Saturday, July 23, 2016

Incipient modalism in the EFS debate

This is a significant departure from the Church's historic doctrine of the Trinity, within which the language of 'person' functions rather differently and does not carry the meaning that it does in popular parlance. The 'persons' of the Trinity are not three distinct centres of consciousness or agencies--which would suggest something resembling tritheism and undermine the oneness (and the simplicity) of God. The persons, or hypostases, are three instantiations of the one divine nature. However, most of the things that we would associate with personhood--knowledge, will, love, wisdom, mind, etc.--are grounded, not in the three hypostases, but in the one divine nature. In this respect, if we were working in terms of our modern usage of the term 'person', in some respects God might be more aptly spoken of as one 'person' with three self-relations, rather than as one being in three persons. This language still falls far short, though. - See more at:

That's a very flawed formulation:

i) I'm struck by how so many theologians think it's more important to guard agains the appearance of tritheism than unitarianism. Do they think unitarianism is less heretical then tritheism? 

ii) Alastair's formulation works within a Platonic paradigm in which the divine nature is like an abstract universal which members of the godhead exemplify, as property instances of the divine nature. They participate in the psychological properties of the divine nature. Knowledge, love, will, wisdom, mind, &c. primarily inhere in the nature, and only derivatively in the Father, Son, and Spirit.

iii) Does his formulation do justice to Biblical revelation? For instance, in the Fourth Gospel, doesn't the Son have a first-person viewpoint distinct from the Father's first-person viewpoint? Doesn't that dovetail with the modern connotation of a "person"?

Doesn't the Fourth Gospel project that back into the preexistent relationship between Father and Son? In other words, when the Son comes into the world, that's a carryover from his antemundane existence and status. 

Likewise, take Paul's analogy in 1 Cor 2:10-11. Doesn't that define the personality (as well as divinity) of the Spirit in "modern" psychological terms? By contrast, I find Alastair's formulation strikingly modalistic. 

Submission and simplicity

I'll comment on this post:

A basic problem with Andrew's exposition of divine simplicity is that he doesn't address the most controversial refinement. Proponents of divine simplicity often deny that God has any distinct properties or contingent relations. This leads to serious theological confusion. Let's take two examples:

i) A sine qua non of Calvinism is the distinction between God's justice and God's mercy. God is never unjust, but God is sometimes unmerciful. These aren't merely distinct, but sometimes divergent. If, however, justice and mercy are identical, then that erases the distinction between salvation and judgment, election and reprobation. 

ii) Calvinists typically grant the traditional distinction between God's absolute power and his ordinate power. Likewise, the Westminster Confession affirms God's counterfactual knowledge (WCF 3.2). 

In modern jargon, this is cashed out in terms of possible worlds. The actual world is not the only possible world. Rather, God was at liberty to decree a different world. 

If, however, there is no contingency in God's knowledge, volition, or actions, then you have a necessitarian scheme in which everything that happens is absolutely inexorable. It could not be otherwise, even for God. By contrast, Calvinism typically affirms conditional necessity rather than absolute necessity. Put another way, if God does different things in different possible worlds, then God can't be simple–in this radical sense. 

Andrew says: 

Other readers might immediately wonder how this fits with the Trinity, and they are right to raise the question. However, when the Christian tradition spoke of the Trinity, it must be understood that their entire way of explaining it agreed with simplicity. They explained it in such a way that it could be consistent with this idea. If it seems hard to understand how they could do so, they would agree: They taught that the Trinity was a mystery that was beyond complete human comprehension.

I think that's an illicit appeal to paradox. I have not antecedent objections to mystery or paradox in Christian theology. However, that applies to revealed truths, viz. the Trinity. By contrast, divine simplicity is basically an artifact of philosophical theology. Insofar as philosophical theology relies on natural reason rather than divine revelation, it ought to be accessible and accountable to rational scrutiny. 

They did, however, come up with a way of explaining all the scriptural data that pressed the church to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity, and it should be said, among those data was the explicit scriptural witness to monotheism. Explanations of the threeness of God that amount to teaching there are three divine beings runs up against not simply squaring themselves with simplicity, but also with monotheism. And indeed, the larger argument of the classical tradition would be that those two ideas, divine simplicity and monotheism, are not accidentally linked, but rather are two sides of the same coin.

i) That's equivocal because it confounds simplicity with singularity or unicity. To affirm that there is only one God hardly entails that God has no distinct properties or contingent relations. 

ii) In addition, I'm struck by how many Christians think it's more important to protect the Trinity against the appearance of tritheism than unitarianism. Yet unitarianism is at least as heretical as tritheism. 

Finally, Andrew expounds Dyotheletism, but he doesn't explain the relevance of that issue to EFS. 

A vote for Trump is a Democrat vote

Trump supporters like to say not voting for Trump is a vote for Hillary. There is, however, another way of putting it: a vote for Trump is a Democrat vote. This November, you can either vote for a Democrat (Hillary), or you can vote for a Democrat (Trump). 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

I made some comments on Facebook regarding Cruz's convention speech. Here's what I said:

i) I don't condemn people who voted for a non-Trump candidate in the primaries, but will grudgingly vote for Trump in the general. I condemn people who voted for Trump in the primaries. That created a moral dilemma for conservatives. 

