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The Argument from Religious Experience: A look at its strength

I have written previously about the argument from religious experience. I provided a brief outline of the argument and commented on its usefulness. Now, I turn to the question of the strength of the argument from religious experience.

[Note: Through this post, when I say "religious experience" I am referring to experience generally--that is, numinous, sensory, and the like. I will distinguish when I mean otherwise.]

The Sheer Numbers

Religious Experience is pervasive throughout human history. You can find accounts of it in the Upanishads, the Vedas, the Qur’an, the Torah, the Gospels, and more. Not only that, but recent, systematized studies have found that religious experience continues to be a part of people’s realm of experience.

Consider David Hay’s study, Religious Experience Today. The book is based upon a number of national and community surveys in the UK. For example, one Gallup poll in Britain in 1987 yielded a response rate of 48% of people saying they had had a religious experience as described by the poll. In 2000, another poll in the UK yielded a 36% positive response. Granted that some of this may be due to false positives, one must also realize that there is a kind of repression of expressing religious experience due to embarrassment and/or personal bias, so these numbers may also lean towards the lower end (Hay, 57ff).

One could also look at the sheer number of luminaries throughout all time who have claimed religious experience. Throughout the literature, such experiences are far too numerous to be restricted to a descriptor like “many.”

One can’t help but agree with Richard Swinburne, who wrote, “[T]he overwhelming testimony of so many millions of people to occasional experience of God must… be taken as tipping the balance of evidence decisively in favour of the existence of God” (Is There a God?, 120).

The Balance of the Scales

“The argument from religious experience” (hereafter ARE) is itself somewhat of a misnomer–there are many forms of arguments from religious experience, so it is helpful to clarify when one is in dialog which version one is using. I have noted elsewhere that the ARE comes in two varieties: one which argues for public belief and one which argues for personal justified belief.  There are two more variants to introduce here: the broad version and the narrow version.

1. The Broad Version of the ARE presents religious experience as a general proof for either:

A) the existence of some transcendent realm–this being a transcendent aphysical realm. This is the broadest version of the argument.

B) the existence of God. This is a broader version of the argument, but isn’t as generalized as A).

2. The Narrow Version of the ARE argues for the truth of a particular religion based upon religious experience. Note that this is narrow in that many religions could affirm a “transcendent realm” or the existence of God[s], but if the argument is construed in this fashion, only the religion which is claimed to have superior evidence from religious experience is [fully] true. [Other religions could have many truths which could be affirmed through RE, but only one would have the "full" or "realized" truth.]

The argument from religious experience is much easier to defend if it is presented broadly. As one narrows the argument, one is forced to deal with potential defeaters from religious experiences which do not accord with the argument being made. For example, if one argues that God exists based upon religious experience, one would have to somehow contend with the great amount of evidence for monistic or Nirvanic religious experience.

Think of the argument like as a bridge with a counterbalance or a scale with a counterbalance. The more weight one places on the argument [i.e. saying that it can justify the existence of God] (scale/bridge), the more one must deal with that weight on the other end (counterbalance).

If the argument is presented as a way to prove general transcendence of experience, it is extremely strong and very easy to defend. When one instead uses the argument to try to justify the truth claims of a specific religion, one then must come up with a mechanism for determining how to evaluate competing religious experiences. For example, if I argue that religious experiences prove Christianity to be true because so many people have experienced in sensory ways Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, then it is my task to also show that the experiences of, say, Shiva as god are unwarranted. Thus, the philosopher’s task increases in difficulty the more narrowly he presents the arguments conclusion.

Consider the following two conclusions from arguments (granting me authorial privilege to assume that readers can plug in the premises): 1) Therefore, religious experience justifies the belief that there is a realm apart from our mere physical existence; 2) Therefore, religious experience serves as powerful evidence for the truth of Christianity. The fact that 2) is much more narrow means that one must do much more to show that the conclusion is justified.

Does this mean that the argument is useless when arguing for a particular religion? Certainly not. There are many who have used the ARE for a defense of Christianity specifically (cf. William Alston Perceiving God and Nelson Pike Mystic Union). What is important to note is that when one uses the argument in dialog they must be very aware of how they formulate the argument. As a “Broad/public” version, it can serve as powerful evidence in part of a cumulative case for Christianity; as a “narrow/private” version, it can be strong confirmation of the justification of one’s faith. These variants can be used together or separately.

The Strength of the Argument

So how strong is the ARE? I hope I don’t disappoint readers when I respond by saying: that depends! As far as my opinion is concerned, it seems to me that the “broad/public” and “broad/private” version of the argument are nearly irrefutable. I think it is an invaluable tool for apologists and philosophers of religion. The “narrow/private” or “narrow/public” versions of the argument are not as strong by necessity: they must contend with more objections as they narrow. However, as part of one’s own faith life, I think the “narrow/private” and “narrow/public” versions can give great comfort and solace.

[Author's note: The next post on the argument from religious experience will defend the principle of credulity.]

Further Reading

See my “The Argument from Religious Experience: Some thoughts on method and usefulness“- a post which puts forward an easy-to-use version of the ARE and discusses its importance in apologetic endeavors.

The following books are all ones I have read on the topic but do not present a comprehensive look at literature on the subject.

Caroline Franks Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience (New York, NY: Oxford, 1989). One of the best books on the topic, Franks Davis provides what I would see as a nearly comprehensive look at the epistemic defeaters to consider with the argument from RE.

Jerome Gellman, Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1997). Gellman provides a robust defense of the principle of credulity.

Paul Moser, The Evidence for God (New York: NY, Cambridge, 2010). This work is not so much about the argument from RE as it is an argument showing that any evidence for God is going to be necessarily relational. I highly recommend it.

Richard Swinburne, Is There a God?(New York, NY: Oxford, 2010). This is an introductory work to Swinburne’s theistic arguments. It has a chapter on the argument from RE that provides an excellent, easy-to-read look at the issues surrounding the argument. I reviewed this book here.

