What is True and Can We Tell? Reflections on Inception

12 08 2010

Which is more difficult, to awaken one who sleeps or to awaken one who, awake, dreams that he is awake?Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (1847)

These words, though written more than a century and a half ago, could have been written about Christopher Nolan’s latest movie, Inception. This movie, if you have not yet seen it, is a labyrinth of dream sequences of different levels into which the main character, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) enters with his team to implant a thought into the head of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) so that he will break up the oil empire that his father is set to leave him upon his imminent death.

Cobb, an architect by training, left the world of designing buildings to enter the world of designing dreamscapes. He develops his skills to not only extract information from people by entering their dreams, but to also implant ideas, leaving no trace of his having done so. Cobb is approached by Fischer’s competitor and enticed by the offer of being able to return to his home and kids from whom he had been estranged due to legal troubles. To do this, he must go into the consciousness of Fischer through his dreams and continue going deeper and deeper into those levels of his consciousness until he can implant the thought without leaving evidence of his having been there.

The story combines elements of Dante with hints of Freud as the team delves lower and lower into the mind of Fischer, while at the same time, Cobb battles his own memories of his kids and his deceased wife for whom he carries the guilt of her death. The story is a parallel between what Cobb is trying to accomplish in the mind of Fischer and what is going on in his own consciousness. As he goes into the dreams of others and plunges deeper into their consciousness, he can’t help but bring along the memories that haunt his own.

Nolan uses different images to depict this Dante type going down in the life of Cobb as he tries to keep these memories caged up within him, only to have them escape at the most inopportune moments. In the end, Cobb appears to conquer these plaguing visions, but is it too late? That is where the audience is left questioning in the end. Has Cobb returned to reality? Can one distinguish between reality and a dream? Can one awaken a person who dreams that he is awake? Nolan leaves us wondering what is real and true and what is not. Does the spinning top tumble in the end or keep spinning? We may never know…

While this movie is a fun thought experiment, it is not indicative of the world in which we find ourselves. Yes, there are those who would have us believe, as Nolan hints at in this movie, that all expressions of reality that we experience are merely that which our minds produce. The real world, according to these solipsists (for that is what they are called) merely exists in the mind of the thinker and does not exist outside of the mind. To seriously pursue that line of thinking, I believe, would lead a person to madness. To doubt one’s intuitions is to question all of reality as we experience it and that is an endless pursuit downward into the abyss of nihilism.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” He spoke as if what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth” actually exists and the it was embodied in him. The reality toward which it pointed was the Father, for he said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) In other words, our pursuit of truth should result in a restored relationship with our Creator, which makes sense. If we want to understand our meaning and purpose, who better to reveal that reality than the one who created us with a purpose in mind.

In the end, Cobb’s pursuit led him back to the relationship with his children (if you believe that, in the end, he was not still caught in a dream state), and that is a good pointer to the ultimate relationship to which we are called, but only a pointer. One of the benefits of human relationships is to point us to a still greater relationship, the relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul says, “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12) That is the truth we are called to pursue.





PZ Myers’ Morality

2 01 2010

You may not be familiar with PZ Myers; however, he is one of the vocal new atheists out there ranting against the existence of God, and Christianity in particular. Myers is an associate professor of biology at University of Minnesota, Morris and publishes a blog by the name of Pharyngula.

I recently came across a post by Myers entitled I’m so sorry for you, Indiana in which he comments about an interview given by Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana where Daniels addresses the topic of morality and Christianity that Myers says was “embarrassingly bad.” Daniels makes the point:

To me, the core of the Christian faith is humility, which starts with recognizing that you’re as fallen as anyone else. And we’re all constantly trying to get better, but… so I’m sure I come up short on way too many occasions.

Myers responds that he believes the “core of Christianity has never been humility , but arrogance.” Why does he draw this assessment? Simply because Christianity claims that we can know and have a personal relationship with God. In fact, he believes that all this Christian talk about being fallen sinners is false modesty. What Myers is claiming is to know the minds of every single Christian living such that he knows that any claim of being a fallen sinner is really just the false modesty of an arrogant person! It seems that Myers, who denies the existence of an omniscient being, is somehow claiming to be one. I’ve often heard that those who deny the existence of God will find a replacement, oftentimes in their own mirror.

Yet, the point of this post is to discuss Myers claim that morality doesn’t need to be grounded in God, but can simply be grounded in man. In fact, Myers makes the audacious claim that there “is no eternal standard of right and wrong.” His claim is that standards change with time. Really what he is claiming is that there is no objective standard of right and wrong.

