Saturday, April 04, 2015

Soli Deo gloria

Is ancestry destiny?

You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me (Exod 20:5; par. Deut 5:9).
Does the Bible teach generational curses? This is a popular prooftext for that position.
Does this envision a fatalistic scenario in which God has hexed a family line so that every descendant is doomed to suffer misfortune?
Punishing descendants for the sins of their ancestors seems unjust. Commentators offer different interpretations of this commandment (or prohibition) to relieve the apparent injustice. 
i) One question is the significance of the "third and fourth generation." 
a) On one interpretation, that's an idiom for "whatever number" or "plenty of."
b) On another interpretation, it denotes extended families–children through great-grandparents. The fourth generation represents the outer limits of the normal human lifespan. 
ii) There is sometimes thought to be a contradiction between this verse and Deut 24:14. However, Exod 20:5 is providential whereas Deut 24:14 is jurisprudential. Exod 20:5 is about something God does, whereas Deut 24:14 is about something human judges do. Roughly speaking, it's a difference between sins and crimes. The latter fall under the human administration of justice (i.e. the Hebrew justice system), whereas the former involves God acting directly or through ordinary providence (e.g. history).
iii) On one interpretation, this refers to remedial punishment rather than retributive punishment. That's possible. However, that distinction doesn't address examples like the collective punishment of Achan's family–which some commentators invoke (see below).
iv) On another interpretation, this involves the principle of corporate solidarity and collective responsibility. And we certainly find that principle in Scripture.
However, that amounts to a disguised description rather than an explanation. It essentially paraphrases Exod 20:5 in terms of collective guilt. But that only pushes the question back a step, for that, too, raises the specter of injustice. By itself, it doesn't give a reason for why later generations should be held accountable or liable for the misdeeds of their forebears. So, if the intention of that interpretation is to relieve the apparent injustice, it fails to solve the problem it posed for itself.
That doesn't mean corporate solidarity is necessarily unjust. But merely that invoking that category is not a solution in itself. The category itself must be defended, if that's deployed in theodicy.
v) Another interpretation is that God punishes subsequent generations who repeat the offenses of their forebears. On that interpretation, God isn't punishing the innocent. Rather, they take after their parents and grandparents. 
Although that's an appealing solution, it's not without problems:
a) One issue concerns the grammatical object of "those who hate me." Does that refer back to subsequent generations, or to the fathers? I don't find commentators discussing the syntactical question. Unless subsequent generations are, indeed, the grammatical referent, that interpretation is stillborn. 
b) Moreover, it seems rather trite or banal to say that God punishes those who hate him. Isn't that a given? He punishes the disobedient.
c) Furthermore, that fails to explain why it's to the "third and fourth generation"–especially in contrast to the "thousandth generation" (v6).
If God is only punishing the generations that continue to hate him, then that could end with the second generation or extend to the tenth generation. It depends on how long subsequent generations hate him. The punishment stops when the last impious generation dies off. 
Likewise, why use more restrictive language for duration of punishment (to the third and fourth generation) than the duration of blessing (to the thousandth generation) if the differential factor is who loves him or hates him?
vi) A final interpretation says this refers to descendants who suffer the consequences for their forebear's misdeeds. I think that explanation is in the ballpark, but it could be made more specific. 
I suggest we look to the book before Exodus, as a frame of reference. In particular, the history of the patriarchs. 
God calls Abraham out of Ur. But Abraham is by no means the sole, or even primary, beneficiary of God's selection. Abraham takes his wife and father with him. 
And consider all the inhabitants of Ur whom God didn't choose? They were left in darkness.
God makes Isaac rather than Ishmael the child of promise. That has generally beneficial consequences for Isaac's descendants and generally detrimental consequences for Ishmael's decedents. 
Likewise, God favors Jacob over Esau. That, too, has generally beneficial consequences of Jacob's decedents and generally detrimental consequences of Esau's descendants. What happens to the ancestor impacts his descendants. 
They veer off into a life apart from God. A tribe or clan that's diverted into a godless existence. They develop their own subculture. Their own social mores. Their own religious beliefs and practices. That's hard to break out of. 
When groups fork off and go their separate ways, the members of each group become more alike in their outlook and behavior. For instance, endogamy makes people culturally as well as genetically ingrown. 
For better or worse, that internal development becomes entrenched tradition. Consider the gypsies, with their distinctive customs and honor-codes. 
In modern times, some localities are more Christian while other localities are more atheistic. What groove you are born into tends to set the pattern for your own life. 
Consider the history of the Edomites. Having branched off, the Edomites become enemies of Israel. 
I expect that's the sort of thing that lies in the background of Exod 20:5. The threat is tersely stated because that's tacitly illustrated by the past and future history of affected people-groups.
Of course, Scripture also bears witness to God's gracious intervention. God can, and sometimes does, break the vicious cycle. Ancestry isn't destiny. 

If your pants are on fire, does lying become less important?

"A lie is an abomination unto the Lord, and a very present help in trouble" by Ra McLaughlin.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Authorized to lie

In the course of arguing for absolutism about the wrongness of lying, Jesse Johnson comes to the question of whether a government may lie. One might have thought that, being an absolutist, he would give the same answer to this question as he gave to the others—"No, absolutely not." However, one would have been wrong. For Johnson, lying can be acceptable in this context. He writes,
As absolutist as that sounds, the Bible keeps room in its moral constructs for war time ethics. God uses countries to bear the sword and punish evil doers. It is expected that war includes both deception and violence. An army can fake left and go right, because they are bearing the sword to suppress evil. But that is fundamentally different than a person—a civilian, if you will—who lies because they have a secret moral agenda. Even if their morality is right, it is undercut by lying because (remember) God will never put you in a position where lying is right thing to do.
To my mind, this sinks his case. I'll briefly explain why.

First, I want to take just a moment to question the distinction Johnson draws between person qua solder and person qua civilian. Since the same person can bear both designations, let's name the person Rob (short for Roberta). Now, Johnson seems to be suggesting that Rob cannot lie when wearing her civilian hat, but Rob may lie when wearing her bureaucrat hat.  On this view, there is a circumstance, C, that is morally relevant to some action, A. Thus, C partly determines the moral status of A. Now, let C be something like "Rob's being a platoon commander in a just wartime situation." Let A be "lying to the enemy in order to secure a victory." Thus, Rob's being in C is morally relevant to the wrongness of A; and in this case, it justifies A-ing. But, if we let C* be something like "Rob is at home and hiding a woman from an abusive husband" and A* be "lying to the husband as to the whereabouts of his wife," then C* is morally irrelevant to morally justifying Rob's A*-ing.

