Second, the usual Greek word for hell, gehenna, refers to a valley near Jerusalem where worthless trash was burned and destroyed. Third, when the the Old Testament contrasts the saving redemption of the Lord with the other fate, it often describes it simply as "death," "the pit" (e.g., "the pit of decay"), or "destruction." This entails that what God offers the faithful is eternal life, while the other option is utter and final destruction. Finally, in Revelation, it is only the Devil, Beast, and False Prophet and their minions that are held to suffer forever in the Lake of Fire. (Rev. 20:10, 14:9-10) The Lamb (Jesus) is said to be witness to this—but surely he would not be on hand for an eternity as well. Of "anyone not found written in the Book of Life," they are only held to be "cast into the lake of fire." (Rev. 20:15) Perhaps their souls are quickly destroyed in the lake, rather than being tortured forever.

Anyway, I say only that a case can be made for annihilationism, not that I am quite persuaded of this interpretation. If that is not correct, perhaps there is some way to justify inflicting pain eternally, but I have to say it sounds quite unlikely.

5. Atonement Through Sacrifice

Very well. God is perfectly good, and man is created in his image, with free will and the capacity to do evil as well as good, and in fact man's nature is to be deeply sinful. Being perfectly good is too difficult for anyone to pull off. This incurs God's wrath because he applies his own standards to us, as we are among the highest parts of his creation, and he wants us to be able to live with him; besides, being perfect himself, he wants all parts of his creation to be perfect.

So when we do sin—according to the Old Testament—we must atone for that sin, and the way to do that, as laid out particularly in the book of Leviticus, is to sacrifice. This may sound strictly pagan, but it was also part of Judaism, and in fact the concept of sacrifice is central and crucial to both Judaism and Christianity; it is not a side-issue.

But why? Supposing atonement to "wipe away" or "wash" or "cleanse" sin, as the Bible repeatedly puts it, why would it? And why sacrifice—killing and spilling the blood of animals, of all things? If we in our modern age are to take this quite seriously, there seems to be no way to make it sound anything other than primitive, if not positively insane.

Well, that is certainly what I would have thought. To my own amazement, however, I think I have been able to make sense of it. A large part of the problem is with animal sacrifice; but the crucifixion of Jesus put a permanent end to that as a practice. Why? I will have to try my hand at explaining that as well.

But first things first. "Atonement" (in Hebrew, kippur) is often explained by various analogies such as repaying a debt, making whole a lender or someone harmed, making up for a failure, and making reparation. In short, a wrong was done, a debt was incurred, or something was lost; accordingly, he who was wronged, lent money, or owned some lost thing must be compensated fairly. So atonement seems to be somewhat of a legalistic concept and closely associated with justice. Someone who avoids sin (for which atonement needs to be made, as we will see) is said to be righteous, i.e., just and blameless.

It is not debt but sin—i.e., violation of God's laws—that is said to require atonement, not only in the Old Testament but also in the New. Why? Why does God require atonement?

Notice, atonement is not precisely the same as punishment. Old Testament law provides for punishments as well as sacrifice in response to sin; a person was in fact supposed to pay restitution for wronging another person, only then seeking forgiveness from God through the sort of ritual sacrifice called a guilt offering (Leviticus 5:16). The purposes of punishment itself are not quite so mysterious, and well discussed by philosophers; theories include prevention of further lawbreaking, rehabilitation or moral improvement, and indeed retribution or "paying your debt to society," which is something very much like atonement.

Atonement, associated as it is with "wiping away" sin, "purifying" iniquity, or "cleansing" unrighteousness (all synonyms, as near as I can tell), is something different. Atonement is necessary to make things right not with the person you offended, not with society as a whole, but with God, because your sin is a violation of the goodness or perfection that a perfect God expects. So what is that all about?

Let us take a step back at this point and observe that sin (iniquity, wrongdoing, lawbreaking) can indeed have terrible effects on our own souls, on our victims, and on society at large. From a theistic point of view, it also has a terrible effect on something you might not have noticed: it sullies God's creation. It dirties you, one of his highest creations. It spoils the relationships you can have with others, which is another thing God specifically has in his care. It soils things of God that should pure.

There is, in short, a divine dimension to morality and its lack that atheists cannot, of course, be expected to acknowledge. In a theistic conception of God, he is not a bystander in his creation. Indeed, he is very much involved, and again, he is a perfectionist: when he is done purifying it in his "refiner's fire" (Malachi 3:2), he expects his creation to be perfect. (Again, this looks to me to be a key part of a Biblical solution to the Problem of Evil.) But again, he does not want robots. He wants an interesting world of free, intelligent souls in communion with him; hence he wants us to participate in our own purification.

I would like to impress on you that this is not crazy at all, if you are in the habit of holding yourself to high moral principles. Many of us mentally revisit our past infractions with mortification and horror. Things we did even as long ago as childhood we are embarrassed by or even, if they are particularly bad, endlessly sorry for. You might even say they have left a mark on our souls. The Bible is a book for morally broken—but also morally ambitious—people, people who feel sullied by their own wrongdoing or crimes and wish they could get past them, but never can. This is why Jesus spent so much time with "sinners and tax collectors."

All right. So the law, atonement, and sacrifice are essentially tools that God established in order to perfect humanity. How would animal sacrifice be expected "purify" us? That bit still does not make sense, for all I have said so far.

On the surface, the sacrificial victim is a proxy for us. God literally demands blood as a "sin" (atoning) offering and to purify us—but he is willing to accept the blood of a beast that is offered in our place. "But why?" the atheist demands. "This still sounds bizarre. Why would an all-powerful, all-knowing God accept a lamb's blood (for example) in place of ours, and why would he want blood, of all things, in the first place? He looks literally murderous and bloodthirsty!" Or so say the atheists in offering their uncharitable interpretation of the situation.

It will be instructive to explain what is wrong with this complaint. There is no dumb animal or stuff, like a lamb, lamb's blood, or grain, that we can offer God that, being all-powerful, he cannot create himself. As a spiritual being, he would have little use for it. Moreover, he knows perfectly well that the blood of a lamb, for example, being much less important than humans, can be no literal substitute for our own lives.

That means, of course, that the meaning of the sacrifice must be symbolic, not literal. While God was no doubt watching carefully, the symbol was not meant to work a change not in him (apart from propitiation; more on that later, perhaps), but in us. The blood is the blood of life. This was a reminder of how seriously God treated sin: as can be found throughout the Bible, God regards sin as a serious matter indeed, a matter of life and death: as Paul put it in Romans 6:23, "The wages of sin is death." God himself supernaturally carried out a death sentence on people in many places in the Old Testament (see Sodom and Gomorrah, Nadab and Abihu, etc.).

