Saturday, January 05, 2019


A reply to my post:

The response to my video/post about grieving as an atheist has been overwhelmingly positive. I've had a lot of messages come back to me privately and on the various platforms I've posted it on and I've appreciated all of the wonderful feedback.

I'm sure he got positive feedback from fellow apostates, atheists, and "progressive Christians". What a surprise!

What surprised me was to see that the infamous Calvinist blog mentioned briefly in the original post decided to do a response/takedown of my post.

If I can't have fame, I'll settle for infamy.

The piece weirdly begins by attacking my mentioning of my parental/protective instincts being set off at the idea of sending my daughters to a Christian church. First, it's odd that he tries to say how instincts are amoral because unlike humans, some other animals instinctively eat their offspring, but then he says on Christianity we have god-given instincts. But on Christianity, that same god gave those other animals the instincts to eat their offspring!

That's confused. I didn't say human instincts are amoral just because some animals eat their young. The problem is not that some animals eat their offspring. It's not wrong for animals to eat their offspring. They're just animals.

The problem for naturalism is that instinctive taboos are arbitrary. It's just how our brains our wired by the mad scientist of naturalistic evolution. If human brains were rewired, we'd cannibalize our young, just like some animals do. And in naturalistic evolution, there's no right or wrong way to wire the brain. There's no way the brain is supposed to be.

By contrast, cannibalism is wrong for humans because God designed us differently. But in naturalism, nothing happens by design.

Second, he doesn't even actually refute any appeal to instinct, he only says that on naturalistic evolution there is a fumbling, pitiless process behind our instincts. So? That has zero bearing on whether or not we should follow the instincts, or if we have those instincts for a reason.

It's like throwing dice to pick race horses.

On naturalistic evolution we have those instincts because they directly contribute to the propagation of our species. For humans and our biology, we instinctively protect our young. That's "good-for" humans both individually and collectively in that it contributes to our flourishing.

What if protecting my young completes with protecting your young? Take a food shortage or water shortage.

Steve gets this wrong in a further appeal, later in the post when he attacks my preferred meta-ethic. Here he illustrates his misunderstanding of how natural selection works. It does have a goal: the survival of a species to procreate the next generation, which must in turn be able to do the same. That's literally what is "selected for" by the blind, pitiless process.

He commits a schoolboy error–especially ironic when he presumes to accuse me of misunderstanding how natural selection works even thought it's evident that he doesn't have a clue. He doesn't know the difference between a goal and an unintended side-effect. An unintelligent process can't be goal-oriented. It has no plans. No foresight.

He's deceived by the teleological metaphors used by evolutionary biologists. As William Provine explains:

Natural selection is not a mechanism, does no work, does not act, does not shape, does not cause anything...Natural selection is the outcome of a very complex process that basically boils down to heredity, genetic variation, ecology, and demographics (especially the overproduction of offspring, and constant struggle), "Evolution, Religion, and Science," The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (2006).

Back to CA:

Steve attacks my appeal to the words of Epicurus, misrepresenting the entire point. First Steve accuses me of holding a double standard in saying that instincts can't be normative while at the same time appealing to Epicurus to hold off an instinctive fear of death.

Second he alleges that this outlook on death means that there's nothing tragic about dying young, or that a murder victim isn't really harmed.

This is incredibly wrongheaded. I think instincts can be normative, such as our protective instinct towards our children, while at the same time realizing the limitations of our instincts.

Now he's committing the naturalistic fallacy. But if instincts are the byproduct of a blind process, then there's nothing normative about the outcome. It's just a random, contingent development.

Secondly just because the fact that we shouldn't be afraid of the fact that we will die has no bearing on whether or not dying young is a tragedy or that a murdered person is wronged. The dead do not suffer, but we see that had misfortune not fallen on someone they would have lived longer, presumably happy lives (or at least a life they'd want to continue living).

He fails to grasp the Epicurean principle he glibly appeals to, according to which death isn't bad for the decedent. This is discussed in standard expositions of Epicurean views on death.

But wouldn't some prefer to live forever? Sure, but that's impossible.

Is he saying immortality is impossible given current conditions, or impossible in principle? Is it impossible for God to confer immorality?