Given that predicament, I understand that some conservatives are supporting Trump in the general, not so much as a vote for Trump, but a vote against Hillary. 

ii) But by the same token, when the Trumpkins created this double bind, they can't turn around and order me to impale myself on their preferred horn of the dilemma. The problem for me is that November is a lost cause regardless of who wins. It's now a choice between two worst-case scenarios. Once the Trumpkins invaded the primaries and succeeded in getting their candidate nominated, our fate was sealed. It's like pulling the pin on a live grenade. You don't have the same options after you doing it that you did before. And there's no going back. Someone's going to get hurt. Just a question of who. Time to dive for cover.

iii) Yes, there's a sense in which Cruz used code language. But in so doing he created a dilemma for Trumpkins. Cruz said: "We deserve leaders who stand for principle. Unite us all behind shared values. Cast aside anger for love. That is the standard we should expect, from everybody. And to those listening, please, don’t stay home in November. Stand, and speak, and vote your conscience, vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution."

Trumpkins can only take umbrage at that statement by walking right into an ambush of their own making. They sensed that Cruz was taking a backhanded swipe at Trump. I'm sure he was. But you can't be offended by that statement without sharing Cruz's interpretation. Unless Cruz's insinuation is plausible, why would you assume the statement excludes Trump? To jeer Cruz for what he said is an unwitting admission that Trump's not a leader who stands for principle, with shared values, whom we can trust to defend our freedom and be faithful to the Constitution. 

I think Cruz just wanted to distance himself from Trump. I doubt he intended to lay a trap. For one thing, I doubt he's that good at reading an audience.

The Trumpkins made it trap when they took the bait. They sensed that he was snubbing Trump. Problem is, he phrased it in such a way that they couldn't be affronted without stepping into a trap, which is just what they did.

The smart thing to do in that situation is not to take the bait. But they're not that smart. They don't really listen to content. They are easily manipulated.

iv) There's no reason to demand that every speech at a GOP convention must endorse the candidate. Speakers can perform other useful functions. For instance, a speaker can make the case against the Democrat nominee. Or a speaker can make the case for conservative values. Define and defend conservative ideology and policy. By the same token, a speaker can made a case against liberal ideology and policies. 

It's a good thing to have speakers who are independent of the GOP nominee. Who don't have to cut-and-tailor their message to suit the nominee. We shouldn't measure conservatism by the nominee, but measure the nominee by conservatism.

v) If the objective was to defeat Hillary, primary voters should have picked a candidate who was more acceptable to conservatives, and without Trump's stratospheric negatives. It's too late to salvage the disaster that Trumpkins wrought in the primaries.

vi) The question is whether Cruz's self-interest coincides with the public interest. By definition, politicians are ambitious. The issue is whether what they want what lines up with what the country needs. 

I think Cruz is calculating. But from what I can tell, he is a genuine conservative ideologue. Some of his positions are arguably opportunistic, but as politicians go, he seems to have more core convictions than most. 

vii) I don't know that Cruz's speech backfired. Sure, he proved once again that he's not a team player. The party apparatchiks will shun him. But I don't think that hurts him with the base. Just the opposite. 

viii) In Num 30:3-5, a father has authority to void the vow of a minor. That exception is sufficient to establish the fact that vows are not irrevocable in principle. An illustration of that fact.

I'd add that OT case law was never meant to be exhaustive. Rather, it gives OT judges hypothetical situations. They are to apply the law to analogous situations. 

That doesn't rule out other potential exceptions. There are priorities within OT law. This crops up in the Sabbath controversies between Jesus and the religious establishment. 

Lev 5 describes what to do in the case of a rash vow. You perform a ritual to atone for nonperformance. That illustrates the fact that vows are not ipso facto inviolable. However, it's culpable to make a rash vow, which is why noncompliance must be redeemed. That's the alternative to keeping the vow.

By your logic, if a hitman vows to assassinate the wife of a judge, then becomes a Christian, he must still carry out his vow rather than repent of his vow. 

Incidentally, there's nothing necessary wrong with taking circumstances into account. Although some actions are intrinsically right or wrong, the morality or immorality of other actions is contingent on the situation. For instance, taking life is generally wrong or prima facie wrong, but there are situations in which taking life is morally permissible or even morally obligatory.

A Non-Vote Is Not a Vote

Negligibly Resistible Grace

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Defending a flat-earth

This is a sequel to my previous post:

I'd like to revisit Dr. Byl's comment:

Sorry, Steve, but your arguments against a flat earth don’t work.

