Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Dear Christianity: Cosmological Arguments Are Not Your Friends

        Damon Linker has an  interesting piece for The Week, titled "Intelligent Design 2.0 Does Not Prove the Existence of God," in response to Eric Metaxas' recent "Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God" (behind paywall) at the Wall Street Journal. Metaxas apparently argues that the rarity of life makes the case for intelligent design, a very old argument that can always be adapted to fit new scientific arguments if one tries hard enough. Linker offers what I think is a well-considered (if also shopworn) reply: even if we were to concede these teleological arguments, the religious apologist still has all of her work ahead of her. As Linker puts it:
The problem with this line of reasoning for Metaxas and, most likely, for many of the people who have "liked" the column, is that it's an example of natural theology — and natural theology doesn't demonstrate the existence of the God of the Bible.
Plato and Aristotle were the first natural theologians. The pre-Socratic philosophers that preceded them rejected fanciful stories about the gods that formed the basis of Athenian civil religion and substituted various forms of atheism. But Plato and Aristotle held more nuanced views. Both philosophers followed their predecessors in denying the gods of popular piety, but they also developed theological views of their own. These were not based on divine revelation. They were a product of rational reflection on what any divine being must be like.
        A few thoughts: first, this isn't really "ID 2.0," so much as taking a minor point that was already present in the ID literature and making it a major one. I didn't read the original Metaxas piece past the introduction (I'm certainly not paying for it), but if I'm a betting man, it doesn't actually cite any new scientific discovery, but rather offers the traditional "anthropic coincidence," as the confluence of physical circumstances that allow intelligent life to exist on Earth are sometimes called, and makes it the new argument following the failure of "irreducible complexity" (the supposed inability of evolution to erect elaborate biological structures) to hold the popular imagination.
        The oddness of the forces of physics--the seeming deep improbability that a coherent material universe, let alone complex organic life, can exist at all--is something explored by the British astrophysicist Sir Martin Rees in a pop-sci introduction to the problem called Just Six Numbers (guilty full disclosure: I have not read it). Rees is theologically agnostic, so he's apparently a reasonably impartial guide through this problem. My take is this: anthropic coincidence arguments tend to overlook things that are both staggeringly improbable and, given the local contingencies, completely necessary.
        To unpack that a little, let's talk about you: your DNA is absolutely and totally unique among the 15 billion-odd (depending on whom you ask or how you count) humans who have ever existed. Even an identical twin or clone of yours would have minor chromosomal variations that would preclude it from being a perfectly exact match. As importantly, in all the future history of humanity, the odds that the particular combination of genes that make you you ever repeating, on this or any other planet, are so remote as to be mathematically dismissible.
        So what were the odds--the mind-numbingly remote odds--of you existing in your present form? Well, 100%, given the combination of your parents' genes that your developing embryo had to work with. It couldn't have actually been any other way. So, say I and several cosmologists, the universe could be a lot like that--the only option that could have been, physically necessary and statistically remote all at the same time. This argument usually entails the existence of failed or alternate universes, generally referred to as "multiverse theory," or some such, and that gets complicated in a hurry (and substantially above my pay grade) so I won't go there.
        Now, the point that Linker is making is actually the much simpler one, and I think he nails it: even if we should concede the idea of a "prime mover" or "root cause" as many schools of philosophy from the Aristotelians to the 18th-century Deists (a group which included, by the by and somewhat ironically, most of the Founding Fathers), this affirms nothing at all about the existence and character of the god or gods of any particular religion. Folks as historically remote as the Greek Epicurus, the 17th-century Jewish theologian and philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein thought that if such a universal intelligence as this prime mover existed, it would have made a cosmos self-sufficient enough that it didn't require constant tinkering in the form of miraculous intervention: it made everything and then went to sleep, content that it fashioned a watch that would last forever and never needed repair or replacement.
        This last point is both subtle and critically important, and modern Christians nearly always miss it when they try to co-opt cosmological and teleological arguments (often quite similar in practice) into Christian apologetics: prime mover gods as understood by the traditions that best articulate them don't hear prayers, don't conduct miracles, don't visit Earth in human guise, don't assign stations in the afterlife, aren't concerned with human affairs in general, and certainly don't resemble the gods of any organized religion at all.
        Heck, the Deists used this argument, sometimes called the "Watchmaker God," to specifically refute what they saw as the fables of organized Christianity. You won't get this from Fox News much (and this isn't a random liberal swipe--they really do like to argue that the Founding Fathers were a bunch of modern American Evangelicals), but Thomas Jefferson wrote an edition of the New Testament in which he took out all the miracles. This isn't an urban legend: I have a copy of it in my hand. It ends like this: "There laid they Jesus, [a]nd rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed." Full stop. No resurrection. No promised return. No Rapture. Jefferson thought that Jesus was a righteous cat whose teachings has been peppered with all manner of yokel superstition, and wrote a version of the Christian New Testament trying to set the record straight.
        So, the short of this is that the religious should be a bit more careful in selecting their polemic bedfellows. This god-of-science stuff is only their ally on the most casual and uncritical glance. Since it typically isn't actually friendly to religion and generally implies or openly states that morally speaking, we're on our own, it functionally starts to resemble agnosticism or atheism real quick. And that's not something Christians should "like" on Facebook very much.