Ideally in such a way that they'd want to continue living. To have that taken away from them, while they could still realistically achieve that, is what makes a premature death a tragedy.

But according to the Epicurean view, death isn't tragic. He's a typical example of an apostate who ditches Christianity as if that's liberating, but has no coherent alternative to fall back on. He cobbles together some half-baked positions that don't add up.

I don't believe I'll be any more afraid of death when I'm in my 60's or 70's. I may be more likely to die then, but I will have had a pretty full life by that point, especially given my current position.

That's an easy claim to make from the safe distance of youth. But once that buffer is gone he may feel very different about the prospect of death.

Ironically in those cases the philosophy I do align with (Stoicism) speaks about suicide as an answer. In those cases I would want to end my own life. In these cases the fact that I will experience nothing after death is a comfort all its own! The worst thing isn't experiencing nothing, it's experiencing unending, hopeless pain. The fact that "the door is always open" to end my existence is itself comforting in the face of such contingencies. This is why I will have a living will about ending my life if I were to end up in that kind of state.

That's a sorry substitute for heaven.

Finally, what gets me is that Steve disdains appealing to philosophies like Stoicism. In fact Stoicism, Epicureanism, or even a host of other philosophies are compatible with atheism. Those are indeed full fledged philosophies, which address things like what it means to live a good life. These aren't "alternatives" to atheism.

i) I didn't say they were alternatives to atheism. To the contrary, I said they were secular alternatives. By definition, that makes them atheistic. The point is that he reaches for Stoicism and Epicureanism to anesthetize the stark consequences of atheism. It's still atheistic, but tries to make the best of the losing hand it dealt itself.

ii) He operates with the compartmentalized, village atheist definition of atheism, but as Paul Draper points out:

Many writers at least implicitly identify atheism with a positive metaphysical theory like naturalism or even materialism.

Denying God's existence has wide-ranging moral, metaphysical, and epistemological consequences. And I've quoted numerous atheist thinkers who admit that atheism/naturalism is nihilistic.

They're philosophies. If you want to address atheism, you're going to have to deal with atheists who hold to these philosophies, but poor Steve doesn't want to do that. That'd be hard. It's much easier for him to build a strawman of atheism entailing nihilism and burning that rather than dealing with positions atheists actually hold.

Such a foolhardy challenge:

This ties in to the next topic where Steve goes off the rails. First off, Steve immediately admits that at least for some, hell is eternal conscious torture - and he likes that fact! He's glad that some of the damned will scream forever because of how bad they were in life!

This is incredibly immoral by any standard. Here on earth, in the USA, we have a constitutional amendment banning the use of torture as punishment. We consider it immoral to torture, even the worst offenders among us. Are we more moral than Steve's god, who supposedly will torture at least some of the people in hell?

i) Fallacious appeal to authority. How is quoting a document from the Enlightenment proof that "torture" is wrong? What makes that cultural practice morally superior to contrary cultural practices?

ii) In what respect is poetic justice incredibly immoral by any standard? How is it immoral for members of ISIS to be on the receiving end of what they inflicted on innocent victims?

Second, if anyone has a cartoon version of hell, it's Steve. It's a cartoon entirely of his own making, to avoid the force of the argument from hell against his version of Christianity.

i) CA brought up my belief in hell as a wedge tactic. Problem is, he imputes his interpretation of the Bible to me, but I don't operate with his backwoods hermeneutics.

ii) In Christian eschatology there's a distinction between the intermediate state and the final state. If you're asking what happens to unbelievers when they die, the intermediate state is the frame of reference.

iii) In that context, my position on hell simply parallels my position on heaven. The intermediate state is a disembodied state. So heaven or hell in that context will be a psychological state, like a collective dream. And it's analogous to revelatory dreams and visions in Scripture. So that's the actual basis for my position, and not avoiding the force of the argument from hell against my version of Christianity.

iv) As for the final state, which is a physical, reembodied state, suppose God puts a bunch of sociopaths on a tropical island. It's a physical paradise, but they will torture each other. Is there an obligation to prevent sociopaths from torturing each other? Don't they deserve each other? Isn't the most fitting punishment for a sociopath to be put with his own kind?

