Thursday, February 17, 2005

Holding v. White

Last year, a friend asked me to comment on a series on Calvinism by J. P. Holding. I did so, and posted the reply on my blog.

This morning, I was asked by another friend, on behalf of an acquaintance, if I'd been keeping up with the exchange between Holding and James White. The short answer is that I hadn't.

I see now that Dr. White has also hyperlinked my reply to his own website. That's fine with me. It puts me in very good company--better than I deserve!

But since I've been asked to comment on this debate, and since, indeed, my named has now been cited in this debate, I might as well contribute my own two cents, adjusted for inflation.

Regarding Dr. White's side of the exchange, I'd second everything he's said thus far. Regarding Mr. Holding's side of the exchange, I have rather more to say.

1. I'd just note in passing that Holding's reply is larded with an extraordinary amount of personal invective directed against Dr. White. I'll leave it to better men than myself to judge whether this sustained ad hominem attack is either good moral theology or good polemical theology. Certainly, though, it contributes nothing to the cogency of his arguments--although it may serve to deflect attention from the lack thereof.

2. In much the same vein, Holding attacks the very idea of a Christian apologetic blog:

"Quick theology is not solid theology…I must admit that I find the entire idea of doing work via 'blogs' (as well as the process of deciding issues by means of oral debates, havens for "sound bites") to be an entirely unworthy enterprise. This is why I never do oral debates and never will.

Impatience, however, is hardly the issue. I have time and I have ability to answer when I am inclined. I also have the discipline to wait until I am finished with all my research before I post my findings (where indeed research is required; which so far, as White as much admits, it is not). Hence blogs are also, in my view, entirely unsuitable venues for discourse."

i) This charge proves too much or too little. Is there really that much difference, technically speaking, between what Holding does at his website and what White does at his?

ii) As to Holding having "the discipline to wait until he's finished with all his research before posting his findings," Holding has elsewhere said:

"Let me add here that I had no idea, when I started that essay, what Molinism was or how it was defined,"

as well as:

"Update: To my surprise there is a name for this view I have proposed, and it is one advocated by various Christian philosophers like Plantinga and Craig, in various forms: it is called libertarianism. Well, you never know when you'll cross paths with some things. :-)"

So who's the one doing his theology on the fly?

iii) It should be unnecessary to point out that a blogger can also do all his research in advance of posting it. The fact that a blogger may post on the installment plan doesn't necessarily mean that he hasn't thought through his position before depressing the "send" button. But perhaps Mr. Holding is speaking from personal experience--to judge by the above.

3. Holding makes repeated appeal to "credentialed scholars." Now, since Holding is an intelligent man, I don't see the point of such a patently fallacious appeal. You can find credentialed representative for almost every position and opposing position. Reformed theology certainly has its share of credentialed scholars. So this appeal, which Holding reiterates ad nauseum, like a verbal talisman, is bereft of probative force.

4. On a semantic point, Holding says that "It goes this way for us: 'I will fulfill covenant obligation upon whoever I fulfill it upon, and I will satisfy kinship obligation upon whoever I satisfy it upon.' I should note here that my same source defines compassion likewise in terms of the social state of the Biblical world; 'compassion' means 'caring concern that ought to be felt and acted upon between real and fictive kin.' [30] 'So then, it is not of the one willing, nor of the one exerting himself, but of the covenant-fulfilling God.'"

i) But this commits a classic word-study fallacy. The interpretation of Rom 9:15 turns, not on a dictionary definition of "compassion," but on the meaning of the entire sentence and the way in which this literary unit functions in the whole flow of Paul's argument.

Holding is confusing the meaning of words with the meaning of concepts. What the verb means and what the verb refers to ("real and fictive kin") are two different things. The bare idea of "compassion" does not select for "kin."

What is worse, he is confusing the meaning of different concepts. All members of a covenant community may be real or fictive kin, but it hardly follows that all real or fictive kind are members of a covenant community.

ii) And in his multiplied confusions, Holding manages to make the verse mean just the opposite of what Paul intended. Paul's argument is that election and reprobation cut across all external bonds.

