Friday, July 17, 2015

Dictionary theology

For some reason, Dan Chapa decided to comment on a 6-year-old debate we had:

My primary argument has been as follows:
P1: The bible says we chooseP2: Choosing rules out determinismC1: So the bible rules out determinism.P1 is plain in that every English translation of the terms bâcha and eklegomai translates them as choose.
Dan keeps committing the same elementary blunder, despite repeated correction. He confuses the meaning of a word with the meaning of a concept. But those are easily distinguishable.
By Dan's logic, the way to learn systematic theology is to compile a word-list, then sit down with a dictionary and look up the words. Take the following words, consult a dictionary, and voila!–you have mastered systematic theology:
God, Trinity, providence, omniscience, omnipotence, Incarnation, justification, resurrection, damnation, grace, faith, sin, soul, atonement, church. 

Problem is, the concept of "God," "Trinity," "omnipotence," "Incarnation," "justification," "grace," "soul," &c., is much richer than a dictionary definition of the word. What is more, there are competing models. Different theological traditions have different concepts of the Trinity, Incarnation, justification, grace, &c. 

According to the dictionary, both Zeus and Jesus are "divine," yet even if Zeus existed, he wouldn't be divine in the same sense as Jesus. He'd be a different kind of deity. Different attributes. 

Likewise, consider how philosophical theologians explore formulations of omnipotence. The idea of what constitutes omnipotence is hardly reducible to consulting Webster's dictionary. 

Further, the concept of choice crosses linguistic barriers, because it describes something we all experience daily. 
The experience would be just the same if (pre-)determinism is true. Say you make a conscious choice. But that's the end-result of subconscious factors. God predestined your mental state. Since your mental state is the effect of something else, you're not aware that it's caused. You can only start with what you've got. What may lie behind it is beyond your purview. 
I grant that determinists could develop a useful definition of choose that harmonizes with their philosophy. But I deny such a definition should be used to understand scripture. The bible was written for the common man, as can be seen by many of it’s books being addressed to this and that church and the Nation or People of Israel.
The concept of libertarian freedom devised by freewill theists like Robert Kane and Kevin Timpe is just as recondite as compatibilist formulations.  
While Steve poked at P1 and provided a tautological definition of choose (decision)…
i) That's deceptive. I quoted the definition of a freewill theist philosopher (Robert Kane). 
ii) Moreover, it's ironic than Dan complains about tautological definitions when he resorts to dictionaries. Dictionaries typically define words by synonyms! 
…his primary thrust has been at the notion that determinism rules out alternative possibilities. While he grants that determinism rules out alternative possibilities at a metaphysical level, he nonetheless maintains that in an epistemic sense of possible, determinists can hold to alternative possibilities. So he concludes I am eisegeting the dictionary – reading in absolute possibilities when it could be understood as relative possibilities.
That's an inaccurate summary of my position. Perhaps Dan is oversimplifying.
i) As I define it, a possible world is God's exemplary concept of a complete world history. God is able to imagine infinite variations. It's like a novelist who has the entire plot in his head. 
Depending on the context, we could say alternate possibilities are possible worlds or possible world-segments. Another way of putting it is that an alternate possibility is an alternate timeline or alternate history. 
These have their origin in the timeless mind of God. God's infinite imagination. So alternate possibilities exist at a metaphysical level. 
ii) God, in turn, instantiates one or more of these alternate possibilities. Whether it's one or more than one depends on whether there's one universe or a multiverse. 
iii) God is free to do that. Nothing determines God's choice. 
iv) Predestination rules out human access to alternate possibilities. A human agent (or angelic agent) can't choose contrary to what God foreordained. 
And even if every event was not predestined, there's no reason to think finite agents could access alternate possibilities. 
I grant that an epistemic sense of possible is both valid and common, but I deny that a determinist could hold to possible alternatives even in an epistemic sense. The epistemic sense of possible is a relative sense as opposed to an absolute sense. 
I don't know where Dan comes up with his definition, where he defines "epistemic possibility" as "relative" and "metaphysical possibility" as "absolute." He seems to pull that out of his hat. I didn't use that terminology. And Dan isn't quoting any freewill theist philosophers who use that terminology. It's his idiosyncratic usage. 
Steve: I cited the gambler to illustrate the fact that human agents can deliberate over hypothetical possibilities, and decide on one–even though only one of these hypothetical possibilities is a live possibility–and the gambler knows this at the time he’s deliberating and deciding what to do next.
One of the problems is that the gambler does not decide on one of the hypothetical (epistemic) possibilities. He wishes the card to be 2 rather than 3, but he doesn’t choose for the card to be 2 rather than 3. He chooses to draw or not – to take his chances. It’s not as if 2 and 3 are face up on the table and the dealer is letting the gambler pick one. If it was, he really would be choosing 2 over 3. Steve himself notes: The gambler goes into the game knowing in advance that his choices have no effect on the order of the cards. And yet his choices are made with a view to the order of the cards. 
When I said "decide on one," I was referring to something different than Dan. So he's not engaging my point. 
Another problem is that the epistemic sense of possible is an impersonal possibility, not a personal possibility. It says what is logically possible, not what is causally possible. Choice is about an agent’s abilities, but the epistemic sense of possible isn’t about an agent’s abilities. Steve counters that choice often takes an impersonal object, which is true but besides the point. In the epistemic sense, the possibility is impersonal, not the object. 
That's a false dichotomy. Even on a libertarian model, choice is not just about an agent's ability in isolation to the world. To have freedom of opportunity, there must be corresponding possibilities in the world. Libertarian freedom requires that. It's a relation. 
A third problem is that Steve uses alternative possibilities – meaning more than one possibility. But determinist’s think there can be only one possibility at a time. 
That's simplistic:
Human's can only make one choice at a time. By contrast, God can instantiate alternate courses of action by making more than one world. Whether he ever does so is a different question.  
In addition to the main line of debate on epistemic possibilities, Steve has been pressing me on whether choice relates only to mental resolutions or also to the extra-mental execution of the choice. I have responded that it doesn’t matter, because determinsts don’t believe in the ability to choose otherwise or the ability to do otherwise. So it’s an unneeded rabbit trail, but my answer is that choice can be used either way depending on the object of choice and responsibility attaches primarily to the internal mental resolution.
Here Dan is forced to admit there's a distinction–and sometimes a dichotomy–between the psychology of choice and access to alternate possibilities. What we imagine we can do and what we can actually do are often two very different things. For someone who appeals to "daily experience," Dan's evidential appeal is highly selective. 

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting to see that he's had a burr under his saddle for 6 years.