He says that it wouldn't be torture to be forced to endure an unending nightmare.

I didn't frame the issue in terms of torture, one way or the other. That's how CA cast the issue, not me.

So at best, this would be a kind of mental torture, distinct from the burning flames Steve thinks some of the damned will suffer from.

I didn't say some of the damned will suffer from burning flames.

Of course mental torture is still torture

But CA misses the point. The "mental torture" is a mirror of their own character and imagination. Self-torment.

and any kind of eternal existence would be torturous if one doesn't want to live forever in any state.

Retributive punishment isn't supposed to be pleasant.

I wouldn't want to live forever, heaven or hell. At some point, I'd want to have my existence end. Being forced to exist forever would itself be torture.

i) Punitive justice isn't about what the offender wants. That's one major defect in CA's "good-for" metaethics. Why should punishment be good for Stalin? It's a question of just deserts.

ii) Immortality isn't tantamount to torture. Even secular philosophers argue that immortality can be enjoyable. Cf. John Martin Fischer, Our Stories (Oxford 2009).

Thirdly, this is all the more ironic given Steve's criticism of how I'd handle hard truths as being hopeless vs. hopeful. There is literally nothing more hopeless than the idea that the majority of humanity is going to be stuck in an eternal hell!

Once again, he imputes his interpretation to me. I didn't say I think the majority of humanity is hellbound. I have multiple reasons for thinking that's probably not the case:

What Steve gets wrong again is that having no experiences at all (ie. death on atheism) is infinitely preferable to continued suffering for eternity. Much like a quick death is preferable to going into a mind-trapped paralysis where you slowly wither away for years in a bed before death finally claims you.

Before I move on, I'd just like to point out the silliness of Steve's "theological speculation" about hell. First off, the bible is full of references to hell as including fire, burning, suffering, etc. Some Christians try to metaphor that away as best they can, but when their head honcho, one crossy-boi Jesus Herschel Christ tells a parable that includes a depiction of hell, it is someone burning, begging for a tiny bit of water to cool his tongue. It's incredible to interpret that away as a description of hell given all the other biblical references of hell include notions of burning and despair. But hey, it's basically impossible to argue scripture with believers. They can just adopt a hermeneutic to interpret whatever conclusion they want from their holy texts.

The frequency of picturesque imagery carries no presumption that the imagery is literal rather than figurative. Scripture routinely uses poetic imagery and colorful metaphors. It doesn't require a special hermeneutic to recognize that fact. CA illustrates a pattern: childish Christians become childish atheists.

Again, though, the onus is not on me to convince CA. He tried to use my position on hell against my critique of his position, but that backfired because he simply assumed I have the same conception of hell as his folk theology. Scripture has various ways of depicting eschatological punishment:

Steve tries to alleviate some of my criticism about Christianity having to convince you that you're sick in order to sell you the cure of Jesus. First off, his ideas don't map to reality. He's painting only the bad parts of our existence and leaving out the good. For all the atrocities committed, there are still those who love and care for each other. There is still joy, people living happy, fulfilled lives. His idea that you could put is in an earthly paradise and come back to find it a hell on earth is ridiculous. The happiest places on earth right now are largely atheistic, or have majority non-Christian populations. Entire generations of people have lived and died in those societies, many of whom have lived happy fulfilled lives. Nothing will ever be perfect, but we have have societies that generally provide for human well being, allow us to flourish, compared to other societies. On the whole we already know what those places can look like, we don't have to go much further than Scandinavia.

You mean, like suicide rates in Japan, France, Switzerland, Belgium, rates of alcoholism in Finland, Denmark, France, Norway, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, cocaine use in the Netherlands, rates of depression in Europe, rates of domestic abuse in Japan. A veritable secular panacea!

First we come to the idea of why Steve framed his question in terms of a 6 year old girl vs. a 50 year old. I had accused him of poisoning the well by going with the framing of a young child. So he used the framing of a 6 year old because it was about talking to a child about death...and the fact that a dying child is more emotionally acute. There's a reason he didn't frame it as "what how would you tell a 50 year old that their 6 year old grandchild is dying" or the other example. There's no clear symmetry here, he's simply admitting to doing exactly what I accused him of because it's more emotionally acute.