It is not hard to see how sacrifice might have been expected to work a change in the Israelites. First, God had made it repeatedly clear that he took this sinning and atonement business very, very seriously. The fiery fate of Nadab and Abihu—who merely failed to follow protocol in offering a sacrifice—underscored how deadly seriously God took this symbol, or rather, how seriously he wanted his chosen people to take it. The sacrificial sheep or goat or cow or bird, being unblemished (a requirement), was actually something of value to the people. That is why "sacrifice" today, in English, means giving up of something of value in order to achieve some end. Moreover, many of the offerings could be (and were) eaten by the temple priests: the offerings were the people's way of paying tribute to Jehovah by way of supporting his earthly representatives and those tasked with the serious business of atoning through sacrifice.

The problem is that, as the years went on in Old Testament times, the symbol of sacrifice often did little good. Soon enough, not just the people but the priests themselves performed sacrifices in a perfunctory manner, in a way divorced from their meaning. It might originally have been meant to work a change in the Israelites, but ultimately the change was not enough.

It is, perhaps, strange that God would have chosen such an imperfect sacrifice at first. Surely it was obvious that God did not deem the lives of the animal victims equivalent to human lives. Besides, he absolutely forbade, and reserved his hottest wrath, for the pagans, and for the Israelites who adopted paganism, who practiced substitutionary human sacrifice. In other words, it would have done absolutely no good to kill one person in place of another, in order to propitiate God's wrath. That would only have made him more wrathful.

Besides, if the whole point of atonement was to "cleanse" or "purify" us of our sins, it certainly was not having that effect. Why would it? Animal sacrifice, it seems, served only to make us take God's law much more seriously than we would have done otherwise. God apparently tolerated sin, period. Indeed, he was willing to tolerate and forgive—one of the things that David and wisdom literature repeatedly thanked God for was his mercy, forgiveness, and being "slow to anger."

But for a divine perfectionist, sacrifices that worked only an imperfect effect in the Israelites was not good enough. Clearly, a better sacrifice was needed. The oft-empty gesture that animal, food, and drink sacrifice had become was to be replaced by one final sacrifice, that could never be regarded as an empty gesture. And that was because the sacrificial victim was God himself made flesh.

6. The Lamb of God

And now, if you did not know it before, you know why Jesus was called the "Lamb of God" (in, e.g., John 1:29 and throughout Revelation). He is also described as a "perfect sacrifice" (in Hebrews 9:14, for example).

But I am getting ahead of myself. God was made flesh in the form of a man (hence the phrase, "Son of Man") whose arguably chief purposes on earth were to (1) serve as the perfect sacrifice and (2) teach humanity the meaning of the sacrifice and how to partake in it.

Whereas various animals might have had contained blood, the symbol of life, they were still dumb animals whose value was far less than that of any human. Jesus, on the other hand, was the Son of God, who was as perfect as God the Father was, and whose value was infinite. There could not be any more valuable sacrifice than if God came to earth in human form.

But matters are still not clarified satisfactorily. It makes little sense to most modern secular people to say that any sacrifice is literally or symbolically capable of turning aside God's wrath, if the reason for God's wrath is that his own purity and perfection were offended by his creation. (It is sometimes treated as rebellion.) A symbol might work a change in us, but it cannot make us perfect in God's eyes. How could any sacrifice do so?

7. Salvation Through Faith

Answer: just as with Old Testament animal sacrifices, it is not the sacrifice itself, but instead what the sacrifice accomplishes in us.

To explain this, I will begin with a lot of phraseology you might have read in the Bible, and for skeptics, this might seem a little too religious and unpersuasive. I will tackle the critical question after this, promise.

Just as with Old Testament animal sacrifices, the meaning of the sacrifice of Jesus was symbolic. Its purpose was accomplished by the effect of that symbol on us. The brutal and painful slaughter of the Son of God would come to symbolize—literally, this is what the symbol of the cross means—and teach, and persuade us of several important truths:

  1. God loves us so much that he is willing to sacrifice his only begotten son, in an effort to perfect us (that is the meaning of John 3:16, perhaps the most famous New Testament verse). Being perfected, we will be saved from destruction at the "end of days."
  2. If we take the time to investigate the accounts, we will conclude that Jesus really was the Son of God, because (a) he fulfilled many Old Testament Messiah prophesies, (b) he performed miracles in the name of God, and most importantly, (c) after dying on the cross, he rose again, as he predicted he would. Many Christians will tell you that the resurrection was and still is necessary to make faith in the divinity of Jesus possible.
  3. He declared that he was the son of God, the king of the the kingdom of God, prophesied by the Old Testament prophets. He began his ministry by declaring, "The kingdom of God is at hand" (Matthew 4:17). He made it very clear, through his own explicit words ("The Kingdom of God is within you," Luke 17:21) and through the words of his disciples (Romans 14:17), that this means that you may be made a perfect subject of the kingdom of God by allowing the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

In Jesus' ministry, this was presented as news—good news—which is the meaning of gospel. Hence the cross, by symbolizing the sacrifice of Jesus, symbolized or pointed to the gospel that Jesus taught.

Very well. But I am aware that this is likely to be received as only so much religious palaver. And remember, it was such apparent palaver that gave an opening to the atheist who says, "And that will make all my bad actions all right, no problem? And that is why I have believe in Jesus? And that will stop me from burning in hell?"

I think the best way to make this explanation work is by further explaining, first, how it is that God can view sinful humans as perfect, and then to explain how a confrontation of the meaning of this sacrifice—indeed, our acceptance of the sacrifice—can have this result, i.e., the result of perfecting us.

God knows we are absolutely sinful and that it is impossible that this will change—at least, not without his help. God himself is perfect. But since we have souls, somewhat like God's own great soul, and are created in his image, it is possible for the spirit of God—that is, the Holy Spirit—to as it were take up residence within us. Rather than being demon-possessed, God wants us to be God-possessed.

In practical terms, as best as I can make out, this means that if you pray faithfully to God and, in ways you cannot understand, he will work a change in your life. You gain a sense of what his will is, and you discover you want to do it. It is like a friendship or a mentorship, dominated by prayerful study and conversation. He gives you strength to do what is right. He makes you humbler. He makes you kinder. He changes your priorities in surprising ways. He puts you in touch with his other "sheep" so you can pray and do good works together.

