Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Autonomous reason

William Vallicella has been commenting on Van Til's The Defense of the Faith. It's nice to have a philosopher of Vallicella's stature interact with Van Til: 

Why am I bothering to read Van Til?

I have been told that I am wasting my time with Van Til.  One, but not the only, reason I am ploughing through The Defense of the Faith (4th ed.) is because his striking formulations help me focus certain questions that concern me deeply.   One of these questions concerns the tension between Athens and Jerusalem, the tension between the autonomy of reason and the heteronomy of obedient faith. (Leo Strauss is very good on the is tension.) Here is a Van Til passage that turns my crank:

So we cannot subject the authoritative pronouncements of Scripture about reality to the scrutiny of reason because it is reason itself that learns of its proper function from Scripture." (130) 

The Bible, then, is an absolutely infallible and finally authoritative source of truth which man cannot question and to which he must submit.  But what exactly does the Bible say? Does it say that God is triune? Yes, says Van Till. But now it should be clear that it is his Bible that he speaks of, the Bible as interpreted by him, using his finite, fallible, and indeed totally depraved reason, which somehow is not so totally depraved as to prevent him from discerning the truths that God reveals to us.

What if the gov't shut down and nobody could tell the difference?


The Possessed

There are arresting and alarming parallels between the cultural elite in 19C Russia and the pop culture in contemporary America. An incongruous amalgam of moral nihilism, existential nihilism, and utopian totalitarianism. 

From what I've read, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great opened Russian high society to the French Enlightenment (e.g. Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot). This, in turn, dovetailed with the restless decadence of the idle rich. Something Tolstoy knew firsthand and memorized in novels like War and PeaceIn his Confession, he documents nihilism among the Russian upper class. And nihilism is a recurring theme in the novels of Dostoyevsky. 

Up-to-a-point I think European anti-clericalism was warranted. The venality of the Roman Catholic church was glaring. Both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky became deeply religious, albeit eccentric. Russian Orthodoxy was a flawed paradigm, so they had to fumble for something more satisfying. The novels of Dostoyevsky, as well as The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Tolstoy), are a quest for meaning. Notice the parallels between 19C Russia and the liberal establishment in 21C America:

From then onwards he realised that human life was not a movement from a backward past to a better future, as he had believed or half-believed when he shared the ideas of the radical intelligentsia. Instead, every human being stood at each moment on the edge of eternity. As a result of this revelation, Dostoyevsky became increasingly mistrustful of the progressive ideology to which he had been drawn as a young man.
He was particularly scornful of the ideas he found in St Petersburg when he returned from his decade of Siberian exile. The new generation of Russian intellectuals was gripped by European theories and philosophies. French materialism, German humanism and English utilitarianism were melded together into a peculiarly Russian combination that came to be called "nihilism".

We tend to think of a nihilist as someone who believes in nothing, but the Russian nihilists of the 1860s were very different. They were fervent believers in science, who wanted to destroy the religious and moral traditions that had guided humankind in the past in order that a new and better world could come into being. 

Dostoyevsky's indictment of nihilism is presented in his great novel Demons. Published in 1872, the book has been criticised for being didactic in tone, and there can be no doubt that he wanted to show that the dominant ideas of his generation were harmful. But the story Dostoyevsky tells is also a dark comedy, cruelly funny in its depiction of high-minded intellectuals toying with revolutionary notions without understanding anything of what revolution means in practice.

The plot is a version of actual events that unfolded as Dostoyevsky was writing the book. A former teacher of divinity turned terrorist, Sergei Nechaev, was arrested and convicted of complicity in the killing of a student. Nechaev had authored a pamphlet, The Catechism of a Revolutionary, which argued that any means (including blackmail and murder) could be used to advance the cause of revolution. The student had questioned Nechaev's policies, and so had to be eliminated.

Dostoyevsky suggests that the result of abandoning morality for the sake of an idea of freedom will be a type of tyranny more extreme than any in the past. As one of the characters in Demons confesses: "I got entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea from which I start. From unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism."

Monday, January 21, 2019

Is natural evil postlapsarian?

Although Dr. Welty discusses various objections to his theodicy, he regrettably omits any mention its greatest challenge: the widespread conviction that it has been decisively disproven by science.