Thus, in Johnson's view, some circumstances are morally relevant to the rightness of the (course-grained) act "lying", and some are irrelevant. But this is exactly what the non-absolutist argues! Our position is that there may be some circumstance such that being in it can either justify or excuse an action—lying, in our case. So, to my mind, Johnson simply disagrees with us about the scope of the circumstances that morally bear on the permissibility of lying. We can debate the justifying circumstances, but on the reconstruction I've sketched above, this is an in-house debate between Johnson and us. I thus welcome Johnson into the non-absolutist club.

Second, I'd like to look at the structure of his argument. To my mind, Johnson's argument employs a principle like this:

AUTHO: If X is authorized by God to do Y, and doing Z is necessary to achieving Y, X may do Z.

AUTHO is really just a variant of a popular thought in political philosophy that if R is a right, then whatever is needed to secure R is also a right. A popular iteration is that innocent citizens have a right to life, thus they have a right to self-defense, thus they have a right to own a firearm. Now, I think AUTHO can stand to do with some Chisholming, but I think the general idea is at work in Johnson's argument, and I think I can make the point I want to make sans Chisholming. 

So, the way AUTHO works in Johnson's argument is like this:

1. Governments are authorized by God to punish evildoers.
2. Sometimes lying is necessary to punish evildoers.
3. So governments may sometimes lie to evildoers. (1, 2, and AUTHO).

We'll grant that this argument is valid. We'll even grant that it is sound. Now look at a structurally similar argument.

4. Civilian fathers are authorized by God to protect their children from evildoers.
5. Sometimes, lying is necessary to protect your children from evildoers.
6. So civilian fathers may sometimes lie to evildoers. (4, 5, and AUTHO)

Since we granted that the argument constituted by 1–3 was valid, then so is the argument constituted by 4–6. The question that remains is whether 4–6 constitutes a sound argument. I think it does. If Johnson thinks it does not, then he must reject a premise. Premise (6) is simply the conclusion, it is true just in case (4) and (5) are true. So Johnson must challenge (4) or (5). (He may challenge AUTHO, but then I'm not clear on why he thinks governments may justifiably lie, since the Bible doesn't explicitly say that they are, and Johnson's reasoning seems to assume AUTHO. Nevertheless, that's another option, but I'll proceed on the assumption that he accepts AUTHO.) Also, it's important to note that, while I do think (4)–(5) is sound (or more properly, can be shown to be sound on an appropriately Chisholmed AUTHO), I'm mainly arguing for it conditional on the viability of Johnson's argument. That is, given that his argument is good, then this one is likewise.

Challenging (5). Will Johnson challenge the truth of (5)? It seems to me that (5) is clearly true. That is, there is some case such that in the case, the only way to protect your children from an evildoer is to lie to the evildoer. (5) does not take a stand on whether this is right or not, it just states a fact (in the interest of brevity I won't bother to give examples as I assume they're easy enough to come up with). Responding with 1 Cor 13 won't work here either. For again, (5) doesn't assert that you must lie, it just asserts that you must if you are to protect your children. Thus there is still a "way out" of lying. You don't do it and lose your children. So, (5) seems secure.

Challenging (4). That seems to leave (4). Are fathers authorized by God to protect their children? Again, this seems obvious to me. The negation seems flat-out absurd. I won't bother to defend (4), but I think it follows from natural rights as well as the general equity of the sixth commandment. So I think (4) is true.

So I think Johnson should think (4)–(6) is sound. But, I don't think I've scored an easy victory. Surely Johnson will reply that (4) is true, but is a pro tanto right. That is, the right can be defeated. Surely (4) wouldn't morally allow me to do something all-things-considered immoral. And lying is all-things-considered immoral. But this can't be his response, as we saw from the military example, Johnson doesn't think lying is all-things-considered immoral. Why? Because Johnson himself raises a consideration in which lying isn't immoral. So I'm at a loss as to the basis on which he would object to my argument. I don't think I've said all that needs to be said, there's places to push, and it'd be interesting to see where Johnson pushes back. However, I think that any pushing will also push against the example he gives of permissible lying. So it'll be a fine line he has to walk.

A note on hypotheticals.

In his blog post Johnson seems bothered by hypothetical counterexamples to absolutist principles. I have noticed this dislike of hypotheticals in many circles, mainly appearing on the interwebs. Here's a justification for using hypothetical counterexamples. Look at the logic of the absolutist. The absolutist says that moral principle M is true in all cases, there are no possible exceptions. Now, how would one show that M is false? Well, think of any easier case. What if someone said "there are no tigers." How do you show that false? You show them an example of a tiger. But that's a real tiger, not a hypothetical one. Okay, what if someone said "there are no unicorns." How do you show that that's false? You find a unicorn. There aren't any, so it's true. But now, what if someone says this: "Unicorns are impossible." Here they're saying that there couldn't be a unicorn, no matter how the world turns out. Show that this is false is different from showing that the claim "there are no unicorns" is false. Here we might say, "Well, suppose God made a unicorn. This seems like something God can do. Creating such a beast doesn't seem like creating a square circle. There is no logical incoherence in the very idea of a unicorn. Hence, unicorns are not impossible." So here I've shown that the claim "unicorns are impossible" is false, and I did so by appealing to some contrary-to-fact scenario. Similarly, then, when Johnson makes the claim that "lying is impermissible for civilian person S," he's making a similar deontic claim to the above modal claim about the status of unicorns. Saying "X is all-things-considered impermissible" enters a game where I can show that it's false by raising a consideration where our intuition is that X is permissible. In other words, all things considered includes hypothetical things. So the absolutist is saying, "You can't show me a consideration according to which my principle fails."It would be dialectically dishonest to then refuse to allow certain considerations to bear on the truth of the putative absolutely true moral principle.