But there is another layer to the explanation. Jesus was fully human when he came to earth, just like you, which is one of the most important reasons he is so relatable. If you believe that Jesus is the son of God, then it becomes possible for you to have a relationship with him. Why? Because Jesus is God incarnate (i.e., occupying a human form), and if the Holy Spirit is the spirit of God moving in us, it is also the spirit of Jesus moving in us.

You are enjoined to believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins, and then you will be saved. The wording is important: you can believe that Jesus is the son of God without being saved. The demons in the Gospel accounts recognized Jesus to be the son of God, and of course they were not saved for their belief. But unlike demons, a Christian trusts in Jesus personally, i.e., he has a personal relationship with Jesus, and invites the spirit of Christ to enter into him and act through him, as it were becoming slaves to the will of God. (In letters, both Paul and James called themselves "slave of God.") That is something the demons would not do; insofar as they are demons and not angels, they are essentially rebels. Jesus invites you to be more like angels than demons.

Through Jesus, God essentially offered humanity a deal. The deal is this: if you accept Jesus as your savior, welcoming him into your life, in the sense (very roughly) described above, then Jesus will do so. And then God can view you as perfect insofar as he, a perfect being, is acting through you. This is not to say that he wants you to be a puppet, and he wants to pull the strings. You must as it were freely give your will to him.

Very well. There are still many questions to answer here, but I will sidestep them for now. I am not trying to give a complete exposition of Christian theology but only of this particular set of doctrines about sacrifice, atonement, and the efficacy of faith. So let us return more explicitly to the question of sacrifice: if the purpose of sacrifice in general is to atone for your sins, and if this is a better sort of sacrifice that will go much farther, to make you perfect, then how did dying on the cross actually accomplish that? Why was Jesus sacrificed on the cross?

Of course, you and I did not sacrifice Jesus; that was 2,000 years ago. Rather, Jesus was executed by some Romans at the behest of the temple priests, all with the acquiescence of God. That sequence of events was treated by God as a sacrifice for the remission, or redemption, of sins. The repeated invocation of the language of "sacrifice," the "lamb of God," and "the blood of Christ" was merely symbolic. The symbol, it seems to me, stood for the Gospel, as I said. So how did it save us?

The short and glib answer I propose is: "Well, it sure made a lot of Christians, didn't it? And that got them saved, didn't it?"

I think something like that, ultimately, has to be the answer. Again, God did not change—not essentially—when Jesus was crucified. Jesus did come back in his glory, meaning roughly luminescent appearance, having visited heaven. But as the Word of God, he was there from eternity, according to John 1 and elsewhere, so that was not much of a change; it was just an aspect of him he had not previously revealed to anyone. But the Godhead was not changed by Jesus being sacrificed. We were changed.

Moreover, God sacrificing himself has no effect on us unless we accept what Paul calls God's "free gift" of the forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ. The efficacy of the sacrifice has a deeply important condition. It is not unconditional. And that condition is faith. So why does Jesus demand we have faith in him? Is it, perhaps, that he only wants gullible fools in his heaven? That would be another silly atheistic canard. No, I have already explained it above: unless we do have faith in him, unless we personally trust him, we cannot possibly have a relationship with him, he cannot live in us, and through a sort of friendship or partnership with him, we cannot be made perfect.

I am not sure that this is a satisfactory explanation of why God wanted to sacrifice Jesus for our sins. I am aware that there is a whole body of theology, called theory of atonement, that I am not familiar with. So I suppose I could change my mind. In theologian Stephen D. Morrison's typology, I am not even sure where the account I have given above fits, insofar as my account is coherent at all. (One of the commenters mentions Duns Scotus' theory, which sounds vaguely similar to the one I have above.)

I do not expect this to persuade any nonbeliever, of course; why would it? I have not given anything like arguments for anything here. The hurdles that rationalists like myself must clear are more basic, like the existence of the soul, the afterlife, God, miracles, and so forth, and then accepting that Jesus is the son of God. I myself am not yet persuaded on all of these points, although recently I made a case the existence of the soul. But at any rate, there you have an explanation of why our Christian friends and family seem so excited about a body of doctrine that seems puzzling to many outside the fold. Could I ever join them? Indeed, perhaps I could.


How to Choose a (Bible) Translation

Choosing a Bible translation is not easy or straightforward.

While readability or comprehensibility are important, accuracy reigns supreme, for the simple reason that inaccuracies may be defined as failures of translation. A failed translation is an invention of the translator rather than a representation of the intent of the original author. The author's thoughts must first be "translated onto paper," and from there they are translated into English (or the language of your translation), and from there into your own mental representation of their meaning.

So accuracy beats out readability and comprehensibility, which are also important (as is beauty/poetry). Things are not quite as "accuracy wins," however, because what a translation does, ultimately, is convey the thoughts lying behind the original text into the reader's fallible human understanding, and we are each capable of different degrees of understanding depending on how hard we try, our background knowledge, and maybe our native smarts as well.

A careful, responsible reader naturally understands that he must work hard to grasp the full and rich meaning of a difficult text. Hence it is probable that a diligent scholar working primarily with a "paraphrase" text might, by consulting several commentaries that take apart the key terms, actually come to understand the text better than someone who uses a "literal" or "formal equivalence" translation.

Moreover, many of the more literal translations, like the King James Version, tend to choose more precisely correct words and phrases that, it so happens, are uncommon, abstract, or require background knowledge to understand. Unless a reader makes a genuine effort to engage with the text—to double-check that he really does understand what is going on—then the more "precisely correct" word may leave a fuzzier representation of the original author's meaning in his head than a "roughly correct" word would.

Indeed, it seems probable that if you wanted to read a translation and have the very best chance of getting utterly confused about the meaning of the text, you would choose a difficult, strictly literal translation and then read it quickly and without assistance. If you must read a relatively difficult or obscure text, like the Bible, quickly and without assistance, it is highly probable that you should choose a paraphrase, because then you will emerge from the experience with more of the original author's thoughts.

But make no mistake: if you read a paraphrase, you will fail to understand many things, maybe mostly unimportant things, but some more important and occasionally even crucial things. This is because the meaning you glean from a paraphrase uses more familiar concepts, while the original text is naturally difficult for you because the thoughts behind it are sometimes quite simply unfamiliar concepts. You cannot properly translate the Bible into "modern colloquial English" for the very simple reason that "modern colloquial English" draws on or expresses a conceptual scheme—an integrated set of concepts representing the world—that is quite different from the conceptual schemes used in the Bible.

