Saturday, March 03, 2018

Feser debunks Carrier

Tarry in Jerusalem

Last night I was watching the recent debate between Mike Licona and Bart Erhman: 

In this post I'm just going to comment on some of Ehrman's allegations. Ehrman is a tedious debater because he recycles the same objections year after year, from one debate to the next. In this debate he used many of the same examples he cited in his written debate with Licona. Likewise, he used many of the same example he cited in his 2005 book Jesus Interrupted. Ehrman rarely revises his examples and objections in response to correction. Rather than transcribe or summarize when he said in his recent debate with Licona, it's simpler to quote the same objections in written sources:

Friday, March 02, 2018

Celestial poker

It's hard to be the Molinist God. In quantum poker, you never know when the dealer will deal your opponent a wildcard. Given quantum uncertainty, all bets are off. One of my anonymous informants smuggled security footage of the heavenly board room in heaven, where planning for world history takes place:

The theophanic Jesus

I'm going to quote a couple of commentators on a neglected prooftext for the deity of Christ:

As he has been portrayed in the course of his mission, so here [Jn 18:4-5] and throughout the passion Jesus has sovereign knowledge and therefore is in control of events. He takes the initiative in confronting the array of forces that have come out to seize him: Jesus, knowing everything that was going to happen to him, went out and said to them, "Whom are you seeking?" It is clear that Jesus is to be no helpless victim but acts in conformity with his earlier claim that no one will take his life from him but he will lay it down of his own accord (10:18). This is reinforced in response to the reply that they are seeking Jesus of Nazareth. He said to them, "I am". This is another Johannine double entendre employing the "I Am" formula (cf. 4:26; 6:20: 8:28). On the surface it can be read simply as Jesus's self-identification–"I am he, namely, Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are seeking"–but at the same time it is the divine self-declaration–"I Am", with its background in Deut 32:39 LXX and Isa 40–55.  
In order that there be no mistake regarding the significance of Jesus' self-identification, the narrator now relates that When he said to them "I am," they drew back and fell to the ground [v6]. This is the typical human reaction to a theophany (cf. Ezk 1:8; Dan 10:9). A. Lincoln, The Gospel According to John (Hendrickson 2005), 444-45.  
"The band of soldiers" [Jn 18:3] is literally "the cohort," that is, one-tenth of a Roman Legion–about six hundred men, obviously an enormous number for such an undertaking. The extraordinary size of the contingent–particularly in light of what would follow, when they all "drew back and fell on the ground" (v6)–recalls other instances in which things that Jesus does, or things that happen to him, are seen as larger than life… 
Even though an earlier "I am" pronouncement on Jesus' lips drew a strong instant response once before, when his hearers "took up stones that they might throw on him" (8:59), nothing quite prepares the reader for what happens here in the garden: "Then, as he said to them, 'I am he,' they drew back and fell to the ground" (v6). The subject of the plural expressions "drew back" and "fell to the ground" can only be the whole arresting party, six hundred strong and more, "the band of the soldiers and officers both from the chief priests and from the Pharisees" (v3).  
Clearly, the Gospel writer intends us to visualize an extraordinary scene in which more than six hundred men are literally "bowled over" by two simple words [ego eimi]. Just to make sure we perceive the connection, he repeats the two words: "Then, as he said to them, 'I am he,' they drew back and fell to the ground"…What is more shocking is that the whole company "fell to the ground" as if vanquished by a greater army. Nothing in the Gospel of John…quite matches the present scene…"No one!!"–not even six hundred Roman soldiers, plus "officers both from the chief priests and from the Pharisees"–can take Jesus' life from him [Jn 10:17-18a]. 
There is more than a touch of comedy here [vv7-9]. As if nothing has happened, Jesus asks the Roman soldiers and Jewish officers lying on the ground the same question he asked before: "So again he asked them, 'Whom are you seeking?'" Evidently picking themselves up and regaining their composure, they give the same answer, "Jesus the Nazorean" (v7). Like a patient instructor explaining things to slow-witted pupils, he says again, "I told you that I am he. So if you are seeking me, let these go" (v8). 
…they seem to have obeyed Jesus' command to let the disciples go, to the point of ignoring even Simon Peter's provocative attack on "the servant of the High Priest" (v10). In short, the Shepherd willingly gives up his life to the "wolves" (see 10:11-12,15), and the sheep go free…In all this, there is (again) a comic tough. Jesus has floored the whole company with a word (v6), and poor Peter thinks his sword is necessary to save the day! J. R. Michaels, The Gospel of John (Eerdmans 2010), 887-895.

Upper story/lower story faith

Thursday, March 01, 2018

A Thought Experiment

A few years ago, I remember reading a proponent of Libertarian Free Will (LFW) argue that LFW should be the default position because, in as near of a quote as I can remember: “Even determinists still act like their choices are real.”  Setting aside the question-begging that the only choices that could be “real” are LFW choices, the argument seemed to be:

A - LFW implies that you could have chosen other than you did (the LFW definition of a free choice).

B - People who hold to determinism feel as if they could have chosen otherwise (taken as a given).

C - Therefore, the default way we think of choice presupposes LFW. 

(To be fair, the person who was saying this was not attempting to argue that this proved LFW correct, but rather that it proved LFW was the “natural” way to understand choice.)

Now recently I’ve been reading through Excusing Sinners and Blaming God by Guillaume Bignon, which has resulted in me thinking more about free will and I think I’ve got a thought experiment that addresses the point the LFW proponent made so many years ago.  Nothing of what I am about to say is derived directly from Bignon’s book, so don’t take this as a representation of any of his arguments, but I credit him with getting me thinking on the topic.  (Incidentally, you should definitely read his book.)

Suppose that you wake one morning to find yourself in a strange room.  It’s a square room with four white walls, ceiling, and floor.  No distinguishing markers anywhere.  Each of the walls has a single door set in the midpoint of the wall, and there is a sign in the exact center of the room saying: “Choose a room.”  You check each of the doors and discover that each of them leads to a room that is, to all appearances, identical to the one that you are in right now.