Friday, February 8, 2013

A Journey of a Thousand Miles...

...starts with one step, or so says one translation the Tao Te Ching. I dumbed this saying down a lot once, a few years ago, personalizing it and rebranding it, "You get there by going there." It's trite, sure, but I've never been good at aphorisms--damn you, Nietzsche--and it's something that I find incredibly useful as an example of how I try to look at life.

As those who know me are aware, I've taken the long road into academia, just now getting to work on a PhD at 39. That bothers me a little, I suppose, but more from the perspective of practical contingencies over which I have no control (e.g. how I will measure on the job market versus a similarly skilled but younger candidate). It would once have bothered me (or bothered me more, anyway) on a personal level as well, simply because I bought into what we shall term Milestone Theory. Milestone Theory is a familiar popular philosophy by which one's life is measured in a sort of accomplishments-over-age formulation. Most know the drill: graduation, new car, marriage, house, children, retirement--life as race, a bit like the eponymous Milton Bradley board game of youth. One must reach The End laden with the appropriate (though variable) spoils.

And of course one must. But Milestone Theory has an accounting problem: the end is a hole in the ground or an urn full of ashes. It's neither grim nor fatlalistic to notice, but it is abject sentimentality to pretend otherwise. There just is no "there," as in, "I'll get there some day." There is only going, and to stop going is usually conjoined with ceasing to do other things like breathing. I'm not a believer in the afterlife, but I think it's perhaps the worse for those who are, who imagine that being liberated from struggle and growth is a kind of utopia instead of an eternal slow rot. "Is there no change of death in paradise?" the poet Wallace Stevens once asked: "Does ripe fruit never fall?"

And so, the idea that one's life is not where one would like it to be is best translated as the remarkably banal observation that one is still alive. One will never be at that place because--here's the shocker--the target moves. You will not catch it; stop getting upset over it.

I sometimes see this mentality on display with my fellow graduate students, who conceive of the time spent working toward a doctorate in terms of lost retirement income and mortgage payments and infants produced. In short, only when they have the piece of paper will they give themselves permission to live; they will sulk and be miserable until then. The very idea that the sometimes-arduous progress toward the goal is all that makes the goal worthwhile--we wouldn't feel too special if they just handed these degrees to everyone, after all--seems to be lost on many of my peers.

Opposition is therefore essential to our understanding of the world, a thing we make as much as a thing we have. This was put beautifully to me once by a customer in the gas station in North Carolina where I was once a clerk. "If we were allowed to lie around on the couch all day," he wryly observed, "I imagine eventually we'd find something to complain about then, too."

This understanding need not be disappointing, nor should it be. It merely means that we need to reconceptualize what it means to be happy in terms of process rather than product (a point of language that, conveniently enough, we like to push in the composition pedagogy business). What is the definition of being someplace good? Going someplace good.

So I try (with inevitably varying success, of course) to like my life as it is, not as an alternative to having goals (that part's hard to avoid and probably not worth the effort) but as a more fulfilling way of participating in them. Yes, I am poor and indebted. I'm 15 years older than most of my colleagues and I live in a small space with few possessions. But I also have satisfying work and a lovely wife and good friends and very nice dog-children, and I am moving in a direction that is of my choosing and that I like. But moving in a direction that I like isn't merely enough for right now; I suspect, rather, that it is all that is there to be had. You get there by going there.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Solving the World's Great Mysteries, or Delusions of a Geratric Freshman, Part I

For all none of you reading this, I started work on a PhD in English at the University of Texas a couple of months ago. Unlike most people in English, I don't really "do" literature, but rather focus on rhetoric and composition studies. This is, as a rule, more in line with my self-image as a "generalist." I don't see myself as specializing in any particular field of knowledge, as theories of knowledge ("epistemology" in fancy philoso-talk),and how knowledge is created/found/shared/contested/negotiated within and across disciplines is actually what interests me. Rhet/comp, with its close historical love/hate relationship with "pure" philosophy, and more recently with linguistics, is much more about these things.