False. As I already explained, I was simply working from CA's chosen example. He chose to cast the issue in terms of a 6-year-old girl. So I continued along the same lines. I'm quite prepared to discuss the example of a 50-year-old. Indeed, I did that when challenged.

Next, consider where I spoke about what I'd tell my 6 year old daughter if she had a terminal illness and I thought she could handle the truth: What Steve misses is the fact that in the case where the child could handle the truth I would tell them because we all have an overriding desire to know the truth.

i) If "we all have an overriding desire to know the truth", then he doesn't believe Christian faith is based on wishful-thinking–unlike many atheists allege.

ii) That said, where does he come up with these sweeping generalizations? What about people who have alarming medical symptoms but procrastinate about going to the doctor because they're afraid of really bad news? What about parents who can't bring themselves to believe that their teenage son or daughter is stealing from them to support a drug habit despite compelling evidence? Resistance to unwelcome truths is a commonplace of human experience.

Most of us would rather know what's really going on if someone told us they could tell us the truth or give us a comforting lie.

What about the dilemma of genetic testing. A healthy asymptomatic teenage who had everything to live for is diagnosed with a genetic defect which will manifest as an incurable degenerative disorder in their twenties or so. Prior to diagnosis, they didn't have that overshadowing the rest of their lives. They had several good years ahead of them, with lots to look forward to, in their blissful ignorance of the horrendous future that awaits them.

But this is where Steve ends up in exactly the same position I espouse! He says he'd effectively lie when presented with the Christian's version of the dilemma about telling a child someone they loved was in hell. So it's OK for the Christian to not tell a hard truth to a child that can't handle or understand the answer. Presumably, if the child could handle the hard truth, Steve would then actually tell them the truth...which is exactly what I said I would do in that situation as an atheist. Isn't this then Steve giving "the response of a conflicted parent who's torn between comforting a child and telling a child the truth?"

It's not a lie to withhold information if the child lacks the cognitive development to process a more detailed explanation. Withholding information isn't equivalent to lying. That requires additional considerations.

Steve tap dances around the idea of a child's loved one being condemned to hell, saying how a Muslim or Hindu would hate to be stuck in the Christian heaven, not quite mentioning how they'd prefer non-existence to suffering for eternity in the Christian hell.

Should people always get what they prefer? Should Stalin have a choice of how to be treated for his crimes?

He tries to paint Christianity as better equipped to deal with "hard truths" because on Christianity there are no "hopeless truths"

Not what I said.

The entire point of my post was how I'm processing grief and how I'm helping my child process it as well. I'm utterly honest with myself with what the situation is and I'm OK with it. My child is also doing OK with it.

Having dealt himself a losing hand, he tries to play it as best he can.

However his second point makes even less sense because as I mentioned before nothing could possibly be more hopeless than being stuck in an eternal hell which his Christianity entails!

That's simplistic. There's an elementary difference between a scenario that's hopeless for everyone and a scenario that's hopeless for some rather than others. If a ship with no lifeboats capsizes and all the passengers drown, that's hopeless for everyone. If a ship with lifeboats for half the passengers capsizes, that's hopeless for some but not for others. If there's only enough antidote in stock to cure half the patients with a life-threatening illness, that's hopeless for some but not for others.

Like I've said before, atheism is far preferable to his Christianity. There is no eternal suffering, and when there is even hopeless finite suffering in this life, there is always "an open door" to end it. This is because there are far worse fates in this life than death (suffering paralyzed and unable to communicate for years, torture, etc), and there are far worse fates than non-existence if life after death were even possible (eternal existence, hell).

Top Nazis committed suicide or fled to South America to cheat justice. Not believing in the afterlife, they thought that was an open door to end it.

Be on guard against Arminian Delilahs

Presbyterian Papists

Recently I got into an impromptu debate on Facebook about Sabbath-keeping and Sunday sports. A couple of preliminary observations:

1. My own position is based on ecclesiology. Given the fact that Christian identity has a corporate dimension (e.g. public worship) as well as an individual dimension, it makes sense for churches to have an agreed-upon day of worship. In principle, independent local churches could have their own religious calendar. For instance, some Messianic congregations worship on Saturday. It's logical for denominations to synchronize the day of worship. And there's value generally in all Christians having a common day of worship.