There are a number of other fantastic books on the topic as well. Swinburne’s The Existence of God has a chapter that remains a classic for the defense of the argument from RE.

William Alston’s Perceiving God is perhaps one of the best examples of a robust epistemology built up around RE and realism.

Keith Yandell’s The Epistemology of Religious Experience is a extremely technical look at many of the issues, and I found it particularly useful regarding the notion of “ineffability” in RE.

Kai-man Kwan’s Rainbow of Experiences, Critical Trust, and God is a very recent look at the argument which again features a large amount of epistemological development.

Nelson Pike provides a unique look at the phenomenology of RE and a synthesis of theistic and monistic experiences in his work Mystic Union.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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Dawkins and Oppy vs. Theism: Defending the Kalam Cosmological Argument

“[Arguments for God's existence from an infinite regress] make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to the regress.” -Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 101.

Dawkins vs. the Kalam

Just over a year ago at Richard Dawkins’ site, someone asked Dawkins to respond to the Kalam Cosmological Argument (see an exposition of the argument here). The reader outlined the argument:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause
Dawkins responded almost immediately: “You left out Step 4: ‘Therefore Jesus died for our sins and regularly turns into a wafer.'”

Dawkins is frequently witty, but often wrong. The argument is for broad theism. The Kalam is intended to show that the universe is caused, it is not an argument for Christianity specifically. I pointed out in another post that just because an argument is for broad theism (or just the brute existence of God), that doesn’t mean the argument is useless evidentially for Christianity. If we know the universe is caused, then we also know whatever caused the universe must be capable of causation (obviously), choice (it must select a moment to bring about the universe), powerful enough to bring the universe into existence out of nothing, etc. This would be powerful evidence and part of a cumulative case towards Christianity.

Then there’s Dawkins’ quote in The God Delusion which I have seen utilized to challenge the Kalam. First, I should note that Dawkins’ quote is in response to Aquinas’ Five Ways/Proofs. Further, it seems to be intentionally pointed towards a Leibnizian version of the Cosmological Argument (for a fuller defense of that argument, see here). But, a simple answer to Dawkins objection, which he seems to think is devastating, would be to point out that the universe and God are different types of entities. The universe is contingent, and God is necessary. That’s not arbitrary, that’s just the kind of things those entities are.

A Philosophical Attack On the Kalam

Not all atheists are as capable of blind, willful ignorance as Dawkins. Graham Oppy’s recent book Arguing About Gods has a thoughtful, challenging section dedicated to William Lane Craig’s exposition of the Kalam.

Oppy challenges Craig on every step of the Kalam, but I’m going to focus upon one. Oppy writes, “[I]t is quite unclear why one should suppose that the allegedly counter-intuitive behavior of the transfinite [numbers]… casts doubt on the idea that the very smallest transfinite cardinals do find application to ‘the real world'”(Arguing About Gods, 140).

This proposal is meant to challenge Craig’s contention that the infinite cannot actually exist. For, if there can be no actual infinites, then the objects we see around us–indeed, the universe itself–must have begun. Yet Oppy’s contention really only reflects mathematical truths. But surely this is a rather untenable claim. Oppy would have to provide evidence that the infinite actually exists and is not just an abstract mathematical concept. Craig’s contention is that the infinite can only be used in things like Cantor’s theory for mathematical equations. Why does Craig make this restriction? He cites David Hilbert, the famous German Mathematician, who points out that:

the infinite is nowhere found in reality. It neither exists in nature nor provides a legitmate basis for rational thought… the role for infinite to play is solely that of an idea… (David Hilbert Quoted in Craig, 87, cited below)

Yet Oppy provides no reason to think that there are actually infinite things found in reality. Rather, he resorts to claiming that Craig misinterpreted Hilbert’s paradoxes and that “If the Cantorian theory of the transfinite numbers is intelligible, then we can suppose that some parts of it find application ‘in the real world…'” (Oppy, 140). But is that true? Aren’t there plenty of things that are intelligible but for which we have no application ‘in the real world’? I abstract a bit when I point this out, but it is perfectly intelligible that there could be flying pigs, yet we don’t find an application of that in “the real world” other than as a false statement. There are nearly limitless examples of intelligible things we can think of, or intelligible theories, which have no application in the real world.

But perhaps Oppy isn’t making a claim quite as strong as saying actual infinites exist. Perhaps he is just referring to the possibility that they do. The problem then, however, is that, as Craig writes in a critique of Oppy’s position, “Oppy’s attempt to defend the possibility of the existence of an actual infinite is vitiated by his conflation of narrowly and broadly logical possibility.” The problem is that Oppy has confused broad logical possibility (that it is possible to construct a consistent set with an actual infinite) with modal (the notion that an infinite actually does exist in a possible world) or actual possibility in the real world. Again, Craig writes, ” Oppy… seems to take a proposition’s freedom from inconsistency in first-order logic to be indicative of that proposition’s being true in some possible world” (Craig b, cited below). So Oppy has not done anything to defeat the Kalam. Even were Craig to grant that Cantorian theory allows for broad logical possibility of actual infinites, it would not show that they are actually possible in our world. And again, even were they possible in the real world, an actual infinite would have to exist in order to discredit the Kalam. Thus, Oppy’s counter to the Kalam is quite weak–it’s based upon a conflation of broadly logical and actual possibility, and even were he to show that infinites are actually possible, the problem would remain that we have observed none.

Yet, and this is very important to note, even if actual infinites did exist, that wouldn’t undermine the idea that everything which began has a cause. It would only allow atheists to claim the universe did not begin. But how would they go about claiming that? They’d have to show that a model of the origins of the universe which allowed for an infinite past was plausible–more plausible than the alternative. Yet the only hope for showing this would be to make a theory as parsimonious as the Big Bang theory, which postulates an absolute beginning to the universe. So, even were there actually infinite things in the universe, which I very much doubt, that would not undermine the Kalam. It would make the argument more difficult to defend, but it would not falsify it. All it would show is that there are objects which are not caused.