The "generalist" label fits me well for reasons that reflect my eclectic academic interests, but also for social reasons that have little to do with academia, or, put otherwise, are ways of me repeating my previous social experience on an academic stage. The generalist is  a floater, someone who studies many disciplines in the hopes of either saying relevant things in several or simply avoiding "drinking the Kool-Aid" of any one in particular, thus acquiring the occupational psychosis/trained incapacity combo that more or less approximates a religious conversion experience on a secular front: a way of coming to see the world within the confines of one's discipline that makes it nigh-impossible to "see" it any other way. To whatever extent it is possible, I either want to drink everyone's Kool-Aid or no one's, depending on how we wish to apply the metaphor. I want to either be able to look at any object/area of study from either several different disciplinary lenses simultaneously or any aggregate lens that resembles none of them in particular.

On a social level, this is, to clarify, high school all over again, a time in which I floated among several cliques without being in the inner circle of any of them. The generalist is accepted in several disciplines (mine being English, communications, philosophy, and linguistics) without really ever embracing or being embraced by any of them. The specialists sense (correctly) that what the generalist is doing is (to add to the disciplinary muddle) a kind of anthropology. I visit everywhere to learn not content but culture, not to pick sides in academic turf wars but to privately document how knowledge cultures are socially constructed, how groups come to accept the "rightness" of their particular orientations toward the world, often (or maybe always) in opposition to other ways that are by theory or method mutually excluded from the view to which one pledges allegiance. Those within a particular field or subfield view this as a kind of intelligence activity, and hence one is viewed as something of a friendly spy.

As one result, generalists (or this one, anyway) perceive right/wrong disputes between academic disciplines that are not actually differences of fact but rather argument over who has the right to name or describe something. The fact that these disputes, such as what to call descriptions of personality (Id? Mind? Behavior? Adjustment? Cognition?) exist at all is evidence of a phenomenon that I draw out of all this discipline-hopping called "linguistic realism": the idea that one's vocabulary exists in a one-to-one relationship with "the thing itself," the object being described, whereas all other vocabularies are abstractions or deceptions or both. From this perspective, disciplinary turf wars, like all turf wars, are not questions of truth but questions of power and influence--or  maybe those re two different ways of saying the same thing.

The physical  sciences, whose practitioners actually believe that they argue "neutrally" and that everyone else is peddling spin, are some of the biggest culprits here. "You thought that you were motivated by reasons," an FMRI-wielding theorist will say, "but in actuality your stated motivations were rationalizations for something else that only shows up on this graph." But there is no good reason to suggest that those "stated rationalizations" were anything other than a description of the thought process as the person herself understood it. The situation is analogous to me saying, "I like cake," and then someone with an EEG and a clipboard saying, "No, you're wrong, your body craves sugar." These are not mutually exclusive explanations; they are different ways of saying the same thing.

And of course they are. While sometimes human beings legitimately disagree about the existence of historical or actual phenomena, one party believing that something has happened or exists (like, say, evolution of species from common ancestry) that the other party does not, these make up, I suspect, the tiny minority of our disputes. We more usually agree in principle about the workings of the world (it is but one place, after all) but use such different sets of language to describe our interpretations that we grow instantly parochial about our semantic choices and subsequently "realize" them. I say, "Cars are like horseless carriages" and you say, "Cars are like four-wheeled motorcycles," and we fight over whose simile is the "correct" explanation.

But we might get past much of this were we to realize, following my new hero Kenneth Burke, that all language is a symbolic representation of reality. Some of it can lead one to better sensory understandings of physical and historical phenomena than others, it can be imprecise, misleading, or offensive, but, fundamentally, it is what it is. No matter how precisely or minutely one defines ones terms (although, in the sciences, this is useful and probably desirable), you are always engaging in a metaphor. Language is a division of reality into blocks that are convenient, illustrative, beautiful, hideous, murky, and sometimes all of these, but it is a division nevertheless. There is no "right" version of it, and the most we can hope to say is that some conventions are better adapted to some purposes than others. (It would make for a very different medicine, for instance, if medical journals were written in iambic pentameter verse, but, had we world enough and time, we might encounter exactly such a society.)