Freewill and hell

A reviewer commenting on a recent book by a philosophically sophisticated freewill theist:


Our other criticism targets Timpe's defense of the traditional doctrine of hell -- or, what he considers a "minimal" version of the traditional doctrine (70). Timpe says he wants to defend the claim that once a person is in hell, it is not possible for her to escape, even on the assumption that those in hell retain their free will, and that God does not cease to offer them the grace necessary for salvation. As with his account of heaven, Timpe defends what has been called a "settled character theory of hell" (71). Following Jonathan Kvanvig (2011: ch. 6, 14), he proposes that "Presence in hell is a result of one's choices, and in the process of choosing in such a way as to end up there, one turns oneself into the kind of person for whom it is psychologically impossible to choose to leave" (71). The damned have become the kind of people who will never freely choose to stop resisting God's offer of grace (72). This seems a very unfortunate state of affairs, and one might wonder, if God truly cares about all creatures and wants what is best for them, why God doesn't overpower their will and make them into the kind of people they ought to be -- the kind of people fit for union with God in heaven. Timpe's response is that to be in union with God, one must love God; but love, he says, requires an act of free will; it cannot be imposed from the outside (81). However, this answer, while it may seem initially plausible, raises a number of difficulties.
First, Timpe's account of freedom does not commit him to the claim that love requires an act of free will. His view is consistent with the possibility that we might be causally determined to love. The proximal causes of such love would, presumably, be "within" us -- that is, arising from our own character. Our attractions, interests, desires and the like might draw us to someone whose personality or other features especially appeal to us, and this might be the basis of our love of them -- of our caring about them, wanting to be intimate with them, and so on. But then it is unclear why, for our attitude toward them to count as true love, the character grounding our love must be freely formed to begin with. So long as a person is motivated in the characteristic ways by appropriate feelings, beliefs, and desires, she would seem to be in love, no matter what the ultimate origin of these motivating states of mind. Furthermore, it seems that in fact we often are determined to love -- that is, to truly love -- other people in our lives, such as our family members (Pereboom 2001: 202-04).
Second, it's not clear that, on Timpe's characterization of the state of the damned, they really are free, even according to his account of freedom. In responding to one objection regarding the implausibility of thinking that anyone would eternally choose to reject God, Timpe discusses the "bondage of sin" that those in the fallen state are under, and quotes Raymond VanArragon (2011): "it may be possible for [a person] to freely make some choice . . . which has the consequence of rendering her forever unable to freely accept God. . . . Such a situation may be similar to that of a drug user who crosses the threshold into uncontrollable addiction" (80). But while someone could, through her own free choices, come to such a state of uncontrollable addiction, we think it's implausible that in that state the agent would still be free, contrary to what Timpe maintains (70). Indeed, the idea that she is in bondage to her addiction suggests the opposite: that she has freely brought herself into a state in which she lacks freedom. This is not to say that an agent must be able to do otherwise at the time of her action to count as acting freely, but only that one who is motivated to take heroin solely by an addiction is not truly the source of her action. The same might be said of an agent whose sin has left her in such a state that it is eternally impossible for her to appreciate divine goodness and desire union with God.
But suppose that Timpe is right, that it is possible for someone to eternally freely choose to remain in hell. A third question is: Why God couldn't simply momentarily take away her freedom, and then give it back to her after converting her? Here's an analogy: suppose someone, of her own free will, becomes addicted to heroin, and refuses to give it up. And suppose for it to be psychologically possible for her to see the good of maintaining her job, marriage, and other relationships and activities, she must give up the drug. Imagine, then, that her husband forcibly takes the drug away from her and commits her to therapy that rids her of her addiction. She then regains the freedom to choose to continue her relationships and activities, or to end them. Couldn't God do something similar with those who would otherwise be eternally damned -- wipe the slate clean, as it were, and give them a second chance at redemption?
Finally, even supposing that God could not take away and then give back people's freedom in this way, and supposing that, without freedom, they would not be able to enter a loving relationship with God, we wonder why God must consign them to hell, rather than permanently take away their freedom and put them in some other place -- a place where there is no sin or suffering. If, as Timpe admits, freedom is not an intrinsic good (84), but valuable mainly insofar as it makes possible the development of moral virtue (108) and the ability to be in union with God, then on the assumption that certain people will not use their freedom for these goods, but only for ill, what sense does it make for God to allow them to retain their freedom and be in such an unfortunate state?

Defending nihilism

Here are some replies I gave in response to a commenter on this post:


"First, if you're willing to make the quest for truth to be a complete joke by removing a major contender, why not just deny the premise that atheism entails nihilism instead."

Your objection is hopelessly superficial. If atheism implicates moral and existential nihilism, then it's atheism that makes the quest for truth a complete joke. Indeed, a bad joke.

"In other words, instead of putting your head in the sand regarding ontological questions…"

What's wrong with putting one's head in the sand if moral and existential nihilism supply the frame of reference? Your nearsighted disapproval confirms the fact that you fail to grasp the intellectual consequences of the issue under review.

"Second, your last paragraph seems to imply that you think the quest for truth should be limited to the Bible."

In context, I'm responding to Licona. The question is whether there's a fallback to Christianity.

"The problem is that the Bible makes claims and touches upon issues that cross into scientific territory."

Which I never denied.

"For example, the order of creation found in Genesis. What happens when something like fossil evidence refutes such claims? (Which it has.)"

i) To begin with, I don't assume that the sequence in Gen 1 is strictly chronological. For instance, the relation between Day 1 and Day 4 seems to be a deliberate anachronism.

ii) In principle, the fossil record could be a part of God initiating the story in medias res–just as historical movies begin at a certain point in the ongoing history of the world, but have an implicit backstory.

"Moreover, take the doctrine of the soul. What happens if we look around and find nothing but physics?"

Evidently, you fail to grasp the hard problem of consciousness. Likewise, you're evidently ignorant of empirical evidence for the independent existence of the soul (e.g. OBEs, NDEs, apparitions).

"I can't help but feel that there's a reason as to why there is no consensus on what the Bible teaches;why when someone like Issac Newton tries to extract scientific knowledge from it, it's to no avail; why sections making predictions, such as the Book of Revelations, are so vague that even sophisticated believers, such as William Lane Craig, have no idea what it means."

Which contradicts your contention that the Bible makes claims which cross into scientific territory. Can't have it both ways. Either the Bible is too vague to clearly teach anything or else Bible teaching is clearly wrong.