5. Holding refers the reader to "Pilch and Malina's Handbook of Biblical Social Values, which describes the ancient mind as one practiced in dualistic thought."

i) Notice that Holding constantly refers the reader to the same little thimbleful of sociorhetorical scholars. This, however, begs the very question at issue. Is sociorhetorical criticism the only prism through which we ought to read the Bible? He quotes sociorhetorical scholars to prove the primacy of sociorhetorical criticism. What a thoroughly vicious specimen of circular reasoning!

ii) But just suppose, for the sake of argument, that we agree with Pilch and Malina at this juncture. What follows then? Notice that the attribution of "dualistic thought" doesn't single out the "Jewish" mind or the "Hebrew" mind or the "Semitic mind." No, we are told that this extends to the "ancient" mind. But, if so, then Holding is in no position to drive a wedge between a Jewish mindset and a Greco-Roman mindset, and then play one off against the other.

iii) Holding is sure that he is right, and White is wrong. How very dualistic of Mr. Holding! Doesn't Mr. Holding realize that he is in bondage to that ancient binary logic whereby either he is right or Dr. White is right? Isn't the time past due for Mr. Holding to emancipate himself from the quaint old law of bivalence? From these moldering old "polarities" of primitive thought?

6. Holding says that to defeat his contention, "White must show one of any of these things: Paul was not Hebrew or subject to Hebrew thought patterns To; he was one or both, but these passages are to be taken as exceptions for X reason."

i) But this is tendentious. Dr. White would only have to do so on the prior assumption that Paul's neuropathways moved in the groove of "Hebrew thought patterns." But why should Dr. White assume that Paul in particular, or Jews in general, were so intellectually inflexible?

ii) Sociorhetorical criticism, being a subdivision of sociology, shares the same bias as sociology. In the perennial nature/nurture debate, the so-called social sciences (sociology; anthropology) come down heavily on the nature side of the debate, treating the human mind as a blank slate which is pencilled in by culture. And, like any half-truth, there's some evidence for that.

But in terms of a Biblical anthropology, men, by virtue of their common humanity, as members of the human race, have essential generic mental attributes as well as incidental cultural mental attributes.

7. "To suggest further that we could argue that Paul was some kind of exception ("transfers over to Pauline usage") is itself a counsel of despair, ad hoc special pleading at its worst."

This is a lovely example of a first strike straw man argument. You charge your opponent with your own fault to preempt him from doing the same to you. Since Dr. White would reject Holding's operating premise, he has no need to carve out "some kind of exception" for Paul. The special-pleading is all on Holding's part by trying to slyly foist this faulty premise on Dr. White in the first place.

8. According to Holding, "White's own classification of Romans 9 as 'logical' is similarly obtuse. Indeed, logicians would call what Paul does in Romans 9 a fallacious 'argument from authority'".

i) Holding's charge is faulty logic and worse exegesis. To begin with, an argument from authority not automatically invalid. The appeal is only fallacious if your opponent does not acknowledge the authority of your source. But if Paul is shaping his reply with a view to Jewish opponents, whether real or hypothetical, then the appeal to Scripture is perfectly legitimate inasmuch as both sides of the debate acknowledge the authority of Scripture.

ii) In addition, Paul's reply is not limited to an argument from authority. In addition to that, he also invokes a theodicean rationale for election and reprobation (9:17,22-23; 11:32).

9. "As one observer on TWeb -- a seminary student, as it happens -- puts it:

How is it that we appeal to Calvin over against the ECFs, who unambiguously took this to refer to man's ability to go against God's will? How about Origen (a native Greek speaker) who understood 20ff as being the part of an interlocuter [sic] and not being Paul's argument since it seemingly contradicts chapter 8."

Isn't this just classic? According to Holding, Paul writes and thinks like a Jew. Now you might suppose that this would be an awfully good reason to interpret Paul the way a Jew would read him, with an eye to the OT and Rabbinical modes of argument.