Thus, I take it that the Kalam Cosmological Argument does not suffer defeat, either from vocal, misguided atheists like Dawkins, or thoughtful philosophers like Graham Oppy.

Links:

Again, see an outline and defense of the Kalam Cosmological Arugment here.

William Lane Craig discusses another objection: whether a beginningless past is actually infinite: here. He offers a number of critiques of Oppy’s position here. You can also access a review by Craig of Oppy’s book here (you will need to sign up for a free account on http://www.reasonablefaith.org/).

Check out my review of a recent debate between Craig and Lawrence Krauss, in which the Kalam was discussed here. (Includes a link to the actual debate.)

Wintery Knight writes about how to defend the Kalam at his site: http://winteryknight.wordpress.com/2009/04/08/how-to-defend-the-kalam-cosmological-argument-just-like-william-lane-craig/

Sources:

Graham Oppy, Arguing About Gods (New York, NY: Cambridge, 2006).

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2008).

William Lane Craig, The Kalam Cosmological Argument (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1979).

William Lane Craig b, “Graham Oppy on the Kalam Cosmological Argument” (Leadership U, November 8, 2005), http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/oppy.html, accessed 9/1/2011. Also found at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5162.

Image credit: ESA/Hubble and NASA: http://spacetelescope.org/images/potw1021a/, found at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PGC_39058.jpg.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Materialists: Where is hope? Look to the stars!

“[T]he Universe may harbor civilizations more intelligent than our own. Perhaps one day, through interstellar communication, some advanced civilization will help us resolve such age-old problems as war, famine, disease, overpopulation, misuse of natural resources, and human aging.”- John Oró, “Historical Understanding of Life’s Beginnings” (40, cited below).

Such is the hope of materialism. I’ve argued elsewhere that if all we are is matter, then there is no meaning. The pervasive response was that “we make our own meaning.” Leaving questions over the tenability of such a view aside, I have turned to a different, and interesting phenomenon: Where is there room for hope, within materialism? 

It didn’t take long to dig up some quotes. One of the classes I’m taking this semester is on the Origins of Life. A few books we were assigned for this class were from a materialist perspective. The quote above is from one of those books. It resonated deeply with me. Consider this: If all we are is matter, having arrived here by unguided, biochemical processes, living on a dying planet in a dying universe–where is our hope? One cannot turn to transcendence with such a worldview, but one can attempt to emulate it.

Such is the case found in materialistic literature. Such is the grand materialist hope:

We can look hopefully for our saviors from the stars. There must be more intelligent life out there, and they will usher in a new era, a near utopia wherein disease, death, war, and hunger are all eliminated. Our alien saviors will rush to our aide once they’ve found us on this dying rock, and we will worship them as we used to worship the mythic gods of old. 

But it is not just hope for the future which must guide us. Our realization that we are but one among many (and many who are probably smarter than us) must lead us to a new set of ethics. Oró writes of new ethical principles we must embrace: “Humility: The life of all cells descends from simple molecules… Hope: Someday we may communicate with more advanced civilizations… Universality: We come from stardust and to stardust we shall return… Peace: We should change our culture of war into a culture of peace” (Oró, 40-41 cited below). Humility, hope, peace, universality–these are all things Christians embrace also, but the materialist has redefined them. Our hope is not int the transcendent but in the here-and-now. Our hope, again, reaches for the stars.

But is this really a hope? We know the universe is dying. We know that, even were we to escape death, eventually the cosmic heat death of the universe would occur, and our ultimate doom is sealed. Should we hope that our alien saviors are also inter-dimensional travelers? Should we hope that they transcend space and time? I leave these questions open.

But the most interesting phenomenon in all of this is that the materialist has abandoned their presupposition. Rather than hoping for what is they hope for what we know not. They look to the stars, grasping at things unseen. Iris Fry, a professor at both Tel Aviv University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and author of The Emergence of Life on Earth writes honestly and lucidly of the philosophical commitments of the materialist in this sphere:

[T]he realization that many non-empirical factors are involved in determining scientific positions and in the adoption of scientific theories leads to the notion of theoretical and philosophical decision, or commitment. Research into the origin of life and the search for extraterrestrial life are a clear case in point, because here the weight of the philosophical commitment is much greater than in more conventional scientific fields. As long as no empirical evidence of life beyond Earth has been found, and as long as no scientific theory has succeeded in providing a fully convincing account of the emergence of life on Earth, the adoption of an evolutionary point of view toward the question of life’s origin and the rejection of the idea of purposeful design involve a very strong philosophical commitment. -Iris Fry (283, Cited Below)

Ultimately, I think she is quite right. There is a philosophical commitment being espoused here, not a scientific commitment. Too often, materialists forget that, but kudos to Fry for honestly admitting it while also espousing the very commitment.

Where is our hope?

The materialist answers: The stars.

Is this really rational?

Sources:

John Oró “Historical Understanding of Life’s Beginnings” in Life’s Origin ed. J. William Schopf (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2002).

Iris Fry The Emergence of Life on Earth (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 2000.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“Extraordinary claims need…” What, exactly?

We’ve all heard it before, “Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence.”

It’s a maxim repeated all over the internet, and it keeps popping up in debates between Christians and atheists. But what exactly is the phrase telling us? Do extraordinary claims really need extraordinary evidence? And what exactly qualifies as “extraordinary” evidence anyway?

Is it true?

Do extraordinary claims really need extraordinary evidence? Well, intuitively, it seems the answer yes. But is it really true?