"If by nihilism, you mean…"

I said what I meant by nihilism by including adjectives: "moral" and "existential." To elaborate:

Ethical nihilism or moral nihilism rejects the possibility of absolute moral or ethical values. Instead, good and evil are nebulous, and values addressing such are the product of nothing more than social and emotive pressures. Existential nihilism is the notion that life has no intrinsic meaning or value, and it is, no doubt, the most commonly used and understood sense of the word today. 
While nihilism is often discussed in terms of extreme skepticism and relativism, for most of the 20th century it has been associated with the belief that life is meaningless. Existential nihilism begins with the notion that the world is without meaning or purpose. Given this circumstance, existence itself--all action, suffering, and feeling--is ultimately senseless and empty. 
In his study of meaninglessness, Donald Crosby writes that the source of modern nihilism paradoxically stems from a commitment to honest intellectual openness. "Once set in motion, the process of questioning could come to but one end, the erosion of conviction and certitude and collapse into despair" (The Specter of the Absurd, 1988). When sincere inquiry is extended to moral convictions and social consensus, it can prove deadly, Crosby continues, promoting forces that ultimately destroy civilizations.

Back to brownmamba:

If I make my bed in hell

The Bible depicts hell as a place (and condition) to be avoided at all cost. But aside from terrifying imagery, it leaves many of the details unstated.

Pious imagination has attempted to pencil in the details. Most famously or infamously in the case of Dante.

Although Scripture is clear on the eternal duration and unmitigated dreadfulness of hell, the lack of greater specificity leaves us free to speculate on possible scenarios. This can also be useful when rebutting calumnies against the alleged injustice of everlasting damnation.

In a Star Trek episode ("Shore Leave"), the landing party beams down an alien amusement park where "you have to only imagine your fondest wishes, either old ones you wish to relive or new ones, anything at all. Battle, fear, love, triumph. Anything that pleases you can be made to happen."

Sounds like fun. However, the landing party doesn't know that when it first beams down. It's fine if they are thinking about an old flame or the talking rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. If, however, they are thinking about a tiger or samurai warrior, then it's dangerous.

The episode fudges at the end by saying the crew will have a marvelous time so long as they guard their thoughts. Problem is, that's impractical advice. We have limited ability to control our thoughts. Our imagination is a storehouse of memories and associations. Spontaneous thoughts pop into our consciousness throughout the day. It's not something we can consistently suppress.

In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis has a more realistic treatment of this theme: the Dark Island or "The Island where Dreams Come True." That sounds tantalizing, but it quickly devolves into a never-ending nightmare. 

In principle, that's how God could set up hell. Each of the damned might create his own private hell out of his very own, lurid imagination. His evil mind and evil memories become the source of hellish landscape and hellish creatures which bedevil it. He is self-tormented as hidden replicators objectify the contents of his twisted mind and subconsciousness. 

The more evil you are, the more you suffer–and your evil is the raw material for what you suffer. Poetic justice. 

The Hope Of Worms

It's important to recognize how unexpected and objectionable Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection were to the world Christianity was born into. Critics often parallel Jesus to the dying and rising gods of paganism, but Christianity didn't originate among pagans. It came out of and agreed with a highly anti-pagan form of Judaism (Acts 17:23, Romans 1:22-3, 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, Galatians 4:8, Ephesians 2:12, etc.). And the manner in which Jesus died and rose was repulsive to most pagans, so drawing vague parallels to dying and rising gods, without further qualification, is misleading. Jews also found crucifixion revolting, and they weren't expecting anybody to be resurrected prior to the general resurrection in the end times.

But there's a more direct way of addressing this issue. What did the early Christian and non-Christian sources commenting specifically on Christianity say about crucifixion and resurrection?

Liberal amnesia

Specious parallels

A reader emails in response to an earlier post on this topic: 
“You guys were perfectly happy to use the government to enforce your views when you were in the majority. Live by the coercive power of the state, die by the coercive power of the state.” 
I don’t think this symmetry is real. A “ban” on same-sex marriage is not like, say, a ban on marijuana: No same-sex couple gets fined or goes to jail for calling themselves married, or having a ceremony marking their commitment, and anyone is free to officiate at such a ceremony. The campaign against same-sex marriage never sought to use coercion that way. It never sought to make it illegal to provide wedding cakes to same-sex couples. Even widening our focus to the culture rather than the law, it never, to my knowledge, sought to get anyone fired from a corporation for favoring same-sex marriage.

Ed Whelan on RFRA

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Responding to an objection

Steve Hays has already responded to this post about whether it's ever okay to lie. I wanted to quote one particular section of the original post (not Steve's response) and comment on it:
But this takes us back to the Jews hiding in the living room. What then? Well, when scheming up hypothetical ethical dilemmas, you have to remember that hypotheticals are literally problematic. They are contrived precisely because they expose a supposed weakness in a person’s argument. So if you are going to play the hypothetical game, remember that God is sovereign, and with that comes his promise that every instance of temptation he will always provide a way of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13)… and that escape is NEVER going to involve sinning. God does not open your escape hatch through sin. In fact, in the context of 1 Corinthians 10, sin is the very thing that God gives you an escape from. Thus, in any hypothetical moral dilemma you need to remember that there is an unstated contingent—namely, God will give you a way out that does not involve sin.(emphasis in original)
As Steve's already pointed out, this is hardly a hypothetical given that it literally happened that Nazis asked people if there were any Jews on their premises and people actually did have to decide whether to lie or give them up.

 In any case, when I first read this article earlier today, it sparked something in the back of my mind that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Tonight, as I was preparing to wind down for the evening, it finally clicked into place what I was reminded of:
Then the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the Lord gave them into his hand. And he struck them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a great blow. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel. Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow” (Judges 11:29-35, ESV).
Now most Christians that I have corresponded with and read on this topic agree that Jephthah's vow was stupid, evil, and should have been broken. Instead, he sacrificed his daughter rather than break his vow. The reason I bring this up in this discussion, however, is because I have to ask: how exactly did God provide a way out for Jephthah here? If the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 10 being presented is correct (and I do not believe it is), then there should have been a way out for Jephthah to not have to sin by breaking his vow whilst still sparing his daughter's life. But it seems plain to me that Jephthah's only option was to either sin by breaking his vow or sin by committing murder, and obviously murder is a worse sin than breaking a vow, so the vow should have been broken.