Suppose you pick one of the doors and go through it.  You are presented with the same choice there, so once more you pick another door and go through it (or perhaps you return to the original room).  You can even choose not to pick another room and just sit where you are at.  The question is, after all is said and done and you pick your final room: Is your choice of room a “real” choice?

I would suspect the majority of LFW proponents would say “yes.”  There are five options to pick from each time: you could go through any of the four doors or stay where you are.  And if you define the room you wake up in as the Origin of (0,0), you can supply (x,y) coordinates to even map it out.  Clearly, going forward through the door on your defined x-axis is different from going through a door on the y-axis or in the opposite direction.  So at the end of the day, when you’re done choosing to go through whatever doors you pick, you have indeed selected the room you are in, whether that room is (7,2) or (-4,-301) or anything in between, on the map you have created.

But suppose at this point I tell you that the room you are in is on a rolling platform, such that when you walk forward you are not moving in space but instead the room moves around you.  The walls behind you drop off and loop around to reappear on the other side, so when you go through, say, the North door of the room you are actually re-entering the same room via the South door.  And the same is true for East and West.  Thus, no matter what door you go through, you are always still in the exact same room.  Now if I ask you, "Did you choose what room you are in?" I suspect every LFW proponent will say, “No.”  There were no actual options, so while it felt like you had a choice, you did not actually have a choice.  You are in the same room no matter what door (or no door) you picked.

At this point, suppose I then say, “You are either in a room such as I just described, or you are in a large set of interlinked identical-looking, but actually distinct, rooms like you originally thought.  But I am not going to tell you which one it is.  Did you choose what room you are in?”  I do not believe someone who holds to LFW could give an answer at this point.  He can only say, “Maybe yes, maybe no.  I need more information to tell.”

But if someone takes this path, note that they are saying that whether or not a choice is “real” has nothing to do with the subjective experience that a choice was made, for the subjective experience is the same in all three scenarios.  In this view, the only thing that can differentiate between whether a choice is real or illusory is the objective reality behind the scenes that, in the instance of the third scenario, it is impossible for the chooser to know.

Let me say that again: On this view, whether or not a choice happens is not dependent upon the one choosing, but rather upon objective reality that the chooser may never be aware of.

So let me add yet another scenario.  Suppose that what is really happening is that there is a network of linked rooms, each of which could loop back around so someone would not be able pass through it, or it could be set to allow someone to pass through to another room.  Suppose that if I flip a switch, as you went from (0,0) toward (1,0) you actually would go to (1,0) as you had chosen; but if I had flipped a different switch you would never have left (0,0).  I control the behavior of the rooms, but you don’t know how much of an influence I am.

Perhaps I didn’t put any influence in at all.  I may have kept the switches set so that you could go to any room you want.  Or perhaps any time you sought to increase on the y-axis, I flipped the switch, so that you thought you went to room (4,13), but you are really at (4,0).  You chose the x-axis, but I chose the y-axis.  Or perhaps I made sure you never left (0,0) or that once you got to (3,-2) you would never leave that room.  I can choose when to flip the switches and how to do so, but you don’t know how much of an influence I am making.  You only know that I could be influencing it, if I wanted to.

How real is your choice now?  Again, I’d say a LFW proponent would have to answer, “I don’t know.”  And what this would show is that whether or not your choice of room is “real” doesn’t just not depend on you, it does depend on me.  In this scenario, I have the power to make your choice real or illusory, but you are not able to do so yourself!  And to top it all off, you have no way of knowing how much—if any—influence I have actually put into which room you chose, because your subjective choices feel the same whether I interfere behind the scenes or not.  Given all this, not only can I determine if your choices are “real”, only I can even know if they are “real”.  You cannot tell the difference between real choices and illusory choices.

But there’s one final scenario we can examine, and that’s the scenario where I am able to influence what room you pick exactly the same way as the scenario we just examined...but I never tell you that I am able to do so.  Under this final scenario, you may think that you have gone to room (21,96) because that is the path you took and at no point did you ever consider that anything behind the scenes might be altering what you subjectively experienced.  If I ask you if your choice was real, you would say “Yes” because it never entered into your mind that it could have been anything other than that.  If I ask how you know that you picked the room you are in, you might very well reason: “I could have picked a different room, if I had wanted to do so.  Any of them were a valid option.  Therefore, since I picked this room, then it was my choice.”  You would never question whether or not the alternatives were ever real.

It should be clear now that to assume that the alternatives that you think are there actually are there begs the question.  It is circular reasoning.  The LFW proponent must establish how they can know those alternatives could have been actualized, not just assume they could have, because clearly the subjective feeling that they might have been able to do so is not enough to warrant belief that they really could have done so.  The upshot is that I think if you are an LFW proponent then on LFW grounds it is foolish to ever say a choice is real, because there’s no way to prove whether any alternatives ever could have been actualized.  On LFW grounds, we can only say, “Subjectively, I feel that I made the choice.”

Which, of course, is the same thing said under determinism.

Is evil privative?

1. The privative theory of evil used to be a fixture in Christian theodicy, but it's fallen on hard times. A function of the privative theory was to insulate God from complicity in evil by claiming that God didn't create evil, but good. Since evil is not a thing or substance, but the absence ,loss, or negation of something, it couldn't be an object of divine creation.

I think the reasoning goes something like this. If you create a donut, you indirectly create a donut hole. But the donut hole isn't a thing. If you create light, you indirectly create shadow. You produce the conditions for the contrast. You make a boundary. But only one side of the boundary has positive existence. Dropping the metaphor, sickness is the absence of health. 

2. The privative theory is ingenuous, but unsatisfactory. To begin with, while some evils might be categorized as negations or relations, the privative theory overextends the classification. For instance, pain isn't just the absence of pleasure, but a positive sensation in its own right. It's not a relation between something and nothing.