Myers has already, in his post, castigated the Bible for justifying slavery and God for ordering the slaughter of women and children. Even more, he claims that equality was an ideal of the Enlightenment rather than Christianity. He claims that a 1st century B.C. Judean priest would be calling for the wrath of Jehovah on the likes of Pat Robertson and James Dobson “who lead millions into a life antithetical to ancient Jewish custom.”

Myers, however, has a different answer from Daniels and other Christians when it comes to morality. He says,

I’d answer differently. In the absence of a god-given absolute morality, all that matters is how we treat one another in this one life we have. What flows naturally to me is not brutality, which requires an absence of awareness of the suffering of others, but recognition of the fact that my fellow human beings really are my equals: we’re all going to die, we only have these few brief decades of life, and who am I to deny someone else the same opportunities I’ve been given?

My question to Myers is if morality is not grounded in anything objective or eternal, then why is his answer any better than Daniels’ or Hitler’s for that matter (he also refers to Hitler in his post – for what would a discussion of morality be without invoking Hitler?) Who says that it matters how we treat one another? On what basis does he consider suffering to be bad? We would all agree that not all suffering is bad as many of us willingly expose ourselves to suffering when we go to the dentist or college or even to a football game in temperatures that are below zero (I grew up in Green Bay, WI and did this on a number of occasions). So, obviously suffering is not a universal wrong, on what basis does Myers determine some suffering to be wrong?

Now, I am not saying that these behaviors are right, simply saying that when Myers rejects objective standards, he must then defend why I should consider his standards to be binding on me or anyone else. If morality is not grounded objectively, then he is merely expressing his opinion, or maybe the opinions of a group with whom he happens to agree, but he is not expressing objective morality.

Myers is holds to what is known as hard atheism, in other words, he holds a belief that God does not exist. He says, “There are no gods, no objective enforcement of a benign morality on us.” Since there is no God (or as he says, gods), then that means that we need to figure out our own morality. Myers says that we “should build our morality on reason.” But how is this done? How do we figure out what is right or wrong based upon observation and reason alone without an objective basis against which to test our reason. It is like measuring without an objective standard by which to measure or reasoning without an objective truth by which to check our reason. Whose reason reigns supreme?

C.S. Lewis spoke about this in his book Abolition of Man when he speaks of the Innovator in values, the one who tries to arrive at moral values through reason alone. He explains that reason can be broken out into two categories. First is practical reason which “confess that judgements such as society ought to be preserved…are not mere sentiments but are rationality itself; or else we must give up at once, and for ever, the attempt to find a core of ‘rational’ value behind all the sentiments we have debunked.” He says that the Innovator will not take this alternative as it seems too much like objective morality. So, it seems that Myers must explain what he means by reason. Maybe he takes Lewis’ second alternative, which fits better with an evolutionary framework, that of instinct.

This seems to be the only alternative left for the naturalist as reason would require some sort of plumb line against which to assess our reason. There has to be an objective standard or reason will be left to the individual’s own judgment. However, instinct leaves us no better off, for we would ask, whose instinct should we trust? How do we know who is more highly evolved and therefore whose instincts are more trustworthy if we have no objective standard against which to measure?

You see, Lewis had it right 65 years ago when he wrote this Abolition of Man, yet, somehow the new atheists still haven’t figured out that reason alone cannot get one to objective morality. Unless we are all using the same external standard to measure weight, length, height or depth; unless we are using the same mathematics and rules of logic (which themselves are not arrived at by logic, but simply known to be true); unless we trust an objective external ground of logic which itself is eternal and to which we are bound, then morality is simply a matter of one’s tastes and preferences and nothing more.

One can deny the existence of God, as does Myers; yet at the same time, one also is denying the existence of objective morality, along with a host of other ideas and concepts which I don’t believe we can live without. Myers wants to give up God, but still retain all of the benefits of what God brings to us. It is time that he faces the reality that if he gives up God, he also gives up objective morality and has no right to say that anyone is wrong; at best, he can say that he simply doesn’t prefer their behavior and ideas. I will take his displeasure into consideration and go on trusting God and living with the reality of real objective morality.




Men Without Chests

31 08 2009

Men Without Chests is the intriguing title to the first chapter of C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man.  It is not only an intriguing title, but it is a compelling topic in today’s culture where we are told to tolerate lifestyles and ideas, but not truth or necessarily, people.