This passage in Judges was not included for us to emulate Jephthah's behavior. The entire book of Judges is predicated on the reality of the concluding verse: "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25). So I think we have a circumstance here where plainly we are told that if the only options available are to sin small or to sin great, the right thing to do is to sin small. And obviously, it goes without saying that Jephthah's original vow should never have been uttered--that was the initial sinful action. But given the reality that he had set himself up in a lose/lose situation, the moral action would have been for him to have taken the punishment for breaking the vow instead of carrying out evil on his daughter.

Now, if this is the case in the circumstance where we can put some culpability upon Jephthah for his rash vow, let us keep that in mind when we think of the classic Nazis asking if you're hiding Jews. If it be a sin to lie in that circumstance, then we ought to be willing to take the punishment for the sinful lie instead of sinning by handing over those whom we have an obligation to protect.

But again, I maintain that it is not a sin to lie in such a circumstance, and it is Rahab that shows that. The article I'm responding to concludes: "Rahab is always held out as an example of faith for siding with God’s people, and is never held out as an example of lying for the glory of God." There's only one problem with that. James commends her for the actions she took, said actions being...lying: "Rahab the prostitute [was] justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way".

It is Rahab's action of sending the spies and their pursuers in different directions that is the basis for James to conclude she was justified here. While it is true that the Bible sometimes reports events without stating a moral judgment at times (Jephthah's story is an example of one such time, in fact), I cannot see any way in which it is possible to separate out Rahab's actions in saving the spies from her lie. The lie is the only reason that any of the things she did saved the spies. Without that lie, the spies would have been found and killed. There is no way around that simple, brute fact.

Again, this type of event is not going to be frequent (thank God). But when it does happen, there's no need to burden someone's conscience by making a sin out of what is actually the morally good thing to do.

How would a Hebrew have pictured Genesis 1?

Christian business ethics

I'm posting an answer I gave to a correspondent, on the religious liberty issue:
i) I don't think it's necessary to cast the issue in double effect terms. Although that's a useful principle, it can become unnecessarily complicated.

I think a simpler argument would involve conflicting duties. Take prior obligations, like dependents. You have a duty to protect and provide for your dependents. That may come into conflict with a prima facie or ceteris paribus obligation to avoid complicity in evil. 

In cases like that, a higher obligation overrides a lower obligation. 

ii) Complicity in evil is tricky since, in a fallen world, complicity in evil is unavoidable. It's a matter of degree:

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one (1 Cor 5:9-11).

We have to pick our battles:

Of course, there are complications here, as well. For example, we can distinguish between permissible involvement in someone else's transgression and impermissible involvement in someone else's transgression, and we can ask whether both or only one of these ways of being involved undermines one's standing to blame. Patrick Todd (2012) argues that only impermissible involvement undermines one's standing to blame, and to illustrate his point he imagines two Nazi commanders, one of whom is committed to the Nazi cause and the other of whom is using his position of power as an attempt to undermine the regime. If, in order to keep up appearances, the latter commander issues an order for a subordinate to perform an action that is morally impermissible, does he lose his standing to blame the subordinate? Todd claims that he doesn't, and thus that there is an important distinction between complicity that undermines standing and complicity that doesn't.

Gregory Mellema (2006) provides a very useful way of assessing different levels of individual contribution by distinguishing between six different ways in which individuals can be complicit in wrong-doing. According to Mellema, individuals can induce or command others to produce harm. They can counsel others to produce harm. They can give consent to the production of harm by others. They can praise these others when they produce the harm. They can fail to stop them from producing it. 
A second way of tackling the distribution question in this context that does not seem to violate the principle of individual freedom is to look, not just at the particular role that individuals played in their community's production of harm, but at how much freedom the individuals had to distance themselves from the community that has done wrong. Here we might want to use voluntariness of membership as a criterion of responsibility. Jan Narveson (2002) does so himself in his generally skeptical work on collective responsibility. Narveson argues that in thinking about the responsibility of individuals for group harms we need to be careful to distinguish between four different kinds of groups, namely: those that are fully voluntary; those that are involuntary in entrance but voluntary in exit; those that are voluntary in entrance but involuntary in exit; and those that are voluntary in neither respect. As Narveson makes clear, responsibility is diminished, if not eradicated, as we go down this list.

iii) As I've indicated elsewhere, I think it's permissible for a Christian small businessman to lie in situations like this. I think that's a morally permissible form of civil resistance to unjust or immoral demands. That doesn't necessarily mean it's obligatory in those situations.

iv) I think some Christians or organizations have a greater responsibility to resist tyranny than others. Some people have less to lose than others. To take an extreme example, a Christian with terminal cancer. Not much the gov't can do to him. 

Some people have fewer prior obligations or social responsibilities (e.g. dependents) than others. They can assume a greater personal risk without harming others in the process. 

Some individuals or institutions have the wealth, popularity, and or legal authority to put up a more effective resistance than the easy marks that gay/trans lobby picks on, viz. Alabama Supreme Court, Duck Dynasty, Chick-fil-A. 

Is it ever ok to lie?

A commenter referred me to this post:
I'll make a few observations:
On the other hand, those that hold to absolute ethics (like me, Moses, and Jesus) say that all commands from God are binding, and it is never ok to set aside any of them. God doesn’t grade on a curve, so  we shouldn’t view his commands in some kind of order of importance.
That commits the fallacy of a hasty generalization. The existence of moral absolutes doesn't mean all actions reduce to a choice between what's intrinsically right and what's intrinsically wrong. In some cases, the morality of the action is affected by circumstances or consequences. 
Not all obligations are equally obligatory. In case of conflict, a higher obligation overrides a lower obligation.
The simple problem with the graded-ethics approach is that it is not taught by the Bible—verses like Mark 12:31 notwithstanding.
Except that we do see a priority structure in Scripture. For instance, preserving life takes precedence over Sabbath-keeping. Sabbath-keeping is a means to an end, not an end in itself. 
But this takes us back to the Jews hiding in the living room. What then? Well, when scheming up hypothetical ethical dilemmas, you have to remember that hypotheticals are literally problematic. They are contrived precisely because they expose a supposed weakness in a person’s argument.
Sheltering Jews from Nazis isn't merely a hypothetical case. During WWII, many Gentiles sheltered Jews. And some of them had to deal with Nazis barging in to question the homeowner, search the premises, &c. 
So if you are going to play the hypothetical game, remember that God is sovereign, and with that comes his promise that every instance of temptation he will always provide a way of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13)… and that escape is NEVER going to involve sinning. God does not open your escape hatch through sin. In fact, in the context of 1 Corinthians 10, sin is the very thing that God gives you an escape from.
Thus, in any hypothetical moral dilemma you need to remember that there is an unstated contingent—namely, God will give you a way out that does not involve sin.
That begs the question. Here's the implicit argument:
i) Lying is always sinful. 
ii) God will never put you in a position where sinning is unavoidable.
iii) Therefore, God will never put you in a position where lying is unavoidable.
But premise #1 assumes the very issue in dispute! So his argument is viciously circular. 
Well, this decision is really made before you took the Jews in. When you gave them refuge in your house, you did so while taking responsibility for their safety. If you are brave enough to hide them, then you better be brave enough to protect them.  How can you hide them but not be willing to physically defend them? If the guards knock on your door, respond by telling them that they have no right to enter your house, and that what they are doing is morally reprehensible—but that Jesus offers forgiveness for their sins, and they need to repent. Then slam the door, and take the hypothetical from there. A person who is brave enough to lie but not brave enough to be a martyr, isn’t brave at all.
This is incoherent. You can't protect the Jews you're hiding by informing the Gestapo that "they have no right to enter your house" and slamming the door in their face. 
In fact, Jesse concedes the ineffectuality of that tactic by admitting that it will lead to martyrdom. So he has no workable alternative.