By the same token, while we might say cancer represents loss of well-being, cancer is very much a thing or substance. It has a real, positive existence. Same thing with pathogens generally. 

Likewise, in what sense is the evil of raping a little girl privative or not a thing? That's a real event, not a nonevent. 

A malevolent attitude has the same psychological status as a benevolent attitude. If one is real, the other is real. 

If we were starting with some paradigm examples of evil, we wouldn't classify them as privations or relations. Rather, the traditional position begins with an a priori theory of evil, then jams everything into that classification. The result is very artificial. 

3. Perhaps even more to the point, the privation theory fails to exonerate God. For even if we define evil in privative terms, there's still the question of why God allows that harm. Just to call it privative fails to justify divine permission. Even if evil is a side-effect of making something good, God is responsible for the necessary, albeit incidental, consequences of his creative fiat.  

Conversely, if God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting evil or generating deleterious, but "unintended"  side-effects, then the privative theory is superfluous. A morally sufficient reason will suffice with or without the privative theory of evil. If, say, a theodicist appeals to the double effect principle, assuming that distinction is an adequate justification, that will suffice independent of any privative theory of evil. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Handel's librettist

How to think about miracles

Preempting God

According to open theist William Hasker:

If we really, seriously believed that God would prevent any evil that did not have a greater good as its result, this would significantly undermine our own motivation to prevent or mitigate such evils. If I prevent some serious evil from occurring, I will actually prevent the greater good that, absent my interference, God would have brought about as a result of the evil in question. If, on the contrary, the evil would have no such good result, then God will not permit it, regardless of what I do or don't do. The failsafe option, then, is to do nothing, C. Meister & J. Dew, eds. God and the Problem of Evil: Five Views (IVP 2017), 160.

i) I don't think God permits evil only for the sake of greater goods. An alternate good will suffice.

ii) If I was a consistent open theist, I'd be more risk-averse. On that view, God is less likely to override the laws of nature or override the freedom of perpetrators. So why should I stick my neck out? The world of open theism is sufficiently hazardous, sufficiently random, without me further endangering myself for the sake of others. 

iii) I don't see how Hasker's alternative solves the problem he poses. If an open theist prevents, or endeavors to prevent, an evil that God would otherwise permit, then isn't the open theist acting as though he's wiser or better than God?

iv) From a predestinarian standpoint, if I intervene to prevent an evil, then that didn't frustrate God's plan. To the contrary, God intended me to intervene in that situation. God intended the consequences of my intervention. God intended the goods that flow from my intervention. So there's no tension. No need to second-guess my actions. 

Is normality normative?

Three apples

I'd like to expand on an illustration I used in this post:

In this post I take two things for granted: the existence of abstract objects and God as a timeless, spaceless being. Abstract objects, if they exist, are timeless, spaceless entities. So there's a parallel between God and abstract objects in that regard.

I'd add that on one interpretation, abstract objects are divine ideas. They don't exist apart from God, but in God. 

The question is how, or whether, a timeless, spaceless God can become Incarnate. The hypostatic union involves a relation between something outside of time and space and something inside of time and space.

My argument is hypothetical. It doesn't depend on my proving that abstract objects exist, or that God is timeless and spaceless. I'm just using an example to illustrate the conceptual possibility of a divine incarnation, in classical theistic terms.

Numbers are a paradigm-case of abstract objects. Suppose I buy three apples at the store. These are recognizably three physical objects. Yet what's the relationship between threeness as an abstract universal and threeness as a concrete particular? 

The three apples are finite instances of that abstract mathematical object. But they only approximate threeness. As an abstract object, three has exact immutable boundaries. By contrast, the apples are fuzzy in space and time. They have fuzzy spatial boundaries. According to atomic theory, the "solid" apples are energy fields. Mostly empty space. The distinction between the apple and the surrounding air is relative. Where the apple leaves off and the air begins is relative. At an atomic level, the apple blends into the surrounding field, with a dynamic interchange of elementary particles. Something like that.

In addition, the apples have fuzzy temporal boundaries. Because the apples decay, their diachronic identity is unstable. That's undergoing continuous, subtle change. Even if they're not eaten, the apples will disintegrate. That specific pattern of particles will become disorganized and reorganize as something else, combining with something else. By contrast, the number three is an abstract structure or relation is timeless. 

There's a sense in which the abstract object is present in the physical exemplification. A representational presence, where a collection of three apples constitute a sample that stands for that universal relation. That's one way to analogize the Incarnation, as the intersection of time and eternity, space and incorporeality.  

Notice that this explanation doesn't resort to paradox. Rather, it provides a comparison. 

The Trinity in John's Gospel

Some excerpts from an exposition by Richard Bauckham:

To let his readers into the secret of who Jesus really is, John thinks it is necessary to begin at the earliest possible beginning, when God the Creator was on the brink of bringing the whole cosmos into being…Here, in the beginning, before creation, there is no room for any beings other than the one God.

In the Jewish definition of the one God's exclusive divinity, as well as being sole creator of all things (as in the prologue of John), God was also understood as the sole sovereign ruler of all things. A key aspect of this was his sovereignty over life and death (Deut 32:39). God is the only living one, that is, the only one to whom life belongs eternally and intrinsically. All other life derives from him, is given by him and taken back by him. Another key aspect was his prerogative of judgment, the implementation of justice [cf. Jn 5:17-23].

…while understanding those ["I am" statements] in which an ordinary meaning is possible as instances of double entendre (a frequent literary device in John)…in the seventh of these absolute "I am" sayings, which forms an emphatic climax to the set by means of threefold repetition (18:5-6,8). Here the ordinary meaning, a reply to the soldier's question, fails to account for the soldiers' reaction. They fall prostrate on the ground, suggesting, as in 8:58-59, that Jesus has made some kind of divine claim. 