However, the choice of day is flexible. The principle is normative, but the implementation is contingent and variable. 

2. It's reckless for fathers to risk making their sons estranged from the faith as well as their fathers by drawing a line in the sand over adiaphora. Of course, hardline Sabbatarians don't think that's adiaphoric, but that's what the debate was about. 

Kids in the world to come

Here I'm going to approach the question of whether most humans will be damned from a different angle. Over the years I've sometimes questioned the traditional interpretation of Mk 12:25 (par. Mt 22:30; Lk 20:35-36):

Recently, a friend of mine (who's welcome to come forward and claim the prize) drew an interesting inference from that position: if the saints continue to have kids in the world to come, then that will continually lower the percentage of the damned relative to the human race in general. I think that's a worthwhile conjecture to consider. 

Friday, January 04, 2019

What if evolution bred reality out of us?

From a brief exchange I had with atheist philosopher Stephen Law on Facebook:

This doesn't sound like your vision of apologetics, Jonathan - which is to follow reason wherever it leads: be it towards or away from faith.

Speaking for myself, I don't subscribe to following reason wherever it leads: be it towards or away from faith. Reason doesn't have the same status in naturalism that it has in Christianity. According to Christian theology, we're endowed with reason by a wise, benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent creator. According to naturalistic evolution, reason is a byproduct of a mindless process. So why suppose reason is trustworthy if it leads you away from the very basis for trusting in reason in the first place? That's a paradox of naturalism. If it's true, it can't be trusted–in which case it can't be trusted to be true. 

There's a problem when atheists as well as some Christian apologists both treat reason in the abstract, as if the nature of reason is independent of your worldview. But reason isn't normative in naturalism. Reason can't be normative in naturalism. According to naturalistic evolution, human intelligence is the incidental product of an unintelligent process. 

Christianity and naturalism have different backstories for reason. And that makes quite a difference for how we should regard reason. Indeed, eliminative naturalists dismiss mental states as folk psychology.
Edit or delete this

No that's a poor argument run by Alvin Plantinga called the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. It doesn't work - even many theists reject it (e.g. Michael Bergmann). BTW, reason is potentially just as much a problem for theism because theism says: your reason can be trusted, but then reason the threatens to undermine theism. So that's the paradox of theism, then! Of course, you do generally follow wherever reason leads, except perhaps when it threatens your faith.

Sure about that?

For a more technical analysis: 

Yeh, I know. I have published academic papers on this stuff, particularly the versions aimed at showing naturalism is 'self-defeating' - which is your line. You can even still hear me discussing it with Plantinga in an episode of Unbelievable, I think. As I say, IMO the argument fails. And there are leading theists who agree with me.

And there are non-Christians who agree with me (see above).

Yes we know. But don't go away with the impression you've got some sort of killer argument that deals with any atheist suggesting reason is a threat to theism, or that allows you to discount any such argument. You'd be kidding yourself. 

I'm quite capable of dealing with atheists who allege that reason poses a threat to theism. I do that on a regular basis.

BTW also don't assume atheists are naturalists - I am the former but not the latter (except on Plantinga's rather weird use of 'naturalism').

Well, as Paul Draper points out, 

Many writers at least implicitly identify atheism with a positive metaphysical theory like naturalism or even materialism.


Many ontological naturalists thus adopt a physicalist attitude to mental, biological and other such “special” subject matters. They hold that there is nothing more to the mental, biological and social realms than arrangements of physical entities. 

In the final twentieth-century phase, the acceptance of the casual closure of the physical led to full-fledged physicalism. The causal closure thesis implied that, if mental and other special causes are to produce physical effects, they must themselves be physically constituted. It thus gave rise to the strong physicalist doctrine that anything that has physical effects must itself be physical. 

Less than 15% of prof philosophers even lean towards theism. Yet only 50% are 'naturalists. So that's fully a third of them that are neither. Including me. PhilPapers survey.

About that:

Damnation in the multiverse

1. An issue in Christian theodicy is whether a majority of the human race will be damned. An argument for that proposition combines inclusivism with the demographics of church history up to the present. Perhaps future church history demographics will offset the current tally.