The startlingly common misconception about language--that it is something other than a metaphor, that there is somewhere at root of it a "correct" way to employ it that gets past all the ambiguities--is a species of implicit positivism that I term "linguistic realism." I have come to think that this idea that reality responds to our names for it as opposed to the other way around is one of the great impediments to communication in human societies. And it is everywhere, because all human cultures fall into the trap of constructing language and then attaching "hardness" to it, failing to realize that it is mostly a convention of accident, and that there are, following Burke again, as many ways to slice up reality as there are ways to slice a piece of cheese, and everyone finds everyone else's unsatisfactory.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tim Tebow, God, and Having it all Ways

So, for those of you who follow the NFL, or simply do not live in a cave, Tim Tebow and his upstart Denver Broncos have been dismantled by the perpetually badass New England Patriots 45-10. Tebow had been in the news, partly for turning around the Broncos' 1-4 start to the season after taking over as starting quarterback in week six, but mainly for his Bible-thumping fundamentalism and the concurrent fact that his supporters feel that his unlikely success (his football skills are limited and his statistics poor in key areas), including a wild card playoff victory against the favored Steelers, was the result of supernatural intervention.

For those of us in the skeptical and atheist communities, this is a stirring vindication of...nothing, really. A shitty quarterback and his .500 team were destroyed by a plainly superior squad. We assign no divine significance to the loss, just as  we assigned no divine significance to the previous wins, because we assigned no divine significance to Tebow and the Broncos' statistically unremarkable run of luck. Given enough games, an easy enough schedule, compensatory strengths elsewhere on the roster, and the sheer quirks of probability, a quarterback with lousy numbers will lead his team on a winning streak from time to time. Since we have all of those conditions in spades, the fact that Tebow is a fundie tool never really figured into the in-game analysis of anyone sane.

But the believers have a harder time of things, although you'd never know it based on the way that they silently move on after God gets his ass kicked. You see, Tebow's 316 (get it? 3:16) yards against the Steelers the week before were a sign directly sent from above, a message written in the Sunday biline (although one wonders why the Christian god was rewarding working on his holy day). A win for the Broncos was a win for the Almighty.

But a loss for the Broncos, mind you, is most emphatically not a loss for the Almighty. How does this work? It's easy. As the famed skeptic Michael Shermer has pointed out repeatedly, the garden variety of religious faith works on the same psychology as does victimization at the hands of cold-reading fortune tellers and spiritual mediums. People insufficiently trained or interested in skeptical thinking will invariably count the hits and discount the misses. When people pray for something (typically something scandalously ordinary like finding something lost) and it comes true--well, that's miracle central for you, even when those things happen all the time without any kind of a celestial assist. But whenever one prays for something and it doesn't happen, just as when the cold-reader makes a series of wrong guesses before stumbling upon a correct one, people dismiss it as uninteresting. It seems that we're wired for a particular kind of optimism that way, one that builds superstition faster than corn sugar builds cavities.

Sure, when pushed, the religious often lapse into a garden-variety theological sophism by which  God's plan becomes mysterious or incomprehensible the moment it effectively ceases working, but that simply makes one wonder why the plan is working when they are given what they ask. Could not, every time a prayer is answered, some demon be making them soft by staving off some character-building hardship that God had ticketed for them? Why is it that when people get what they want, simple explanations will suffice and only when they don't does the divine map become suddenly obscured? Really, if God giveth and taketh away irrespective of prayer, then what on Earth is the point of it in the first place?

So the question, then, for a certain flavor of believer is this: If God takes an active role in NFL games (while ignoring, in a curious distribution of priorities, widespread starvation in Africa), and the success of his Evangelical quarterback is evidence of his divine support, then how is the total failure of said player (and against a lousy pass defense, at that) and his team not the failure of God's intervention? One can't have it both ways.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Review of Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction

Oxford's Very Short Introductions series has always been rather hit-and-miss. A large part of this, I think, has to do with the wide latitude individual authors are given regarding their individual topics. As a general rule, I'm in favor of this, but I'm not so sure when it comes to treatments of a subject that are only 100-150 pages long. My gut tells me that there are some things that ought to be done and ought to be avoided when handling material so briefly. For example, I think that one ought to cover the cannon, while avoiding the standard Great Men version of history. One might mention a bit about a field's methodology, but certainly shouldn't devote a great deal of space to it when there are other pressing concerns.