A more adequate explanation of these sayings in John is that they reflect the divine self-declaration "I am he". The LXX Greek uses the phrase ego eimi in Deut 32:39 and on several occasions in Isaiah 40-55 (41:4; 43:10; 46:4) to translate the Hebrew phrase ani hu, which is usually translated in English as "I am he". In the two cases (43:25; 51:2) where the Hebrew has the more emphatic form of the same phrase, anoki anoki hu, the LXX has the double expression ego emi ego emi. This phrase "I am he" is an extraordinarily significant one. It is a divine self-declaration, encapsulating Yahweh's claim to unique and exclusive divinity. In the Hebrew Bible it occurs first in what are almost the last words God himself speaks in the Torah, where it is an emphatically monotheistic assertion: "Behold, I, even I am he; there is no God besides me" (Deut 32:39). In the prophecies of Isaiah 40-55 this form of divine self-declaration (in Hebrew: Isa 41:4; 43:10,13,25; 46:4; 48:12; 51:12; 52:6) expresses emphatically the absolute uniqueness of the name of Israel, who in these chapters constantly asserts his unique deity in contrast with the idols of the nations, and defines his uniqueness as that of the eternal creator of all things and the unique sovereign ruler of all history. His great act of eschatological salvation will demonstrate him to be the one and only God…

The "I am he" declarations are among the most emphatically monotheistic assertions in the Hebrew Bible, and if Jesus in John's Gospel repeats them he is unambiguously identifying himself with the one and only God, Yahweh, the God of Israel. Richard Bauckham, “The Trinity and the Gospel of John,” in The Essential Trinity: New Testament Foundations and Practical Relevance, ed. by Brandon D. Crowe and Carl R. Trueman (London: IVP [Apollos] 2016), chap 4.

God in spandex

William Lane Craig holds Calvinism in great disdain. In light of that it's striking to see how similar their responses are to open theism/finite theism:


There are two reasons why this is pastorally short-sighted and unsatisfying. One is that it is built on a falsehood. God does not need to be “all-powerful” to keep people from being hurt in the collapse of a bridge. He doesn’t even need to be as powerful as a man. He only needs to show up and use a little bit of his power (say, on the level of Spiderman, or Jason Bourne)—he did create the universe, the Rabbi concedes—and (for example) cause some tremor a half-hour early to cause the workers to leave the bridge, and the traffic to be halted. This intervention would be something less spectacular than a world-wide flood, or a burning bush, or plague of frogs, or a divided Red Sea, or manna in the wilderness, or the walls of a city falling down—just a little tremor to get everybody off the bridge before it fell.


Some open theists report that certain people find genuine comfort in the thought that God is not providentially in control of the world and so cannot be held responsible for planning the evils that have befallen them. I can understand why some people would be comforted by the thought that there is a cognitively limited Superman on their side who is aligned with them in the struggle against evil and suffering and who cannot be blamed for the bad things that he did not see coming. But I wonder if such people have really thought through the open theist alternative. It doesn't take a genius to see that certain terrible moral or natural evils are about to happen, and a cognitively limited Superman would often seem blameworthy for not preventing or stopping them. C. Meister & J. Dew, eds. God and the Problem of Evil: Five Views (IVP 2017), 54. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Heroes and Cowards

“We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.
I want to enjoy the movie Saving Private Ryan. And to be fair, 99% of the movie is worthwhile. But there are two things that turn the movie so sour that I despise it. The first is when Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) is dying and looks at Private Ryan (Matt Damen) and says, “Earn this.” With those two words, he destroys Ryan, because he’s given him an impossible task. How do you earn the deaths of so many people? You cannot.

But even that could be overlooked were it not for the absolute gravest sin of the movie: the character of Upham (Jeremy Davies). Specifically, it’s the scene where Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg) is being overpowered by the German soldier that Upham had previously rescued. Mellish is slowly being stabbed to death with his own bayonet. Upham has his M1 Garand and all he has to do is shoot the German and Mellish will be saved.

Instead, Upham sits in terror and does nothing while the German kills his friend. The German exchanges a look with Upham and leaves, not even bothering to kill the coward.

This is made even worse by the fact that Upham exists to be the “everyman” in the movie. He is ignorant of army traditions and sayings, looking through his dictionaries to try to find what a certain acronym means, for example. The “everyman” who is supposed to represent us as the audience—ignorant of the army-speak, unsure what will happen in the battle—is a coward, too afraid to act when his friend is slaughtered.

There are few things in life that actually infuriate me, but cowardice is one of those things. And of course the events that happened in Parkland, Florida bring it all sharply to focus. A killer (I won’t deign to publicize his name) shot 17 students and faculty. In the process, we found out that there was an armed deputy who stayed in the parking lot for six minutes while the students he was charged with protecting were slaughtered.

Then we found out that there were actually four deputies there, and none of them entered the building.

Now we are told that they had been ordered not to go into the building.

Saving Private Ryan was fictional. Private Mellish never existed to die. But 17 people—they really, truly died—because the people charged with protecting them pulled an Upham and chickened out. (Even when ordered to not go in, there are certain orders a decent person must disobey.)

Why is it that there are so many cowards in Broward County? Well, I actually think it’s not just Broward County. For the past couple of decades, there has been a culture war. One that hasn’t had any official declaration, but one which is no doubt being waged. It is a war on heroism.

Just as Saving Private Ryan tried to “humanize” World War II by creating the character of Upham, the coward, as the “everyman” the audience was supposed to relate to, heroes in movies and literature have consistently been trashed, belittled, seen as relics of the olden days, relegated to the dustbin of fantasy. Indeed, the knight in shining armor was the perfect example of heroism (at least in literature), and that concept is now mocked to such an extent that when a man agrees with a feminist on something, it's called “white knighting” because it is seen as the transparent ploy that it almost always is intended to be.

But the fact of the matter is, heroes need to exist. People who realize that there are more important things in the world than simply living another day.  And there are things that are that important, whether we remember them or not.