Unwitting sins

Someone asked me about "unwitting sins." My reply:
i) Not all sins are crimes. The Mosaic law tends of focus on sins that are socially disruptive. It has a communal emphasis.
Conversely, not all crimes are sins. Some crimes are technicalities. Laws of utility rather than morality.
ii) In Leviticus, the focus is generally on ritual purity and impurity. That's fairly artificial. More about symbolic holiness or unholiness than actual holiness or unholiness. 
In that respect, the offender may not have done anything intrinsically evil, so long as it was committed through ignorance or inattentiveness. 
iii) Ps 19:12-13 is ambiguous. Ross thinks it refers back to the Pentateuchal distinction between unwitting sins and the highhanded sin. But Goldingay thinks it refers to conspiracies, secret plots, covert unauthorized worship–which subverts true worship–by "willful" agents. Hard to choose between these competing in interpretations, since the wording isn't that specific.
iv) The key interpretive text is Num 15:27-30. Unwitting sin is defined, not in isolation, or on its own terms, but in contrast to highhanded sin.  
The highhanded sin is less about personal ethics–although that's included–than social ethics. It has a communal dimension. An act of open rebellion. 
If allowed to go unchecked, that has a demoralizing effect on the religious community. The more people get away with it, the social fabric begins to unravel. Unless it's nipped in the bud, impudent disobedience becomes an incitement to national apostasy.  
People can sin with impunity. There is no fear of God. God's law is held in contempt. The people revert to heathenism. 
There is no sacrifice for this sin because the defiant attitude is intentionally impenitent. 
The wording of the punishment is ambiguous. Harrison thinks it alludes to capital punishment, but Currid thinks it alludes to banishment.
I incline to Currid's interpretation. If so, the nature of the punishment illuminates the nature of the offense. 
It is not, strictly speaking, an unforgivable or damnable offense–although that may often be the case–but an excommunicable offense. And that's because the rebellious behavior is detrimental to communal norms. Implicitly seditious. 

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Vaccines: One of the Greatest Medical Advances

Tthe Faithful Won’t Yield on Religious Liberty

One tactic of radical activists is to create an air of inevitability for their agenda. Resistance is futile. But there's a difference between not winning and not losing:

Vaccines: The Real Story

Christophobia in America

Doomsday machine

These are some comments I made at Facebook discussions. 

There's always a problem when a policy is quoted to defend the policy. If the rationality of the policy (e.g. no anonymous comments) is, itself, the very thing in dispute, then defending the policy to quote the policy is circular. Moreover, there's a problem when we absolutize our little manmade rules, as if we're suddenly handcuffed by the rules we make. Once we make them, we're bound to follow them without exception. But the handcuffs are imaginary.

There can be value in having a general policy, like "Don't drive on the wrong side of the road."

If, however, a hurricane is heading your way, it makes sense for authorities to suspend the policy and open all lanes to outbound traffic.

Even if it's a good general policy to forbid anonymous comments to weed out irresponsible commenters who hide behind anonymity to take potshots, TFan is a known quantity. It's unintelligent to treat all anonymous (or pseudonymous) commenters alike when, in fact, they are known to be unalike.

Moral and rational discrimination requires discretion. Treating everyone alike without regard to the fact that individuals are unalike is morally and intellectually lazy. Why punish smart people for the misdeeds of dumb people?

Some people allow themselves to be trapped inside their made-up rules. The rule becomes a doomsday machine. It has an on-switch, but no off-switch. Once the doomsday machine goes online, you can't shut if off. You're now at the mercy of the machine you made. 

The rule becomes the master. The rule tells the rulemaker what he's allowed to do or not to do. I don't understand people who permit themselves to be dictated to by their made-up rules. Rules that aren't moral imperatives. Rules that outlive their usefulness. 

The Amyraldin heresy

To go where no little green man has gone before

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Keener on the historical Jesus


One asect of Scripture that can sometimes cause a bit of confusion for believers involves deception. Part of this is because we're often reminded of the Ten Commandments, specifically Exodus 20:16, which in the ESV says: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." It seems pretty straightforward that we are not to lie, but then as we read more of Scripture we discover many passages that seem to run contradictory to that axiom that we ought not to deceive. Even more critical is when we find passages like the following (all are in ESV):
"And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so’" (1 Kings 22:22).

"O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived" (Jeremiah 20:7a).

"And if the prophet is deceived and speaks a word, I, the Lord, have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel" (Ezekiel 14:9).

"Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false" (2 Thessalonians 2:11).

"And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?" (James 2:25). [And to understand the context of this passage: "Then the king of Jericho sent to Rahab, saying, 'Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come to search out all the land.' But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. And she said, 'True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. And when the gate was about to be closed at dark, the men went out. I do not know where the men went. Pursue them quickly, for you will overtake them.' But she had brought them up to the roof and hid them with the stalks of flax that she had laid in order on the roof" (Joshua 2:3-6).]
In addition to the Scriptural texts, there is the commonly used hypothetical of a family in occupied France who is hiding Jews from the Nazis. When the Nazis come and ask, "Are you hiding Jews?" is it permissible to lie?