A flat earth model of the universe can easily be made empirically equivalent to a spherical earth model. Simply apply a mathematical transformation called a "geometric inversion". For each point in the universe, measure its distance R from, say, the earth’s South Pole, and move this point along the Pole-to-point half-line to a new distance 1/R. 
This transforms the spherical surface of the earth to a flat disk, centered on the North Pole, with the South Pole infinitely far away (i.e., this is the stereographic projection of geography). All points inside the Earth are transferred beneath the disk; all points in the sky are transferred above the disk. Galaxies that were infinitely far away end up a short distance above the new North Pole. 
The laws of physics are also transformed, with consequences that may seem strange for those accustomed to thinking in terms of the more conventional universe. For example, sunlight now travels in circular arcs, the sun and stars become much smaller than the (now infinite) earth, etc. See my post
Mathematical models and reality:
Terrestrial objects increase in size as they travel away from the North Pole, becoming infinitely large at the South Pole. However, since inversion is a conformal transformation, local shapes are preserved. Hence you won’t notice any changes as you travel. 
It is not my intent to defend a flat earth, but only to point out that, with some ingenuity, one can construct a mathematical model of the universe with almost any feature one wishes (the Duhem-Quine thesis), as long as one is willing to make adjustments elsewhere (e.g., sunrays become circular arcs, size is not preserved, etc.).

Since this flat-earth model is empirically equivalent to the spherical earth model, the choice between these models must be made on the basis of non-empirical factors, such as philosophical or theological considerations.

i) Several commenters, myself included, responded to Byl's argument. He never replied. That's his prerogative, but when you ignore objections, it weakens your case.

Now I'd like to discuss some additional problems. His defense has some paradoxical aspects. 

ii) When dealing with geocentric/flat-earth imagery in Scripture, mainstream inerrantists say the descriptions are poetic or phenomenological. In general, a round earth looks flat to an earthbound observer. Mind you, there's subtle evidence that that an optical illusion, even from the standpoint of an earthbound observer. 

Byl is making the same move in reverse: it's possible for a flat-earth to look round. What's paradoxical about this move is that Byl's own argument involves a phenomenological interpretation of the Biblical data or observational data. But in that event this comes down to a choice between two competing phenomenological interpretations: a spherical earth that has a flat appearance or a flat earth that has a spherical appearance. In that case, the flat-earther's appeal isn't any more straightforward than the alternative. Both positions save appearances. Both positions go behind naive realism. 

iii) Given, moreover, a choice between two phenomenologically equivalent interpretations, there may be other considerations that tilt the scales. Geometric inversion gives you mathematically equivalent descriptions, but they're hardly equivalent in other respects. The physics is different–as Byl concedes. And to my knowledge, flat-earthers haven't produced a detailed scientific alternative to standard astronomy in that regard. If one model has a lot of physics to back it up, whereas the physics hasn't been worked out for the other model, these aren't evidentially on a par. There's a difference between mathematical coherence and natural coherence. A scientific model has to balance out natural forces. I'm not saying modern astrophysics is complete. There are some well-known problems. But you can't beat something with nothing. 

iv) Another paradoxical aspect of Byl's argument depends on a mathematical model that would be incomprehensible to the original audience. Assuming ancient readers thought the earth was flat, did they think it was flat in that sense? Did they think the South Pole was infinitely large and infinitely far from the North pole? Did they think the flat earth was shaped in that way? 

The irony is to defend a flat earth by substituting a mathematical model that doesn't match the mental image which ancient readers (allegedly) entertained. It defends a particular interpretation of Scripture through a bait-n-switch. That's analogous to people who defend the historicity of Adam by combining theistic evolution with ensoulment. Although that maneuver can give you a "historical Adam", it's not the Adam of Gen 2. 

Typically, scholars who think the Bible reflects a flat-earth cosmography impute a three-story universe to Scripture. They do that by cobbling together scattered references in Scripture, without regard to genre, which they supplement with depictions from other ancient Near Eastern sources. That includes the solid dome, with the cosmic sea above the dome, and so on. Yet Byl pours scorn on that particular model:

If, however, we don't think Scripture reflects a flat-earth cosmography in that sense, then what's the evidence that it reflects a flat-earth cosmography in any sense? Surely the esoteric alternative that Byl proposes (for the sake of argument) would be inaccessible to ancient readers. 

Must we play by the rules?

I'm seeing some bad arguments in support of Trump. There's a difference between reputable arguments and disreputable arguments. You can disagree with a respectable argument. For instance, I've seen a vote for Trump justified as damage control, like the Trolley problem (a famous thought-experiment in ethics). In that case, you could disagree with the principle, or you could agree with the principle, but disagree with the application–but the argument itself is reputable. 

As I recently said, I don't have a big objection to people voting for Trump in the general election. I understand that's a tough call. I do object to how some people frame the choice. Trump has a tremendous capacity to make conservative Republicans radioactive by association. Many voters are ignorant and simple-minded. They will prejudge all Republicans by Trump. He will be their point of reference. That means he will discredit conservative Republicans, even though he himself is not remotely conservative. Now, you can still argue that Hillary would be even worse. There's a case to be made for that. My point is simply that we shouldn't downplay the horrific consequences of either candidate.

Now I'd like to comment on a recent remark by a Trump supporter:

Poor losers always hope for chaos! TRUMP won fair & square. Seems like a lot of whinny adults acting like children! Now you just look stupid! 
Is that what you tell your children? To act like a poor sport when they lose?