To give a personal anecdote, I remember after the Columbine shooting that the initial news had stated that Cassie Bernall was asked whether she believed in God, and when she said “yes” she was killed. This has been disputed by other witnesses since then, but at the time it was widely believed. As a result, I remember at my church hearing a group of young mothers saying, “If my kid was asked if he believed in God, I would tell him to say, ‘No.’ God will forgive him later!”

This caused instant cringes for me, not the least of which because it flies in the face of what Scripture advises: “whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33). But I had also been reading recently about the early church martyrs, and how the Romans would permit people to recant (sometimes after torture). Many Christians did so, and were released. Some would be rearrested when they were found back at church again, and they’d repeat the process. I recall reading one story where eventually a man refused to recant and was burned at the stake, and as the fire was lit he thrust his hand into the flames saying that the hand that had signed all the false recantations ought to burn first.

Yes, it is true that God forgives; but it is also true that there are more important things than surviving by requiring that forgiveness. And our culture used to know and recognize the existence of things worth dying for. As an example, take the Charge of the Light Brigade. This happened during the Crimean War. Due to miscommunication, and to the fact that the person relaying the orders was killed within the opening minutes of the battle, the Light Brigade attacked the wrong position and was soundly defeated, resulting in nearly 300 casualties.

Importantly, while the commanders were roundly pilloried and criticized, the British cavalry was held in esteem for their heroism. In fact, Tennyson would write his famous poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” about it, celebrating the heroism on display as the men faced certain defeat and went on anyway.

Yet the very poem that Tennyson wrote helps to signify the culture shift. One of its most famous lines is:

Theirs not to reason why
Theirs but to do or die.

At least, that’s how it’s usually quoted. But that isn’t the line.

The line is:

Theirs not to reason why
Theirs but to do and die.

The difference between “or” and “and” makes all the difference in the world. “Do or die” leaves open the possibility of surviving; “do and die” does not. When the men charged, they knew that it was hopeless. But they did it anyway. Because they were heroes who knew there were some things worth dying for. But we, today, subtly alter that line until it’s “do or die.” Because maybe they didn’t think they would die…

Somewhere along the way, the selfless act of sacrifice has slowly morphed into a punch line. It became something to be mocked and jeered. It is a fool who would willingly lay down his life, which is the most important thing!  And thus the hero was torn down and the anti-hero arose. It didn’t help that while the men were heroes in charges like that Tennyson glorified, it was still a blunder and they attacked the wrong position. Mistakes happen, but such were seen as less heroic and more tragic. And there is some truth to that. But what led us to the other extreme?

If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say this happened in America around the time of the Vietnam War. The seeds were there before that, of course, but it really did not become mainstream until the social revolution of the 1960s. Vietnam was increasingly run by Washington, D.C., and was widely viewed as a debacle, even though militarily the United States had significant advantages throughout.

But America was really just following the steps of Britain at that point, as C. S. Lewis’s quote at the beginning of this piece shows. Lewis wrote The Abolition of Man in 1943, the height of World War II, and already Britain was facing a different peril. In many ways, I think that England was facing a crisis brought about by the utter chaos of World War I, which was only exacerbated by World War II. As Lewis explains, this led Britain to reject all objective values and standards:
Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. … It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. …And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgment; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.
Over against this stands the world of The Green Book [the book Lewis is critiquing]. In it the very possibility of a sentiment being reasonable—or even unreasonable—has been excluded from the outset. It can be reasonable or unreasonable only if it conforms or fails to conform to something else. …On this view, the world of facts, without one trace of value, and the world of feelings, without one trace of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice, confront one another, and no rapprochement is possible.
Lewis goes on to give a specific example of the difference that comes about: “When a Roman father told his son that it was a sweet and seemly thing to die for his country, he believed what he said. He was communicating to the son an emotion which he himself shared and which he believed to be in accord with the value which his judgment discerned in noble death. He was giving the boy the best he had, giving of his spirit to humanize him as he had given of his body to beget him. But [the authors of The Green Book] cannot believe that in calling such a death sweet and seemly they would be saying ‘something important about something’.”
Lewis’s conclusion stands even today: “And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’ , or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

In that light, we can view the (in)actions of the Coward County Deputies. There is no devotion to sacrificing one’s life on behalf of another, because there is no sentiment that drives that. There is no emotion that causes someone to act despite his fear: no sense of duty, no sense of “this is the right thing to do”. Nothing. Why? Because when there is no objective truth to ground our emotions in, they can only be grounded in the subjective. And as subjective elements, no one can pass judgment that one “ought” to feel this or that.

In other words, when we got rid of the notion that there was a proper way to face reality, and that certain emotional responses are right and others are wrong, we lost the reason by which anyone would choose to give up his own life for the sake of a greater good. After all, why should a deputy sacrifice his life for those of 17 innocent people just because he said he would and is getting paid by the state to do just that in the unlikely event it should come to pass?

There will be no heroes until we affirm that there are certain things that are the way they ought to be, and certain other things that are not the way they ought to be. It is not right for Upham to let Mellish die when he had the chance to intervene. It, in fact, violates the second greatest commandment, for he showed no love to his neighbor. Likewise, it is not right that such a person ought to represent “everyman” in that film. But does it really matter that our entertainment does this?

If you want men to be brave, you have to instill bravery in them at a gut level. As Lewis said just before the quote above: “It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among [cheats]. In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism…about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use.”

This is not to say that the objective truth doesn’t matter as long as you have the sentiment in place. Indeed, because the objective truth matters, our entertainment ought to be in harmony with it. What our culture chooses to glorify in entertainment will have a drastic effect on the actions of her citizens. If it is objectively true that people ought to be heroes, we need to model heroes on the screen, not tear them down and mock them. Because ultimately, it’s not the intellectual assent to objective truth but the emotional belief in that objective truth that will make a difference to how a person behaves when he or she is asked to risk their life for something greater than they are.

Can Evolution Explain the Bacterial Flagellum?