But, no, Holding endorses the idea that we should interpret Paul with a view to how a native Greek speaker and--we might add, hyper-Platonist--would read him. But, according to sociorhetorical criticism, wouldn't this reflect a Greek outlook which is just as blinkered as a Hebrew mentality--and, what is more, an outlook which is culturally incommensurable with the Hebrew mindset?

10. "Sorry, but White clearly does not have his exegetical ducks in a row. I recommend he read Kasemann, Fitzmyer, Esler, and Witherington. That should run the gauntlet for him, and maybe throw in a healthy dose of Cranfield for the grammar."

Well, it would be quite a trick for Dr. White to line up all these ducks in a row. Kasemann is a liberal Lutheran duck, Fitzmyer is a liberal Catholic duck, Witherington is an Evangelical Arminian duck, Esler is another liberal duck (subspecies: Anatidae Sanders), while Cranfield is a Barthian duck.

In addition, only two of the five (Esler, Witherington) belong to the sociorhetorical school of criticism. So it would, indeed, be no small feat to point all these ducks in the same direction. However, a quack like Holding may have just the right birdcall to make it happen.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

A game-theoretic model of providence

I. Setting the table

What are the leading objections to predestination and providence? They rob us of our freedom of choice. In so doing, they rob us of our responsibility. And they conduce to fatalism.

In considering these objections, I’d like us to consider a game-theoretic model of predestination and providence. Providence is the historical execution of the decree. Providence is, if you will, a temporal mirror-image of the timeless decree.

Although predestination and providence are not the same thing, yet objections to one are much the same as objections to the other. So, for purposes of this analysis, I won't differentiate between the two.

II. Scriptural precedent

A game-theoretic model of providence has a basis in Scripture. For the casting of lots was a common method of ascertaining God’s will. This was true, both with respect to the profane lottery, as well as the Urim and Thummin, which seem to have been a sacred lottery or the functional equivalent thereof. As such, it’s striking that this has not received a systematic treatment in the theological literature on providence.

One reason is a certain prejudice against the morality of gambling in general, as well as unspoken embarrassment over the presence of a lottery the in Scripture. Surely this reflects a superstitious outlook which we’ve learned to outgrow--or does it?

To begin with, if we take the inspiration of Scripture seriously, we cannot dismiss this phenomenon out of hand. There are at least three explanations, which may not be mutually exclusive.

i) Casting lots may have been a superstitious form of divination which God, in his forbearance, tolerated.

ii) Casting lots may have been an efficient, nonpartisan form of decision-making where the choices were either trivial or equiprobable--much as we use a coin toss today. This pragmatic use of lots would be without any inference or assumption of divine guidance.

iii) Casting lots may have been a superstitious form of divination which a longsuffering God not only tolerated, but co-opted--in his overruling providence. The providential use of the lottery is clearly articulated in Prov 16:33, and illustrated in such cases as Josh 7:14-18; 1 Sam 10:20-21; Acts 1:24-26.

III. Recipe

In trying to flesh out a game-theoretic model of providence, I’ll draw on some terms and distinctions from contemporary game-theory.

1. Epistemic uncertainty

A game of chance is so-called because the player is ignorant of the outcome. "Chance," in this context, is the measure of his ignorance.

In game-theory, a hypothetical player is said to enjoy "perfect" knowledge in the restricted sense of knowing the rules, the odds, the possible outcomes and personal consequences, as well as a knowledge of every move made up to the present move.

2. Metaphysical certainty

A game of chance may be uncertain at the epistemic level, but certain at the metaphysical level. A game of chance may be entirely deterministic, which why it is possible to calculate the odds with mathematical precision.

Metaphysical certainty can take different forms. In a game of cards, the sequence of cards can either be random or specified. A random order is the result of a randomized shuffling of the deck. A specified order is the result of a stacked deck.