Mainstream science has no place for the Biblical Adam & Eve in an idyllic Garden of Eden. Allegedly, humans evolved, via a cruel quest for survival, in a group of at least several thousand; there never were two humans from whom all other humans descend.

Even worse, fossils indicating natural evil (animal suffering from predation, disease, etc.) are allegedly dated millions of years older than the earliest humans, in blatant contrast with the notion that natural evil was caused by Adam's Fall.

Clearly, the view that natural evil comes only after Adam's Fall entails rejecting mainstream fossil dates, and thus essentially embracing Young Earth Creationism (YEC).

Unhappily,  the bulk of Christian Academia has largely accepted mainstream science, and hence disdains YEC. Some Christian scholars do uphold the traditional natural evil theodicy, while at the same time explicitly rejecting YEC, seemingly unaware of any inconsistency (e.g., Wayne Grudem, Douglas Groothuis). Most, however, embrace alternative theodicies that are more in tune with mainstream science.

That raises a number of issues:

1. In historical theology, what phenomena did Reformed theologians classify as natural evils? Natural evil is a very broad category, with many examples. 

i) Wildfires are a natural evil, caused by lightning. Does Byl think there was no lightning or fire before the Fall? 

Campfires can start a wildfire. Was everything fireproof before the Fall? 

ii) Flooding is classified as a natural evil. Does that mean the Nile river couldn't/didn't flood before the Fall? The annual flooding of the Nile river is beneficial to Egyptian farmers.

iii) If a tsunami sweeps over an island that has no fauna, is that a natural evil? It doesn't kill anything. Is a tsunami intrinsically a natural evil, or only in conjunction with other factors?

iv) An avalanche is classified as a natural disaster. Were avalanches impossible before the Fall? If you have mountains and precipitation, that produces snowpacks that produce avalanches. 

2. This all goes to the ambiguity of "natural evil". "Natural evil" is a term of art. Many natural evils are natural goods. They are necessary to maintain the balance of nature. They are only evil if a human being is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

3. It's not as if the Bible has a list of labeled natural evils. Is it a biblical presupposition that animal death is evil? Was the sacrificial system evil? 

4. I've always thought the YEC claim that natural evil must be a result of the Fall is philosophically and exegetically naive:

i) YECs assume that natural evil is incompatible with the creation as originally "good" or "very good". That, however, is not an exegetical conclusion. Gen 1 doesn't define the goodness of creation in contrast to so-called natural evil. It doesn't speak to that issue one way or the other.

ii) The standard objection to animal suffering is not that it happened before the Fall. What atheist frames the objection that way? If we say animal suffering is a postlapsarian development, that's irrelevant to the argument from animal suffering. Atheists will say animal suffering is incompatible with divine benevolence or wisdom regardless of whether that is deemed to be a prelapsarian or postlapsarian phenomenon. God is still complicit in predation, parasitism, and disease even if that's indexed to the Fall. So it's a failed theodicy. 

iii) In addition, Byl is a Calvinist, so he believes that God predestined all natural (and moral evils) and implements his blueprint via meticulous providence. 

iv) Even within an Edenic setting, it doesn't follow that there was no predation or animal death. Although the animals are tame in relation to Adam and Eve, that carries no presumption that they are nonviolent in relation to other animals. 

v) Apropos (iv), Gen 2-3 implies animal mortality, for the tree of life is reserved for humans. And it only existed in the garden, not outside the garden.

5. YEC, if true, entails the falsity of the evolutionary narrative. However, the converse doesn't follow. The falsity of YEC doesn't entail the evolutionary narrative. 

6. Allowing for natural evils before the Fall doesn't mean innocent Adam and Eve were exposed to natural evils. God could providentially shield them from natural evils. 

7. Byl is both a geocentrist as well as a young-earth creationist. From his viewpoint, they share a common hermeneutic. The same hermeneutic yields young-earth creationism and geocentrism.

The dilemma that generates is that I don't see how he can draw a hermeneutical line between geocentrism and flat-earthism. He's scornful of Enns doe arguing that Scripture teaches a three-story universe, but it sure looks to me like the same hermeneutic that yields a geocentric cosmography yields a flat-earth cosmography as well. And the reasoning is reversible. They rise and fall together. 



