Thursday, December 06, 2007

Half-baked science meets half-baked relativism

I’ve been asked to comment on something by Chris Lyons.

Paul Manata has already weighed in.

“My church background is with the Restoration Movement churches of Christ, which has taken an anti-systematic theology stance for going on two centuries now.”

It’s fine with me if Lyons opposes systematic theology. That greatly simplifies my task. The alternative to systematic theology is incoherent theology. In that case, an outsider like me doesn’t need to refute his theology, for his theology is self-refuting. I can stand back and watch his mutually refuting beliefs negate one another.

“Additionally, I wonder if White understands the difference between postmodern thought and modernist thought.”

Of course, postmodernism has fuzzy boundaries, and it inclines to global scepticism—except that it conveniently exempts itself from its own critique.

“As an engineer/scientist, I tend to approach most issues from a modernist perspective, but both the Christian faith and the ever-increasingly revealed limitations of scientific understanding have led me to believe that even though there is an absolute truth behind everything, we, as humans, may very well not be able to fully understand this truth because of our very nature.”

This is Lyons’ in his mock modest, sceptical pose. Observe, as we continue, how he oscillates between rationalism and irrationalism.

“Interestingly, though, he takes issue at my referencing the real and actual roots of Calvinism in Greek Fatalism, studied by St. Augustine and included in his writings, and further incorporated in Calvin’s understanding of predestination…”

i) This is a tactic to sidestep the exegetical basis of Calvinism.

ii) Calvinism is obviously different from fatalism since, in the latter, the outcome is irrespective of the means—which is hardly the case in Calvinism.

“The arguments of free will vs. predestination were never considered all that important by Hebrew scholars prior to Jesus, nor within the church for the first many centuries of its existence.”

Josephus discusses different Jewish schools of thought as they ranged themselves along the determinist/indeterminist continuum.

“What forced these viewes against one another was primarily the fuel of the Age of Reason, which pitted apparently conflicting scientific views against one another. If we’re going to use Church history as an argument, then one has to wonder how it got along for the fifteen centuries before Calvin wandered along.”

I thought the “Age of Reason” was synonymous with the Enlightenment. Therefore, it’s anachronistic to place Calvin within this period in the history of ideas.

“There are numerous examples of Christian and Jewish scholars who have reconciled the notion of free will and God’s omniscience over the centuries.”

Notice he doesn’t give a single example of how that reconciliation is achieved in terms of a detailed argument—whether exegetically or philosophically.

“To begin with, I am not asking anyone to 'take my word for it' - I am asking the reader to examine the scientific truth (our inability to understand how time works beyond our own dimension of time - one way, one dimension) and our trying to reconcile this with religious truth (that God has preordained certain events, that God has granted man the ability to choose to obey Him).”

i) Whether it’s a religious truth “that God has granted man the ability to choose to obey Him” assumes the very thing he needs to prove.

ii) If we are unable “to understand how time works beyond our own dimension of time,” and this is the source of the tension between predestination and freewill, then the tension is irreconcilable—so we shouldn’t even try.

“When we pit free will versus predestination, we end up deciding that our limited scientific understanding of time has rendered an aspect of religious truth to be false or misunderstood.”

i) Once again, he begs the question of whether libertarian freewill is a religious truth.

ii) The Bible is prescientific (which is not to say, unscientific). It is written in prescientific language to a prescientific audience. The Bible doesn’t offer a scientific theory of time. Therefore, the Biblical doctrine of predestination isn’t predicated on a scientific theory of time.

What it takes for granted is a pretheoretical understanding of time. Of time as we experience it. The phenomenology of time.

“ I, on the other hand, am suggesting that we KNOW that our human, scientific understanding of time beyond our own dimension is (and always will be) insufficient because of our own physical limitations - limitations not ascribed to God (with evidence in Genesis 1:1 and elsewhere). Because we KNOW that we can’t fully understand the scientific truth, why on earth should we discount religious truth, based on our limited scientific knowledge?”

i) Continues to beg the question.

ii) Continues to play the sceptic.

iii) Our physical limitations do not, of themselves, imply a limited understanding of time. A guy in a wheelchair can understand the game of football even if he can’t play a game of football.

