I am currently reading through a book called God and the Philosophers, which is a compilation of the Christian (and one Jewish) testimonies of twenty philosophers.  Some of these testimonies focus more on personal experiences, while others draw heavily on arguments and reason to show how these philosophers came to believe in God (in most cases, the Christian God of the Bible).  I have enjoyed reading it because it provides insight into the thoughts of very intelligent men and women who have come to the conclusion that belief in God is highly rational.  One of my favorite segments thus far has been that of Peter Van Inwagon, a philosopher at the University of Notre Dame.  He has an impressive intellect, and the rare ability to convey his thoughts to those of us who are less intelligent in a comprehensible way.

One story in particular stood out to me as helpful as I occasionally struggle with doubts about my Christian faith.  Van Inwagon recounts the time shortly after he had become a Christian, when he struggled intensely with doubts about his beliefs.  What was interesting about this ordeal, is that there wasn't really a single claim or argument which made him doubt because he found it convincing.  Rather, each specific argument or claim had a reply that he did find intellectually convincing.  Yet his doubts continued to plague him in spite of this.  He refers to this portion of his life as the "Dark Night of the Soul," and has come up with a deft analogy to explain what he was going through.  Consider this quote:
Perhaps the best way to describe my state of mind would be by an analogy.  You don't believe in ghosts, right?  Well, neither do I.  But how would you like to spend a night alone in a graveyard?  I am subject to night fears, and I can tell you that I shouldn't like it at all.  And yet I am perfectly well aware that fear of ghosts is contrary to science, reason, and religion.  If I were sentenced to spend a night alone in the graveyard, I should know beforehand that no piece of evidence was going to transpire during the night that would do anything to raise the infinitesimal prior probability of the hypothesis that there are ghosts.  I should already know that twigs would snap and the wind moan and that there would be half-seen movements in the darkness.  And I should know that the inevitable occurrences of these things would be of no evidential value whatever.  And yet, after I had been frog-marched into the graveyard, I should feel a thrill of fear every time one of these things happened.  I could reason with myself: "I believe that the dead are in Heaven or Hell, or else that they sleep until the General Resurrection.  And if my religion is an illusion, then some form of materialism is the correct metaphysics, and materialism is incompatible with the existence of ghosts.  And if the church and the materialists are both wrong and there are ghosts, what could be the harm in a ghost?  What could such a poor, wispy thing do to one?"  And what would the value of this very cogent piece of reasoning be?  None at all, at least in respect of allaying my fear of ghosts. 
Possibly, if one were subject to an irrational fear of ghosts, one would eventually lose it if one were forced to spend every night alone in the graveyard.  Something like that seems to have happened to me as regards the irrational fears that underlay what I have called the counterattack.  Eventually, they simply faded away.  I am now unclear about what the time frame of all this was.  I know that the full force of it lasted several years and that it was horrible.  I am sure that I could say nothing that would convey the horror of it to someone who had not had a similar experience, just as someone who was "afraid of ghosts" (without believing their existence) could do nothing to convey to someone who was free from this fear what was so horrible about spending a night alone in a graveyard or an abandoned and isolated house.  The fears, while they lasted, were tireless and persistent.  [...]  Reason is impotent in such situations, since one is already intellectually convinced that there is nothing to fear.  (Fear replies, Ah, but you have reasoned wrong.  "How have I reasoned wrong?" I said; you have reasoned wrong.)  And prayer, whatever its objective benefits, brings no immediate psychological comfort, as it can do in many kinds of affliction; on the psychological level, prayer merely aggravates the fear that there is No One There by making the question whether there is anyone there momentarily inescapable, and letting the fears loose on it. 
Somehow, with God's help, I got through this period.  (I often wonder whether it was some kindergarten version of "the Dark Night of the Soul," but I have never really understood what that phrase means.  I hope it never returns.  I hope that the part of me on which it operated is dead, swallowed up in that death into which we are baptized.  But God has, as is His usual practice, given me no guarantees, and, for all I know, it could start again tomorrow.[1]
Van Inwagon's full testomony is actually available for free online here if you you are interested in reading it.

1. Van Inwagon,1994, pp. 38-39.

I realize "A Critique" may come off as rather combative, but I wanted to avoid calling it a review.  As far as movie-making quality, I have relatively little to say.  What does interest me, however, is some of the content and messages found in the movie.  I wanted to see what sort of apologetic elements were in it, as well as its portrayal of the intellectual challenges to the Christian faith found on campuses today.  I tried to watch it with fresh eyes and ears.  While it crowded my Facebook feed for a while, I didn't read any reviews or delve into any of the discussions about the movie.  But enough intro.  On to the critique.