2. A more specific issue concerns the ethnic demographics of salvation. As of now, some people-groups are overrepresented while other people-groups are underrepresented. Put another way, salvation is overrepresented in the northern hemisphere compared to the southern hemisphere. Or overrepresented in the west compared to the east. Is geography destiny?

Many Christians believe that some or all who die before the age of reason are saved. But even if that's the case, is it enough to offset the ethnic disparity? 

But perhaps that's just the way it is. There's a sense in which grace is arbitrary, since no one deserves it. 

3. Suppose, for argument's sake (which may in fact be true), that most folks on planet earth will be damned. Does that mean a majority of the human race will be damned? And does that mean more Caucasians are saved than other ethnic groups? Not necessarily. An unspoken assumption behind that inference is that humans only exist on planet earth, in our universe. But is that a secure assumption? What if there's a multiverse? Before addressing that question directly, I need to lay some groundwork.

4. Let's turn to modal metaphysics. There are at least two reasons to believe in possible worlds:

i) A capacity for hypothetical reasoning is a feature of human intelligence. That's one of the things which sets us apart from animals. A lot of our decision-making involves hypothetical reasoning. We mentally compare and contrast alternate courses of action. If I do this, what are the likely consequences? If, instead, I do that, what are the likely consequences?

In addition, many counterfactual scenarios seem to be undeniably true. It's just unavoidable. For instance: If JFK hadn't been assassinated on November 22, 1963, LBJ would not have assumed the presidency on the same day. How can that be reasonably disputed? 

ii) Furthermore, the Bible contains many hypothetical or counterfactual statements. So the Bible appeals to that human faculty. 

But what makes counterfactuals true? They don't correspond to what happens in our world. So counterfactuals are standardly cashed out in terms of possible worlds. Borrowing from time-travel scenarios, we could also recast the idea in terms of alternate timelines. 

5. But that pushes the question back a step: what are possible worlds? What's the ontology of possible worlds? There are different paradigms. David Lewis had a position similar to the multiverse. A different paradigm views possible worlds as abstract objects.

However, I view possible worlds as alternate plots in God's imagination. Like a screenwriter or novelist, God is able to imagine infinitely many different world histories. 

6. So I think Christians have good reason to believe in a plurality of possible worlds. But that raises another question: what's the relationship between possible worlds and actual worlds? Out of all the possible worlds at God's disposal, does he pick just one to instantiate? Or did God create a multiverse? 

i) I can't think of any reason why God is unable to create a multiverse. I don't know of any metaphysical impediment that prevents him from instantiating multiple alternate timelines. Of course it's incompossible for one and the same timeline to combine or contain two or more alternate timelines, but if these are separated, I don't see that it's impossible for them to coexist. 

ii) Assuming that God is unable to create a multiverse, is God unwilling to create a multiverse? We can't say for sure. However, it seems arbitrary to suppose God only instantiates one world history. There are so many interesting plotlines in the divine imagination. So many rich alternatives. World histories just as worthwhile as our own. So I incline to the view that God probably made a multiverse rather than a universe. 

7. Here I need to evoke a distinction, drawn by Robin Collins, between a physical multiverse and a metaphysical multiverse. The point of contrast is not that one is material while the other is immaterial. Rather, "physical" in this context means a multiverse based on physics. There are competing interpretations of quantum mechanics. One solution to superposition is the many-worlds interpretation. On that view, Schrödinger's cat is both dead and alive. Each outcome is represented in a parallel universe. In the multiverse, Schrödinger's cat has nine lives! And there are Christian physicists like Don Page and Jeff Zweerink who endorse a physical multiverse.

However, I'm dubious about a physical multiverse. For one thing, but there are competing interpretations, and we don't have enough evidence to verify or falsify the many-worlds interpretation.

I also have a theological objection: A physical multiverse is rather mechanical. All physically feasible alternatives must be realized. That doesn't give God any discretion. And it generates a theodical problem since some possible worlds are irremediably evil. That's unworthy of God's wisdom and benevolence. 

Instead of that, I'm partial to a metaphysical multiverse. That's independent of physics. On that model, not all possible timelines are represented. Only the better possible worlds make the cut. 