When you read news or a blog post without difficulty, the reason you understand it easily is that you and the author draw on the same background knowledge and use words or concepts in a similar way. Ancient, obscure, technical, and academic texts are hard to read because they require background knowledge you lack, or because they use words or concepts you have never encountered. This is not to say you cannot learn the background knowledge and concepts, maybe even easily; but it is to say that you must actually take the time to learn, or you simply will not understand the text.

What do these observations entail about translations? By themselves, they do not really help us to choose a translation, because the choice of a translation does not solve the problem of getting correct understandings from a text. But they do entail something important about how to read hard texts, and the Bible in particular.

If our goal is to get the most accurate possible understanding of the text, then we must indeed begin with a literal translation. A paraphrase like The Message or Easy-to-Read Version—and even a "dynamic equivalence" like the Christian Standard Bible or the New International Version—will substitute modern English words and phrasings in place of more obscure ones, as long as they are "good enough." This is "dangerous" for purposes of getting the most accurate possible comprehension, because it gives you a false sense of understanding: you are missing something from the text, and you do not even know it, because it is systematically hidden from you by a misleadingly "simple" word choice.

An example (chosen more or less at random) should make this point clearer. The Good News Translation—a paraphrasing translation—renders Proverbs 15:4 as: "Kind words bring life, but cruel words crush your spirit." This utterly leaves out an essential reference to the "Tree of Life," as in the (more literal, but still "dynamic") English Standard Bible: "A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit." This reference, which requires background knowledge from the book of Genesis, adds richness to the text (the Tree of Life in the Garden of Evil literally gave sustenance to the first humans, but was available to them only as long as they lived in purity, according to God's commandments). This suggests that the gentle words in question give us sustenance of some sort.

But the New American Standard Bible, a literal translation, goes one step further: "A soothing tongue is a tree of life, But perversion in it crushes the spirit." The translators chose the rather obscure phrase "soothing tongue," which the GNT rendered as "kind words" and the ESB as "gentle tongue." What is the original Hebrew word for "gentle" or "soothing" here? Apparently it is "marpe'" (מַרְפֵּ֣א), which one lexicon says means "curative, i.e. literally (concretely) a medicine, or (abstractly) a cure; figuratively (concretely) deliverance, or (abstractly) placidity." Strong's Lexicon glosses the root of this word as "1) health, healing, cure 1a) healing, cure 1b) health, profit, sound (of mind) 1c) healing 1c1) incurable (with negative)."

So the GNT's rendering of "kind," while in the right ballpark and "gentle" suggests a sort of kind care, neither suggests the healing ministrations of something that "soothes" an (unhealthily) irritated friend. Perhaps "healing words" would suggest the original thought most plainly.

By the way, we might encounter a problem with the King James Version, namely, that it renders Hebrew and Greek (very precisely, yes) into common English words as they were used in the 17th century. Hence the KJV has the phrase in question as "wholesome tongue." We think of "wholesome" as meaning supportive of good morals, but that is not quite what the Hebrew text meant, so the KJV rendition is actually misleading unless you also know that "wholesome" also can mean "healthy" (as in "wholesome food"). So, basically, stay away from the KJV unless you have read a lot of early modern texts (like Shakespeare, Milton, Hobbes, and Locke) and such different shades of meaning are familiar to you. I have read quite a few of such texts and am often on the lookout for shades of meaning, so I rather like it.

Also by the way, you might have wanted me to explain the verse in question, so here goes. Proper comprehension of a text always requires context, so here are the first six verses of Proverbs 15 (KJV translation):

1 A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.

2 The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright: but the mouth of fools poureth out foolishness.

3 The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.

4 A wholesome tongue is a tree of life: but perverseness therein is a breach in the spirit.

5 A fool despiseth his father's instruction: but he that regardeth reproof is prudent.

6 In the house of the righteous is much treasure: but in the revenues of the wicked is trouble.

So the proverb is placed among others that talk about, essentially, wise words, the understanding that they reflect, and the consequences of using them (or not). It immediately follows a verse that says that God sees both evil and good. Now, the Tree of Life was a symbol of wholesomeness (in both senses) within the Garden of Eden, and you will recall that there was another tree there, that of the Knowledge of Good and Evil or as I like to put it, the knowledge of how to become evil.

So in this context I would explain the verse this way. He who speaks words that soothe or heal, not merely emotionally but, especially, morally or spiritually—so the words heal the soul, both the speaker's and the listener's—acts in the same sort of life-giving way that the Tree of Life did in the Garden. By contrast, speech that is "perverse" (Strong's says the word is סֶלֶף, which can mean twisted, crooked, and overthrown, a word used often in the Old Testament to describe things that are not functioning well, that are out of joint or indeed unhealthy) is a "breach" (שֶׁ֣בֶר: crushes, breaks) in the "spirit" (בְּרֽוּחַ׃: originally, wind, but meaning the potentially holy inner part of us). In other words, "crooked" words reflect a morally twisted soul.

A briefer but still accurate paraphrase: "He who speaks healing words gives life as the Tree of Life did; but crooked, sick words morally crush the spirit."

"But," you say, "isn't it better just to paraphrase that as 'Kind words bring life, but cruel words crush your spirit'? Isn't that good enough?"

Sure, it might be good enough for some purposes. The problem is that you are getting a stripped-down, watered-down, blurry version of the original thoughts, a version that is not integrated into the original conceptual schemes that become clearer and more fully accessible with the help of a literal translation and the use of commentaries (and other reference tools).

If the Bible really were the inspired word of God, that would mean getting the original meaning as precisely as possible is very important.

Of course, reading the text in the original languages would be best.

"But wait, Larry, what is your favorite translation?" I don't have one yet, although I tend to switch between the KJV and the NKJV, which simply updates some of the confusing word choices of the KJV. When I want to read a passage quickly and I just want to get the gist, I sometimes read the most paraphrase-y of paraphrases, "The Message." But to pick a favorite for careful Bible study, I would have to answer many other questions, such as, "Which are the best source Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible?" and others. I have no time to dive into all that. My point above is relatively simple: the reason a literal translation is best, for purposes of serious Bible study is that it will greatly facilitate the difficult but important job of understanding the ideas behind the original text most fully and accurately.


On the Soul

Discourse about the soul is ancient, continues to this very day online and in academia, and spans many languages and traditions, with research spanning multiple disciplines and, all told, literally thousands of relevant books. I cannot hope to do all of that justice in this essay, so I will not try. My aim is much more modest: simply to satisfy myself, for now, on two questions:

  1. What is the soul?
  2. Does the soul exist?

As a philosopher trained in analytic methods, I will begin by talking about words a fair bit, for the simple reason that this is an excellent way to clarify precisely what the subject is. Some, but certainly not all, philosophical problems can be resolved by carefully examining how we use words.