Distrust the media

Lots of stories about the Covington schoolboys. Here's one good breakdown: 

A few quick observations:

i) Minimally, whenever the liberal media does a sensational story on the Trump administration or hate crimes, &c., we should suspend judgment and wait for more information to come in. Actually, that's too generous. My standing presumption is that the liberal media is totally untrustworthy. Automatically discount what the liberal media says unless and until that receives confirmation. 

Ironically, this story was right on the heels of the bogus Buzzfeed story about Trump suborning perjury.

ii) The kids were also denounced by Catholic spokesmen. For instance:

iii) Some conservative pundits also joined the social media lynch mob:

Why would some conservatives suffer from the same hair-trigger reaction? I think the explanation is that some conservatives are too defensive about the pop cultural reputation of conservatives, and so they're just itching for a chance to redeem themselves in the eyes of the pop culture. But that's a fool's errand.

iv) This story parallels Rathergate, where it was the grassroots rather than "professional journalists" who debunked the false narrative. 

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Praying to Jesus

As part of his opening statement, in his recent debate with anti-Trinitarian Dale Tuggy, Michael Brown said the following:

That’s why Paul could pray to the Father and Son together in 1 Thessalonians 3:13, saying, “Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you,” using a singular verb for the Father and Jesus. And why else would Paul include Jesus in a prayer to the Father, let alone pray to the Father and Son using a singular verb in the Greek – unless they are one? (See also 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17, where Paul puts Jesus first in the prayer, using a singular verb again: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.”)

I've seen that challenged on Twitter. Here's what some recent, major commentators say, in support of Dr. Brown's interpretation. Notice that this is not an argument from authority. I'm not simply quoting scholarly opinion. Rather, they present exegetical arguments for their interpretation:

But in this prayer, as in 2 Thes 2:16-17, the Lord Jesus is the one to whom prayers are directed alongside God the Father. To address prayers to the Lord Jesus (so 2 Thes 3:5,16) in the same breath with God the Father implies a very high Christology. This prayer would be proper only if the apostles held to the divinity of Christ. This point is even clear in the prayer of 2 Thes 2:16, where the order of the names is reversed, "May our Lord Jesus Christ and God our Father". G. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians (Eerdmans 2002), 176. 

This means that by comparing two similar Pauline prayers, the reader arrives at a sublet but undeniable attestation of the divinity of Christ. In both cases, God the Father and the Lord Jesus are petitioned in prayer, and one or the other might answer the prayer. What Paul explored a few times in explicit propositions (Rom 9:5; Phil 2:6; Tit 2:13) becomes clear when he turns to God and the Lord Jesus in prayer; it is in prayer that he shows who he really thinks the Lord Jesus is. G. Shogren, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Zondervan 2012), 307. 

The second part of the prayer, the divine source, is striking not only because of the addition of the intensive pronoun "himself" but even more for the use of two subjects ("our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus") with a singular verb. The similar use of a compound subject with a singular verb occurs elsewhere in the NT (e.g., 1 Cor 15:50; Mt 5:18; Mk 4:41; Jas 5:3). These examples, however, virtually always involve a conventional word pair ("flesh and blood," "heaven and earth," "wind and sea," "gold and silver") so that the parallel with two persons mentioned in the transitional prayer of 3:11 is not exact. 

Indeed, the repetition of the definite article for both nouns suggests that Paul views God the Father and Jesus our Lord as two individual entities and so avoids the danger of a complete merging of the two figures to whom he prays. On the other hand, that these two individual figures are closely linked by a singular verb–a grammatical construction that Paul repeats (though in reverse order) in another prayer for the Thessalonians (2 Thes 2:16-17)–suggests that Paul views Jesus as sharing the deity of God and so avoids the danger of a complete separation of these two figures to whom he prays…As Marshall (1983: 100) declares, "It would be more exact to say that Paul assumes the divinity of Jesus–to call him "Son of God' in the way in which Paul uses the phrase cannot mean anything else".

As Milligan (1908: 108) observes, "We have another striking example of the equal nor ascribed to the Son with the Father throughout these epistles" J. Weima, 1-2 Thessalonians (Baker 2014), 236, 561.