Abolitoin of ManLewis begins the chapter with the discussion of a book, a real book by real authors; however, he masks both the name of the book and the names of the authors as an act of kindness toward them, a kindness, although undeserved, is displayed out of Christian charity (this is my interpretation, not his).  Lewis writes, “I shall refer to these gentlemen as Gaius and Titius and to their book as The Green Book.  But I promise you there is such a book and I have it on my shelves.” (2)

The book was intended to be a book on writing and literary style, yet, as Lewis points out in this chapter, the book turns out to be a insidious book of philosophy.  Lewis discusses a portion of the book in which they discuss Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a poet and philosopher, who wrote of a couple of tourists viewing a waterfall.   One says that the waterfall is sublime while the other says that it is pretty.  Now, since we don’t use the word sublime commonly in our vernacular, let me give you the definition: impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe, veneration, etc.

My wife and I have had the opportunity to go to Niagara Falls years ago and I will tell you that neither of us would have described the falls as simply, pretty.  To do so would have done an injustice to the grandeur of the falls.  The same could be said of the Rocky Mountains, the Alps, the Grand Canyon and many other natural wonders of this world.  Coleridge as well endorsed the observation of the first tourist and rejected that of the second.

This is where Gaius and Titius step in to introduce philosophy to the conversation.  They tell the reader that the tourists were not making an observation about the waterfall itself, but an observation about their own feelings.  Lewis quotes Titius as saying, “When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall…Actually…he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings.  What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word “Sublime”, or shortly, I have sublime feelings.” (2)

In other words, we are not making objective observations about a thing, in fact we cannot, we can only express the feelings or emotions brought about when observing a thing.  I called this insidious on the part of Gaius and Titius and here is why.  In the name of teaching the proper use of the English language, they are implanting ideas about the world into the heads of school children in a somewhat subversive manner.  They are not coming out and telling them that they are discussion philosophy and a worldview, they are merely slipping it in the back door, as it were, in the guise of an English lesson.

Gaius and Titius go on to give another example of this in the fourth chapter of their book where they take an advertisement for a cruise line and again slip in philosophy under the cover of English composition.  The ad encourages the reader to buy a ticket to sail the “Western Oceans where Drake and Devon sailed” seeking the adventures and treasures of the Indies.  Lewis criticizes the ad as a poor piece of writing, but criticizes Gaius and Titius for not only overlooking the poor writing, but instead focusing on the idea that the cruise ship won’t sail were these adventurers sailed and that any treasures that they bring home will be metaphorical.  In other words, instead of dealing with the grammar and syntax, these men attack the philosophical and literary underpinnings of the ad.  Lewis points out that they could do the same with Wordsworth and many of the other great writers in literary history as most of them used metaphor in their writing.

CS LewisLewis explains that up until recently our emotions and observations were connected to something real, something objective.  Our observations could be judged to be right or wrong as they were compared to the reality of that which was being observed or judged.  He explains that every culture had an understanding of a good that is beyond the physical world and that is objective in nature.  He illustrates this by using the Chinese concept of the Tao, “the reality beyond all predicates”, or as Plato called it, the forms.  Again, he uses the Tao not necessarily as a reference to Chinese thought, but to a concept that he says spans all major worldviews and that represents an objective reality beyond the physical world.  Readers can get tripped up on this concept and I will say that I am not in full agreement with Lewis’ presentation of this concept; however, it is helpful in understanding that there is a reality beyond this physical world that can be understood and grasped by us.

It is those who not only deny this reality but also convince others that this reality is no reality at all that Lewis calls men without chests. These people claim the title of intellectual and yet set out to destroy.  In destroying a person’s confidence in being able to grasp objective truth and in the very existence of objective truth, these people destroy hope, meaning and purpose in the person’s life as well.  If there is no objective truth, there can be no real meaning to life.  Morality becomes a quaint concept with no grounding in reality.  The Apostle Paul said that if the reality of the resurrection does not exist, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor. 15:32)  In other words, if there is no hope beyond this world, we might as well live it up in this world as it is all we have.