Let me dive into the first question without further ado.

The Sort of Thing the Soul Is

Socrates, probably just after having asked ti esti?

With any ti esti question (Greek for "what is it?"—famously, Socrates' type of question), the first thing to do is to circumscribe the concept to be defined or analyzed. To this end, I can think of several subsidiary questions, but here is a good place to begin: Is the soul something different from the mind? After all, the mind is something that many of us acknowledge exists; but if we say it exists, do we thereby affirm that the soul exists?

It does not seem so for the simple reason many people are happy to acknowledge that the mind exists, while believing that the soul either does or might not exist. In any event, the concepts seem to be distinguishable, even if the things themselves are not. And even if I decide they ultimately are the same, it will be good to settle on which concept I take to be my target to analyze, because the words, clearly, have different semantics.

It is relatively easy to concede that the mind exists, because it is a much broader and as it were forgiving concept. I mean, there are substance theories of mind as well as bundle theories of the mind; even behaviorist and reductive materialist theories, which deny any inner experience or "qualia," have been construed as "theories of the mind."

Hence the mind is not the thing I want to focus on. The soul, whatever else it is, is irreducibly spiritual, mental, or "inner." Moreover, while we need not endorse any particular theory of substance, the mind is held to be an object of some sort and not merely a bundle of properties, actions, habits, states, or events; it is correct to attribute properties, actions, etc., to it (you cannot correctly attribute properties to a bundle, I think). It simply cannot be a theory of the soul to say the soul just is some mental event such as the perception of a bird or the memory of a smell, or a state of pleasure or pain, or the habit of thinking, or an instance of cogitation. That is simply not the sort of thing a soul is. Such mental events might, perhaps, be said to occur to or within a soul. Nor can a soul be a "bundle" of many such items. A soul is said to be that to which such events occur, if it exists.

Not an accurate depiction of what the soul does.

Let me sum up the latter considerations, which probably went by very fast. There are, I propose, at least three things that characterize the concept of the soul, that help to distinguish it from other, related concepts: first, it is irreducibly spiritual and not material, whatever that means; second, it is an object (a proper subject of attribution); and third, mental events such as seeing or feeling pain or imagining are all, at least possibly, things that occur "within" a soul. So if materialism (or physicalism: I use the terms interchangeably) is true, then souls certainly do not exist; if there is nothing like a substance, object, self, or subject of experience, then souls do not exist. On the other hand, it does not immediately follow that, if materialism is false, therefore souls exist. Nor is it very clear to me that if we have an immaterial self or mind that is the subject of experience, that that is the soul. But maybe it is. I will examine that question next.

The Semantics of 'Soul', 'Mind', and 'Self'

If I have a pain, or see the clock on my wall, or remember an appointment, we can (although some do not want to) say that I (emphasis on this word) am the subject of such pains, perceptions, and memories. But am I my soul? If so, then my soul is the subject of mental attributes. Now, again, those willing to countenance the existence of minds are happy to say that pains, perceptions, and memories are had by minds and, less often, by selves—but, again, not nearly as often, by souls.

So, is the soul, if it exists, supposed to be the subject of experience—or would it be something else? How we answer that question depends entirely on our specific notions about the soul, but in the Western (Christian-influenced) world, we speak about the soul in various quite relevant ways such as:

  • "Caring for the soul": Ensuring that your moral habits and religious, maybe especially prayer, practices are excellent.
  • "A wounded soul": A depressed or bereaved person, or perhaps a person whose faith in God is weak.
  • "With all your soul": With faithful feeling or earnest motivation.
  • "Kindred souls", "soul-mates": People who relate to one another, often due to some similarity, at a deep level.
  • "A feeling deep in my soul": An intuition, emotion, or conviction that perhaps you cannot account for but which you feel strongly.

These sorts of phrases indicate that indeed the soul, whatever else it is, is spoken of the subject of at least some of our experiences, but perhaps especially our deeply-felt emotions and convictions. Can we also attribute evanescent and trivial sensations, feelings, and memories to the soul, or not? I can see a case being made both ways: in describing some slight twinge of pain, we rarely say our "souls" experience such things; we are more apt to attribute such things to our minds or even our bodies (or nerves or brains).

This suggests that 'soul', 'mind', and 'self' differ in function, i.e., the purpose to which they are put in our conceptual schemes. It seems that all three can be the subject of experience. What, then, is the function of the concept of the soul, and how does it differ from the functions of 'mind' and of 'self'?

The usage examples given above suggest that 'soul' is pressed into service when we want to speak of our deep feelings, passions, and religious faith. 'Mind' is much more general, although in ordinary language it tends to be pressed into service when we are speaking of the intellect, i.e., mental activity involving abstract knowledge and logic; although it certainly can be used much more broadly than that. As to 'self', especially insofar as it is used in pronouns like 'himself' and as a strict synonym of 'ego' and 'I' (when referring to one's own self), this is colloquially pressed into service, rather imprecisely, to mean both mind and body, "the whole package," and especially as it exists through time. 'Self'-talk often is used to talk about whole individuals rather than of just the mental or spiritual activity of individuals.

Another important functional difference between 'soul' and 'self' on the one hand and 'mind' on the other is that the former are sometimes spoken of as existing after death—the 'mind', per se, not so much. Probably the reason for this is that minds are associated with embodied experience, i.e., with how we interact with the world, beginning with the senses. If we live on after death, the part of us that lives on might not interact with the world, and certainly not through the senses. This might also be why it is strange to attribute passing bodily sensations to the soul.

But just because we in modern colloquial usage speak about the soul this way, it hardly follows that, if the soul exists, it should be considered to be a different item in our ontology (i.e., the set of distinct items that we say exist) from minds and selves (not to mention spirits). I maintain rather that, however these words differ in conceptual or linguistic function, all three are often taken to refer to a subject of experience (understood broadly, meaning a subject of mental attributes), assuming indeed there is such a thing as a subject of experience. Now, it is conceivable that we have two different subjects of experience within us, a mind and a soul; but this specific suggestion is rarely made and I, at least, am not aware of having such a split personality, as it were. I can confirm in my own case that I possess what philosophers call "the unity of consciousness." I might come back to this issue.

So, although they have different semantic functions, I am inclined to take 'soul', 'mind', and 'self' as synonyms in the sense that they have the same referent, namely, a subject of experience or of mental attributes. The terms refer to the same ontological items. Again, another synonym would be the "I" or the "ego" (which is just the Latin word meaning "I"), as long as this is understood to exclude the body.

