Arguing Against an Invalid Viewpoint

Today, as always, Christians find themselves in head to head disputes over issues they cannot compromise. No matter what creative thinking either side might apply, there are things they cannot and will not do. On certain doctrinal and social issues, there is no alternative perspective to the orthodox one. No amount of creative thinking and cumbayah singing can erase disagreement and attempts to relativize it look obsequious and sycophantic. When it comes to points of heresy and sin, Christians cannot honestly treat opposing perspectives as a sort of viable alternative to their own views. In view of the fact that telling opponents that they are wrong is an affront to their dignity—even telling someone they made a mistake slightly impugns their abilities—Christians must keep their own limitations in view as they continue to adhere to their own views. Continue reading Arguing Against an Invalid Viewpoint

Objective Beauty: An End to the Pepsi Challenge

Chocolate ice cream is objectively better than vanilla.  Coke is obviously superior to Pepsi.  Snickers is the best candy bar.  Most people would consider these statements a mere opinion or preference, but what if there was more to it than that?  Could one actually be better?

Earlier this year I was talking with my brother Josh, and he made a comment about how chocolate was objectively better than vanilla.  I’ve heard this kind of joke many times.  “Oh obviously Coke is better than Pepsi, if you disagree then you’re just wrong.”  It’s funny because we all know that neither is better (or rather, it was funny before I explained the joke).  It struck me as odd, because Josh does believe in objective truth and objective beauty about some things at least.  He believes it is not just a matter of preference where there is more stark contrast, such as when comparing a sunset with a decaying corpse.  Is he inconsistent?

If so, then his is a common inconsistency.  I have especially noticed it in Christian circles as a way to describe moral relativism.  “The moral relativist thinks that morals are like flavors of ice cream, it’s all just a matter of preference.”

To be clear, I don’t think which flavor is better between Pepsi and Coke is knowable.  But just because one cannot know something, that doesn’t mean there can’t be truth about it.  I think I’ll never fully grasp the nature of God or higher mathematics, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth about those things.  I’m quite sure I will never know the number of leaves in the world at this moment, but I think the number exists and that God knows it.

So why would I believe something so counter-intuitive—that there probably is an objectively superior flavor of ice cream?  To begin with, I think beauty is objective, at least about some things.  I am not going to put any effort into arguing for it, it’s just one of the most obvious truths to me.  A sunset must be more objectively beautiful than a decaying corpse.  Many interesting discussions could be had arguing for or against it, but my project is to assume it as my first premise and consider the possible implications.

If the sunset is more beautiful than the corpse, then might the sunset be more beautiful than something else that is obviously beautiful, such as a rose?  Why not?  If beauty is objective about some things, is it more plausible that there is truth about less obvious claims, or that beauty stops being objective when people begin to disagree?

One may think, perhaps there is objective beauty about the sunset and the rose, but beauty doesn’t apply to taste.  Perhaps it doesn’t.  But is it really plausible that when one person prefers skittles to a steak that he is not deeply mistaken?   I don’t think so.  I don’t think good cooks are just figuring out what people like, I think they are making art in a similar way that a good painter does.  The great painting isn’t great because people like it, but because it truly is beautiful.  It seems infinitely more plausible to me that the same is true of food.  And if that is the case, then it seems plausible that there is truth about less obvious cases, such as chocolate and vanilla.

The presence of disagreement need not imply the absence of truth.  But, one might ask, how then are we to understand why we have such irreconcilable disagreements?  Some people hate Coke, some people hate Pepsi, and others couldn’t tell the difference between them in a blind taste test if their lives depended on it.

One explanation that seems to ring true is that we are sometimes bad at appreciating good things.  For example, I used to hate fish.  I would try eating it at the university cafeteria and would almost gag every time.  I tried better fish in a backyard barbecue and hated it just as much.  But it seemed plausible to me that God created good things for us to enjoy and that if so many people seemed to like fish so much, then it’s more likely that the problem is with my ability to appreciate fish rather than with fish itself.  I decided to try to make myself like it, and over the course of a couple of years, grew to love it.  I have not yet been successful in my effort to learn to like pickles.  Make of that what you will.

This doesn’t prove that there is objective truth about fish; I don’t think I can positively demonstrate any of this.  I’m merely attempting to paint a plausible alternative to the explanation that when some people like fish and others don’t, neither is right.