Two basic problems:

i) When it was unclear that Trump would be able to win a majority of delegates, remember Trump supporters demanding a rule change for their candidate?

ii) More importantly, this objection lacks a sense of moral priorities. For instance, all things being equal, everyone should play by the same rules. Cheating is normally dishonest. 

Mind you, when we're dealing with games and sports, the rules are arbitrary social conventions, not moral absolutes. It's not intrinsically wrong to break the rules in sports. 

Suppose a referee causes a team to lose by intentionally making bad calls. That's unfair. But suppose he does so because there's a credible death threat if that team wins. In that case, a higher duty overrides the rules. Protecting the lives of players supersedes fair-play (in this hypothetical). 

Making vows and breaking vows

I notice some confusion on whether Cruz was wrong in backing out of his vow to support Trump. I'll make a few observations, not about Cruz's motivations (which I'm not privy to), but the general principle. 

In biblical ethics, vows (oaths, pledges, promises) aren't absolute. Consider Num 30:3-5, where a father can annul a minor's pledge.

There's also the distinction between lawful and unlawful vows. In the nature of the case, there can be no moral obligation to keep an immoral vow. Unethical duties are self-contradictory. 

As a rule, we shouldn't make promises we have no intention of keeping. But humans are shortsighted. We sometimes make a promise under one set of circumstances. We wouldn't make the same promise if the circumstances were different. So what happens when the situation changes between the time of the promise (vow, oath, pledge) and the time to make good on the promise?

Parents sometimes make promises to kids which they intend to keep at the time, but then unforeseen circumstances intervene to render the promise impractical. That's the nature of being a creature: you don't know or control the future. 

There's no moral obligation to keep a rash vow. It was a mistake to make a rash vow in the first place. To keep it compounds the initial mistake. Jephthah is the classic example. It was foolish for GOP candidates to issue the nominee a blank check.

When the game is over you support the winner

This week I read Trump supporters make the following statements:

"Sometimes you have to compromise to stay in the ball game. Losing a battle is better than losing the war."

"When game is over you support the winner."

Mike Huckabee made similar statements. 

Good thing the French and Italian Resistance movements, as well as the Polish Solidarity movement, didn't share their philosophy. You can tell which side Trump supporters would be on in those historic conflicts. 

Adam and I, Robot

There's a paradoxical relationship between Adam and modern science. On the one hand there's the evolutionary challenge to the historicity of Adam and Eve. Of course, evolution has, itself, been challenged–but I'd like to make a different point. 

Ironically, hard science fiction and AI research present scenarios that parallel Adam and Eve. Let's grant, for discussion purposes, that AI is feasible. Suppose you're a cyberneticist. You have a number of judgment calls to make.

The only kind of intelligence you can give a robot or computer is humanoid intelligence. That's because humans are the most intelligent species on earth. So that's the template. Moreover, the cyberneticist is human. In programming a computer or robot to think, how humans think is his only frame of reference. 

Like Adam, the robot will have instant adult intelligence and innate knowledge. 

Since the computer or robot has humanoid intelligence, that raises the question of whether to go all the way by making an android. 

Now, because the android had no childhood, it will have no memories of a time before it came online. Its first memoir will be the moment it was switched on. That's like Adam's first moment of consciousness. He suddenly comes alive, as a self-aware adult. 

An alternative is to make the android think it's human. After all, the android already thinks like a human. Has human reason and emotions. If you were to tell the android that it wasn't human, that might create cognitive dissonance or mental instability. 

So you might program the android with false memories of a happy nonexistent childhood. It would be the cybernetic equivalent of Last Thursdayism: "There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that "remembered" a wholly unreal past. There is no logically necessary connection between events at different times; therefore nothing that is happening now or will happen in the future can disprove the hypothesis that the world began five minutes ago."

That's a psychological version of mature creation or even Omphalism. 

Or you might tell the android that due to illness or accident, it suffers from retrograde amnesia. That's why it can't remember it's childhood. 

To be sure, that's deceptive, but it's deceptive in the sense that if a senile person thinks her husband or parents are still alive, we will play along with her anteograde amnesia since it would be heartless to tell her that they are dead. It comforts her to believe they are still alive. Not only would it serve no good purpose to traumatize her, but since she's so forgetful, you'd have to constantly remind her that they are dead, so that she'd  periodically experience the grief afresh as if it was the first time. That would be wantonly cruel.

By the same token, you might spare the feelings of the android by making it think it was human, that it had a normal childhood.  

Obviously, there are ways in which an android might discover that it's an artificial lifeform. In that event, you might simply erase the traumatic memory. 

There are lots of different ways a science fiction writer can develop an android character–ways that parallel mature creation and the special creation of Adam. In addition, for people who take AI research seriously, this isn't just hypothetical. Rather, these are issues which a successful cyberneticist would have to confront. In that respect, the role of the cyberneticist is rather like the Creator in Genesis.  

Cruz snubs Trump

Cruz snubbed Trump at the convention. Good for him!