Introspection, sort of

Introspecting the Soul

So I say that I or my self is, in a sense, my soul. So what am I? What is my soul? I say in turn that this cluster of semantically related concepts all refer to the same thing, namely a subject of experience. So the soul, whatever else it might be, just is the subject of experience, assuming the subject of experience exists. So if we want to know what the soul is, we should examine what a subject of experience is. There might be, and doubtless is, much more to it than that; but it is at least that.

As it turns out, this is not at all an easy question. We have an intuitive understanding of what it means, and can easily give examples in language that seem to refer to a subject of experience, but explaining what this item is is by no means simple. Whole books are written about it, including one called The Subject of Experience by Galen Strawson. But I have no time to review the literature, and it is not as if I have not already read a lot of the historical source literature about the problem; Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant all have important things to say. But I am going to dive in with my own narrative—here goes.

Let me quickly mention the notion that the subject of experience, whatever it is, just is the brain or nervous system. On first glance, this looks like nonsense. The reason is that the brain has a number of physical properties that it is utter nonsense to ascribe to my soul. My brain weighs about three pounds; my soul does not. And while it seems to make more sense to ascribe mental processes like feelings and thoughts to the brain, we are not now talking about a mental process but instead about a subject of experience. Here, of course, is where physicalists say that that is why they say a subject of experience does not really exist. The "feels" of your experience are just what your brain and nervous system is like "from the inside," so to speak; but there is no immaterial soul or self lying behind it, except as a spurious mental construct. I will return to this view later.

To bring out an insight about the subject of experience, let me draw your attention to the phenomenon of the internal perception of one's own body, called proprioception. I will spend a bit of time on this; I have a specific reason for doing so.

Proprioception is different both from sense-perception insofar as the senses we use to perceive the external world do not appear to be involved (although scientists have described many systems used for proprioception). If you feel an ache in your legs or a tickling sensation under your nose when nothing is tickling it, or if you feel your body to be hanging upside down or to be in motion or falling, you are experiencing proprioception.

While it is possible to sense specific parts of your body, it is also possible to sense your entire body, as when you have the feeling of dizziness. Just as you can have proprioception of missing "phantom" limbs, such whole-body proprioception need not be veridical (i.e., genuine, accurate); you can have the feeling of dizziness and spinning even when your body is at rest.

Through proprioception, you become aware that you are dizzy.

As you can see, there are two different kinds of subjects of proprioception: individual body parts and the entire body of which they are parts. This is true whether or not some proprioception (some internal sensation) is veridical.

Now we can draw an analogy. Consider first that we can sense what is going on inside our own minds via the process, or "faculty," called introspection. Just as there is proprioception of a specific pain in my stomach, there can be introspection of a specific instance of remembering, say, a childhood ball game. But just as we can and do describe proprioception of the entire body ("I'm dizzy!"), can we also speak of introspection of the "entire mind"? And would that not be introspection of the soul?

What would introspection of the soul be like? Again, just as we have a sense of passing internal sensations that are part of an entire body (that we can also sense; "My arm is tingling!"), so also we can introspect various passing thoughts, emotions, and imaginary fears bubbling up from the subconscious, all of which are attributed to yourself. Just as you have a generalized sense of your body quite apart from any specific sensation you feel within it (or about it; "My whole body is tingling!"), you can have a generalized sense of your whole mind, or soul, or yourself.

How would you go about trying to persuade yourself that you have the capacity of such "whole mind" introspection? In much the same way you persuade yourself that you have "whole body" proprioception: you cut out localized, specific sensations. After ignoring all the various pains, pressures, positional information, etc., about your body, there remains a sense of your whole body. Consider something similar but with regard to the whole mind. It helps if you close your eyes and retreat to a quiet, unbusy place—if you ignore the passing thoughts, imaginings, memories, and perceptions, as you attend to what is passing in your mind, you do, contrary to Hume, find that you are aware of something in addition to all that.

The proposal, then, is that that is you: your listening self. Your soul.

If this is correct, then it is perfectly natural if it said to be in prayer or meditation that we best come in contact with our own souls. Both of those involve tuning out the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of both external sensations and undisciplined internal thoughts, and instead focusing on the "still small voice" of your conscience or best self in conversation with God, in the case of prayer, or on nothing at all except the bare self, in the case of much of meditation. Even when we are lying in bed with our eyes closed, waiting for sleep, behind the mad rush of worries and happy thoughts, I propose we can more easily distinguish in our awareness that which has the thoughts.

We are, I maintain, well acquainted with our souls, even if we cannot articulate this acquaintance very well. Of course, the soul- and self-deniers will say that this hard-to-articulate sense of ourselves does not show that there is in fact a soul. It is, at best, a piece of highly fallible evidence, they will say. But I maintain, to the contrary, that there is no reason to doubt this internal evidence. The sense of our selves—and that it is our selves, or our souls—is as clear, if we know how to attend to it, as any other evidence we can have from the senses or from introspection.

Descartes, the great proponent of the introspective argument

It was on the basis of something like this introspective argument that Descartes concluded, in the Second Meditation, "I exist." And his focus was indeed on himself and the nature of this "I" that exists. The mind, he thought, was better known than the body. As he puts it:

What is the 'I' that seems to perceive this wax so distinctly? Surely I am aware of myself not only much more truly and certainly, but also much more distinctly and manifestly. For if I judge that wax exists from the fact that I see this wax, it is much clearer that I myself exist because of this same fact that I see it. Possibly what I see is not wax; possibly I have no eyes to see anything; but it is just not possible, when I see or (I make no distinction here) I think I see (cogitem me videre), that my conscious self (ego ipse cogitans) should not be something. ... Further, if the perception of the wax is more distinct when it has become known to me not merely by sight or by touch, but from a plurality of sources; how much more distinct than this must I admit my knowledge of myself to be! No considerations can help towards my perception of the wax or any other body, without at the same time all going towards establishing the nature of my mind. And the mind has such further resources within itself from which its self-knowledge may be made more distinct, that the information thus derived from the body appears negligible.
Descartes, Second Meditation, trans. Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Thomas Geach

Wax, which occasioned much discussion about the thing that senses it

Philosophers have long contradicted Descartes, saying that all he introspects is a sensation (or imagination, etc.) of the wax, and not himself, i.e., his self. But it is clear from a close reading of the text that Descartes is very specifically claiming to know not merely a sensation within him, but indeed his self. He does not say he is "thinking" or "thoughts," but a "thinking thing"; he is a res, not merely cogitans. And while he does not use the language of "introspection," it is clear that he and his argument depend on introspection of himself.