The prayer itself, however, begins in a way that should catch everyone's attention. Here is a Jew, born and bred in, and deeply committed to, a monotheism where a person regularly repeated the traditional "creed" of all Judaism, the Shema of Deut 6:4: "Hear, Israel, Yahweh your God, Yahweh is one." But a couple of centuries before Paul, Yahweh's sacred name was no longer spoken aloud, apparently so that no one would take it "in vain" and thus break the third commandment. So in the oral reading of the Hebrew text, Adonai ("Lord") came to be substituted for Yahweh. This in turn was taken up in the Septuagint, where kyrios ("lord") was consistently substituted for Yahweh, this translating the oral substitution for the written word. So the oral Shema now took the form, "Hear, Israel, kyrios your theos, kyrios is one." What Paul himself did with this most sacred tradition–and well before writing this letter–is remarkable indeed. He is now praying to the one theos as "our God and Father" and to the one kyrios as "Jesus," whom he had earlier identified as "God's Son" (1:10)…the remarkable inclusion of the on as the compound subject of the singular verb seems to exist in anticipation of the rest of the prayer, which is directed solely to Christ.

Two further matters need to be noted, both christological. First, one should observe (a) that Paul can pray to both God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ together as one (v11), (b) that he can pray to both together but single out one as the object (grammatical subject) of the concerns of prayer at a given time (vv12-13), and (c) that in these earliest two letters he can pray to either separately (for the Father see 1 Thes 1:2-3; 5:23; for Christ see 2 Thess 3:5 and 15). 

Second, even though the first emphasis in this case is on God the Father, the final focus of the prayer is altogether on the Lord Jesus…Indeed, this same phenomenon happens in reverse in 1 Thes 2:16-17, where Christ is mentioned first (including with the autos ["himself"]) while the pickup, exactly as in the present case, is with prayer addressed to the second divine person mentioned at the outset, namely God the Father….together these realities indicate the very high place Christ had in Paul's understanding of God's identity. Here is a strict monotheist praying with ease to both the Father and the Son, focussing first on the one and then on the other, and without a sense that his monotheism is being stretched or is in some kind of danger. G. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (Eerdmans 2009), 130-31. 

I'd mention in passing that on a unitarian interpretation, this is yet another way in which unitarianism parallels Catholicism. Just like in Catholicism, you can pray to "exalted humans" (Mary) as well as God–in unitarianism, you can pray to God and the merely human Jesus alike. 

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Between Rome and a Roué

Recently I ran across an interesting allegation: is it hypocritical to support Donald Trump, on the one hand, if you attack the Catholic church for the abuse scandal, on the other hand? 

i) I didn't vote for Trump and I opposed him during the primaries. Of course, you can only work with the information you have at the time. His record as a Manhattan socialite gave me no reason to think he'd govern as a conservative. 

However, it's rational to revise your assessments based on new evidence. Thus far I've been pleasantly surprised by how things are working out.

ii) Critics always recast the issue in terms of supporting Trump. But from my standpoint, it's always a policy question. Not about endorsing the individual, but the policies of his administration. 

iii) Finally, it's a question of options, both political and ecclesiastical. If Rome is the One True Church®, then that generates a moral dilemma. But if Rome isn't the One True Church®, then that's a false dilemma. You can walk away. There are other options. Better options (by far).  

Politics is also about choosing from the available options. The options keep changing. Sometimes you have better options, sometimes worse options.

If there are just two viable national parties, then that severely limits your options. You can vote for the lesser evil. You can sit out the election, but action and inaction both have consequences. 

It's like the Amish who are too pure to be sullied by violence, so they leave it to other people make the hard decisions while they look the other way. But that's a kind of moral cowardice. 

Explaining evil, part 4

1. There's not much to say about Davis's contribution. He recycles cliche objections to Reformed "determinism". His objections do nothing to advance the argument. They don't interact with the burgeoning philosophical literature. 

2. As a freewill theist, he thinks moral evil originates in the libertarian freedom of the creature. But even if we grant such freedom for the sake of argument, I don't think that gets the job done.

For one thing, that only creates the potential to do wrong. But if human agents are truly free to choose between good and evil, what accounts for the universality of evil? If agents are free to either do the right thing or the wrong thing, then they are free to do the right thing all the time. So why aren't some free agents uniformly good? 

3. Moreover, the capacity to do evil doesn't make evil appealing. Why would a free agent wish to commit evil? What makes evil attractive?

Of course, some vices, like sexual promiscuity, are naturally enticing. But to play devil's advocate, how is it fair for us to have these natural urges, then be blamed when we succumb to temptation? Isn't that like entrapment? It's hard to take his position seriously. 