As it happens, then, I think that the British classics scholar Catherine Osbourne's Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (2004, Oxford UP, 143pp) is closer to a miss than to a hit. It does some things fairly well, such as deconstructing the linear narrative of cumulative metaphysics leading up to Plato and Aristotle, but in unraveling the conventional story, Osborne leaves nothing in its place. The reader is left at the end wondering just what it is he's been introduced to, and why it was terribly important in the first place.

Osborne begins by telling us that "[t]his book is not a history" and that "we shall not focus on historical relationships." Perhaps, I suppose, that's just a more honest representation of the field than is usually presented: we don't have any original texts from, say, Empedocles or Heraclitus, and the few snippets that survive in quotation through other, later writers don't really provide anything resembling comprehensive works of philosophy on the scale of the later Athenians. In part, their historical importance is implicit as much as evident from the texts themselves: we have to suppose their importance based upon the fact that they were considered important by those that did the recording, rather than the overwhelming majority of what must have at one time been written that is now lost completely. It could be that all we have are a pile of isolated fragments, and that an attempt to put them in historical conversation with one another, as the traditional account has done, is pure revisionism.

But if that's the case, why write a book about it at all? If no real connections can be drawn between these diverse thinkers, then including them as a unit in philosophy of science, history of science, and intro to Western philosophy courses seems like a waste of time. But generations of writers and scholars, including Osborne herself, most emphatically think otherwise. So the tactic that she employs in the book of deliberately presenting the individual thinkers out of order and geographically all over the place seems designed to undermine the fact that their ideas did influence one another, directly or (more probably) indirectly, even if in ways less neat than we would like or that historians have portrayed. If this is not the case, if there were no common currents of regional thought among the Greeks that allowed thinkers from modern Turkey to modern Italy to attempt to systematize ideas in ways that were increasingly less dependent on traditional myth and theology, then there is simply no point to studying these people as a group.

That may, in fact, be Osborne's point: that we should look at these texts principally as individual documents, "diving in where the evidence is rich," as she puts it. But if that's the case, then she simply should have declined the publisher's invitation to write an introduction to what is normally considered a topic with identifiable boundaries and enough cohesion to teach it as a unit. What we are left with following her haphazard presentation of various figures ranging from Thales through the Sophists (although not presented in that order) and their poems (a frequent medium for the philosophy of the period) and arguments concerning the nature of matter, causation and ethics is a disorganized jumble that leaves the reader nothing to take away and no particular ground for reflection or impetus for further study. That's all fine if one is arguing against the idea of the topic in the first place. But one does that with people already assumed to be familiar with the material, not a group of novices looking to be walked through what is most generally agreed upon. Her book may succeed as an argument. It certainly does not succeed as an introduction.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What it Means to Be a Prefatory Footnote: Preliminary Notes on the Presocratics

What I typically post here resemble essays more than journals, usually with an argument that is, if brief, fairly complete. This, alternately, will be something of a "think out loud" piece, in which I speculate on the rhetorical implications and possible reasons behind referring to a group of Greek philosophers between the eighth and third centuries BC as "Presocratics." Since I don't know much about them, the entry is really more a way of describing my ignorance than in rectifying it. Hopefully, there will be a followup piece that binds some of the loose ends introduced in this one.

I think that it should be fairly self-evident that something goes on when we label something a precursor to something else: the precursor becomes last year's model, so to speak, and is immediately devalued. One need look no further than what Jesus did to Isaiah or, depending on where one lives, what Mohamed did to Jesus. In fact, both the latter two traditions speak specifically of their Messiahs/prophets as being the culmination of historical processes that had the end point specifically in mind. This creates the mental effect that prophets who had previously been a kind of a plateau are now merely steps on the way to a plateau.

Naturally, the idea of Presocratics carries much the same effect. The title itself implies that none of these thinkers should be troubled over too much for what they said or wrote, but that their significance instead lies in that they paved the road for the more complete philosophical synthesis that we see in Socrates and Plato (to whatever extent we can extricate the two).