He didn't say don't vote for Trump. Instead, he said "vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution."

For that he was heckled and booed by the Trumpkins. Their reaction is self-incriminating. They can only boo his statement on pain of admitting that Trump isn't trustworthy to defend our freedom and be faithful to the Constitution. Why else would they assume that Cruz must be alluding to candidates other than Trump?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The god of this world

Does prayer affect God?

Freewill theists say Calvinism nullifies prayer. If every event is predestined, what difference does prayer make? 

I've addressed that objection on multiple occasions, so I won't repeat myself here. Instead, I wish to examine the alternative. The freewill theist believes that for prayer to make a difference, it must affect God. Prayer is not, in the first instance, about changing the future, but changing God's mind. The most consistent version is open theism. On this view, God is making things up on the fly. When we pray to God, he exclaims: "That's a great idea! Why didn't I think of that! I was planning to do something else, but you've give me reason to reconsider my contemplated course of action."

Other freewill theists aren't that crass, yet their own position is implicitly the same. How could our prayers affect God unless God had something else in mind, but once we pray to him, he revises his plans because we gave him a better idea. How could prayer influence God unless we can improve on God's original intentions? 

Moreover, we could recast this in terms of foreknowledge or middle knowledge. Even if God doesn't change his mind, God chooses this particular course of action because he had the benefit of our advice. Left to his own devices, God would act less wisely or justly. 

Physicalism and universalism

There's a striking parallel between physicalism and universalism. By physicalism, I mean the view that when we die we cease to exist. We are our bodies. We don't outlive our bodies. 

That has a leveling effect. The best and the worse of humanity share a common fate. The philanthropist and the serial killer both pass into oblivion when they expire. 

The question that raises is, Why be good? Especially in situations where altruism conflicts with self-interest. 

That's the mirror image of universalism. In universalism, instead of good guys suffering the same fate as bad guys, bad guys share the same fate as good guys. No losers. Everyone wins! 

Once again, that has a leveling effect. The best and the worse of humanity share a common fate. The philanthropist and the serial killer both wind up in heaven. 

The question that raises is, Why be good? Especially in situations where altruism conflicts with self-interest. 


11 Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. 13 It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. 16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name (Rev 13:11-17).

This depicts the False Prophet, who's the Minister of Propaganda for the Antichrist. Suppose we construe this vision futuristically. On that interpretation, it might refer to technology that the False Prophet uses to captivate the masses. The description is cast in terms of witchcraft because that's a category familiar to the original readers of Revelation, but its futuristic counterpart would be technological rather than supernatural. 

Suppose the False Prophet uses a virtual reality game to ensnare and deceive the masses. As someone who came of age before the advent of smartphones, social media, and computer games, I'm astonished and alarmed by how addictive smartphones are. So many people have an absolutely compulsive need to stay glued to that display screen. I have a teacher friend who told me "I know one 'student' who has gotten so bad that he finds he cannot listen to/watch an online lecture/video for a class without playing a video game at the same time. He also calls people while driving in order to keep from falling asleep."

Imagine the False Prophet using a collective, interactive video game to seduce and delude the masses. As long as they get their fix, they don't care about what's happening in the real world, outside the game. They will surrender their freedom for their fix. A game in which everyone can participate. A contagious game. Everyone is talking about the game. The game becomes their truth. Their idol. Their moral frame of reference. If you don't play the game, that makes you suspect. That makes you politically subversive. 

I'm not a technophobe. But I'm stuck by how many people are hooked and how easily they are hooked. They'd panic if they were incommunicado for 30 minutes. I see couples and friends walking down the street, side-by-side, but they're not talking to each other. Rather, each one is staring at their respective smartphone. They can't peel their eyes away from that little display screen. The psychological equivalent of cubicle people immersed in a self-contained bubble. 

Answered Prayer In George Muller's Life

The subject of answered prayer has come up in some recent threads, so I thought I'd link a web site about George Muller. It has a lot of resources on Muller's life, including some videos and audio. The best video I've seen on Muller's life is Obstacle To Comfort, which was hosted by Ken Connolly. I've never found any site where it can be viewed online. But you can order a DVD of it at Amazon and some other places. It's only $10 here.

Gentle Regrets

Roger Scruton is not an orthodox Christian. He exists on the periphery of Christianity. But he's a deep, serious thinker who, unlike shallow evangelists for atheism, appreciates the staggering moral, social, personal, and existential cost of apostasy and loss of faith:

Godless prayer

A friend shared this link with me:

It's nice to hear a sympathetic analysis of prayer from a leading philosopher. Very erudite. Very intelligent. Very discriminating. Scruton's parents were atheists, yet he himself took an interest in Anglicanism as a teenager, although he drifted. But he's been backing into Christianity. 

The problem with his view of prayer is that it has no place for petitionary or intercessory prayer. He operates with a closed-system view. So there's a fatalistic quality to his position. Prayer is about resigning ourselves to the inevitable. Scruton seems to take a therapeutic view of prayer. 