4. At one point he says:

What I'm talking about is our being aware that we could have decided to act on those different reasons under the same causes on one and the same occasion (43).

i) Are we in fact aware that we could have decided to act on those different reasons under the same causes on one and the same occasion? Does he think our ability to imagine hypothetical courses of action means we could just as well have taken a different fork in the road? One problem with that inference is that it's untested and untestable. We never step into the time machine, go back, and make a different choice.

ii) In addition, the ability to imagine hypothetical courses of action doesn't mean those are realistic. Indeed, many people have goals that turn out to be unattainable. There were so many variables they couldn't foresee. Variables beyond their control. So contemplating alternate courses of action can be deceptive. There are many twists and turns that shortsighted, simple-minded creatures like ourselves can't begin to anticipate or navigate. Like a chess game, we can only think a few moves deep (at best). 

iii) Finally, Calvinism doesn't deny possible worlds. In cases where your hypothetical is coherent, there is a possible world corresponding to that fork in the road. But that doesn't mean the human agent has the ability to open different doors (i.e. instantiate alternate possibilities). Rather, from a Reformed perspective, that is God's prerogative. 

"The celestial dictatorship"

Why are we answerable to God? What's the basis for divine sovereignty? For instance, I've seen atheists say that even if God made us, that doesn't impose an absolute obligation. After all, the fact that parents create their children doesn't mean parents own their kids. It doesn't mean parents have authority over their grown children. Take Christopher Hitchens and his trope about the "celestial dictatorship"? 

i) The parental analogy definitely has limitations. But before we move away from that, it's worth exploring. There are traditional cultures in which parents do have lifelong authority over their kids. I believe you have that in traditional Asian culture. Filial piety. I also remember a scene from War and Peace (Bondarchuk) where Prince Andrei must seek his father's permission to marry a particular woman. 

Now, I'm not saying I agree with that. My cultural conditioning is different. But from a secular standpoint, what makes one culture morally superior to another? 

ii) Although I don't think grown children are answerable to their parents, nevertheless, if they had conscientious parents, they do have a lifelong obligation to their parents. It isn't isn't just because their parents created them, but because their parents raised them. In that regard, grown children may have greater duties to adoptive parents than biological parents. 

iii) Of course, there's a sense in which kids are supposed to outgrow their parents. Become independent. Able to provide for themselves. Indeed, able to provide for their elderly parents. 

Parents and children share a common nature, so children become the equal of their parents, or may even surpass them in some ways. Some parents are wise while others are foolish or evil. But even wise parents are fallible. 

iv) Hence, the comparison with God breaks down in several respects. We never outgrow God. He's infinitely our intellectual superior. We always depend on him for everything. For being and well-being. 

v) A somewhat better analogy is the relationship between an android and a cyberneticist. The cyberneticist didn't merely create the android. He designed the android. He knows everything about the android. He knows more about the android that it knows about itself. He knows better than the android what is best for the android. 

Of course, in scifi lore, the android has the capacity to overtake the cyberneticist. Become his superior, having superhuman knowledge, intelligence, speed, power, and longevity. 

So once again, the analogy breaks down, but in a way that reinforces divine prerogatives. It isn't sheer authority, but authority based on a being who is in every respect our superior. 

v) In Christian theology, not only is there a debt to creation and providence, but a greater debt to redemption. That, too, has human analogies. Take a man who endangers himself to save the life of another. Or a guy who gives another guy a second chance, even though the other guy doesn't deserve it. Actions like that create asymmetrical obligations. 

Explaining evil, part 3

Wielenberg is a secular ethicist who labors to be a moral realist. 

Part of the answer…is that for something to be evil is for there to be a reason to avoid or eliminate a thing (123).

But that's indiscriminate since what people take to be something to avoid or eliminate is so variable from one person to the next.  

Whether a person is happy depends on the attitude of someone–namely, the person himself–but it does not depend upon the attitudes of observers towards him (125).

As social creatures, our happiness is typically dependent on the attitudes of others.  