What if guns make us less safe overall?

Craig shoots a hole in the bottom of his boat

Craig reserves his ire for Tom Oord's deism. What's striking is that Craig's objections to Oord's position invite parallel objections to the freewill defense:

Such a view is manifestly unbiblical. To give just one small example of God's apparently nonmiraculous intervention, consider how God prevented Jesus' falling victim to King Herod's murderous intentions following the departure of the magi (Mt 2:13). This was not a miraculous angelic appearance, interrupting or interfering with the law-like regularities of existence. Joseph merely had a dream…God is frequently described in Scripture as interacting with human agents to direct the course of events. If it is not an infringement of human freedom, then Oord's view does nothing to explain why God did not  similarly warn the other parents in Bethlehem, whose children perished by Herod's sword or act to prevent innumerable other evils. 

As for God's miraculous interaction with human people, consider the following scene from Jesus' arrest in the garden (Lk 22:49-51). Here Jesus interferes with a law-like regularity to undo an evil freely perpetrated by one of his disciples. It would be easy to multiple such biblical examples of God's miraculous activity, with or without human intermediaries.

God, on Oord's view, refuses to get involved in human affairs so as to warn people of impeding dangers or to move someone to prevent or rescue another person from suffering. He stands idly by, doing nothing to help, with no good reason for his noninterference. 

Even if God is incapable of interfering with nature's law-like regularities, presumably he at least freely chose in the first place the laws of nature that are in force. But then Oord's deity must bear responsibility for choosing laws that would issue in creatures so vulnerable to natural evil, rather than choosing other laws or refraining altogether from creation. 

But any deity that is essentially such that it values the regularity of the laws of nature above the well-being of human people cannot in any recognizable sense be called good. Oord's God does not love Amy Monroe enough to interfere with the regularities of nature as she is raped and strangled. In the US criminal justice system Oord's deity, due to his "depraved indifference" and "reckless endangerment," would be guilt of crimes such as manslaughter and even murder, C. Meister & J. Dew, eds. God and the Problem of Evil: Five Views (IVP 2017), 145-47. 

It's odd that Craig is oblivious to the fact that freewill theists make all the same appeals. So where does that leave his own theodicy? He's generated a dilemma for his own position. 

Contracted to a span

1. The Trinity and the Incarnation are often classified as paradigm-cases of theological paradox. I wouldn't go that far myself, although they are undoubtedly mysterious. 

2. Since Christianity is a revealed religion, we take revealed truths as our starting-point. That can sometimes be explicated and supplemented by philosophical analysis and extrabiblical analogies, but revelation enjoys preeminence in Christian epistemology. That outlook is epitomized by Anselm's "faith-seeking-understanding" approach.

3. Critics of Christian theology regard this as special pleading. They like to keep everything simple, rationally transparent, and commonsensical. However, this isn't just a question of theological orientation, but philosophical orientation. On the one hand are reductionists. They're impatient with mystery and complexity. They embrace Occam's razor. They incline to physicalism, nominalism, eliminative materialism, mathematical finitism and fictionalism, &c. 

The opposite outlook is reflected by thinkers like Leibniz, Cantor, and the principle of plenitude. Whatever is possible (or conceivable) is in some sense actual. Whether true or not, the multiverse reflects this outlook. 

Newtonian physics is commonsensical whereas quantum mechanism and relativity are counterintuitive. Likewise, Cantor made the actual (abstract) infinite intellectually respectable, with his diagonal proof. 

4. Ironically, disdain for mystery can reintroduce mystery at a different level. The unitarian theology of Maimonides and Al-Ghazali eschews the complexities of Christian theology, yet their metaphysically simple deity, having no analogy in creation, becomes an ineffable, unintelligible blink. 

5. I've explored different ways to model the Trinity and Incarnation. I'll reiterate one illustration, then consider two others. Suppose computer scientists develop artificial intelligence. Suppose they create a video game with artificially intelligent virtual characters. Suppose the video game designer creates a character who represents himself. At one level, his virtual counterpart has the properties of a computer simulation. His mode of subsistence is the same as other virtual characters who populate the game. He exists inside the game. 

At another level, his virtual counterpart shares the mind of the inventor. That character exemplifies a being outside the game. Its knowledge of the game transcends the game. Its perspective surpasses the viewpoint of other virtual characters who only exist within the world of the game. That's one analogy for the hypostatic union.

6. It isn't necessary to know how something can be true to know that it's true. And it isn't necessary to know how something can be true to be warranted in believing it. We can begin with paradigm examples. Whatever is actual is possible. 

Consider how abstract objects like numbers interface or intersect with the physical world. Abstract objects are timeless and spaceless. Yet the universe contains finite exemplifications and approximations of abstract mathematical structures like Pi, Euler's number, the Golden ratio, and the Fibonacci number. That's another analogy for the hypostatic union. 

6. Finally, there's such a thing as family resemblance. That isn't merely physical but often psychological. Parents are present in their children insofar as their kids share parental character traits. Sometimes a kid takes after his father while another kid takes after his mother. And some kids take after both parents. My own psychological makeup alternates between my father and my mother (as well as my grandfathers). My default setting is my father, but depending on the social setting, I can instantly switch to my mother's temperament. In a sense, they exist in me and I in them. Two persons in one person. One person in two persons. Three persons in all. That's a mundane shadow of the Trinity and the Incarnation. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Methodology in the gun-control debate

Proponents of gun-control blame the prevalence of school shootings on the prevalence of guns. But a problem with that correlation is that guns have been equally prevalent in the past, without a corresponding prevalence of school shootings. So what accounts for the rash of school shootings since Columbine? Here are three considerations:

i) Crime is complex and highly localized. For instance:

From 1991 to 2016, the murder rate fell by roughly half, from 9.8 killings per 100,000 to 5.3. The murder rate rose last year by an estimated 7.8 percent. With violence at historic lows, modest increases in the murder rate may appear large in percentage terms. Similarly, murder rates in the 30 largest cities increased by 13.2 percent in 2015 and an estimated 14 percent in 2016. These increases were highly concentrated. More than half of the 2015 urban increase (51.8 percent) was caused by just three cities, Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. And Chicago alone was responsible for 43.7 percent of the rise in urban murders in 2016.

ii) To avoid a fallacious inference, it's important to control for reverse causation. What's the relation between high crime and high gun-ownership? Does increased gun ownership increase crime, or is increased gun ownership a response to high crime? In other words, does gun-ownership prompt crime or does crime prompt gun ownership? This is a point made by Timothy Hsiao in "The Moral Case for Gun Ownership," Bob Fischer (ed), Ethics, Left and Right: The Moral Issues that Divide Us (Oxford University Press, 2019)

iii) Why were witch hunts all the rage during the Enlightenment? Why was there a wave of suicides in 18C Europe? Why was there a massive spike in highjacking between 1967-76? Why was there a repressed memory craze in the 1980s? Why the modern surge in alien abduction stories? Why are reports of gender dysphoria skyrocketing? Why are school shootings more frequent since Columbine despite the wide availability of guns for decades prior?

One explanation is social contagion. A fad or copycat syndrome. So we need a counter-social contagion. 

Let's consider some additional comparisons:

There is also evidence that right-to-carry laws are effective in mitigating the effects of mass shootings. Lott and Landes (2003: 135) found that right to carry laws reduce the number of people killed or wounded from multiple victim public shootings and that limiting the places where permit holders are allowed to carry their guns increases the number of murders, injuries, and shootings.^ Additionally, Lott (2016: 123) found that from 1950 to February 2016, 99% of mass public shootings occurred in locations where guns are legally prohibited. A plausible explanation of this is that mass public shooters tend to select locations in which they know their victims will be defenseless. Timothy Hsiao, "The Ethics of 'Gun-Free Zones" Philosophia 45 (2):659-676 (2017).

In 1997, the United Kingdom banned the ownership of handguns. The ban was ineffective at reducing crime. Indeed, violent crime in England and Wales increased significantly after the ban relative to what it was before the ban, such that the UK is now one of the most violent countries in Europe and has a higher violent crime rate than the United States.53 From 1984 to 1997, the average yearly number of homicides in England and Wales was about 580. After the ban, from 1998 to 2011, the average was 715, a 23 percent increase.54 The number of deaths and injuries from gun crimes in England and Wales increased by 340 percent from 1998 to 2005.55. C’Zar Bernstein, Timothy Hsiao, and Matt Palumbo, "The Moral Right to Keep and Bear Firearms," Public Affairs Quarterly Volume 29, Number 4, October 2015.

Consider the current situation:

Reducing gun violence doesn't reduce violence, since perpetrators simply resort to different weaponry. 


In this post I'm going to indulge in some ethnic generalizations. These aren't meant to be universal. However, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and social commentators all resort to generalizations.

It's interesting to compare a pre-Christian culture with the impact of the Gospel after that's had some leavening influence on the culture. Likewise, it's interesting to compare how different ethnic groups appropriate the Gospel. It modifies them in some respects, but not in others.

Black-American culture is stereotypically extroverted. And the male component is stereotypically macho. In the general culture that's exemplified by the HipHop image. (I admit that I don't know much about that.) But before HipHop, you had Richard Roundtree in Shaft.

That has a parallel in Latino culture, which is macho. Same thing with Italian-American culture.

Machismo is decadent. Masculinity gone to seed. That's a throwback to pagan warrior cultures.

But it's interesting to compare that to effeminate men. I see twenty-something white guys who are anorexic. They have no normal male musculature. It's as if they spend all their time in internet cafes:

...they want to deprive me of the ability to defend myself. Conservatives [are] repulsed by the notion that personal security should depend almost completely on the government. The sense of dependence is at odds with their view of a free citizenry, and — to put it bluntly — they perceive their progressive peers as soft and unmanly.

Now, I find it much easier to relate to macho guys than effeminate guys. Machismo takes a natural virtue to a vicious extreme. But it has a foundation in something good. Sanctifying grace dials machismo back a bit. It moderates the brutality, posturing, rapacity, ruthless competition.

By contrast, effeminacy is a pure vice. There's no underlying virtue. That has to be replaced, root and branch.

Then you have the Asian-American image, which is high polarized. On the one hand is the model minority stereotype. Nerdy and geeky. Excels at math, science, and computer anything. On the other hand is the martial arts bad boy, tough guy image. Fast cars, fast girls. I'm not sure that Asian-Americans have found their voice as of yet. There's these two extreme role models that have nothing in common. Almost like Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor. Basically, Lewis co-opted the role of Dean Martin–playing both characters.

Jon McCray strikes me as a guy who strikes a nice balance. On the one hand he projects the forward, self-confident demeanor of stereotypical black-American masculinity. But it's been channeled towards a worthy end:

He will wash you whiter than snow

The awakening

In a classical sense, a comedy is half tragedy. Comedies and tragedies have the same starting-point but different end-points. In tragedy there's one turning-point while comedies have two turning-points.

In tragedy, life starts out good, followed by a downturn. And the situation remains worse. It never rebounds. In absolute tragedy (a la George Steiner) the denouement is so bad that the protagonist laments that he was ever born. 

In comedy, there's a second turning-point where, after having gone downhill, there's an upturn. The situation at the end is better than where it began. 

One way to consider the problem of evil is whether the world is a comedy or tragedy. Is it possible for an inside observer to tell which is which? 

Up to a pivotal moment, comedies and tragedies are indistinguishable. If you're inside that story, can you tell what kind of story you find yourself within? 

The Book of Job is a comedy, but up until the end, it reads like a tragedy. The Joseph cycle (Gen 37-50) is a comedy, but early on, Joseph's series of ordeals feel like he's trapped in a  tragedy. 