Yet, Paul says the same thing of these people that Lewis says of Gaius and Titius, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’” (v.33) Paul tells us that there is a reality beyond this physical existence and that Jesus is the demonstration of that through his death, burial and resurrection.  So, let us heed the words of Paul:

But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (vv. 57-58)





Truth, a What and a Who

1 08 2009

I have written on the concept of truth in previous posts (April 2009); however, it is an important topic and I would like to address it from a different direction in today’s post.  As many of you are aware, we live in a postmodern generation where truth is considered to be relative.  In other words, a thing is true if you believe it to be true, but that same idea does not need to be true for me if I don’t want it to be.  Confused yet?  Let me explain further.


Many are most familiar with this concept in the area of morals.  We are often told, “that may be true for you, but not for me” when it comes to a person’s favorite cause or sin (as the Bible would describe certain actions).  This statement is often followed by an admonition to not be intolerant or try to force our beliefs on the other person (a principle that most people consider to be as close to absolute as possible!)  I would like to look at whether this idea is true (objectively) and also whether a person could even live consistently with such a belief.


So, is it true that something could be true for one person but not for another, whether it is a moral truth, a scientific truth, or any other type of truth?  I don’t think so, let me explain.  Could we ever conceive of an instance where murder (the taking of innocent life) could be justified?  How about an issue that has been in the news recently, racism?  I think in both of these cases one would have to say no to both questions, and those are just two of a number of cases in which I am sure we would also give the same answer.  However, I only need to show one case in which a moral value is objective, that is, that it is true whether or not anyone on earth believes it to be true, to make the case that morals are objective in nature.


This week we saw the “Beer Summit” in which a white police officer and a black professor sat down with our President (himself black) and our Vice President (who is white) to discuss a recent incident in which the black professor was arrested by the white officer.  Apparently, the officer was provoked by the professor according to witnesses, some of whom were black, when the professor broke into a tirade after being questioned about breaking into his own house when he apparently forgot his keys.  The President was asked about the incident at a press conference, not knowing all of the facts surrounding the case, and claimed that the police officer “acted stupidly” and the race discussion was set off in the media.


The question is whether it is ever justified to be a racist, no matter what a person’s skin color?  When we say that someone is a racist, I mean that they judge a person solely by the color of their skin, not, as Martin Luther King, Jr. hoped for, by the content of their character.  I submit that it is never justified to judge a person solely by the color of their skin and would challenge anyone who tried to justify such behavior.  However, according to the postmodernist, it is possible that it may be justified for a person to be a racist, or a murderer, or exhibit any number of other behaviors that the average person would call immoral.  We simply cannot say that anyone is really wrong as that would be imposing our beliefs on them.


Now, let’s look at whether a person could consistently live by this belief or philosophy.  Again, I would say that a person could not and have challenged many who espouse this belief.  In fact, I was temporarily suspended from a message board recently when I challenged a poster on this issue.  What is interesting is that he was willing to impose his morality on me when I offended him.  Fortunately, we were able to exchange some messages and have actually begun some good dialog with each other.


The question is whether a postmodern would fly with a postmodern airline pilot who believed that landing in the ocean is the same as landing on the runway.  Or, would a postmodern go to a postmodern surgeon who believed that removing the liver is the same as removing a kidney, or a heart bypass can be done using a piece of the intestine.  Postmoderns obey traffic signals, read labels on medicine bottles to make sure they are taking the right one in the right dosage, and get highly offended when told that they are wrong.  In fact, I heard the story of a postmodern who fired off a terse letter to a reviewer of his book claiming that the reviewer didn’t understand his book! In other words, his words did have objective meaning after all.


So, truth is something.  It is often described as that which corresponds to reality.  If I say rock, you know what I am talking about, even though you may not be picturing the same rock that I am, you know what a rock is.  If I say look up, we all would look in the same general direction.  Words mean things and we usually all understand them to mean the same thing.  Jesus spoke often about truth, telling the woman at the well that we must worship God in spirit and truth.   He often started important statements with “truly, truly” to let us know that these were important statements and that they were true statements.


However, the Bible tells us that truth is not just a what, but it is also a who.  Jesus told Thomas and the disciples, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)  Jesus also told us, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)  I don’t believe that Jesus meant that we must simply understand some ideas or concepts to be free, although we must understand and trust the gospel, but we must also know Jesus, the truth, in order to be set free.


D.A. Carson quotes Dodd in his The Gospel according to John, saying, Because of truth’s intimate connection with Jesus, true disciples ‘must not only hear his words: they must in some sort be united with him who is the truth'” (349).  So, when your friends ask you, as Pilate did to Jesus, “what is truth?” (veritas) (John 18:38) you can tell them that it is a what and a who and it is found in Jesus.