Another reason we have such disagreements is that we have different preferences, which I think is perfectly compatible with my theory.  How many men have you known, who, upon falling in love, found their girlfriend or wife to be the most beautiful creature on the face of the planet?  I’ve both witnessed it and experienced it.  Let’s assume for the sake of argument that one hundred (a very conservative estimate) men simultaneously have the belief that his beloved is the most beautiful.  In one sense, they cannot all be right, there can only be one most beautiful woman.  But in another, I think they all are right: to each of them, his beloved is clearly the most beautiful.  Similarly, perhaps when two friends cannot come to an agreement on Coke or Pepsi, perhaps Coke tastes the best to one and Pepsi tastes the best to the other.  This could be a result of positive or negative associations, it could be because one of them is slightly worse than the other at appreciating good things, or, most likely, they have different preferences.  My point is that having different preferences about things does not imply that there is not objective truth about them.

An (admittedly) odd implication of this view is that, when it comes to aesthetics, there is an objective hierarchy.  God could line up all the men, or women, or paintings, or foods exactly in order of most aesthetic quality to least.  I think if God were to show me some of these foods all lined up that I would have preferences for some over others, even amongst almost indistinguishably delicious food.  Perhaps in the all-knowing mind of God, there is an objective ranking or an awareness of a precise level of aesthetic value.

“Aha!” one might say at this point.  “Maybe there is such a hierarchy for some things, but that the aesthetic value of, say, chocolate and vanilla ice cream happens to be identical, so it isn’t true that one is better than the other!  Perhaps this is even true for all of the controversial cases.”  While this is possible, I suspect it isn’t the case for the same reason that I think determining which is better is unknowable: if the answer exists, it would be incredibly complex.  If, given infinite knowledge, one could quantify something as complex and mysterious as beauty, it strikes me as implausible that very different foods, people or art could happen to wind up with the exact same amount of beauty.

Even if you are persuaded, you may be wondering, “Why should I care?  If it’s unknowable anyway, what does it matter?  Why am I even reading this?”  Or maybe even, “I want the last ten minutes of my life back.”  Perhaps it isn’t significant outside of entertaining food for thought (pun intended).  It is certainly far less significant than the fact that many people don’t know God, so don’t spend so much time thinking about this that you miss an opportunity to talk to people about more important things.

There are two reasons I do think it matters though.  The first is that while I care much more about the objectivity of the sunset over the corpse than I do about less obvious cases like Coke and Pepsi, I suspect denying the objectivity of the one may undermine the objectivity of the other.  If we assume there isn’t truth about one, why should there be truth about the other?  The second is that it seems more likely that one will try to learn to appreciate art if she thinks there is beauty to be appreciated than if she assumes a given style or artist just isn’t her “cup of tea” (a terribly misleading phrase, if my theory is correct, and the aesthetic value of tea is objective).

Abstract Argument (v. 5)

This series presents an abstract from a journal article as a proposition for debate. Knowledge of the article itself is not assumed and is not required to participate in the discussion. Any points within the following abstract are open for consideration:

Research on the political attitudes of conservative Protestants has yielded inconsistent results. We know that conservative Protestants (CPs) tend to be more socially conservative than members of other religious groups and have tended to vote Republican in recent years, but we are less certain of their attitudes toward the size and role of government in matters unrelated to religion. Despite theoretical expectations and qualitative research supporting a link between conservative Protestantism and conservative attitudes about the size and role of government, quantitative work has failed to find a consistent relationship. The present study interprets conservative Protestant issue preferences in the context of research on non-attitudes, arguing that we should not expect ideological constraint among the less educated segment of the population. However, among better educated members of the population, we should expect to find ideologically consistent attitudes. Results from the General Social Survey suggest that better-educated evangelical Protestants are consistently more economically conservative than other Protestants. Among Protestants with lower levels of education, there is no consistent relationship between conservative Protestantism and economic policy preferences. Since the better educated are disproportionately politically active, politicians may be especially likely to pay attention to their interests. This may help to explain why the Republican coalition between social and economic conservatives has endured for several decades and shows no signs of abating.