The wilderness wandering (Exodus-Deuteronomy) is a tragedy for the Exodus-generation, delivered from Egypt, but condemned to die in the desert–but it's a comedy for the next generation, that enters the Promised Land.

The Book of Revelation is a comedy, yet up until the final stage, it could be a tragedy. Progress followed by repeated setbacks. A zigzag plot. 

If the Gospels ended on Good Friday, they'd be tragedies. It's Easter that makes them comedies. That's the turnaround. 

Is Ecclesiastes a comedy or tragedy? Hard to classify. The narrator finds the world bewildering. From his sublunary perspective, existence could either be comedic or tragic. He doesn't have enough evidence to say for sure. That's part of the book's enduring fascination. It retains that off-center viewpoint. There's an element of unresolved suspense. Empirically speaking, life could turn out either way. 

Sometimes, when we watch a movie, we can't tell ahead of time if the plot is tragic or comedic. To take a comparison:

For much of its running time, "L.A. Confidential" seems episodic–one sensational event after another, with no apparent connection...The plot, based on the novel by James Ellroy, can only be described as labyrinthine. For long periods, we're not even sure that it is a plot, and one of the film's pleasures is the way director Curtis Hanson and writer Brian Helgeland put all the pieces into place before we fully realize they're pieces. How could these people and events possibly be related? We don't much mind, so long as the pieces themselves are so intriguing...And when all of the threads are pulled together at the end, you really have to marvel at the way there was a plot after all, and it all makes sense, and it was all right there waiting for someone to discover it.

Many movies are slipshod. They have plot holes and loose-ends. That makes viewers cynical. Having seen so many poorly crafted movies, if the plot seems to be pointless, it probably is. 

You've seen movies where, when you start, it could go either way. But there comes a point where it's too late for the movie to improve. You were hoping for the best, but you say to yourself, this isn't going to get any better, is it? The movie's a dud. 

The Happening by M. Night Shyamalan has a very thin plot. Barely a plot. An idea rather than a plot. Not a rich enough idea to turn into a good story. It has some promising moments, yet never catches fire. 

But sometimes the viewer is pleasantly surprised. In Past Tense (1994), the plot is initially and deliberately confounding. That's because the viewer sees events through the delirious eyes of a comatose patient. Only the viewer doesn't know that right away. It's only as the patient struggles to regain consciousness that the plot finally falls into place. As the protagonist becomes lucid, the plot becomes lucid. Because the story is shown through the eyes of one character, the viewer is captive to his blinkered outlook.  

Commenting on another film, Ebert says:

The movie is hypnotic; we're drawn along as if one thing leads to another–but nothing leads anywhere…"Mulholland Drive" is all dream. There is nothing that is intended to be a waking moment. Like real dreams, it does not explain, does not complete its sequences, lingers over what it finds fascinating, dismisses unpromising plotlines.

A comedy is like a dream, where you escape by waking up–while a tragedy is like a nightmare, where you never wake up. 

The lives of the saints are comedies while the lives of the damned are tragedies. At a cosmic level, reality is ultimately comedic, but that's not something we can discern within this life, because what happens after makes the difference. 

When we consider the problem of evil, personal experience can't see over the hill. That's the conundrum of Ecclesiastes. Within life, as you go through life, you can't see if existence is comedic or tragic. This side of the grave, the evidence appears to be consistent with either outcome. Only death or revelation settles that question. 

If you wait to die to find out, that may be too late. That's where revelation functions as a tiebreaker. 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The divine juggler

In the same presentation, Craig makes two claims back-to-back:

What I point out is that the objector seems to be assuming a couple of hidden assumptions. He is assuming first of all that if God is all-powerful then he can create just any world that he wants...It is logically impossible to make someone do something freely. That is as logically impossible as making a married bachelor or a round square. You cannot make someone do something freely. What that means is that if God creates a world of free creatures he cannot guarantee how they will all choose. In particular, he cannot guarantee that they would all freely receive Christ and accept his salvation. It may be that in any world of free creatures that God could create, at least some of them would freely reject his grace and be lost.

And moreover he has so ordered the world that those who never hear the Gospel and are lost are only people who would not have believed in the Gospel and been saved even if they had heard it. In other words, anyone who would have believed the Gospel and been saved if he heard it, is born at a time and place in history where he does hear it. What that would mean, Kevin, is that no one could stand before God on the Judgment Day and say, “All right God, I rejected your revelation in nature and conscience, but if only I’d heard the Gospel, then I would have been saved.” And God will say to him, “No, I knew that even if you had heard the Gospel, you would not have received it. Therefore my judgment of you on the basis of your response to nature and conscience is neither unloving nor unjust.” I think that what I said at first by showing that those assumptions are false takes the sting out of it.

This is a positive proof that it is entirely consistent to affirm that God is all-powerful and all-loving and yet some people never hear the Gospel and are lost. So if my scenario is even possible, it shows that those truths are entirely consistent.

That explanation suffers from several basic problems:

i) On the one hand he stresses God's limitations. God is stymied by human freedom. God can only choose from the feasible worlds that happen to be at his disposal. He has no control over what those worlds contain. As Craig said recently, God might be dealt "a very lousy hand". 

ii) But Craig then does an about-face and asserts that God has such an abundance of viable options that he can arrange things so that "those who never hear the Gospel and are lost are only people who would not have believed in the Gospel and been saved even if they had heard it."  But that's playing both sides of the fence, for (ii) is in tension with (i). Given (i), there's no presumption that God has that option. If anything, the odds are against it. 

iii) In addition, you can't just scramble the chronology of human lives. Human individuals don't exist as discrete units, in isolation to what came before. Rather, human beings are links in geological chains. The same human can't be born at a different time without somehow shifting the entire family tree to which he belongs, by moving it forward or backward. To relocate one human in time, you must relocate an entire historical sequence of intervening events. And Craig implies that God did that repeatedly. But that twists the causal linearity of history into a pretzel.