Like Chalmers, I endorse the existence of nonphysical properties (128). 

i) Isn't Chalmers a panpsychic? So that's an appeal to mental properties. But Wielenberg's position seems to be moral platonism rather than panpsychism. 

ii) Assuming he's a Platonist, he must believe basic ethical facts are abstract objects They exist even if there was no universe. 

iii) If so, what are they? They're not physical or mental properties. So they have no analogy in human experience. 

iv) How are they instantiated? What's the mechanism? His nonphysical properties aren't agents and his evolutionary physical processes aren't agents. 

v) Assuming these impersonal immaterial properties exist, how do they obligate human conduct? They didn't create us. They aren't intelligent entities. They are indifferent to human flourishing. Why are we duty-bound to conform our behavior to these impersonal properties? 

vi) If human beings are merely physical organisms, how do we gain access to nonempirical moral facts? How do unintelligent evolutionary processes tap into immaterial moral facts in order to instill them in human beings? It can't be a physical causal connection if one relatum of the cause/effect relation is immaterial. 

Friday, January 18, 2019

Explaining evil, part 2

Now I'll comment on some aspects of Helm's presentation. 

An important feature of this contribution to the questions raised by evils is that such a theism is monistic….Some contrasting systems are dualistic, positing two equally ultimate sources of good and evil, Light and Darkness, engaged in an everlasting wrestling match, and so on. Judeo-Christianity is not like this. God is the creator and purposer of all that is. So the question, "Why evil?" when posed of this God, becomes at least two questions (50).

In that regard, freewill theism is dualistic. Although the forces of good and evil aren't equally ultimate, they are independent of each other. 

"What is God's purpose in permitting/ordaining evil?" The fulfilling of what end or ends required evil?…This  is a question that is teleological in character. I don't think an atheist has a place for this question, because any atheistic system has only one set of sources of evil, namely uncreated matter. A theist may reply to our question by recognizing that he does not have a clue as to why there is evil in God's world. But the question nevertheless makes sense: God must have a ground or grounds. The second question is, "Granted that God is the ordainer of evil, how does evil occur?" (50).

In this monism there are two categories of players: God the creator and human beings his creatures, with the use of their own minds and wills…In materialist atheism, there is only one set of players, configurations of matter more or less complicated. Some of these posses agency, others do not (50).

How such configurations get to ask anything is a major problem in such an outlook…Atheists, like theists, may resort to anthropomorphism. Perhaps these evils are bound up with the self-preservation of some species, or of species generally. Maybe evils and pains are spurs to good: to maternal care, or the development of clothing for a covering against heat and cold, or as a sign of the onset of serious sickness…They arise from our penchant for imputing functions or purposes to some of the natural order that does not having anything like human intentions a we experience these…And if we are thorough-going materialists, we also have the task of explaining how those arrangements of matter that are you and me come to have the capacity to impute good and evil to other chunks of matter. Good and evil are ultimately epiphenomena of physical changes (51).

Useful contrast. 

The fault, the incarnation, and the offering of the Incarnate One is needed, for the display of the glory of God in the redemption of men and women. The point here is not simply that the incarnation was necessary, but that an evil world in which God himself came and suffered for us is incommensurably better than one in which there was no evil, but also that there was no incarnation (53).

The problem is that Helm never gets around to explaining what makes a redeemed world incommensurably better than an unfallen world. He never gets much beyond the bare assertion. 

In fairness, he isn't presenting a full-blown theodicy since the topic of the book has a different emphasis than the problem of evil. Still, for a Christian, to ask why there's any evil at all is necessarily bound up with the problem of evil and theodical considerations.  

The theist must end his explanatory narrative by invoking the will of God; it was the good pleasure of God that this is so. Why is it the good pleasure of God that this is so? This is a question that cannot be answered, not because there is no answer, but that there is no answer apart from the will of God (55).

I don't know what that means. Sure, the answer can't be detached from God's will, but God has reasons for what he wills, so a Christian can explore the possible reasons. God's bare will is not the ultimate explanation. I don't think Helm is a theological voluntarist. God's will is characterized by his wisdom and benevolence. There's a rationale for whatever God wills. 

Given the immaculate and necessary perfection of God, moral evil can only arise from the creature. It is a logical consequence of the monistic character of the Creator-creature distinction that God is the only source of good and that moral evil has its source according to orthodox Christianity in the creature (55).

i) I don't think that's an option for a Calvinist. Predestination is the ultimate source of evil. 

Now there are different aspects to that. To take a comparison, in Perelandra, why doesn't the Queen succumb to the Un-man? At one level, that's because everything that happens was plotted by the novelist, who exists outside the narrative. At another level, the Un-man would eventually wear down her resistance but Ransom finally gives up on trying to outargue the Un-man and kills him. So there's an explanation within the narrative as well as an explanation outside the narrative.