So let's examine some possible reasons that this group of teachers/philosophers/mystics might be taught to modern students in this manner. A few forms spring to mind: first, a lack of material. It could simply be (and I suspect that this is the case) that we encounter few or no texts directly attributed to the Presocratics themselves. This would be unsurprising, and the standard course of events, given the length of time since the purported historical existence of these men, but itself doesn't explain much. We have, after all, no original texts of the Bible, Socrates, Plato, or virtually any works from the ancient world that weren't, literally, carved in stone.  (Conversely, we apparently have a painfully large, and mostly painfully dull, collection of written records from the Babylonians and other such cultures that recorded everything from poetry to grain requisitions on unwieldy-but-durable clay tablets.) Yet all of these latter works are still considered of major importance and discernible historical provenance.

Secondly, we can look at the reliability of the accounts that we do have from the earliest extant sources. This probably helps some, as the earliest texts of Plato are, as I understand, from his students at the Academy, but one would imagine that the tradition by which the Presocratics reach us is probably similar. So maybe that's not much help, either, although the continuity of the Platonic tradition for centuries after Plato probably lends an authenticity that the Presocratic texts lack.

On a conceptual level, one could suppose that Socrates represents an interesting synthesis of ideas that had existed separately, much in the way that Newton created what we consider the first usably comprehensive theory of gravity, or how Darwin took the various evolutionary ideas roaming the 18th century and turned them into something elegant and parsimonious. But that only works so well, as we nevertheless view, on the one hand, Kepler, Brahe, and Galileo as worthy objects of study in their own right. (Although Lamarck, Robert Chambers,  and Erasmus Darwin fare only slightly better than do the Presocratics; perhaps we should call them the Predarwinians.)

Finally, this form of grouping could simply be a historical convention, something we approach this way because some influential scholar or group of scholars once imagined it to be the "natural" progression of the material. In any case, it's helpful to think sometimes of the categories into which we group material, and the ways that they can influence and constrain the ways that we approach learning.  As such, "Presocratics" belongs to a tradition containing such terms as "local historian," "minor battle," and "regional writer" that, perhaps intentionally, limit the amount of attention any given individual or event receives from a student of the relevant discipline.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

There Are No Experts: Why Theologians Are Full of Hot Air

Stephen Hawking recently started what I shall oh-so-cleverly term a "nontroversy" with the exceptionally innocuous statement from his recent book, The Grand Design, declaring, "It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."  Naturally enough, this has enraged theologians, who have dusted off the familiar saw that they have used intermittently for years against the British biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins: Hawking is a freelancing amateur, they say, offering an opinion on a subject in which he has no expertise.  He's a fine physicist but at best an inept metaphysician.  Best leave this God stuff to the philosophers and theologians, to whom it rightfully belongs, they say, for they are the real experts on the topic.

Now, the following argument breaks no new philosophical ground, and so it is assiduously frustrating that it requires continuous popularization.  But nevertheless, clearly it does, so here we go: there are some very clear, distinct, and simple requirements to be considered an expert in a field of knowledge.  Theologians satisfy none of them.  We are left with probably only two possibilities: either theologians are talking about nothing, because their object of study is imaginary, or what they are talking about is real, and so impossibly difficult to comprehend that nothing about it can be known.  In either case, they all need to get real jobs.

Let us think about any other area of inquiry: it is not strictly relevant whether we choose an academic field such as history, a field that has applications within and without the academy, such as computer science or architecture, or a professional field that is mainly practical, such as plumbing or carpentry.  The requirements for expertise vary somewhat between the first and last, but this simply multiplies the number of standards that theologians cannot meet.  All of the fields listed above share several important aspects that overshadow all of their differences: first, in order to be acknowledged as an expert, one must have command of at least a tentative and generally agreed-upon set of facts.

For instance, if we interviewed a panel of ten purportedly expert historians about the key dates, figures, and locations of events in the American Revolution, and were given ten widely divergent and mutually exclusive sets of answers, we would be forced to conclude that either: a) they were all mistaken; or, b) all but one of them was mistaken.  If we were thoroughly convinced that these were the best historians available, we would additionally be led toward the conclusion that either: a) no one or almost no one, in fact, knows anything about this particular period of history; or, if contrasted with other, well-established episodes in history, b) the American Revolution may never have happened at all.  This is much like when a police investigator asks a suspect for an alibi and is given answers regarding whereabouts that are neither internally consistent nor consistent with other witness accounts: she would suspect, charitably, that the suspect is confused, or, less charitably, that the suspect is lying.