I can endorse this in my own case: that these passing thoughts I have are occurring to me, to myself. I would quite naturally use the word 'I' in attributing them to the object to which they occur, to, as it were, their owner. I only go a bit farther, when I "close my eyes," "stop up my ears," and "turn away my senses from their objects" (as Descartes puts it in Meditation Three), and claim that I can positively introspect that whole mental self, just as I can without any trouble "propriocept" my whole physical body.

Does the Soul Exist?

If we can (veridically) introspect the soul, then of course it exists, just as you could not (veridically) perceive a tree without the tree existing.

What we have not established, however, is that the thing we decided we could introspect deserves to be called "the soul." I said earlier that the soul is (1) irreducibly spiritual, (2) an object, i.e., proper subject of attribution, and (3) has mental events such as thinking, intending, remembering, and perceiving occurring within it. It seems to me this is a good set of requirements for a soul, so if we have good reason to think something satisfies (1)-(3), then it is a soul.

I can introspect, I argue, my "whole mind," i.e., something analogous to proprioception of my whole body. I can also introspect that various mental events occur within this thing I also introspect; i.e., I am aware of pleasures, pains, and ideas occurring to (or "within") myself. All I mean is that when I, for example, remember a pleasant walk from earlier in the day, and then close my eyes and introspect my "whole mind," then of course the thing that I am introspecting just is that which has the memory: it is myself. So this object of introspection satisfies (3). But at the same time it satisfies (2), because it is I who remember.

Heavier than my soul

The only thing left to establish, at least to my present satisfaction, is (1): that this soul is "spiritual," whatever that means; and to establish this, it suffices, I think, to establish that it is not physical. I raised this question earlier when mentioning that my soul does not weigh three pounds although my brain does. This line of thought is worth spelling out in more detail.

This is a commonly-employed argument for dualism: that there are things true of the mind, or mental events, which are certainly not true of physical (brain) events. I can introspect the experience of yummy delight in ice cream, but in so doing, I am not coming to know any brain event. Even if there is some assignable brain event that invariably accompanies pleasure in ice cream, that pleasure, which is wholly accessible to me, is utterly unlike any firing of neurons.

I once, when I was a firmly committed physicalist, thought I had a response to this: there is no need to be able to introspect the appearance or anything, really, about the underlying physical state of a mental event. Having a certain experience just is the system's natural response or operation when a certain corresponding brain event is occurring. There need be no expectation of an ability to introspect anything about the underlying brain event.

I now see, however, that I was only grasping at straws with this response; I was not taking the problem seriously enough. The physicalist's claim, again, is that mental events just are brain events. But if that is true, then when I am coming to know a mental event, then I am coming to know a brain event. On the physicalist's view, they are supposed to be one and the same; but, clearly, they are not the same, since I can be intimately familiar with the qualities of some introspected experience without knowing anything whatsoever about the brain. There just is no easy response to this argument. It is simple, to be sure, but it is powerful.

Now, I cannot pretend that this brief discussion puts physicalism to rest for good. I state it here only by way of explaining to you, the reader, and to myself why I have come to this conclusion now. While being irreducibly mental might not be quite the same as being "spiritual" or "of the soul," I have already established that the soul is held to contain (or be subject to) "mental" events just as the "mind" and "self" are. Indeed, I am satisfied, so far, that the soul, the mind, and the self are the same, because again I doubt there is more than one subject of experience within me. So if various mental events are "irreducibly mental," that by itself establishes that they are "irreducibly of the soul," or spiritual.

So the "whole mind" or soul we can introspect satisfies condition (1) as well. "I" am a subject of experience, of various mental events, and these are indeed irreducibly mental.

So the soul exists.

The Knowability of the Soul

We know a great deal about "what goes on" in our own souls or minds, particularly if we are at all reflective. If the arguments above are correct, we can (and often do) also introspect a soul—something that is properly called our own soul. And we can know that we introspect it, too. But that is not to say that we understand what our souls really are. We have no idea of what "soul-stuff" might be (in ancient times, it was held to be "breath").

It is around this point in the narrative (if not much before) that we are likely to see an outburst from physicalists, who see exasperating, willful ignorance at play here. After all, they say, we are learning more and more about exactly how the mind is encoded in the brain. We can locate specific mental processes in specific parts of the brain. We are learning more and more about the biochemistry of the brain, and thus how specific drugs affect the brain. For 25 years we have even been able to communicate via computer connections with the mind via the brain's predictable architecture (i.e., the so-called brain-computer interface). Scientists have even observed how the MRIs change when a subject is introspecting rather than paying attention to sensory information. What is this if not the discovery of ever greater detail about the underlying physiology of the mind and of evidence that undermines the existence of a soul?

Maybe more to the point, why is there any need to posit the existence of some spiritual feature—a "subject of experience" that is a soul—only to declare it to be unknowable? Why should the physicalist not laugh this claim to scorn? The soul does seem unknowable, indeed; but perhaps the reason for that is that it does not exist. And there something else to justify such scorn, more than just a failure to respect Occam's razor ("do not multiply entities unnecessarily"); there is the keen awareness by an irreligious, rational scientist confronted with a belief that shows every sign of being motivated by the wishful thinking of religion. After all, it is precisely the belief in the soul that permits us to believe in life after death, in a higher state of being (e.g., existence in heaven), and indeed in God (or the gods), who is (or are) supposed to be a "great soul" who can help and comfort us as, various religions have repeatedly confirmed, nothing else can. Secular, scientific types infer that not only there is conclusive evidence against the soul, but also that the belief in the soul is transparently biased and irrational. How can the soul be defended against such an onslaught?

As the soul is nonphysical, you cannot make a picture of it. This is not the soul.

The physicalist is well advised not to be too smug. For one thing, their view is far from univocal or a consensus position. Other philosophers and scientists think that, despite progress in brain science, we will never "crack consciousness," a problem that bears a close relationship to understanding what the soul is, insofar as what David Chalmers called the "hard problem of consciousness"—the subjectivity of experience, the "what it's like"-ness of consciousness—is evidence that consciousness will never be reduced to any physical thing or process. A few scientists even think we can learn about the soul from quantum physics—I do not quite understand why they think we can, but a fair few seem to think so.