By the same token, there was a plot in God's imagination. In the plot, Lucifer fell, then successfully tempted Adam and Eve to follow suit. God instantiates his mental narrative in real space and time, with conscious agents. Lucifer fell in the real world because that necessarily corresponds to the plot in God's mind. 

ii) However, that doesn't rule out factors or motivations within the plot. For instance, although Adam sinned, perhaps he didn't perceive his action as evil. Perhaps he misperceived his action as virtuous. 

There is about evil a deficiency or loss of negativity. Augustine, influenced somewhat by the neo-platonists at this point, called evil a privation. Hence it could not be the direct action of God who is only capable of creating not of destroying. Blindness (say) is not a positive property, but a negative property (56).

i) As I understand it, the motivation for the privative theory of evil is that if evil is nothing, then God didn't create evil–since nothing can't be a creative object. An agent, even an omnipotent agent, can't create nothing. Nothing isn't the effect or result of anything. So that let's God off the hook–or does it?

ii) Even if we grant that technical distinction, does it really hold up? For instance, suppose you say the empty spaces in a snowflake are nothing. Yet those specific empty spaces, those particular shapes, are caused by the lattice pattern of the snowflake. The configuration of the empty spaces wouldn't exist apart from the crystalline structure. So even though the empty spaces aren't directly created, they are caused. 

Likewise, even if we say blindness is a privative property, blindness is caused by certain factors. Even if you say blindness isn't directly created, it is indirectly created by whatever conditions give rise to blindness, viz. disease, accident, genetic defect. So I don't see how you get any theodical mileage out of that distinction.

In fairness, Helm isn't necessary trying to justify the ordination of evil at this juncture, but explain its origin. How rather than why. But it still reflects the limitations of that theodical strategy. 

Someone who is compatibilistically free may go through stages in which, until he makes up his mind, he is as ignorant of his future as is any open theist who hold that God is ignorant of some libertarian future (31).

Corrects the popular misconception that the experience of deliberation implies libertarian freedom. Also, useful comparison with open theism. 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Explaining evil, part 1

I plan to do a series of posts on yet another book on the problem of evil: W. Paul Franks, ed., Explaining Evil: Four Views (Bloomsbury 2019). Here's a description:

I think the problem of evil is overemphasized in atheism and Christian apologetics. If we were starting from scratch, would the problem of evil receive so much attention? I think it's like a social contagion or reinforcing loop where, if you keep saying the problem of evil is the main objection to belief in God, that's the effect of constant repetition. It feeds back into itself in a circular, self-conditioned dynamic. 

Strictly speaking, the book isn't about the problem of evil but the preliminary question of how, why, and whether evil exists. For a Christian respondent, that's intertwined with the problem of evil. Christian theology takes the existence of evil for granted, but that's not a given in atheism. Are pain and suffering evil? What is evil from a secular standpoint? Is there such a thing?

I bought the book primary for the contributions of Paul Helm and Erik Wielenberg. Helm is the preeminent Reformed philosopher of his generation while Wielenberg is one of the best atheist philosophers. 

Here is Wielenberg's response to Helm's felix culpa theodicy:

(ii) The atonement of sin is so good that it is better that there be atoned-for sin than that there be no sin in the first place (73).

Although that may be how the felix culpa theodicy is usually formulated, I disagree that God's permission/ordination of evil is only justified if a redeemed world is better overall than an unfallen world. Suppose there's a better world than the world in which my loved ones exist. If so, it's a cause for gratitude that God created a lesser world in which my loved ones exist rather than an upscale world in which they don't. God isn't elitist. We should be grateful that our existence is not in competition with "the best". What if we wouldn't make the cut? What if God picks losers rather than winners because he loves the underdog? Existence isn't a meritocracy. Salvation isn't theological eugenics. 

Accordingly, it seems that atonement can at best cancel the evil of sin, turning the overall balance of good and evil to zero; I don't see a plausible basis for holding that atonement–as distinguished from divine incarnation–could make the overall combination of sin and atonement into good (74). 