8. On that view, human history on planet earth is just one slice of human history overall. Human history isn't confined to planet earth in our universe. There's a parallel universe where Adam never fell. Likewise, there are fallen worlds where redemptive history originates in China, or Japan, or North America, or South America, &c. Some of these have a plot similar to Bible history, but with different geographical points of origin. Where Eden exists in a different part of the world. Where there's a counterpart to Abraham in a different part of the world. Where the Son became Incarnate as a Chinese, Vietnamese, Aztec, East Indian, or Iroquois male, &c. The human race is scattered across the multiverse, where alternate timelines play out. 

Even assuming most humans on our planet are hellbound, yet if you total the heavenbound humans in the multiverse, the cumulative tally for the saints might vastly outnumber the damned. Every people-group will be well-represented. To use our planetary history as the final frame of reference is a cosmically provincial basis of comparison. 

9. It might be objected that my position is too speculative. And this is certainly an exercise in philosophical theology. That said:

i) While it's speculative to postulate a multiverse, it's no less speculative to deny a multiverse. You can't avoid conjecture one way or the other.

ii) Christianity theism has metaphysical resources lacking in naturalism. And we should't hesitate to take advantage of the extra resources at our disposal. 

iii) If the universe is a tribute to God's greatness, how much more so a multiverse. 

iv) Although it's speculative, it's not sheer speculation. As I said, I think Scripture already bears witness to possible worlds. And from there it's a short step to a metaphysical multiverse. 

v) There is, moreover, the burden of proof. I don't even have to affirm it. It's enough that I can't rule it out. It's a reasonable conjecture. Even if I suspend judgment, it disables the theodical objection, for the theodical objection relies the ambitious assumption that human history is confined to our planet. To question that objection, I don't have to disprove the underlying assumption. Rather, it's up to the critic to prove his own assumption or disprove the multiverse scenario. The onus is on a critic to justify his operating assumptions. 

vi) Moreover, this isn't just an apologetic tactic on my part. I have no good reason to think God suffer from our limitations. When we come to a fork in the road, that's a binary choice between turning left or right. Yet that's because, at that stage, the fork in the road is a given. But it's not a given for God. 

10. BTW, I don't put this forward because I think the traditional position is indefensible. But the objection to the traditional position relies on a gratuitous assumption that I just don't grant or even find plausible. 

Maurice Grosse's Interview Of John Rainbow

I recently listened to an interview Maurice Grosse conducted with John Rainbow on April 9, 1978. Rainbow was a witness of what happened on December 15, 1977, one of the most eventful days in the Enfield Poltergeist. The interview is highly significant and includes some material I haven't seen discussed publicly.

Before I get to the interview, those who are unfamiliar with the December 15 events can go here for a brief overview from a documentary. It's mostly accurate, but not entirely. It gives the date as December 14, which is wrong. Go here to listen to Rainbow briefly describing his experience in a 1978 documentary. And here he is in a video produced many years later.

The interview between Grosse and Rainbow is about 18 minutes long, and it consists mostly of comments from Rainbow. His wife occasionally joins the conversation. Most of my citations that follow are from tape 84B in Grosse's Enfield collection.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Prophetic blanks

Conservatives have often argued that the critical position rests on a dogmatic, rationalistic denial of the possibility of predictive prophecy. For the critical scholar, however the issue is one or probability. That Daniel’s predictions have particular relevance to the time of Antiochus Epiphanes is not in dispute…There is no apparent reason, however, why a prophet of the sixth century should focus minute attention on the events in the second century. J. Collins, Daniel (Fortress Press 1993), 26.

That sounds plausible, but it's superficial. Bible prophecy is selective. Focussed on the big events. The Babylonian Exile was a big event for Jews. Suppose that's when Daniel was written. What's the next big event on the prophetic calendar? The Antiochean crisis is a good candidate. 

That would tempt many Jews to commit apostasy. So it would be very encouraging for 2C BC Jews to realize that a 6C prophet foresaw their ordeal, and predicted that God would deliver them.

And what's the next big event on the prophetic calendar? What's the big event between the Antiochean crisis and the advent of Christ? There's nothing of comparable importance in-between. So it's not unreasonable think Dan 11 has a blank, an unstated interval, between Antiochus and the next big event.