Suppose I were to claim that I were not a human, and instead am a giant pink salamander. What kind of evidence would be required in order to back this claim? Well I could obviously submit pictures of myself typing these blog posts as evidence. I could submit videos. I could allow people to come observe me. None of these would really be “extraordinary” types of evidence. Merely observing something is nothing extraordinary. But these could certainly serve as proof for my claim. People would be justified in believing me upon observation–it’s possible that they could be within their epistemic rights simply by seeing pictures of me typing (though with Photoshop and the like, it is more difficult to justify that epistemically).

So despite our intuitions, it seems there must be some kind of argument to establish the truth of the phrase. It seems, upon further thought, that the phrase is false. Ordinary evidence (x observes y to be the case, therefore, x believes y is true) will do even for extraordinary claims. Examples of this nature could be multiplied. So it seems the phrase, on this interpretation, is simply false.

What qualifies as an ‘extraordinary’ claim?

Another problem with the statement “Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence” is that those who make the claim never explain what exactly it is that qualifies as an “extraordinary claim.” I mean surely, we could reduce almost any claim to something extraordinary, if we worked hard enough. I claim to be human; that entails a huge amount of ontology such as the existence of a planet which is capable of supporting life, the existence of life on said planet, the higher order of life such that intelligent life could exist, intelligent life which created machines capable of typing out thoughts, etc, etc. Any claim could be said to be “extraordinary”. The attack on “extraordinary claims” fails, in part, because it does not define what qualifies as “extraordinary”. I suspect this is another case of proving too much or not enough: either all claims are extraordinary and not to be believed until we have overwhelming evidence, or claims need just enough evidence to be justified in believing them.

Without a clear explanation of what qualifies as an “extraordinary claim” (and I think there can be none offered without begging the question), there is no reason to accept the statement as true to begin with. But this leads us to the next level:

What is ‘extraordinary evidence’?

What exactly is “extraordinary evidence” anyway? The phrase is thrown around as though it has meaning, and for someone studying philosophy with a heavy analytic bent, this is maddening. What is meant by “extraordinary”!? I think it could give us one of two options: either a) a large amount of evidence; or b) extremely powerful evidence. But even these definitions are ambiguous: what constitutes a “large amount” of evidence or “extremely powerful” evidence?

The phrase therefore seems to rely upon a certain ambiguity in order to maintain its power. There is no clear definition of what constitutes extraordinary evidence; and it seems likely that the phrase is merely used to try to increase the burden of evidence on the theist. Without a clear definition or any kind of argument to support the assertion, however, the theist is justified in rejecting it.

Is that the issue?

Perhaps I’ve missed what’s really the issue here. I suspect the reasoning is that the phrase is meant to refer either to:

1) Things which can’t be observed in the usual fashion

2) Things of great existential import

Consider 1) first. The reasoning here could be that something, like God, which can’t be observed simply by going somewhere and staring, would need extraordinary evidence in order to justify belief in said being. The problem here is that the definition of extraordinary is being used differently than (I think) the phrase is intended. For here, extraordinary would have to mean simply”other” than the ordinary. There would have to be some kind of evidence for a thing’s existence such that it would act as a substitute for “seeing” the thing. But that doesn’t mean we need “more” or “greater” evidence for something described by 1) than we would for something which is a standard, everyday kind of thing. All it means is that we’d have to have a different kind of evidence.

What kind of evidence, specifically? Well it seems as though logical evidence or philosophical argument could serve as a valid substitute for empirical evidence. So either of those could serve to justify someone in her belief in a deity.

Consider 2)–that claims of great existential import need extraordinary evidence. William Lane Craig discussed this in his Reasonable Faith Podcast, “Doubting the Resurrection.” He asserted that if something is of existential importance, we don’t demand more evidence for it; if anything, we should be more open and eager to explore the viability of the claims. Craig proposed the following example: suppose you are diagnosed with a fatal disease and there was “some experimental evidence that a vaccine… might cure you, wouldn’t you be desperate to [try the medicine and] find out if that might save your life… rather than saying, ‘Well, this is such a life-changing situation that I’m going to be as skeptical as I can, and only take this medicine as a last resort when it’s been demonstrated absolutely that” it will cure the disease.

The key point is that claims of extraordinary existential significance require evidence, but they are of such import that it is almost absurd to be totally skeptical of these claims due to their total importance. As Craig points out, if God exists and sent His Son to save us through belief in Him, that is such an extraordinarily significant difference between the universe if that is true as opposed to if it is false that it is worth exploring. He points out that even if there’s only a 1/1,000,000 chance that it’s true, it is worth looking into.

The most obvious rebuttal to this kind of reasoning is a kind of argument from religious diversity: “All the world’s religions have existential significance, and it would be impossible to fully explore all of them in a lifetime”… therefore, what? Perhaps one could argue that because we can’t explore all the options, we shouldn’t bother with any–but that seems to be throwing out everything for no reason. A diversity of options does not entail the falsehood of all.

It may be best to instead look at world religions in light of the kinds of evidence which could be available, and take 1) above with 2) to yield an exploration of religions based upon the types of evidence available for them. For example, the Qur’an contradicts the Bible on the topic of whether Jesus was crucified. Yet we have irrefutable evidence that Jesus was indeed crucified from both Gospel accounts and extrabiblical, contemporary accounts. Therefore, one could see it fit to exclude Islam from the exploration and move on. Perhaps one finds the existential claims of Buddhism less compelling than that of Judaism–in such a case, she would be well within her epistemic rights to explore Judaism rather than Buddhism.

A complete answer to this objection would take us far afield, but for now I think that it may be best to note simply that the objection does not undermine the argument against 2) anyway. As noted, a mere diversity of positions does not entail they are all false. Similarly, our inability to explore all possible options does not mean we should explore none. Perhaps it means, instead, that we should get started.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The Case for Christianity in 15 Minutes (or less)

Recently, the need for defending Christianity in a short time period has come to light. I was in a discussion with some acquaintances and was asked to outline why I believe what I believe, but we were on a time crunch so I only had about 15 minutes. Thankfully, I have had access to some wonderful resources that allowed me to memorize some quick, but useful arguments.

This post is intended to provide other Christians with a case for their beliefs that they can memorize and share with others. Note that the study cannot stop here. Most people will not be convinced by the basics outlined here. The goal of this post is to provide a springboard for discussion and keep people engaged in  the idea that God exists and Jesus is Lord. Each section is intended to flow directly into the next. I encourage my fellow Christians to memorize a “case for faith” in a manner like this, so they may be prepared with a reason for the hope within them (1 Peter 3:15).

The arguments are necessarily short and simple due to time constraints, but they offer a short defense that will, hopefully, spur further conversation (again, don’t forget to do more research!). Greg Koukl says we don’t need to convince someone right away–we just need to “put a rock in their shoe” so that we can keep the discussion going later. As always, the most effective apologetic is a prayerful, Christ-reflecting life. May the Holy Spirit guide you all.

1. God Exists (7 minutes)

There are many reasons to believe God exists, let me share a few:

Kalam Cosmological Argument

1) Everything that began to exist has a cause

2) The universe Began to exist

3) Therefore the universe has a cause.

It seems intuitively obvious that 1) is true. Things don’t just pop into and out of existence. 2) follows from modern scientific discoveries like the Big Bang, which implies a single cosmological beginning. 3) follows via modus ponens (the most basic form of argument) from 1 and 2. This argument shows a transcendent cause of the universe. The cause must also be personal because [it] brought the universe into existence at some point, which requires a choice. Choices can only be made by persons, so this entity is personal. (See William Lane Craig in “On Guard”, linked below, for more.)

[For more reading on the Kalam Cosmological Argument see my posts linked below.]

The Moral Argument

4) If there are objective moral values, then God exists

5) There are objective moral values

6) Therefore, God exists.

“Objective moral values” here means that moral values are true regardless of what anyone thinks. For example, “murder is wrong” would be wrong even if every single human being thought murder was the way to achieve greatest happiness and encouraged it as an extracurricular activity for teenagers. But the only way to hold that objective moral values exist is to grant God’s existence, because objective laws require an objective lawgiver.

Without God, however, morals reduce to “I don’t like that.” It seems ludicrous to believe that murder is wrong just because we don’t like it. It is something actually wrong about murder that makes it wrong. That which makes it wrong is, again, the commands of the Lawgiver: God. People have a sense of moral objectivity built into them, which also suggests both the existence of objective morals and a God who created in us this conscience. (See Craig “On Guard” and C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity”.)

2. Christianity is Unique (3 minutes)

Religions are not all the same:

1) Many religions have contradictory truth claims. (Some forms of Buddhism say: There is no God; Christianity argues: There is a God; Hinduism states: there are many gods)

2) Even among theistic religions, there are contradictory claims (Christianity: Jesus is God; Judaism: Jesus is not God; Islam: Mohammed is prophet; Christianity: Mohammed is not a prophet; Judaism: Mohammed is not a prophet; Islam: Jesus is not God; etc.).

3) The Law of Noncontradiction (actual contradictions like “square circles” or “married bachelors” cannot exist and are not real) shows us that therefore, these religions cannot all be true.

4) Christianity is unique in that  its central religious claim is a historical one: that the person Jesus Christ died and rose again from the dead. This is a historical event which can be investigated just like any other historical event. Yet exploration of this event leads to the conclusion that…

3. Jesus is God (5 minutes)

1) The Gospels are reliable. They demonstrate many criteria for historical truth: multiple attestation (four Gospels telling the same story, but with enough significant differences to demonstrate they didn’t copy off each other), principle of embarrassment (the authors of the Gospels included details which would be embarrassing either to themselves or culturally, such as the fact that women were the first witnesses to the risen Christ in a culture in which women were not trusted), the writers died for their belief in the historical events (while many religious believers die for their beliefs, it seems unfathomable that the Christian Gospel writers would willingly die gruesome deaths for things they made up–which is what alternative theories argue), etc. (See Strobel, “Case for Christ”)

2) Jesus made divine claims “I and the Father are one” John 10:30; “Before Abraham was, I am” John 8:58; etc.

3) The miracle of the resurrection is God’s confirmation of Jesus’ divine claims. If the Gospels are reliable (per 1), then Jesus is divine.

Conclusions

There is good evidence to think that God exists. There are even other arguments that could be presented, such as the teleological, ontological, transcendental, argument from religious experience, and more. We can also see that not all religions can be true. Furthermore, there are good reasons to think the Gospels are reliable and that Jesus claimed to be God and had His claims authenticated by God Himself in Jesus’ resurrection.

Remember, this is not even close to a full defense of Christianity. It is simply a condensed, easy to remember defense designed to be ready at a moment’s notice for when the Holy Spirit leads people into our paths. We need to do more research, offer more arguments, and continue to witness as the Holy Spirit works through our testimony. This defense is by no means a total apologetic; it is meant only as an introduction to spur further conversation. Always have a reason.

Later Edit:

Some have objected to this post on various grounds, most of which are reducible to my arguments not being developed enough. I emphasize once more, this is supposed to be used for a 15-minute defense of the faith, not an entire survey of the field. See my links for more reading, and continue to investigate for yourself.

Further Reading

If you are interested in further reading on these topics, I suggest:

1) On my site, check out the posts on the existence of God: here. Specifically, for the Kalam Cosmological argument:

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

Dawkins and Oppy vs. Theism: Defending the Kalam Cosmological Argument

“The Multiverse Created Itself” and “Who made God after all?”- The Kalam Cosmological Argument

The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument (not developed in this post).

2) On Guard by William Lane Craig- a basic level introduction to many of the ideas discussed here.

3) The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel-a wonderful book which goes through many issues of historical Christianity. Presents evidence for the historicity of the Gospels and the divinity of Jesus.

4) Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis-a Christian classic, this work is a fantastic defense of Christianity. C.S. Lewis is a masterful writer and I highly recommend this work.

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The Myth of Atheism: Is it (epistemic) Neutral Ground?

Is there such a thing as epistemic neutral ground? The question deserves serious consideration, for if there is epistemic neutral ground, surely we should all stand upon it in order to evaluate worldviews. The reason for this is because the ability to strip away all bias and preconceptions and simply evaluate a worldview “as is” without any pretensions would be highly invaluable. I’ve run into atheists who seem to think that atheism somehow counts as this epistemic neutral ground. I think there is good reason to doubt that there is such a thing as epistemic neutral ground; and if there is, atheism is surely not it.

What reason do we have for thinking atheism is neutral ground? Those who argue that it is tend to say that it is neutral ground because they reject all religions a priori, which allows them to evaluate religious truth more fairly. This seems clearly misguided; rejecting all alternative worldviews hardly means that one is on neutral ground. In fact, it is more like dogmatics than neutrality.

But is atheism really a worldview, properly formulated? If it is not, can it serve as our elusive neutral ground? There is no doubt that those who are nontheists share little in common other than the simple attribution of “not believing in God” or “believing there is no God”. There are atheists who are buddhists; atheists who believe in ghosts; atheists who are staunch secular humanists. There doesn’t seem to be any shared connection. Does this mean it is not a worldview? I think the answer is yes and no. Atheism, construed as some kind of singular entity, is not a worldview. Rather, each atheists has his or her own worldview–part of which is atheism. Analyzed in this light, then, atheism is a piece of the fabric weaving together a worldview, not the worldview itself.

Does this, then, allow for atheism to be epistemic neutral ground? Again, I don’t see why it would. What reasons are there for favoring atheism as a research program (borrowing the phrase from Michael Rea) over theism? Again, it seems the only answer could be that it rejects all gods, so it somehow must allow for equal evaluation of other views. This still seems totally misguided. Why does rejecting all things make one neutral? If I am presented with some event, e, and possible explanations for e, A, B, and C, and then I reject A, B, and C, does this somehow make me neutral towards A-C? No! It means I reject them as explanations for e! Perhaps this is because I have my own explanation for e, or believe that e cannot be explained, but that doesn’t mean I am neutral towards the explanations which have been offered.

It therefore seems as though atheism cannot serve as epistemic neutral ground, either as a worldview itself, or as a method for research. Can alternative views suffice? It seems as though logic could serve as a research method which can be epistemically neutral. The immediate objection to this could be that there are those who reject logic and claim that there can be contradictions, impossibilities, and the like. My answer to this is that even those who reject logic can only claim to do so for logical reasons. In other words, they formulate logical arguments in order to argue that logic is false. It seems as though if someone has to assume the truth of some proposition (in this case that logic is true) in order to argue against that same proposition, then their arguments can in no way undermine the truth of that proposition.

I’m happy to follow logic where it leads. It seems to me that it leads straight towards the existence of God. Why? I’ve discussed this elsewhere: the Liebnizian Cosmological Argument, the Ontological Argument, Purposively Available Evidence, and the Teleological Argument. I’ve written on this same subject here.

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Image: Copyright CalistaZ. Accessed http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lavaux_Alpes_et_Lac_l%C3%A9man.jpg

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The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument

One of my personal favorite areas of philosophy of religion is studying the arguments for existence of God. One type of argument for God is the Cosmological Argument, and one of these arguments was developed by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

The Argument

A simple version of the argument, in syllogistic form, goes as follows:

1) Everything which exists has an explanation of its existence

2) If the universe has an explanation for its existence, that explanation is God

3) The universe exists

4) The universe has an explanation of its existence

5) Therefore God exists (Craig, 54ff)

Now I think this outlining of Leibniz’s argument is a little forward. Premise 2 may be a bit strong. I’ve edited it some, though I’m sure many others have outlined it similarly, to become:

1) All entities which exist have explanation of their existence. This explanation is either their own necessity or (for contingent entities) an external cause.  (P1)

2) The universe exists (Axiom [A] 1)

3) The universe’s existence is not found in its own necessity (P2)

4) Therefore, the universe has an external cause (P1, P2)

5) There cannot be an infinite series of non-necessary causes (A2)

6) Therefore, the cause of the universe is transcendent (external) to it and necessary (4, A2 [I'm skipping a few steps here, but it would end up here eventually, as follows from 4 and A2])

What the Argument Demonstrates

I’m content with settling for the conclusion found in 6). Demonstrating that an external, necessary entity caused the universe is as close as to God as many arguments can go. A being which causes the universe would obviously be exceedingly powerful, the argument itself states it is transcendent to the universe, and the being exists necessarily. Many (most?) theists tend to agree that the other attributes Classical Theism has generally assigned to God follow quite easily from the acknowledgement that such a being exists.

The question must now turn towards reasons why we should believe that this valid argument is true.

Defense of the Premises

1) seems as though it should be accepted simply as a given. I don’t think I should need to defend 1). If we abandon the idea that everything which exists has an explanation (either contingently–from something outside of itself, or necessarily–from its own necessity), then we should expect any number of utterly random things to pop into and out of existence for no reason whatsoever! After all, it would be the height of self-delusion to think that, while all things require reasons to exist, it just so happens (how fortuitously!) that our universe is the only thing which exists for no reason. I’ll leave it at that for now… such ideas are more important for the Transcendental Argument, after all.

2) simply doesn’t need a defense.

Step 3) is alongside step 1) as the only two premises which are capable of being denied (for 2 is, again, obvious, and 4) follows simply from the first 3; we will discuss step 5 shortly) to avoid the conclusion. Denying step 1), I think, is clearly unacceptable, so denying step 3) is really the only way to go for the anti-theist. But what reasons do we have for thinking the universe exists necessarily? I think this is patently not the case. After all, everything which exists necessarily exists (necessarily) forever! Therefore, a necessary universe must have existed for an infinite amount of time (for time is part of the universe). But if this is the case, we run into the insurmountable problems which an infinite past brings up (these problems are also important for the Kalam Cosmological Argument).

I’ll pick just one problem to demonstrate: if the past is actually infinite (as it must be, granting a necessary universe), then we could never get to the present moment, for we would have had to traverse an actually infinite amount of time to get here! Not only that, but as time passes, there is no time being “added” to what came before. Infinity is infinity and it cannot be increased by adding to it or decreased from taking away from it. Therefore, every second which seems as though it is lengthening our lives is actually not doing anything of the sort, despite every commonsense notion with which we have lived out whole lives saying otherwise! The universe, on this view, is a deceptive place, in which nothing is as it seems.

Not only that, but if the universe were necessary, then it seems as though hard determinism–that is, the view that there is no freedom of the will whatsoever–must be the case. For, if the universe exists necessarily, then it has possessed all of its parts necessarily, forever.

Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be any reason as to why the universe could not have been different. To assert the universe exists necessarily, once again, means to assert that no part of the universe could have failed to exist. Think of it this way: the universe in which I ate breakfast this morning (as opposed to this universe, in which I did not [shame on me, I know]) is logically impossible. Why? Because things which exist necessarily cannot change!

Worse yet, the explanation of a necessary universe leads to the question of why exactly everything is as it is. The anti-theistic view of such a universe is that, necessarily, the universe exists as it does, which happens to have an extraordinary amount of order, laws of nature which happen to allow for life, etc. (this objection was brought to my attention through Stephen Parrish’s God and Necessity, 241).

Thus, even if we grant that it is possible the universe exists necessarily, the individual properties of the universe still call out for explanation: why is it that the universal constants are what they are, and don’t deviate by the infinitesimal amount which would have prevented the existence of life? Ultimately, then, the necessary universe theory falls victim not just to objections against the idea of a necessary universe, but it also falls victim to the objections against the universe existing for no reasons whatsoever.

This means that we have established 1-4. Step 5 is an axiom which I have proposed, because it seems to me quite clear that an infinite regress of contingent causes is a vicious regress–an impossibility. Everything in such a chain would have to, by 1), have a cause outside of itself. If we take C1 to be caused by C2, but both are contingent, then C2 calls for an explanation, C3, which calls for C4, which calls for C5… ad infinitum. I don’t see any reason to deny that this regress is vicious.

Thus, 1-5 have been established. If this is the case, however, then 6 follows, simply because at some point the series of causes C1…C5… would have to be terminated in N1 (a necessary cause). Furthermore, this cause would be external to the universe, from step 1). Thus, the Leibnizian Cosmological argument provides us with powerful reasons to think that a transcendent, powerful, necessary entity brought the universe into existence. I don’t see any reason to call this entity anything but God. There  are many reasons to think that an entity with these properties (namely, necessary existence, transcendence, omnipotence) would possess many or all the other properties generally assigned to God.

Therefore, God exists.

Sources:

Craig, William Lane. On Guard. David C. Cook Publishers. 2010.

Parrish, Stephen. God and Necessity. University Press of America. 1997.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

Do we have epistemic “oughts”?

I’ve been contemplating for a while about the “oughts” within epistemology. It is often said that we should do something, or that we are obligated to consider certain types of evidence. But what exactly does this mean? Specifically, I don’t see that it can have any meaning given an atheistic perspective.

Take a recent example. I was talking to a friend of mine who asserted that we “ought” to be skeptical about all things.* The friend was referring to the existence of God as an example, and continued to argue that there are specific things we epistemically should or should not do. We should, for example, approach the question of God’s existence with skepticism. We should take empirical evidence above any other type of evidence. The examples could be multiplied.

The question that came to mind, however, is what kind of justification does an atheist have for arguing that we have epistemic “oughts”? In other words, what is it about people that means we owe it to… well, something… to fully investigate the universe? For, on atheism, there cannot be meaning to our lives other than a “noble lie”  which we tell ourselves in order to try to infuse  our lives with meaning(Dr. L.D. Rue–cited in On Guard by William Lane Craig, 46). The universe is on a countdown until cosmic heat death. Any actions we take are ultimately utterly devoid of meaning, for no matter how much we impact the human race for good or evil (and who knows what those terms mean, on atheism!?), the human race will, inevitably, fade into non-existence, along with the rest of the universe.

But then what does it matter what our beliefs are? How is it that we can have “oughts” about what we do or don’t believe? What kind of justification is there for thinking that we should or should not try to discover the truth about the universe? Ultimately, my actions, on atheism, do not matter. In the grand scheme of things, I am just more matter in motion, on a big hunk of matter in motion, in a universe filled with matter in motion, which will, itself, fade away.

It is because of this that I cannot think of any reason that there could be epistemic “oughts” on atheism. I think that atheistic philosophy (and indeed anything, on atheism) is an ultimately pointless endeavor, trying to infuse meaning into a universe which is utterly devoid of meaning.

There cannot be epistemic “oughts” on atheism. The very idea is a fiction, another “noble lie” invented to try to keep us from despair.

*I have the friend’s permission to write about this on my blog.

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Dawkins discussing “The Greatest Show On Earth” (Attempts to Counter Teleology)

There was a video I found online of Dawkins talking about his latest book, “The Greatest Show On Earth.” Naturally I had to watch it and I honestly found myself laughing out loud at a few points. Dawkins is surely a good speaker. I find him quite a natural at sounding amiable despite spitting blasphemy and utter illogic the entire time.

Now I have not read the book. I cracked it open at Borders recently, but that’s about it, so these comments only come from the video.

Dawkins’ brand of argument is one that I am honestly baffled by. Basically, what Dawkins says, is that the reason we see so much apparent design in the universe is because it could not have failed to be any other way, given the fact that we are here to observe it. I have heard this argument before but never really reflected on how ridiculous it is before now.

“The fact of our own existence is perhaps too surprising to bear… How is it that we find ourselves not merely existing, but surrounded by such complexity, such excellence, such endless forms so beautiful… The answer is this: it could not have been otherwise, given that we are capable of noticing our existence at all and of asking questions about it.”- Dawkins, in the interview at the link above.

The argument seems at first to be as follows:

[1]

1. There is apparent design in the universe that brought about our existence.

2. We exist.

3. The reason we see apparent design in the universe is because we exist.

What!? I don’t even want to delve into the depths of how many fallacies there are in this argument, as I may have constructed it wrong. Perhaps the argument is, instead:

[2]

1. We exist

2. There is apparent design in the universe that brought about our existence.

3. Therefore, we are here to observe that design.

Again, what!?

But on further reflection, perhaps these arguments are unfair to the original statement. It may be that the argument is not meant analytically, and instead should just be seen as a brute statement of fact:

Conclusion [1]: The apparent design we see in the universe is observed simply because we exist to observe it.

Another way to state this could be:

Conclusion [2]: We read design for our existence into the universe because we exist to do so.

I still can’t get over how utterly question begging all of these assertions are. Perhaps I could answer with a parody that begs the question in favor of teleology:

Conclusion [3]: We read design for our existence into the universe because it actually is there.

I think that my conclusion has about as much [or more] validity as the argument Dawkins [and others] makes.

Basically what Dawkins and others who make this argument have done is acknowledge the tremendous weight that the teleological argument brings to the table, and then decide to beg the question against it in their own favor by saying, “Well of course it seems designed for us, we’re here, aren’t we?”

But let me be perhaps more fair. Maybe Dawkins is really trying to say that:

Conclusion [4]: Because we are here to observe all of these things, it follows that they should appear to be designed for us, for we could not have come about if such conditions had not occurred.

This may, at first glance, seem more valid. But let us examine it further. How is it that it somehow follows from this conclusion that the design is not in fact intelligent design? How does it follow that the design does not point specifically to creation? I don’t think there is any good way to try to exclude either of these alternatives. What Dawkins has in fact done is not eliminate design from the equation, but introduce evolution as an alternative explanation. He acknowledges design, and then throws evolution into the mix as a possible explanation (“How is it… it could not have been otherwise”). It’s essentially giving up on trying to explain away design and instead admitting it and trying to explain it within evolution.

It follows that such people have been thrown into a trilemma:

1. Admit design and then beg the question against it

2. Admit design and modify the theory of evolution in an ad hoc manner [which again begs the qeustion]

3. Deny design entirely

The third option has become increasingly untenable, so people like Dawkins have tried the first two. Unfortunately, in doing so they have abandoned the very logic they claim to cling to.

But again, perhaps I may be accused of erecting a straw man. “It’s not that Dawkins is saying there is design, just that there appears to be design, because we are here.” I answer again by saying that this is completely question-begging against teleology. It smacks of a complete ad hoc modification of one’s view.

But I think there is a stronger argument I have left out. Perhaps Dawkins means to argue:

[3]

1. If some species X exists, then the universe would appear designed for X.

2. X exists.

3. Therefore, the universe appears designed for X.

Okay. How does this in any way eliminate or discredit design? I don’t see any reason to accept the view that it does. All it states is what is obvious. It doesn’t, however, eliminate the following argument:

[4]

1. If some species X exists, then the universe is designed for X.

2. X exists.

3. Therefore, the universe is designed for X.

Nor does it do anything to somehow discredit this latter argument. All it’s done is formulate a weaker version of the teleological argument, which is the argument many theists are using nowadays to begin with.

But there is even one more argument I have forgotten:

[5]

1. If species X exists, then it is impossible that conditions are such that X would fail to exist.

2. X exists.

3. Therefore, it is impossible that conditions are such that X would fail to exist.

I think this is perhaps the strongest form or Darwins’ argument. According to this argument, it simply follows that if any one species (or probably, any being whatsoever) exists, then conditions could not have been anything but what they are. I believe this is not a straw man largely because it is formulated almost exactly from what Dawkins says (see quote above, specifically “The answer is this: it could not have been otherwise…”). In other words, if something exists, then it is simply obvious that conditions would have to be such that that thing exists. I would answer:

There are major problems for the evolutionist holding to this view. For in stating that it would be impossible for conditions to be otherwise, one making this argument has made it necessarily true that every species that does exist, exists. In other words, the universe exists in such a fashion that it is necessarily true that humans came to exist. Similarly, it is necessarily true that walruses, cardinals, and the like came to exist. But what does that say about evolution? Where did the natural selection go? Where did the random chance go? What has happened to those conditions that factor into making species diverse? For if the species that exist today exist because of a necessary chain of events leading up to the species that currently exist, it follows [due to necessity] that the speceis that exist now could not have failed to exist, nor could there have been other species. I think that this kind of argument should make the atheistic evolutionist quite uncomfortable, for if it is necessarily true that humans exist, all they’ve done is actually acknowledge that the universe was arranged in such a way that humans would actually exist.

And I see no way to make this argument without including necessity in it. For if necessity is left out of argument [5] above, then it suffers from the problem of not actually eliminating design. But if necessity is included in the argument, then it follows that species that exist now exist necessarily, and therefore the universe is such that humans have come about necessarily because of pre-existing conditions, which many theists would gladly acknowledge, and perhaps even cling to.

I conclude with restating my exact quote from Dawkins’ mouth. I leave out his paltry answer this second time, for his question remains unanswered in light of his illogic. Thank you, Dawkins, for acknowledging that the universe was specifically designed for us.

“The fact of our own existence is perhaps too surprising to bear… How is it that we find ourselves not merely existing, but surrounded by such complexity, such excellence, such endless forms so beautiful?”

I answer: God.

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

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