To be a redeemed creature, to experience reconciliation and restoration, is a richer experience than never failing in the first place. Which Wielenberg considers:

Diller considers the thought that "there is a special excellence to the quality of relationship that can be known by those once lost who are redeemed"…However, it is hard to see how to justify (ii) on such grounds without thereby committing oneself to such implausible claims as "the strongest marriages are those that have involved a period of divorce, or that the deepest mother-daughter relationship is enabled once the daughter commits patricide" (74).

It's not implausible that the strongest marriages are marriages that weather crisis and conflict, but survive the ordeal. There is, moreover, the interesting phenomenon of divorced couples who reconsider and remarry the original spouse. At the time they were too immature to appreciate each other. But in retrospect they came to realize they were right the first time around. The time apart gave them perspective. 

Furthermore, such grounds for (ii) suggest that greater degrees of alienation make possible more valuable goods of reconciliation later on. In the case of isn, that line of thinking appears to lead to the following problem:"If sin is the occasioning cause of grace…then  shouldn't the upright man try to overcome his repugnance to sin, and commit still more sins?" Acceptance of (ii) and the felix culpa theodicy suggests that more sin enhances the overall value of the world, all things considered–a dubious implication (74).

1. That doesn't follow. For one thing, it's not as if humans are morally pristine agents who must devise creative ways to experiment with evil so that we know what it's like. Rather, we're already born with a propensity for evil, and the question is how to break free. I have plenty of regrets without having to devise and explore novel exercises in sinning. 

2. Moreover, it's not as if you need to be repeatedly lost and found to have insight into what it's like to be lost and found. Indeed, if you were constantly rescued, it would become blasé and expected. If a hiker is lost in the forest, part of what makes rescue such a relief is the fear that he may not be found. He's in a state of desperate suspense. Waiting in hope and fear. 

Michael Peterson writes, "God's original purpose…[thus the highest good for creation is available without creation's descent into sin and evil" (74).

Is that supposed to mean God was blindsided by events and had to scramble to salvage his nearsighted plans?

"agency that is hardened and biochemically twisted (serial killers, child sex murderers, schizophrenics)"…Adam's worry is that God would be insufficiently loving and merciful toward such wrecked and ruined human agents were he to create them in order to display his perfection through divine atonement.

i) I'll bracket the "display his perfection through divine atonement" for another installment.

ii) What exactly is Wielenberg's responding to? Is he saying that's inconsistent with a felix culpa theodicy? If so, how does a felix culpa theodicy require God to be loving and merciful towards serial killers and child sex murderers? 

ii) Is he saying that's inconsistent with Helm's Calvinism? If so, does Calvinism require God to be loving and merciful towards serial killers and child sex murderers? In Calvinism God loves the elect. It's not a presupposition of Calvinism that God is merciful to everyone. Indeed, there's a fundamental sense in which God is unmerciful to the reprobate. 

iii) Is he saying that's inconsistent with what it means for God to be a benevolent being, from Wielendberg's perspective? Is Wielenberg supposing that to be good, God must be loving and merciful towards serial killers and child sex murderers? If he's operating from his own standards, then the onus lies on him to make a case for why divine goodness demands that. 

Psychopaths lack "the shackles of a nagging conscience"…for psychopaths, "moral…rules are annoying restrictions to be manipulated or ignored. None of these rules have any normative force for them". Psychopaths lack the emotional capacity to grasp the weight of morality and because they are devoid of guilt, see no need for any of their actions to be atoned for. It is hard to see why the existence of a particular sort of damaged agency is necessary for the great good of divine atonement. God could have omitted psychopaths from his grand plan without sacrificing the need for atonement (75).

i) Once again, what exactly is Wielenberg responding to? Since Helm is a Calvinist, he doesn't think everyone is redeemed. 

ii) Perhaps Wielenberg would say there's a point of tension between a felix culpa theodicy and limited atonement. If so, it's up to Wielenberg to explain why psychopaths, serial killers, and child sex murders must be redeemed for a redeemed world to be better overall than an unfallen world–even assuming that all psychos, serial killers, and child sex murderers are reprobate.

iii) Finally, if, according to Calvinism, God regenerates, sanctifies, and glorifies a psychopath, then he will come to perceive how his actions were blameworthy and desperately in need of atonement. Perhaps that discernment will be incomplete in this life. It may only be in heaven that his "wrecked and ruined agency" is fully repaired, although grace can enable him to gain some insight even in this life. Christian apologist David Wood appears to be a real-life example.