The apologetic content in the movie actually wasn't too bad. While it was somewhat popular-level (I don't mean that in any disparaging way, only that it didn't dive into some of the arguments to the extent that a philosophy course would), but the arguments themselves were fairly well presented. I may discuss them in detail in a future post.

I have to say that I was fairly disappointed in the movie's portrayal of atheists and also of the secular campus of today. They were painted in a very negative light, and as the movie progressed the interaction between the main student protagonist and the professor antagonist became more and more "us vs. them."  The atheists in the movie were attractive, successful jerks.  I fear the movie is only perpetuating a combative approach to defending the faith and responding to the culture's shift while dismissing the patient and deferential approach - the one we should be adopting!

The central conflict in the movie - between the freshman and the professor - was implausible. The professor was a philosopher and an atheist (plausible enough), teaching Philosophy 150. The way he starts the very first class is odd, to say the least. He begins by showing a list of great thinkers throughout the ages, and asks the students what they all have in common.  I muttered under my breath, "They're all atheists," while the students stared blankly at the professor. And of course he gives them the answer. He then goes on a long diatribe about the unreasonableness/ridiculousness of theism, and that the students should dispense with theism before the class continues into the semester.  In fact, he goes as far as forcing all the students to hand write "God is dead" on a sheet of paper before continuing the class.

Here's why this situation bothers me, to the point of being offended.  It is nothing like what you actually find on college campuses. To be sure, there are professors who are very antagonistic to theism, and to Christianity in particular.  But this is more a caricature than anything.  No professor could ever hope to get away with something like this, even on a secular campus.  Organizations ranging from the Christian Legal Society to the ACLU would have a field day with a professor cornering students like this.

The situation also bears no resemblance to any real philosophy course.  I have never heard of a professor starting a philosophy course by rattling off the names of great atheists.  Why on earth would you start there?  A better place to start is with the Greek philosophers, or with differentiating the various realms of philosophy (ontology, epistemology, ethics, logic, etc.).

By this caricature, I think the movie is both denigrating atheist professors and giving the viewer a false impression what it is like to butt up against them.  This misrepresentation is dangerous.  There are some Christian students who do lose their faith during college.  But it is not because overweening professors and their diatribes.  It is more often because of a professor who is kind, who listens well, and who has really thought through why they do not believe theism is true.  They, like much of the Christian community, face-palmed when books like Dawkin's The God Delusion came out.  They know many of the arguments found in the new atheist movement are terrible.  What they have found, however, are powerful arguments in the works of J.L. Mackie, Graham Oppy, Paul Draper, and others.  They are knowledgeable about both the Bible and the theories surround its authorship (e.g., the Documentary Hypothesis).  These are professors who have been around the block.  They've heard the arguments for the existence of God many times.  No freshman has a new argument for them.  And they are often willing to sit down with such students and slowly deconstruct those arguments.  And that is something the viewer of God's Not Dead is not ready for.  Seeing a reasonable and immensely intelligent person who strongly disbelieves in theism and has many reasons for disbelieving will shake the faith of an impressionable freshman much more than a professor who slams you over the head with Hawking's The Grand Design (granted, there are professors who are more prejudiced against theism rather than have good reasons for disbelieving it, but they do not challenge a person's faith to the same extent).

I would like to suggest that rather than movies like God's Not Dead, the Christian church needs to invest in solid Christian philosophy and how to defend one's faith in a winsome manner.  There is a fair amount of what I'd call half-baked apologetics floating around.  We need instead good teaching and serious study in philosophy, historiography, and theology, and we need to learn how to take a stand for one's faith.

For example - I have to say, as implausible as the original situation that kicked off the whole debate was (the professor forcing students to write "God is dead"), the student's stand against that was amazing, and is a great example.  He simply refused.  He was not belligerent, he did not attempt to make a scene.  He simply did not sign the paper because he knew he could not do it in good conscience.  It was the professor who made a scene.  Contrast this, though, with the same student towards the end of the movie, accusingly asking, "What happened to you? [to make you such a jerk that hates God]" and berates the professor in front of the entire class.  There is no place for that.  We must answer to objectors with "gentleness and respect."