From: The elusive link between conservative Protestantism and conservative economics, Jacob Felson and Heather Kindella, Social Science Research
Volume 36, Issue 2, June 2007, Pages 673-687.
(HT: Christianity Today)

Abstract Argument (v. 4)

This series presents an abstract from a journal article as a proposition for debate. Knowledge of the article itself is not assumed and is not required to participate in the discussion. Any points within the following abstract are open for consideration:

The present research demonstrates that the visual perspective—own first-person versus observer’s third-person—people use to picture themselves engaging in a potential future action affects their self-perceptions and subsequent behavior. On the eve of the 2004 U.S. presidential election, registered voters in Ohio were instructed to use either the first-person or the third-person perspective to picture themselves voting in the election. Picturing voting from the third-person perspective caused subjects to adopt a stronger pro-voting mind-set correspondent with the imagined behavior. Further, this effect on self-perception carried over to behavior, causing subjects who were instructed to picture voting from the third-person perspective to be significantly more likely to vote in the election. These findings extend previous research in autobiographical memory and social judgment linking the observer’s perspective with dispositional attributions, and demonstrate the causal role of imagery in determining future behavior.

From: Picture Yourself at the Polls: Visual Perspective in Mental Imagery Affects Self-Perception and Behavior, Lisa K. Libby, Eric M. Shaeffer, Richard P. Eibach, Jonathan A. Slemmer, Psychological Science 18 (3), 199–203.

Abstract Argument (v. 3)

This series presents an abstract from a journal article as a proposition for debate. Knowledge of the article itself is not assumed and is not required to participate in the discussion. Any points within the following abstract are open for consideration:

Recent Presidents have asserted a power to ignore statutes that they believe are unconstitutional. Critics have made an array of arguments against these assertions. As a matter of text, the Faithful Execution Clause bars such non-enforcement. As a matter of history, the English specifically prohibited a discretionary power to disregard statutes. And American Presidents did not assume a power to ignore unconstitutional statutes until almost a century after the Constitution’s creation. Taken together, these arguments are said to refute the regal pretensions of modern Presidents. This Article serves as an antidote to such claims while sharpening our understanding of Executive Disregard. The critics are correct in arguing that the President lacks a discretionary power to refuse to enforce unconstitutional statutes. Instead, the President has a duty to disregard such laws that arises from two sources. First, the Constitution never empowers the President to enforce unconstitutional statues. He no more has the power to enforce such statutes than he has power to enforce the statutes of Georgia or Germany. Second, the President’s duty to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution requires the President to disregard unconstitutional statutes. When the President enforces a statute he regards as unconstitutional, he acts to violate the Constitution no less than he would were he to imprison citizens without hope of trial. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson argued that executives could not enforce unconstitutional statutes, with Jefferson being the first President to actually invoke the duty of Executive Disregard. Upon entering office, Jefferson ordered the termination of Sedition Act prosecutions on the grounds that the Sedition Act was unconstitutional. Jefferson justified his non-enforcement decision by arguing that the Sedition Act was no law at all and by noting that he had a duty to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, a duty that prevented him from implementing measures that violated it.

From: “The Executive’s Duty to Disregard Unconstitutional Laws”, Saikrishna Prakash, University of San Diego School of Law, San Diego Legal Studies Paper No. 07-95, March 29, 2007.
(HT: Stuart Buck)

Abstract Argument (v. 2)

This series presents an abstract from a journal article as a proposition for debate. Knowledge of the article itself is not assumed and is not required to participate in the discussion. Any points within the following abstract are open for consideration:

Context: After the reports of human rights abuses by the US military in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, and Afghanistan, questions have been raised as to whether certain detention and interrogation procedures amount to torture.
Conclusions: Ill treatment during captivity, such as psychological manipulations, humiliating treatment, and forced stress positions, does not seem to be substantially different from physical torture in terms of the severity of mental suffering they cause, the underlying mechanism of traumatic stress, and their long-term psychological outcome. Thus, these procedures do amount to torture, thereby lending support to their prohibition by international law.

From: Torture vs Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment: Is the Distinction Real or Apparent? Metin Basoglu, MD, PhD; Maria Livanou, PhD; Cvetana Crnobaric, MD, Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007;64:277-285.

Abstract Argument (v. 1)

This series presents an abstract from a journal article as a proposition for debate. Knowledge of the article itself is not assumed and is not required to participate in the discussion. Any points within the following abstract are open for consideration:

In the United States, religious attendance rises sharply with education across individuals, but religious attendance declines sharply with education across denominations. This puzzle is explained if education both increases the returns to social connection and reduces the extent of religious belief, and if beliefs are closely linked to denominations.
The positive effect of education on social connection is the result of both treatment and selection: schooling creates social skills and people who are good at sitting still. And, people who are innately better at listening have lower costs of both school and social activities, such as church. The negative effect of education on religious belief occurs because secular education emphasizes secular beliefs that are at odds with many traditional religious views.

From: Education and Religion (2001) Edward L. Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote