Saturday, March 27, 2010

What's Wrong With Universalism- Part 1

Over the past few years a few people have told me that all religions are the same when they are boiled down, and there is no reason to promote my particular worldview over another. The implication of this belief is that all religions are true and lead to the same destination (universalism). For now, let's look past the fact that they just contradicted themselves (see post "The Intolerance of Tolerance") and engage one of their arguments.
I've been told that since the major religions of the world teach (for the most part) the same moral code, they must all be the same (true) and(or) lead to the same destination. They like to point to this similarity in the religions and conclude that since they are similar, they are equal.

I don't know of many situations (in fact, I can't think of a single one right now) in which people would make this kind of argument in everyday life. Let's start with a simple and trivial example: "The car is a dark orange color," "The car is a dark blue color."- 6 of the 7 words are the same, yet we don't focus on those 6 when we are comparing the two sentences. We focus on the one word that is different. The one that distinguishes what the first sentence is saying from what the second sentence is saying.

We could change one of the other words in the sentences (still keeping 7 total) and be expressing many other ideas. If we were to change "car" to "table", we are no longer talking about an object in the same category. If we were to change "is" to "was," we are talking about a different point in time. If we were to change "dark" to "shiny," we are no longer speaking of a shade of the color but now a texture.

Now let's look at something a little less trivial. You have a migraine. You have asked for some medication to relieve you of the pain. Your friend enters the room with two sets of pills in hand. They tell you that you must choose between the two sets. You look at both sets. All the pills are white, round, and dull in appearance. Would it be a good choice to conclude that the two sets are identical? Let's find out. You take one set. Your "friend" now tells you that one of the sets of pills were rat poison and not migraine medication, and he is not sure which set was what. Would you just lay there thinking that rat poison and migraine medication are the same, because of all the qualities they had in common with each other? If you did, you could be dead shortly. Would you even be willing to take that chance? I would hope that you could answer that question as, "NO!" In fact, you would immediately try to vomit or if you knew that warning labels tell you not to do this, you would be on the way to the emergency room to get your stomach pumped.

People point out similarities in religions in order to show that they are really just the same and that one single religion is not "correct". However, this is confusing and sometimes reckless behavior that is not performed even in everyday, trivial decisions and conversations- and certainly would not be practiced when referring to "life and death" situations. It would follow that we be even more careful with more important issues, like our existence after death. We need to not look at the similarities when comparing the worldviews and religions of the world. We need to focus on their differences and investigate those to determine which is true.

Every religion and worldview has something to say about what happens after we die (even if it is that nothing happens- that you go into extinction). The belief of the true religion or worldview will determine your consequences for choosing the wrong one (unless the one that teaches extinction for everyone is true).  The possibilities of the consequences taught by the religions and worldviews of the world should make us think twice about being so reckless in our thinking about the truth of a particular religion or worldview.

This possibility is not meant to "scare" someone into a certain belief system. It is simply being proposed as a real reason to think more critically about our choice of religion or worldview than we do in our everyday lives, rather than less critically. Every aspect of the religions and worldviews is subject to critical thinking, even the idea that "every way is the 'right' way."

Since I've been writing this, I've decided that this needs to be a two-part series. I have been presented with a more nuanced argument for universalism that eliminates the claim that all religions are the same, but retains the idea that they all do lead to the same destination. Since this week's post has focused on destroying that part of the claim, next week's post will attack universalism from a different angle.

In the meantime, for more on this topic, I recommend:

Books:
Tactics: Greg Koukl
Without A Doubt: Kenneth Samples (Kindle Version)
A World of Difference: Kenneth Samples (Kindle Version)

Podcasts:
Just Thinking
Straight Thinking
Stand to Reason
Apologetics.com

13 comments:

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  2. On what basis(es) is chemical properties an "essence" and not an "accident"? It can't be the configuration of the subatomic particles held together in a certain way by the laws of physics. "Accidents" as you call them are configurations too. Many of them are held together by the laws of physics also (the paint sticks to the cars). If it is, then all things are the same essences, just with different accidents. The implication of this is that you and the seat you are setting on are the same thing. I would like to hear your wife carry on a conversation with the chair as if it were you, and see if she gets anywhere (I am assuming that she would not be as successful in communicating herself while talking to the chair vs. talking to you, but I am assuming that based on the idea that chemical properties are accidents, not essences).

    You have made a big mistake in your identification of my "strawman". You are equating "universalism" with "pluralism". There is a very important difference:

    Universalism states that all roads lead to God (or the final state, or whatever)- there are not wrong roads.

    Pluralism states that many roads lead to God (or the final state, or whatever)- there are some wrong roads.

    Pluralism is a nuanced form of universalism because of universalism's complete denial of the laws of reason and logic (assuming you hold that they are authoritative).

    I will tackle pluralism in the future; however, because of the fact that it is much more complicated that simply the definition that I provided above, it will not be done here in the comments.

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  4. Does "configuration of attributes" fall under "essence" or "accident"?

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  6. Samuel,

    You said, "A configuration of attributes can be essential or accidental."

    Thank you for answering the question. Now, is the chemical configuration of an atom essential or accidental?

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  8. Specific atoms are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons in specific configurations. Are those specific configurations essential or accidental to the specific atom?

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  10. "The implication of this belief is that all religions are true"

    eh?

    I do not see how it is possible for all the religions of the world could be true, too many contradict one another.

    However, they could all be wrong :-)

    Sorry, I missed the argument in this post... what was it again?

    Lee

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  11. Hi Luke,

    On what basis(es) is chemical properties an "essence" and not an "accident"? It can't be the configuration of the subatomic particles held together in a certain way by the laws of physics.

    Oh, this sounds interesting… we are talking physics now are we?

    Are you really saying that the arrangement of the nucleus has nothing to do with the arrangement of the electrons – and hence the chemical properties of that atom?

    No, that cannot be right…

    Hi Samuel

    Atoms don't have chemical configurations.
    Atoms are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons


    Correct on the composition – the ‘chemical configuration’ depends on our definitions. I don't think I like the term myself.

    The arrangement of the nucleus (number of protons) affects the number of electrons of the atom. The electron configuration (number of electrons on the simplest level) determines the chemical properties of an atom.

    Not sure what this has to do with any argument on this post.

    Hey ho
    Lee

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  12. Samuel,

    1a. You complained that my analogy about the different colored cars was not good- you say that the color is not essential to the car being a car.

    Later you talk about a living human and a hydrogen atom. Let's look at each of these individually:

    You state that a functioning cardiovascular system is essential for a living human. However, I can argue that it is not essential to a human- Whether it is functional or not is an accident to the human. However, you did not simply state "human"; you stated "living human". A functional cardiovascular system is essential to a living human being.

    You state that one proton is essential to a hydrogen atom. I can argue that the number of protons (or other subatomic particles, for that matter) is not essential to an atom- the number and type of particle are an accident to an atom. However, you did not simply state "an atom"; you stated "a hydrogen atom". A single proton is essential to a hydrogen atom.

    Likewise, in my example in the post, I did not simply state "car". I stated a "blue car". You are correct that the color is an accidental attribute of "a car", but it is an essential attribute of "a blue car".

    1b. In our examples "living", "hydrogen", and "blue" are all descriptors (adjectives) of an object (noun). Descriptors are used to specify objects. By specifying an object, the descriptor eliminates other possible objects. An attribute that is accidental to possible objects, is essential to a specified object.

    Descriptors are powerful, fundamental elements of language that we learn about in elementary school. Since descriptors further define essential attributes, they allow us to limit ambiguity (a vital role in communication). I was not being ambiguious in my statement of a "blue car", neither were you when you stated "living human" and "hydrogen atom". If I (the listener to your statement) were to disregard your descriptors, I would be guilty of being a poor listener, misunderstanding an elementary concept of basic language, or holding the concept to be of little value outside my own communication. A proper understanding, a recognition of value for all communicators, and listening are all important in effective communication.

    2. You complained that my analogy about the different pills was flawed- you said that the accidental attribute (shape) was the same, while the essential attributes were different. You are correct. That is also my point- one should not look at the accidental attributes when trying to find a certain something.

    If someone is searching for "a reliable car to get me from point A to point B," the color of the car is accidental to the car they are looking for, therefore it will be accidental to the car they purchase. However, if someone is searching for a "reliable, blue car to get me from point A to point B," the color of the car is essential to the car they are looking for, therefore it will be essential to the car they purchase.

    Now, I am aware that someone can be searching for a "reliable car, preferably blue, to get me from point A to point B." In this case, the color is still accidental. The essential attribute is the car's reliability. If the person find two cars that meet their essential level of reliability; one white one red, they will not not (not a typo) purchase one of the cars. If "blue" was essential, they would not purchase either car.

    The essential attributes are what matter, not the accidents.

    3. I will tackle the essential and accidental attributes of "true religion or worldview" later this year. There is too much to cover in the comments, and I think that the topic is important enough to be included in the regular posts (since not everyone reads all the comments).

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  13. Lee,
    Haven't seen you in a while. Welcome back!

    I do not see how it is possible for all the religions of the world could be true, too many contradict one another.

    However, they could all be wrong :-)


    Yep. I agree

    Are you really saying that the arrangement of the nucleus has nothing to do with the arrangement of the electrons – and hence the chemical properties of that atom?

    This was a bit of sarcasm, that I used to show that I sensed some inconsistency between Samuel's complaints and his own statements. See the above reply to Samuel.

    The arrangement of the nucleus (number of protons) affects the number of electrons of the atom. The electron configuration (number of electrons on the simplest level) determines the chemical properties of an atom.

    I really like that you have added this. The arrangement of the nucleus makes the properties of a specific atom essential, which makes its reactions to another atom (with essential properties of its own) essential. Since the adherence of the paint to the car (in the example I gave in the post) is the result of an essential reaction between the metal of the car and the paint, the paint (and the wavelength of light it reflects- which is also a result of a component-of-the-paint's essential chemical properties) is an essential attribute (or component) of that particular car.

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