That brings up the final issue I have to comment on.  I think it is unwise for a student to take on a professor.  This movie may encourage students to do so.  Almost any student, even if secure in their faith, will likely fail badly in trying to go toe-to-toe with a professor.  I don't mean to suggest they will necessarily lose their faith, only that by the end of the ordeal they will realize they were not as prepared as they thought going in.

William Lane Craig made a great suggestion in a recent podcast.  He recommended to a student that he not take on the professor, but simply bring up questions or issues for the professor to respond to.  Rather than, "No, professor, you're wrong!  And here's why," something like "Isn't it the case that the free will defense has been accepted by the philosophy community as an answer to the logical problem of evil?"  Neither I nor Craig believe that it is the student's place to directly challenge a professor.  I believe that those who are best equipped to challenge the beliefs of unbelieving professors should be shouldering that burden - namely, Christian professors.
I finally got around to seeing Ex Machina, a new Science Fiction movie in theaters.  Ex Machina is an intriguing fictional inquiry into the philosophical question of whether machines could ever be truly intelligent.  And if so, how could we tell?  If you haven't seen the movie yet, then watch this trailer and be warned that this post will contain some spoilers, so read at your own risk.

Ex Machina qua Movie

The general background of the movie is as follows: a bright young professional named Caleb is invited by the founder and CEO of his company (Blue Book, a fictional search-engine which parallels real-life Google), Nathan, to his private home/research facility for a week.  Once there, he learns that his employer might have created the first Artificially Intelligent machine.  Nathan reveals to Caleb that he has been selected to test the new development, Ava, to determine whether "she" really is intelligent and self-aware.

Purely in terms of cinematic quality, this is a fantastic movie.  Director/writer Alex Garland does a great job of unfolding this narrative by introducing necessary information in an intentional and artful way.  Although the movie is almost entirely dialog with very little action, it kept me engaged for the entire two hours.  One of the biggest strengths of the movie is the way with which the "science" is dealt.  Because Science Fiction is... well... fiction, it is difficult to make it seem realistic.  Any movie that tries to give too detailed an account of how the science in the movie works is taking a huge risk.  The moment they slip up and make a mistake, any science-minded individual (a majority of the target audience) will likely be too distracted to enjoy the movie.  Ex Machina leaves enough up to the imagination that it seems realistic and organic, despite dealing with futuristic themes. The acting is also very good, as nothing seems forced or out of place.  I have one disclaimer though: there are a few scenes with nudity in them, so you may not want to watch it if you are sensitive to that.

Ex Machina qua Philosophical Commentary

One of the reasons that this movie appealed to me is that, in addition to the scientific themes, the movie grapples in an impressive manner with some real philosophical concepts.  Indeed, the movie might be seen as a fictional inquiry into the field of Philosophy of Mind.  Questions like "can machines ever truly think?", "what is a mind?", and "can mechanistic processes ever exhaustively explain what it means to experience the world?" are raised by this plot.

While I applaud the movie for bringing up these questions and making them accessible to those who may not have had any exposure to them, I think ultimately the movie leans toward some hasty answers.  The philosophical theme is summed up early on in the film with the discussion of the Turing Test.

The Turing Test is a method, that was proposed by philosopher/mathematician Alan Turing (star subject of the recent film The Imitation Game), to determine if a machine has become intelligent.  Imagine that you are communicating via a keyboard and mouse with two different "things."  One of these is a normal human being, while the other is a machine with possible artificial intelligence.  The machine passes the test-- meaning it can be said to have a "mind," and be self-aware-- if you cannot tell which is the human and which is the machine.  This is the task that Caleb is asked to perform, with some differences.

My issue here is that the question has been framed wrong from the start.  The movie (along with many real-life philosophers and scientists) would lead us to think that this is a way with which we can prove Strong AI.  While the term "Weak AI" is generally used for something that can perform like it has a mind, "Strong AI" is reserved for the Real McCoy.  So if we say that something has achieved Strong AI, then we are suggesting that it has a real mind, with real self-awareness, just like human beings.

The movie is set up from beginning as if Turing's philosophy was right-- namely that simply being able to indistinguishably act like a human proves that a machine has Strong AI. But this is really just Philosophical Behaviorism-- the idea that emotions, feelings, sensations, and experiences can be explained by referencing nothing but the behaviors which accompany them.  So, for example, if someone reacts as if they are in pain, then they are in pain.  If someone is uncontrollably crying, then they are sad.  Emotions, thoughts, and intentions are reduced to the behaviors that they manifest.    The problem is that this doesn't really show that someone is in pain, or sad.  It is just a useful way for us to assume that they are those things without having access to their internal mental states.  If it did, there wouldn't be such a  thing as acting.  That human beings have an entire entertainment industry based on acting implicitly shows that we know that how a person behaves is not necessarily indicative of their internal states.