In principle, a random order could be identical with a specified order. That is to say, the chances are that, sooner or later, a random process would eventually generate the same sequence as a stacked deck.

3. The player

Just as jurisprudence is predicated on the postulate a "reasonable person" in the jury box, game-theory posits a reasonable player, defined as a player who can imagine various outcomes, devise strategies which probilify various outcomes, and opt for a strategy best adapted to achieve his favored outcome.

This, in turn, presupposes that the player comes to the table with certain goal-oriented preferences ("utilities"). These values and incentives motivate the player to make the choices he does.

Some players are naturally risk-averse, while others are natural risk-takers. Some players have a good poker face, while others are a dead giveaway.

What ulterior factors predispose a player to be daring or cautious, to value some utilities over others, to be transparent or opaque, could be genetic, cultural, or some combination thereof. The ultimate origin of a player’s temperament or value-system is irrelevant to the necessary and sufficient conditions of a player in game-theory.

4. The play

Every player has two or more choices ("plays") available to him. Depending on the game, some choices are riskier than others.

In a zero-sum game, one player’s gain is another player’s loss. You win by making the other player lose. You take the jackpot.

Philosophically speaking, the stipulation of multiple choice raises both psychological questions (compatibilism/incompatibilism) as well as metaphysical questions (the grounding of counterfactuals). Game-theory is neutral on what necessary and sufficient conditions must be satisfied to constitute multiple-choice.

5. Backward induction

In chess and poker, each player will try to second-guess the oposing player. The success of this strategy depends, in part, on the degree of transparency or opacity of the players. A good poker player has a poker face. His body language does not betray his intentions.

Tim has a hunch that if he chooses A on the first move, then Jim will choose B on the second move, and so on. To some extent, then, a good player will impose a teleological order to the sequential order, reasoning in reverse from the last move to the first.

This is, of course, only a property of sequential games, i.e., games with sequential moves observable by other players. That’s a condition of "perfect" knowledge.

Of course, if Tim’s choice is logically contingent on Jim’s choice, and Jim’s choice is contingent on Tim’s choice, then this generates a logical dilemma.

How much a player is prepared to bet is affected by whether he has an opportunity, in a subsequent game, to recoup his losses. Backward induction must take in the possibility (or not) of subsequent games as well as the game at hand.

In game-theory, it is useful to postulate an ideal player. An ideal player is able to perform an infinite backward induction, i.e., compute an infinite series of moves and countermoves.

IV. Sitting down to dinner

Okay, let’s apply game-theory to providence.

In game-theory, a player is a free agent if three conditions are satisfied: (i) he enjoys "perfect" knowledge; (ii), he is reasonable, and (iii) he has two or more choices. Let’s take these in turn.

i) Perfect knowledge is not the same thing as exhaustive knowledge. Indeed, the appeal of a game like poker lies in the tension between epistemic uncertainty and metaphysical certainty.

At a metaphysical level, a game of chance has no element of chance. To begin with, there are fixed number of possible variables. In addition, once the deck is shuffled, the actual sequence is also fixed.

At an epistemic level, a game of chance becomes a game of skill because all the variables are not known in advance of the play.

No one says that a poker game is fatalistic. Since a player doesn’t know what card is coming next, his choice is not inwardly constrained by the next card. Whether he asks the dealer to hit him again, whether he chooses to place a bet, raise a bet, call, or fold, is based on the odds of what cards are already on the table, whether face up or face down, and remaining in the deck, in a probable order. There is, of course, the psychological game as well, which I’ll get to later.

So the player is under no external coercion. If he knew he had a losing hand, then he might feel compelled to fold; or if he knew he had a winning hand, he might feel compelled to bet all his chips--but his sphere of freedom lies in the dialectical tension between metaphysical certainty and epistemic uncertainty. And the same hold true for providence.

ii) As I say, game-theory posits certain conditions which must be satisfied for a player to be a reasonable player. It is, however, indifferent to the preconditions.