“Rather, the ‘box’ these systems try to force God into is a scientific one made up of time and space, specifically time, which we do not (and can not) understand beyond our own sphere.”

His tactic here is to nullify the statements of Scripture by running them through this extrascriptural disclaimer.

“While I suspect that White would agree that God exists beyond His own creation, I would just point out that in Genesis 1:1, God already exists (i.e. 'before the beginning'), and that when God gives His name ('I AM'), he also gives us a glimpse into His nature.”

i) Of course, the Bible is written in popular language rather than philosophical language. The idea in Gen 1:1 is that God exists apart from the world whereas the world does not exist apart from God, and—indeed—had a temporal point of origin due to divine agency.

ii) He gives us absolutely no reason to suppose the name of Yahweh is a metaphysical statement about God’s relation to time.

“If physicists are correct that there are dimensions of time and space beyond our own (for which there is ample evidence), then it is not putting God in a box to suggest that He is in any and all dimensions which exist beyond our own.”

Several problems:

i) Notice that after playing the sceptical role, he dives into the nearest phone booth, rips off his sceptical garb, and emerges in his rationalistic spandex. Thanks to modern physics, we do have a correct understanding of what time is really like.

ii) Aside from contradicting himself (i), this assumes that physical theories are true. He needs to offer a supporting argument.

iii) It would be grossly anachronistic to reinterpret the predestinarian statements of Scripture in light of modern physics. The target audience was utterly ignorant of modern science. To suppose the correct interpretation of Scripture hinges a knowledge of modern science would mean that the audience to whom the Scriptures were originally addressed was bound to misinterpret the Scriptures.

iv) It also renders the meaning of Scripture fluid from one generation to the next. By Lyons’ logic, Medieval Christians should interpret Scripture in light of Aristotelian physics, 18C Christians should interpret Scripture in light of Newtonian physics, while 21C Christians should interpret Scripture in light of Witten, Einstein, and quantum mechanics.

v) Ample evidence for what? String theory? Parallel worlds?

vi) Even if you assume that string theory is true or the megaverse is real, it hardly follows that God occupies space and time—regardless of how many dimensions or timeframes you postulate.

“It is, however, putting God in a box to suggest that He sees and interacts with time in the same way that we do.”

That’s a straw man argument, since predestination makes no such assumption.

“In fact, it is much easier to argue that God purposely put himself ‘in the box’ in the form of Jesus.”

Classical Christian theism can account for the Incarnation without resorting to pantheism.

“And that Jesus’ limitations to our dimensions would explain many of the differences in aspects between Father and Son,”

Is Lyons a modalist? Is the Trinity reducible to the economic Trinity? Does time and space individuate and differentiate the members of the Trinity?

“And to why Jesus couldn’t know “the day or the hour” of his return.”

Why not chalk that up to the limitations of his humanity—in distinction to his divinity?

“With the concept of Trinity, there are systematized understandings which go beyond scripture, but the concept of Trinity within scripture is pretty clear, though indeed not fully understood.”

Of course, the Calvinist would make the very same argument for predestination.

“Genesis 1:1-3 identifies the three parts of the Trinity,”

The members of the Trinity are “parts” of God? Is each member of the Trinity 33.3% divine?

“What is sad is that they are each only aspects of the truth, not the entire truth.”

i) How is Lyons in a position to say to that each theological tradition is partially true unless he has a corner on the entire truth? Only if you know the whole truth can you say to what degree this or that approximates the truth.

ii) And doesn’t that also commit him to systematic theology? He knows that they are only aspects of truth in relation to a larger truth.