But these are, of course, exactly the kinds of answers that we get when posing questions about God.  Christian thinkers cannot agree whether God wrote, influenced, or merely witnessed the book attributed to him; whether he is essentially nice, as the Methodists maintain, or merely mighty, as the Calvinists would have it; whether he reveals himself through miracles or operates within the laws of physics; whether his plan is apparent or inscrutable; whether he consigns most people to eternal damnation or whether eternal damnation even exists; whether dimensions such as Limbo and Purgatory are real; when the soul enters the body; if said souls preexist the humans they occupy or not; what it means to have the omnipotence or omniscience attributed to him, if attributed at all; whether lesser spirits such as angels and devils exist and can influence human affairs; whether we are saved by reading the Bible or building houses for the poor.  The list could get very long, indeed, before we even left the major issues and started into lesser ones such as those of proper ritual or prayer, at which point the list would become nearly infinite.

Naturally, every discipline has serious disputes about its details, and it would be arrogant and foolish to pretend otherwise.  Resolving these disputes is, in the world of academe anyway, one of the principal reasons that these disciplines continue to exist.  But God's general nature, plan, system of revelation, and system of salvation are not questions of detail: they are foundational questions.  The fact that theologians have formed no consensus on them means that, again, they are either questions about imaginary things, or they are questions that simply have no reliable answers at this point.  In either situation, there is simply no expertise to be found anywhere in the sense that we use the term regarding any other subject.  If we accept even general and tentative agreement as a qualification for expertise, those claiming theological expertise are either lying or mistaken.

The other basic requirement for expertise in a discipline is the existence of a generally accepted method of study.  Here, we'll set academia aside and look at a mainly applied field of knowledge such as plumbing.  Imagine that you called a plumber to address a leak beneath your kitchen sink.  There are certain things that you will expect every single plumber that you would call to do.  You would expect him or her to look underneath your sink and in the surrounding area to determine the precise location and cause of the leak; to inspect the materials from which your plumbing is constructed; to make a determination whether the problem can be rectified with the existing hardware or whether additional replacement components will be required; to possess and be able to employ a set of hand tools common to all plumbers; and so on.

If instead, in an alternate world in which you knew nothing yourself about plumbing, you called ten plumbers and each took a radically different approach to your problem, you might well wonder if this plumbing thing was worth what you were spending on it.  If one read tea leaves to diagnose the problem, and another did a dance, and a third recited poetry, and each was dead certain that he was right and the others wrong, you would conclude that at least most of them, and possibly all of them, had no idea how to properly investigate leaking pipes.  And this is before we even ask the question of whether the problem was addressed satisfactorily; theologians fail that criteria as well, but that is a topic for another day.

And so again, let us apply this criterion for expertise to theology: some theologians maintain that study of the Bible is the essential technique for knowledge of God, although even within this method the answers are widely divergent and often mutually exclusive; others insist that deference to the authority of clergy is the key; still others feel that personal prayer is the way to go; others service; others philosophy.  In each instance (except, perhaps, the second one), the answers rendered will, once again, be widely divergent and frequently mutually exclusive.  In any other field, we would assume that there is likely no expertise to be had, or that at least no one had yet acquired it.  Someone might be right by sheer luck or intuition, it is true, but the lack of consensus would make it nearly impossible to know who that person was.  We would certainly not consider anyone an expert, anymore than we have experts about specific plant life on a particular planet millions of light years away.  We might concede that there might, in fact, be such a planet with such organisms, but at the same time we would, if we were honest, have to confess our total ignorance about anything other than its bare possibility.  Without some system of verification, we would quickly recognize all pronouncements on the topic to be talk of nothing or wild speculations.

So when pious and learned fellows like the Catholic theologian Robert Spitzer set themselves up as experts on the question of God's necessity, with the implicit or explicit suggestion that Stephen Hawking is out of his depth, we should realize that they are half right: if we are kind enough to assume that theologians are not simply frauds, which is a kind assumption indeed, then they are all in the same boat with Dr. Hawking.  Based upon the practical and scholarly output from the last 20 centuries, we can confidently conclude that no one knows much of anything at all about this God fellow.