I'm not sure why he takes a Deistic position. Maybe he thinks there's no evidence that prayer makes an appreciable difference to the course of events. From what I've read, he subscribes to a Kantian epistemology. He seems to be someone who's strongly attracted to Christianity, but can't bring himself to believe that God-talk is meaningful. 

Perhaps he misconstrues the language of divine "intervention". That doesn't mean God is rewriting the plot. Prayer doesn't change what will be. Rather, prayer changes what would be, absent prayer. The efficacy of prayer is counterfactual. Some things happen as a result of prayer that wouldn't happen apart from prayer. Prayer makes a difference in that sense.

In fairness to Scruton, there's a sense in which petitionary/intercessory prayer is hazardous. It's possible to hedge a prayer with so many caveats that any outcome is consistent with the terms of prayer. That way you can never say your prayer went unanswered. The petition was cast in open-ended terms, so that whatever happens or doesn't happen is consistent with the petition.

But I don't think that's a real prayer. If you pray for something specific, you risk disappointment. You can avoid disappointment by avoiding specificity, but then, you're not praying for what you really wish to happen. It's understandable, therefore, that some people stop praying altogether when, in their experience, it makes no discernible difference. 

There's an element of truth to what Scruton is saying, an important truth, perhaps a neglected truth, but a half-truth. There are certainly times when the purpose of prayer isn't to change our situation, but to change us. Times when we should rise to the challenge. Cultivate a different attitude. Trying circumstances are a theater for soul-building virtues. That's a perspective on prayer that some people lose sight of. 

But his position is very one-sided. That can't be the whole of prayer. The Bible is chockfull of prayers petitioning God to deliver the supplicant, or his people, from their ordeal. Petitionary/intercessory prayer is fundamental to the Biblical theology of prayer. Indeed, that distinguishes the true God from know-nothing, do-nothing idol-gods. 

Scruton's position is more Buddhist than Christian. In Buddhism, we suffer because we have an emotional investment in people and things, and due to the transient nature of human experience, we are bound to lose all that we love. 

In Buddhist metaphysics, flux is bedrock reality. That's unredeemable. There is no God. No eschatological compensations. 

Given our intractable circumstances, the best we can do is to develop a coping mechanism. Emotionally divest ourselves of everything we care about. That way, we won't suffer when we lose something or someone. We must make a psychological adjustment to our intractable situation. If the situation is unalterable, then we need to alter our disposition towards the situation. That's logical given the premise, but it reflects a very despairing outlook on life and death. 

The new catacombs

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

In Ancient Rome, the worship of ‘gods’ morphed into the veneration of ‘saints’

Bowing down to statues
There is a “Catholic-Protestant Debate” group on Facebook. Recently a thread began with this question:


Exodus 20: 4: “You shall not make for yourself any carved image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5: YOU SHALL NOT BOW DOWN TO THEM or worship them;

Romans 1: 22: Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23: and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.

That's a fair question, but soon the discussion got out of hand. At one point, I said, “In large part, in Ancient Rome, the household gods got swapped out for statues of ‘saints’.”

Someone said, “Can you show proof for that claim?”

Someone else said, “Correlation does not show causation.”

I don’t know if either of those were responses to me, but how about “if it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it may be a duck”.

In many of the quotes that follow, I’m referencing “Survivals of Roman Religion”, New York, NY: Coopers Square Publishing, ©1963 by Gordon Laing (from the “Our Debt to Greece and Rome” series).

The reticence of the Gospel authors

The art of the ghostwriter

Expect more of these exposes as the media, which initially enabled Trump, will now do their best to destroy what they created.

Life inside the computer game


There are probably many people, I don't know the percentages, who reject Christianity because they chaff at Christian sexual ethics. They find Christian sexual ethics too restrictive. Right now I'm not talking about homosexuality, but heterosexuality. In particular, premarital and extramarital sex. 

They think that to be a Christian, you must practice sexual self-denial. And there's an important element of truth to that. But it's exaggerated. And ironically, there's a sense in which the opposite is more often the case. 

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we temporarily bracket the issue of morality and just respond to them on their own grounds. Let's say your priority is to maximize your opportunities for sex. What's the most reliable strategy? 

There are some men and women who have great sexual magnetism. For instance, Warren Beatty, in his heyday, was a notorious lady-killer. Apparently, few women ever turned him down. At least, the kind of women who moved in the same circles he did. And not just women in general, but beautiful women. And, of course, there are some women whom few men would refuse. 

For a Warren Beatty, Christian sexual ethics would drastically curtail his sexual lifestyle. However, most men and women don't have that kind of sex appeal. Most men can't pick up a beautiful women whenever they please. Most men can't attract a new sexual partner every night. Same thing for most women. Most of us just aren't irresistible to the opposite sex. 

For the average man or women, marriage, far from hampering their sexual opportunities, is the most reliable setting for them to have sexual relations on a regular basis. Marriage makes sexual opportunities available to them in a way that playing the field does not. 

Even Warren Beatty eventually settled down and got married. Perhaps, as he began to age, he lost his magic touch. 