Now it is certainly understandable why someone seeking to live Biblically would have a bit of a struggle with this, but I think there is a way to resolve the tension. First, let us examine what Jesus Himself said is the greatest commandment:
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)
The key aspect I think is found in the fact that "On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." Thus, the purpose of the law to not bear false witness is so that A) we can love God with all our heart, soul, and mind; and B) we can love our neighbor as ourselves.

Now in a perfect world, all laws would be in balance in every single situation. But we live in a fallen world with very clever, evil people. Since the rest of the law hinges upon these two greatest commands, then logically if there is a conflict between a law and the greatest law, we must obey the greatest law.

So given this principle, we can think once again of the Nazi test. Is it loving our neighbor as ourselves if we tell the Nazis where the Jews are hiding? Clearly, it is not loving the Jews we are hiding if we do that. But it is not loving the Nazis either, for if we tell them the truth we are in fact giving them the means by which they will commit a great evil by their sinning against the Jews. So clearly, lying to the Nazis, while breaking the command not to lie, is actually obeying the command to love our neighbor as ourselves, which means we would be obeying the greater commandment. I think this helps us understand the situation with Rahab as well, since Rahab's position is virtually identical to the Nazi hypothetical.

Now as I mentioned earlier, men are evil and like nothing more than to find loopholes for everything, so we have to be clear here: the situations where one of God's "lesser" commands will come into conflict with the great commandment are going to be few and far between. In fact, I daresay the majority of us will probably never find ourselves in a position where they will be in conflict. So this is not a license to pretend that we can sin as much as we want "to love our neighbor" because for this to be valid it really has to be in obedience to the great commandment (which begins with loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind).

Of course, we are still left with the question of God deceiving people by either putting the lying spirit in the mouths of the prophets or in sending a delusion. Each of these instances appear to be aspects of divine judgment upon wicked and evil people, and I think that perhaps Romans 1 helps us resolve this a little:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. ...And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done (Romans 1:18, 28).
If men suppress the truth, God's punishment is to give them over to their delusions. This certainly seems to be an aspect of "the punishment fitting the crime."

With this, I find all the tension in Scripture resolved...except for the verse in Jeremiah. Jeremiah, after all, was a good prophet who obeyed God. He was not one of the evil prophets in the land. He was a righteous, godly man and believed God deceived him.

It could be that Jeremiah's complaint was completely unjust, that God didn't really deceive him at all. More likely I think that Jeremiah assumed something and that assumption was wrong and God did not correct the assumption and Jeremiah felt that was deception. (Still, this aspect is admittedly speculation and I don't think the Bible is clear enough to make a firm statement as regards Jeremiah's complaint.)

But while the issue of Jeremiah's complaint is interesting, ultimately I can live with that curiosity not being answered :-)

Cheap forgiveness

I'm going to comment on a post by a Barthian universalist:

I happen to think universalism is quite morally demanding, and requires a kind of strength that the ordinary person does not have. 

Like Josef Mengele. Apparently, Nemeș is talking about how morally demanding universalism is for universalists. It requires "extraordinary strength."

Problem is, if universalism is true, then it's true for everyone–yet everyone is not a universalist. Only an infinitesimal elite. 

Clearly, then, universalism isn't morally demanding on Mengele, even though universalism, if true, is equally beneficial to everyone.  It makes no moral demands on anyone in particular. 

But this conception of the world is morally demanding, because it requires that we conform ourselves to God's image.

No, it means God will conform everyone to himself, resorting to coercive remedial punishment when necessary. 

Universalism is hardly wimpy; it demands an ethic of unilateral goodness which is beyond the strength of those who fancy themselves harder, stronger, in touch with reality because they believe some will be deservedly damned forever. They care about themselves and their "justified" sentiments of resentment and moral condemnation too much to open themselves to the demand of forgiving the wicked, of praying for bastards like the ISIS decapitators, to feel for the pain of those who deserve punishment. 

Why should I "feel for the pain" of ISIS decapitators?

This is an excuse for them to be unforgiving and mean, for them not to make efforts and sacrifices for the sake of reconciliation and forgiveness. 

What heroic sacrifices is Nemeș making?

It's just like rich liberals who consider themselves virtuous because they seize money from one group and give it to another, while they have tax shelters for their own fortune.

All I'm getting from Nemeș is self-congratulatory rhetoric. What does he actually have to show for his high-sounding words?

The entire post is larded with self-deceptive self-flattery. Nothing is easier than forgiving perpetrators for atrocities they committed long ago and far away. Suppose I say: "I forgive Attila the Hun."

See how easy that was? He died 1500 years ago. His victims weren't friends or family of mine. He did nothing to me personally. Forgiving people in history books. Abstract victims of abstract perpetrators. That's morally demanding? That requires a kind of strength which the ordinary person doesn't have? 

Likewise, suppose I say "I forgive Pablo Escobar" (of the Medellín Cartel). How hard is that? He didn't order the torture and/or murder of any relatives of mine. The victims pay the price for my cheap forgiveness. Didn't cost me a thing. To the contrary, it's self-congratulatory.

Notice, too, how Nemeș has cast the universalist in the role of a Nietzschean Übermensch. A spiritual superman. Unlike mere Christian mortals. 

It's revealing how some people can work themselves into this moral posturing. It's very tempting to think better of ourselves than we ought to.

Nothing doing

I'm reposting some comments I left in response to an Arminian on James White's Facebook wall:

Perry Fernandes:
"So correct me if I am wrong, but according to Calvinism theology God preordained the choices of every human being before the foundation of the world which includes every evil act: rape, murder, molestation, terrorism, etc…..????"

According to Biblical Calvinism, God predestined every event. 

"God preordained that you would post that comment. We are just a bunch of pre-programmed robots….."

Well, Perry, if you think predestination reduces humans to robots, then what's wrong with robots "murdering" other robots? How can robots even be murdered? 

"That means Arminian theology was preordained by God too…"

Yes, God predestined Arminians to be a foil for Calvinists. One way of illustrating the truth (Calvinism) is to contrast the truth with something false (the errors of Arminianism). 

"Great question. My answer would be no God is not in any way responsible for the evil of man because God in His sovereignty chose to create mankind with free will/free choice and through allowing human beings to do evil God has a glorious ultimate plan that will be accomplished through it all."