“The tragic thing occurs when White, Mike Ratliff (‘There are two views concerning the Gospel of Jesus Christ. First, there is what we call Calvinism. Then, there are varying degrees of unbelief’), Spurgeon (‘Calvinism is the gospel’) and others raise their systematic theologies to the level of scripture.”

i) This is duplicitous since Lyons is being just as judgmental as Spurgeon. He simply tries to play both sides of the fence—by turns a rationalist and then a sceptic, or vice versa.

ii) Yes, Calvinists think that Calvinism is correct. Lutherans think that Lutheranism is correct. Catholics think that Catholicism is correct. And Lyons thinks that he is correct.

“It is at this point that Calvinism (or any -ism) truly is ‘another gospel’ all together.”

Notice that he just went back to the phone booth. Right before this he played the ecumenical card. Religious pluralism. Now, however, he’s being an intolerant dogmatist.

“First off, I would note that I said that the bases for these different views (particularly free will vs. predestination - which, no matter how you slice it was developed from Greek fatalism - and the logical inconsistencies around prayer.”

Calvinism doesn’t have any difficulty accommodating prayer. This is been discussed by various Reformed theologians like Paul Helm.

“And God changing His mind).”

This assumes that God changes his mind. Why would God change his mind? Does God make mistakes?

“Do not have to be contradictory if you remove 1-dimensional, unidirectional time from the equation.”

Meaning what? That God believes one thing in one world, and the opposite in a parallel universe?

“Just to delve briefly into the nature of time and string theory - If God exists beyond time and space - i.e. apart from His creation (and I believe that he does, and that there is scriptural evidence of such) - then time does not work the same for Him (as implied in His very name).”

String theory is a very controversial theory.

“As such, when we use words like “predestined” and extrapolate this concept - as we understand it - we are placing God within the sphere of time.”

No, predestination places God outside the sphere of time.

“However, if you can grasp the concept of 3-dimensional time (and not many folks can - it escapes my understanding very quickly, though I know physicists who can grasp the concept better than I can), ‘predestination’ no longer holds the same meaning.”

The question we should be asking ourselves is not what meaning it holds in string theory, but what meaning it holds in Scripture.

“If God can move forward and backward at will, along with moving from side to side in time, then there are a myriad of potential pasts and futures.”

i) Notice that he’s resorting to a spatial metaphor. God can move forward and backward, or side-to-side, in time. How does he propose to translate that picturesque imagery into a literal concept of time as well as God’s relation to time?

ii) What reason has he given us to believe that God moves “forward and backward or side-to-side” in time? Sounds like a complicated dance step. Is he getting his theology from Hairspray or Step-Up?

“However, we know from scripture that there are certain things (X) that God predestines (like giving Hezekiah 15 more years of life). When He does this in 3D-time-space, it is basically like He is closing off all potential futures in which X doesn’t happen. However, this still leaves room for man’s free will (the limited futures within the bounds of God’s will).”

What leaves room for man’s (libertarian) freewill? Scripture, or Lyons’ quasi-figurative, quasi-scientific theory of time?

“But wait - does that mean that God does not know what man will do? Not in 3D-time-space, because He knows all of the futures, because He can see all of them.”

This is inept, in part because it trades on an equivocation. The future is what will be, not what might have been. To know what a man will do is not to know what a man would have done in a multitude of potential, but unrealized, future outcomes. Knowledge of the possible is not knowledge of the actual.

“But what happens when the future becomes the past? If God sits beyond time and space, then even the past does not have to be static (to Him), even if we perceive it to be so.”

This tacitly assumes the A-theory of time. Lyons has offered no defense for the A-theory of time. And, to my knowledge, many modern physicists subscribe to a block theory of time.

“If you have a basic grasp of quantum physics, then it should be obvious that using words like ‘predestination’ in relation to God and then trying to apply our limited working knowledge of time (one-dimensional, one-way) to that same definition is like trying to explain how to stop a 3-dimensional soccer ball with the goalie bar in Pong.”

A couple of basic problems:

i) There is nothing resembling a scientific consensus on the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics. The ontological status of quantum mechanics (i.e. is it descriptive of reality?) is a matter of ongoing dispute.

ii) Lyons offers no explanation as to how quantum mechanics would harmonize predestination with libertarian freewill.