Or consider the plight of Richard Carrier. He dumped his wife to be openly promiscuous. But what does he bring to the table? The charges of sexual harassment are hardly surprising. On the face of it, he doesn't have much to offer. If he waits for women to seek him out, it will be a long wait. 

For the average man or woman, if you wish to maximize your opportunities for sex, marriage is your best bet. It is, of course, true that in a Christian marriage you must forgo extramarital liaisons that happen to present themselves unbidden. But unless you're a Warren Beatty, you don't have a reliable supply of one-night stands. Many nights you sleep alone. 

Admittedly, that's a crass way of putting it, and I'm not suggesting that that's the ideal way to frame the issue, but right now I'm going head-to-head with people who think in those terms. Even on those terms, they have far more to gain, and little to lose, when it comes to Christian sexual ethics. Honestly, you're not someone who scores that often when you play the field. And as you age, opportunities dwindle. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Prayer is not about numbers

Stephen Braude is a leading researcher and analyst of the paranormal. I believe he's an atheist. Not surprisingly, therefore, he regards the paranormal as an alternative explanation for efficacious prayer. I've discussed this before, but now I'd like to take a different tack. I'll begin with some general observations:

i) I think some paranormal phenomena are well-documented. I don't reject that. But there are different ways to interpret paranormal phenomena:

ii) Suppose we think humans, or at least some humans, naturally have paranormal abilities. That is Braude's position.

However, even if that were the case, it doesn't constitute an ipso facto secular alternative to theism. For instance, in Judeo-Christian theism, God designed and created a world in which personal agents and physical agencies have genuine causal properties. That could extend to the paranormal. Their natural paranormal abilities would be a divine endowment, just like their natural normal abilities. 

iii) Conversely, humans who exhibit paranormal abilities might be conduits of paranormal agency. Their ability isn't innate, but on loan (as it were). Spirits (e.g. God, demons) might make instrumental use of humans to mediate paranormal effects. They are merely vehicles. 

According to both (ii) & (iii), the ultimate source of the paranormal ability is still supernatural. So Braude would need to eliminate these explanations. 

iv) Now let's turn to the main point of the post. Braude says:

For any attempt at psychic influence to succeed (whether or not it's prayer), it must presumably navigate through an unimaginably complex causal nexus–a web of underlying and possibility countervailing psychic interactions and barriers. Crimes of Reason (Rowan & Littlefield, 2014), 192. 

He continues in this vein for several paragraphs. The gist of his argument is that we'd expect psychic influence to miss the target more often that it hits the target due to interference from all the other psychic disturbances. And that's why prayer fails more often than it succeeds, on his secular interpretation of prayer. 

In two previous posts I raised some objections to his theory. Now I'd like to raise an additional objection.

Prayer isn't just a case of one person praying for one thing. It varies. Sometimes many people pray for the very same thing. 

For instance, when it became known that Pope John XXIII had stomach cancer, I think it's safe to say that tens of millions of Catholics prayed for miraculous healing. (If anything, that's probably a conservative estimate.) Yet he died in spite of all those prayers.

On Braude's interpretation, this would mean a psychic Blitzkrieg directed at the pope's cancer. It's not reducible to the odds of one person's psychokinetic influence piercing the static to reach the target. Rather, it's like carpet bombing the pope's cancer with psychokinetic explosives. Even if most bombs miss the target, when you have saturation bombing, that greatly raises the odds that one or more will hit the target. Yet in spite of that, John XXIII succumbed to cancer. 

Conversely, Peter Bride prayed over Joy Davidman, and she went right into remission. How did his solitary petition successfully run the gauntlet while tens of millions of petitions on behalf of John XXIII were ineffectual?

Braude's theory can't offer a straightforward explanation for the difference. By contrast, if the efficacy of prayer does, in fact, derive God's will rather than our psychokinetic abilities, then that's easy to explain. For on that view, the number of people who pray for the same thing is essentially irrelevant to the efficacy of the prayer. It's not their combined power that makes it happen. Rather, it's up to God whether the prayer is consistent with his aims. For that reason, one person's prayer may be availing while the prayer of millions may be futile. The efficacy of prayer has nothing to do with the aggregate psychic energy of the supplicants. Rather, it has everything to do with God's power and God's will. 

Perhaps Braude would suggest that while tens of millions prayed for the pope's miraculous healing, that was offset by the psychic counter-influence of people hostile to the papacy. There are, however, problems with that explanation:

i) There were undoubtedly tens of millions of Catholics who prayed for the pope. By contrast, we can only speculate on how many people wished him dead. But I imagine the number is much smaller.

ii) There's no particular reason Protestants would wish him dead. After all, the death of a pope is not the death of the papacy. Popes come and go. There's always a replacement in the pipeline. So nothing is accomplished by hoping that any particular pope will die sooner rather than later. 

iii) Moreover, John XXIII was a very destabilizing figure in Catholicism. If you are hostile to Catholicism, you should wish him well, since he did so much to crack the foundations. 

iv) In any event, I don't rest my entire case on comparing and contrasting the situation of John XXII with Peter Bride. I simply use those two examples as convenient illustrations. But surely you have many situations in which just one person's prayer is successful while huge numbers of people may pray for the same thing to no effect. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Is there hierarchy in the Trinity?