At the same time, it is easier to construe game-theory along compatibilist lines. A game of poker is not considered to be rigged just because a player’s childhood upbringing predisposed him to be sweaty or foolhardy.

Suppose a losing player demanded his money back because the game was unfair. And the reason he gives is that even though he was free to gamble however he chose, and free to refrain if he had wanted to refrain, he wasn’t free to want what he didn’t want and not to want what he did want. Is that even coherent?

But let’s take a fancier example. Suppose a poker player is so good that the casino is losing money. The casino arranges to have him kidnapped, and operated on without his knowledge. A neurosurgeon implants a microchip which subliminally directs the player not to make certain choices.

Suppose this device prevents the player from making a choice he would otherwise make, apart from surgery. I think we’d generally consider this as having robbed the player of his freedom of choice.

But suppose, instead, that this device prevents the player from making a choice he would not otherwise make, apart from surgery? He no longer has the freedom not to make that choice. But since he would not have made that choice even before he underwent surgery, does his post-op condition rob him of his freedom of choice? In a sense it does, but not in a morally relevant sense--that I can see.

Since he was never going to make that choice, preventing him from making that choice doesn’t look like a significant impediment on his sphere of freedom.

iii) Given (ii), what does multiple-choice really mean? If I can only make one choice at a time, and if I only want one out of the two or more choices, then what is the moral necessity in my having a wider range of abstract options from which to choose?

At most it might mean that the choice I don’t make has an influence on the choice I did make. By comparison and contrast, I see that one choice is better than the others.

Of course, if I didn’t have those other options in the first place, then, by definition, I’d end up making the same choice, sans the process of elimination. Perhaps the imaginative experience of toying with a host of hypotheticals gives me an added sense of satisfaction, but is that a necessary condition of freedom and responsibility?

In addition, as I’ve noted above, you have the same number of variables whether the deck is stacked or randomly shuffled. Indeed, the order may even be the same.

In any event, since a player doesn’t know the order of the cards in advance of the fact, a specified order would not affect his deliberations. He will, of course, play his hand differently depending on the hand he’s dealt, but that is true every time the deck is reshuffled.

Fatalism is a form of second-guessing. The victim of fate despairs of escaping his fate, for perhaps the very effort to escape is fate is the fated means of fulfilling his fate.

Poker is also a form of second-guessing. Yet, again, no one regards poker is fatalistic. The reason that paralysis of action does not ensue is because the abstract dilemma is dissolved by epistemic uncertainties. If you know either too much or too little, then that can be a disincentive to action. If you know too little about the odds and consequences, then any action will be reckless and precipitous. If you know you have a losing hand, any action, short of folding, will be doomed to failure.

But in poker there’s just enough ambiguity that you can make an educated guess and take a calculated risk. And the same holds true with respect to providence. By definition, belief in providence can have no countersuggestive influence on those who disbelieve in providence.

And even for those who do believe in it, their knowledge is abstract and general, rather than concrete and specific. They know "that" there is such a thing as providence, as well as having in mind a general outline of providence in its historical arc and broad promises, but of what future form it takes at any particular place and time--they’re in the dark.

Game-theory is an interdisciplinary field, tied into probability theory and Bayesian logic. The fact that game-theory resorts to the postulate of an ideal player illustrates the fact that uncertainty is parasitic on certainty.

The indeterminist can’t even quantify his epistemic indeterminism without the presupposition of something ontologically determinate (an actual infinite). And this, in turn, affords a striking parallel between the teleology of the decree and backward induction.

In a game-theoretic model of providence, God is the dealer, and the deck is stacked. We instinctively feel that a stacked deck is unfair. But our intuition overgeneralizes from a few irrelevant, paradigm cases.

Suppose, for example, that one of the players is using marked cards. So he is cheating the other players. Suppose the dealer stacks the deck in order to compensate the disadvantaged players. Is that still unfair? Or does such a process of equalizing the odds right the scales of justice? It takes one cardsharp to cancel out the damage done by another cardsharp.