So let's turn this back to Ex Machina.  The movie wants us to buy into the fact that we should consider a machine to be conscious, thinking, and feeling, as long as it can behave as if it is conscious, thinking, and feeling.  To its credit, the movie appeals to behaviors much more complex than simple crying.  In the film we are to believe that Ava is conscious because she can tell a joke, appear to be falling in love with Caleb, cause Caleb to fall in love with her, come up with an intricate plan of escape which involves deception, etc.  But the problem is that no matter how complex these criteria are, they still fail as tests of consciousness for the same reason that my crying fails as a test that I am sad.  Of course I often do cry when I am sad, but I am more than capable of creating crocodile tears. And a complexly programmed machine could do the same.

So while the movie is overall excellent, the plot has some misguided philosophical underpinnings.

I've been mulling over these ideas for a while now, but never thought to post them till recently. I'm not sure the thrust of my argument is any good, but it might be something to think about.

Some skeptics discount the Bible on the grounds that the stories it contains are too fantastic, too ridiculous, too fable-like.  But I object to this … um … objection.

There is a story that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once asked someone why the ancients believed the sun went around the earth.  The person answered, “Well, because that’s the way it looks.”  To which Wittgenstein replied, “Well, what would it look like if the earth went around the sun?”  A clever point indeed.  In this story, we learn that the ancients mistook the earth revolving around the sun for the sun revolving around the earth for the simple reason that the two situations look exactly the same to our perspective here on earth (it was only when some smart people started tracking the motion of the "wandering stars" - i.e., planets - and other celestial objects did the inconsistency become obvious).

Now we come back to the skeptic’s objection.  The reasoning behind the objection is that because the stories are so fable-like, they must be some invention of man a few thousand years ago rather than acts of God.  But let me ask this: how would God act if He did exist?  An off-the-cuff response might be, “Well, He would act in such a way as to give empirical evidence in support of His existence.”  But if you were to really ponder the question, you would come to the conclusion that you could not answer the question. (So, yes, my analogy to the story of Wittgenstein breaks down catastrophically, but at least it may have piqued your interest.)

The reason we cannot answer the question is because in order to give a valuable answer we must either be the creator of the universe or have a similarly impressive perspective.  As it turns out, we are hopelessly finite.  It seems reasonable to assume that an all-knowing infinite being would think differently than us, and the Bible makes just this claim. [1]  As finite beings, we are not in a position to accurately answer the question.

And so saying, “I don’t believe God exists because the stories in the Bible are ridiculous,” holds no more weight than saying, “I don’t believe God exists because the God of the Bible doesn’t think like me.”

The reason the ancients believed the sun orbited the earth was because they did not have an adequate perspective.  They had the perspective of their eyes, and lacked the perspective later given by the study of the paths of various celestial objects and the corresponding mathematical descriptions.  In our situation, it is easy to dismiss the stories of the Bible because they make sense from the perspective of being invented by human minds, but we lack the perspective of seeing them as the creator of the universe; and so we cannot make the judgment.

A point of clarification. This won't serve as a rebuttal to some specific evidence pointing to the falsity or fabrication of one of the biblical stories (for example, in theory one could prove that some of the stories are false or that they were not originally to the biblical text but were simply copied from an earlier text of another people group). It only serves as a rebuttal to the claim that the stories just seem made-up because of how absurd they seem to us.

I have one last thought- perhaps the reason we see some of the biblical stories as being too anthropomorphic, or too fable-like, is not because of the stories themselves but because of our caricatures of them.  The flannelgraph story of Noah's Ark is very different from the story found in the Bible.  The stories in the Bible are sometimes subtle, sometime brutal, but never banal.  Simply reading and studying the text itself will reveal to the reader a rich tapestry of theology, artistry, and linguistic skill that peers directly into the heart while also illuminating much that was once hidden.  Could it all be simply the work of some men?  It's possibility that should be considered.  But you can't simply dismiss the other possibility out-of-hand.  Remember, the God of the Bible - if He indeed exists - doesn't think like you.

1. For example, Isaiah 55:8-9: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (ESV)
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