Strange strands of physics and psychology might go so far as to have people doubt the existence of physical objects. It may be more apt to take any such new frontiers not as especially plausible, let alone established, as an interesting illustration of why we need not be terribly disturbed if it should turn out that we still do not know what the soul is, despite our learning more and more about psychology and brain science.

For all the physicalist's smug scorn, he has no good response to the Cartesian argument that we can introspect the soul with a high degree of certainty, in much the same way we have proprioception of the whole body. This is because such introspection is data, not theory. To be clear, there is theory involved, namely, that what is introspected deserves to be called the soul. But that is something I have established, so far, to my own satisfaction, and in any event, the data gathered from such acts of introspection cannot be gainsaid, as far as I am concerned.

As I said, there is a great deal we know about our souls—i.e., about what they do and experience. The thing we do not know is what they are. This is no more a confession of intellectual bankruptcy than would be a 17th-century scientist observing confidently that there are physical objects without knowing that they are made of atoms.

The nature of the soul, and the many and detailed features of subjective human experience, "spiritual" and otherwise, is simply not discoverable by any examination of physical stuff. That is merely a reflection of the fact that they are not physical. And that means, in turn, that the scientific methods that work only on physical stuff will not work on mental or spiritual stuff. Again, we cannot infer what anything is like from the most advanced and complex understanding of the brain and nervous operations. An MRI might well let a scientist "read thoughts," but no brain scan can never reveal the subjective experience of those thoughts.

"I am the captain of my soul," something very rich and complex—not simple.

Remember too that there are many states the mind or soul can be in. Philosophers may say the soul is a "simple" thing, but how it processes and interacts with the world is anything but simple. It is not as if the rich experiences of fully human lives, and everything they entail, are trivial. No, the stuff of our souls is precisely the stuff we write our greatest literature, poetry, and philosophy about. This is what inspires those religious sentiments that lead people to worship, sacrifice, and repent.

We, those of use who believe in souls, need not be irrational or anti-science. I do not wish to deny or minimize any of the scientific discoveries made about the operation of the brain. I concede entirely—why would I not?—that our inner lives are deeply tied up with the operation of the brain, somehow. I am sure Descartes would not have wished to deny that, either, had he learned the details. I remember my college class laughing in 1987 when we first read Descartes, since he thought the seat of consciousness was the pineal gland. I think we are not apt to laugh quite so much anymore, since we discovered a place in the brain that seems to be responsible for consciousness, the claustrum, can be stimulated in a way that causes instant unconsciousness, as if it were an "off" switch for the waking mind. It turns out that the claustrum is not that far from the pineal gland; Descartes was not so wrong.

There is no amount of discovery of the neural concomitants (things occurring together: I choose the word deliberately) of mental phenomena that will render introspection and proprioception irrelevant. Data from these purely mental abilities of ours will always undergird any future conclusions of brain science; we can "read thoughts" (in the very imperfect way we can) by examining MRIs only because experimental subjects have, in the past, informed scientists about what they were thinking. Brain science is downstream of introspective psychology, and it always will be. Physicalists must never forget this. Discoveries made about brain science, therefore, cannot refute the datum that I am aware of my soul.

Conclusion

To claim that the soul exists is typically to imply a raft of other claims: we will live on after we die; we might go to heaven or hell; our souls might leave our bodies; our souls might come under spiritual attack from demonic forces, and receive spiritual assistance from angelic or divine forces; we are similar to God the Father and the angels precisely in that we have souls. I have not proven or even given so much as a lick of evidence for such claims. Am I uninterested in them? Surely I must be interested, because if I am not, what is the point of insisting on the existence of the soul in contradistinction to the mind or the self? Only soul-talk carries such baggage.

I am indeed interested in those claims. Moreover, I think that separate arguments can be made for them. While they need the soul to be independently established, as in this essay, the conclusion of this essay would be greatly strengthened if these turned out to have (otherwise) independent evidence in their favor. For example, if some interesting evidence for "life after death" can be adduced, that would require the existence of the soul, and in so doing make the case for the soul stronger.

There is one essential philosophical question I have entirely ignored in the above, and that is what the relationship is between the soul and the body, if the soul exists. I can happily concede the effect of brain-altering drugs, for example, on the mind—and hence, the soul. Similarly, injury, diseases, and surgery done on the brain can all greatly change how our minds work—and hence again, the soul. It seems impossible to gainsay that the soul causally depends on the body. Only the few adherents of parallelism (mind and body are miraculously coordinated in advance), like Leibniz, and of occasionalism (God coordinates things on the fly), like Malebranche, bravely deny a causal relation. But a causal relation seems perfectly obvious for more prosaic reason, such as that the perception of a red ball in my soul is caused by the red ball I see.

In philosophy of mind, some fans of qualia ("raw feels" or subjective experiences that cannot be reduced to anything physical) try to dodge the problems here by saying that only properties are mental, not any objects or substances. (This is called property dualism.) But if you believe in the soul, you believe in a spiritual substance or, if you do not endorse the metaphysical complexities of "substance" talk, then a spiritual object. And then you endorse what is called substance dualism, precisely the "common sense" theory that Descartes defended. Descartes is the whipping boy of practically all Phil 101 classes, which love to poke holes in substance dualism. But this is not to say it is impossible to defend substance dualism in the 21st century; many Christian philosophers, perhaps most notably Richard Swinburne, do just this. Perhaps I will update this essay at some later date with further discussion of the question.

For now, though, I cannot say I have proven that there is a soul, but only rehearsed some good reasons to think there is one.


A Rationalist Approaches Christianity

I am privately linking from here (below) a new essay about Christian religious epistemology, 20,700 words (if you can believe that). Here is the first paragraph:

The purpose of this discussion is to determine whether I should—whether it is rationally justified to—conduct a systematic study of natural and revealed religion, in order to decide whether I can in good conscience declare myself to be a Christian.

The question I examine is not whether Christian belief is (or can be made) rational. That is a very big question. Instead, I examine something more preliminary: Whether a person in my present position could explore Christian belief rationally despite some admitted biases, whether on various bases a peremptory judgment may be made against Christianity, what a rational procedure of exploring it might look like, whether such a procedure is consistent with my long-standing methodological skepticism, and finally, if so, whether I should in fact give up that skepticism. Inter alia I do explore what underlay and initially kindled my recent interest, and later also I share what specific (mostly philosophical) lines of thinking I have explored that gave me hope that a rational Christian belief might be possible.

The essay is here (210K, password protected); I have given some people the password. If you don't have the password but want access, send me an email at larry (at) sanger (dot) io.

I will probably post a later version of the essay here on this blog after I get feedback.

Please add your comments on the essay here, below!