“Additionally, when you remove our limited box of “time” from God, the manifestation of Jesus - God in human form, limited in dimensions and time - and his relationship to God, including his praying in the garden for God to change His mind, begins to make sense, as well, without having to apply limited logic of free will or predestination to the equation.”

i) But the Father didn’t change his mind in answer to Jesus’ prayer.

ii) Why, moreover, is Lyons trying to harmonize predestination and prayer? The harmonistic principle is a principle of systematic theology. If you deny the legitimacy of systematic theology, then it’s illicit to logically relate all these revealed truths.

“In a nutshell - if you remove the one-dimensionality of time from the equation, then there is not a contradiction of free will and predestination, because they are literally two aspects of the same phenomena.”

Reading Lyons is like reading Chopra. He has a dilettante’s command of scientific lingo, and he sprinkles scientific verbiage into his discourse as if using scientific words is the same thing as using scientific concepts, or developing then into an actual argument.

“How can I have certainty that none of the systematized views of God in relation to time is true to the exclusion of others? There, I would go to the Bible. There are examples of places where God has predestined things (like with Hezekiah), and there are examples of places where God makes it apparent that people must make a free-will choice (like with Esther).”

This is philosophically amateurish. He shows no grasp of the literature on compatibilism.

“There are also places where men choose to go against God’s will, but end up being forced in that direction anyway (like Jonah).”

This is exegetically amateurish. Jonah resisted the command of God, but not the decree of God. Indeed, God’s decretive will foreordained his resistance to God’s preceptive will.

“When any of these views (all of which are man-made extrapolations as to the nature of God) are taken to the extreme, then they have to come up with contortionist reasoning to explain away contradictory passages in scripture.”

Adjectives in place of arguments.

“On the other hand, if you accept that each view contains a part of the truth because of the nature (or super-nature, to be accurate) of God, then you are not stuck trying to make less-than-convincing eisegeses of scripture.”

Notice that he’s talking like a systematic theologian.

“In practice, though, one should live like you have free will to choose - how would you know the difference? One should act like God knows everything that you do and think - in view and in secret - because He does. One should pray like your petitions matter to God and that, like with Hezekiah and Moses, He might have mercy and change His mind - because we have these examples in the Bible.”

He says he rejects neotheism, but he operates with a neotheist hermeneutic.

“Trying to separate ‘true’ Christians from ‘false’ ones based on a dominant view of systematic theology is unscriptural and does not edify the body of Christ.”

If you reject systematic theology, then you can’t declare anything unscriptural.

“As for the passages you cite, some of them (though not John 6) indicate some level of predestination.”

Levels of predestination?

“When you suggest that they are the ONLY way of examining time in relation to God, you have just built an extrabiblical ‘system’.”

This is pretty funny coming from a guy who thinks we should filter the witness of Scripture through such extrabiblical prisms as string theory and quantum mechanics.

Lyons is a standard issue relativist, and like all his ilk, he speaks with a forkéd tongue.

1 comment:

  1. Steve said: "Reading Lyons is like reading Chopra".

    So true, check out this excerpt from Deepak Chopra, and while I'm not accusing Lyons of being in the same religion with him, just listen to how similar sounding this is to Lyons views on predestination and free will. I would argue, you could exchange the words between Chopra and Lyons on this topic, and nobody would notice the switch:

    "Although synchronicities may seem like events that just happen by themselves, SynchroDestiny is definitely something that must be learned. But this shouldn't seem at all intimidating. After all, many things that we take for granted in our everyday lives are actually learned behaviors and responses. Even the nature of the physical world is something that we learn during early childhood. We are told that the whole truth about things is available to our senses. Thus, when you look at a table, what you see is exactly what's there in space and time. It's a piece of
    solid matter composed of smaller pieces of solid matter all the way down to the level of subatomic particles. This is a materialist interpretation of reality. It's the way almost everyone lives day in and day out."

    From: Deepak's PDF 'SynchroDestiny'