Lots of internal problems with that claim:

i) Take the story last summer about a man who died when he fell into a woodchipper. He didn't choose to kill himself. It wasn't suicide. And his coworkers didn't choose to kill him. It wasn't homicide. Moreover, the woodchipper didn't choose to kill him. So how does your freewill defense explain accidental evils?

ii) If God knows that somebody will murder somebody else if he creates a world with that foreseeable future, then God causes that murder by creating a world with that foreseeable future. So how is the God of classical Arminianism "not in any way responsible" for that evil outcome? 

iii) As for "allowing human beings to do evil," years ago, where I was living, some teenagers were kidding around on a train trestle over a river. One boy pushed another boy into the river. But the boy didn't know how to swim. He splashed around and cried for help, but none of the other teenagers dove in to rescue him, so he drowned. 

Now, only one of the boys pushed him. However, by their inaction, all the boys ensured his death. The other boys didn't have to do anything to guarantee that he would drown. Their nonintervention rendered his drowning inevitable. 

Do you think they had no responsibility to save him, even if they didn't push him off the trestle? 

"God did not foreordain in some secret decree that these parents would BURN their sons in fire as offerings to Baal. No He said it didn't even cross His mind…."

Does that mean you're an open theist? Moreover, how does that let God off the hook? Even if God can't anticipate child sacrifice, he can step in at the last moment to prevent it. 

Bad karma

1. Suppose my parents are indifferent to religion. Not especially religious or especially irreligious. They just don't care. It doesn't figure in my upbringing one way or the other. 

As I hit the teens, I begin to ask the "meaning of life" questions. In a few years I will leave home. Decide what to do with my life. I have my whole life ahead of me. Is this all there is? If so, is that enough? 

To simplify, let's say the philosophical options boil down to atheism and Christian theism. Should I investigate both options? 

As I've often said, investigating atheism is a waste of time. But people object: what if atheism is true? Don't the facts matter?

2. Let's explore that question. Do the facts matter? In what respect do the facts matter? Let's draw a few distinctions:

i) Do the facts matter? 

ii) Does knowing the facts matter?

To break this down a bit further: 

i) Do the facts make a difference

ii) Does knowing the facts make a difference? 

Let's consider a few examples:

3. Suppose I consider the best college to apply to. What's the best college for me? For my needs?

Makes sense for me to investigate different colleges. Compare and contrast what they offer. 

Or does it? Depends on how early or late into the process I begin my investigation. Suppose the application deadline has passed. 

In that event, it's pointless for me to even begin my investigation.  Because it's too late for me to be admitted, there is no point in doing something pointless. 

In a sense, the facts matter. But they matter in the sense that at that juncture, it makes no difference. The outcome is a foregone conclusion.

4. Suppose a teenager is gravely injured in an accident. He's rushed to the ER. He's fast-tracked to the OR. The surgeons patch him up as best they can. Stop the internal bleeding. Stabilize his condition.

However, he suffered irreparable damage to one or more vital organs. He will succumb to his injuries in a few hours.

Moreover, the hospital has been unable to reach his parents. His only "family" at that point is the nurse or attending physician.

Suppose he regains consciousness after the anesthetic wears off. He begins to ask questions. Will he be alright? 

Should they level with him? Should they tell him that he's going to die in a few hours? Or should they lie to him so that he will die happy? In a few minutes he will slip into a coma and never regain consciousness. 

From a Christian perspective, it would be good to pray with him and for him. Prepare him mentally and spiritually for death. But, of course, that's not an atheistic consideration.

Do the facts matter? They matter in the sense that he's dying. But does knowing that matter? There's nothing he can do with that information. His fate is sealed. 

5. Suppose you live in Nebraska. Suppose you're bitten by a rattlesnake. Do the facts matter?

Depends. Whether or not you're bitten by a bullsnake or a rattlesnake makes a difference in the sense that a rattlesnake is venomous and a bullsnake is nonvenomous. One is life-threatening, the other is not.

By the same token, knowing the species can make a difference. You know if you need to seek medical intervention. And you are able to identify the species. It can be the difference between life and death.

But suppose you're an exotic snake collector. You were bitten by a Bullmaster. 

Do the facts matter? In one sense yes, in another sense no. 

The Nebraska ER carries antivenon for local rattlesnakes, but not for Latin American vipers. So you're out of luck. You will die. 

This isn't just a question of place, but period. The same holds true if you were bitten by a rattlesnake in 19C Nebraska. No antivenom back then. 

6. To vary the illustration, suppose you're bitten by a Taipan in the Outback. You're too far from civilization to get back in time. Do the facts matter?

You are going to die whether or not you know that you were bitten by a Taipan. Even if you do know, there's nothing you can do to change the end-result. 

7. These examples are fatalistic, in the classical sense. Suppose you do something, perhaps unwittingly, to offend fate. Break a secret taboo. Trespass an invisible line. As a consequence, you are fated to die on the Ides of March.

Do the facts matter? They matter in the sense that you are doomed. But because you are doomed, because that's a fact, then many other facts don't matter. That one fact nullifies other facts which would otherwise be salient absent that particular fact.

There are lots of different things you can do between now and the Ides of March, but nothing you do will change the outcome. That fact makes other facts irrelevant.

If you're not fated to die on the Ides of March, you needn't take special precautions to avert it–and if you are fated to die on the ides of March, no special precautions will avert it. 

Indeed, you might be better off not knowing that you're a marked man. If you know that you are going to die, come what may, on the Ides of Marsh, you will be a nervous wreck for your remaining time. 

Or suppose, for the sake of argument, that the date isn't etched in stone. You can resort to stalling tactics which may delay the day of reckoning. Evasive maneuvers may buy you a bit of extra time. 

Does that make a difference? In a sense. But the end-result will be the same. Fate has so many creative ways of killing you. Every alternate route is booby-trapped. 

You won't be able to enjoy the extra time, because you will spend every waking moment on the lookout for the hidden dangers that lie in wait around every corner. 

8. At most, it would make sense to investigate the question of whether atheism entails moral and/or existential nihilism. If that's the case, then it would be irrational for you to continue your investigations even if–or especially if–it turns out, on further investigation, that atheism is true. If you find out that something is pointless, then there's no point in learning more about it. Atheism is like those fatalistic scenarios I just ran through. 

9. I use this as a limiting case. I don't think atheism is true. Indeed, atheism leads to alethic relativism.