I don't necessarily agree with all this, but it's one of the more intelligent analyses in a debate that's suffered from too much conceptual confusion and crudity:

Early Anti-Christian Arguments Acknowledge Jesus' Historicity

Here's something I just posted on Facebook about the subject. And here's something I wrote last year about some neglected arguments for Jesus' historicity.


Adventures in the alternate universe of Muslim morality:

Good thing Islam doesn't suffer from the sexual decadence of the secularized West.

The "Evil God Challenge"

I'd like to comment on Stephen Law's "Evil God Challenge." There's a YouTube version of this in his debate with William Lane Craig. The gist of his argument, as I construe it, is that since the world contains both good and evil, the evidence doesn't select for a good Creator rather than an evil Creator. Explanations to account for why a good Creator allows evil can be mirrored by explanations to account for why an evil Creator allows good. In addition, you can invoke inscrutability for the designs of an evil God just as you can invoke inscrutability for the designs of a good God, thus mimicking skeptical theism. 

i) Even if the argument was successful, it would be an argument for agnosticism, not atheism. It would create a stalemate between prima facie evidence for a benevolent God's existence and prima facie evidence  for a malevolent God's existence. 

ii) Isn't Law's challenge just a variation on the Cartesian demon? Even if we can't disprove it, so what? Why should we take that any more seriously than other ingenious, but fanciful thought-experiments? Humans have the ability to concoct imaginary intellectual traps. Even if we can't escape from imaginary traps of our own devising, there's no reason to think it's true. It's just cleverness. Indeed, Law himself considers his thought-experiment to be absurd. So what is there to disprove? 

iii) And if it were true, isn't there something incoherent about fretting over the possibility of a global delusion? I mean, if there really were a global delusion, how would we even be cognizant of that spectral possibility? How would we have the objectivity to step outside the delusion in order to consider it from an outsider's perspective? 

Isn't the point of Cartesian demon hypothetical to raise doubts about what we think we know or can prove? But that's paradoxical, for if the Cartesian demon actually existed, we'd be incapable of resisting the delusive beliefs he implants in us. So there's something incoherent about the hypothetical. The Cartesian demon won't allow us to doubt the global illusion. Won't allow us to suspect his sinister designs, behind-the-scenes. 

And Law's thought-experiment seems to be a weaker version of the Cartesian demon. But if the argument fails in the greater case, then a fortiori, will it not fail in the lesser case?

iv) If it's legit for atheists like Law to play the Evil God card, why can't Christians play the Last Thursdayism card when atheists appeal to empirical evidence for evolution or global warming–or the "oppression" of homosexuals in church history? When you exercise the nuclear option in philosophy (i.e. global skepticism), you're stuck with Mutually Assured Destruction. 

v) Another problem is whether evil is strictly the opposite of good. One doesn't have to buy into the whole privative theory of evil to appreciate that evil is parasitic on good. So the notion that if there can be a maximally good being, there can be a maximally evil being is not self-evident. He needs to show how good and evil can truly mirror each other. For Law's argument to get off the ground, he must take the preliminary step of showing that good and evil are relevantly symmetrical, so that you can have "maximal" representatives of each. But if evil is parasitic on good, then the comparison is equivocal. 

The problems of unanswered prayer

A topic in Christian apologetics and atheism is "the problem of unanswered prayer". I put that in quotes because there are at least two (alleged) problems of unanswered prayer, and it's useful to distinguish them for clarity of analysis. 

i) The existence of God

An atheist will say the reason God doesn't seem to answer prayer more often is because God never answers prayer, and that's because there is no God to answer prayer. God only seems to answer prayer sometimes is because believers confound coincidence with answered prayer. They remember the hits but forget all the misses. Answered prayer is an artifact of sample selection bias. What's left over when you ignore all the misses.

A basic problem with that explanation is that an atheist must shoulder an astronomical burden of proof to make good on his claim. The onus is on him to show that every purported answer to prayer is sheer coincidence. 

As a practical matter, it's simply impossible for an atheist to directly discharge his burden of proof in this regard. He could barely scratch the surface. In the nature of the case, most purported answers to prayer go unreported. These are private incidents that happen to unknown believers. In the vast majority of cases, there is no public record to assess. An atheist must dismiss it out of hand without ever examining the evidence. 

The best an atheist could attempt is to discount answered prayer indirectly by disproving God's existence. However, that's viciously circular inasmuch as instances of answered prayer would count as evidence for God's existence. 

ii) The fidelity of God

The issue here is whether certain prayer promises in Scripture are true. Does God keep his promise? Can God be trusted to do what he says he will do in answer to prayer, or is there a glaring discrepancy between the scope of promise and the scope of performance? 

That's something I've discussed on different occasions from different angles, so I won't repeat myself here. I'm just disambiguating the issue. 

Of course, calling this the "problem" of unanswered prayer is, itself, somewhat prejudicial or question-begging. It's a conventional designation, like the "problem of evil". Whether it's truly problematic is the very issue in dispute.