That's how prophetic timetables in Scripture work. They skip over minor events and focus on the high points or low points. 

Is the Archangel Michael the Son of Man?

Some commentators think the Son of Man in Dan 7 is the Archangel Michael. Here are some problems with that identification: 

i) Dan 7 depicts the Son of Man as the cloud-rider. That has its background in Baal, who was the cloud-rider. That was appropriated by OT writers, who reapply it to Yahweh. Yahweh is the true cloud-rider. In OT usage, that's a divine prerogative. 

Therefore, it can't apply to an angel like Michael. For the Son of Man to be the cloud-rider is a divine insignia. 

ii) There's the question of what Daniel saw. What did the Son of Man look like? Supposed he looked like Jesus at the Transfiguration or the Christophany in Rev 1. That might have an angelomorphic appearance in the sense of a radiant being. But that doesn't mean the Son of Man is an angel. Just that, like angels, he looks, in that setting, like a celestial being.

iii) Also, the context of Dan 7 is not about an angel appearing before Yahweh. Rather, it's an enthronement scene. The ancient of days represents the old king, while the son of man represents the crown prince who's now entering into the kingship as the royal successor or coregent.

iv) Angels might be in the pictorial background of Dan 7 as courtiers in God's throne room. That, however, doesn't make the Son of Man an angel, for the relationship between the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man is a royal father/royal son dynamic.

For another perspective:

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Are Some Determined to Believe the Worst About Reformed Theology?

Playing the lottery

This post will be on a similar theme as my dark horse post:

The main difference is that I'm using different examples to illustrate the same basic principle. In Christian apologetics we usually stress how much evidence there is for the Christian faith and how the evidence for Christianity greatly outweighs prima facie evidence to the contrary. That's all well and good. I do a lot of that myself. Many churchgoers as well as unbelievers have no idea how much evidence there is for the Christian faith. 

But while that's a necessary element in Christian apologetics, the emphasis can be misleading if that's all we do. It presents the Christian faith as a seesaw: whether you're a believer or unbeliever depends on which side of the seesaw has the most evidence. However, that can lead to a crisis of faith if some objection, some line of evidence, seems to shift the scales. Overemphasis on that model can produce an unstable, teeter-totter faith when a Christian is exposed to objections he's not heard before, for which he has no good answers. 

That's a practical problem but it's also a conceptual problem, because the seesaw apologetic is simplistic. It reduces to the question to whether Christianity is more probable than not. Just one variable. 

On the seesaw apologetic, it's irrational to believe in Christianity if Christianity is deemed to be improbable. Indeed, that's treated as general principle, not unique to Christianity. If it's a choice between two options, of which one is more probable and the other is less probable, it would be irrational to opt for the less likely choice. Or would it?

In cost/benefit analysis, there are several variables. Take playing the lottery. (For the record, I don't play the lottery.) In my experience, critics of the lottery think it's irrational to play the lottery because the odds of winning are so astronomically poor. However, that in itself doesn't make it irrational to play the lottery because a gambler is juggling three variables rather than one:

i) Improbability of winning

ii) Low investment

iii) Huge payout if you beat the odds

The odds of losing are offset by the minimal investment in relation to the huge payout in case you beat the odds. So it's a question of how the variables balance out. Yes, it's highly unlikely that you will ever win, but if it costs you so little to buy a chance at winning, and if winning is so enormously lucrative, then it can be reasonable to play the lottery. You have very little to lose, and a lot to gain. 

Now, if you blow your paycheck on buying lottery tickets, then that changes the cost/benefit assessment. So it depends on how the three variables are adjusted to each other. 

Another example is young men who want to be professional athletes. It's quite unlikely that they will make the cut. But if they have lots of athletic talent, and that's their dream, then despite the long odds, it's not unreasonable for them to see if they can make the cut. They'd rather take their chances, even if they fail, than look back on their life at 50 years of age, regretting the fact that they never gave it a shot. Of course, they still need to have a fallback option in case they wash out. 

And that's one way, a neglected way, to think about the Christian faith. Even if, for argument's sake, Christianity is probably a losing ticket, that in itself is not a good reason to reject Christianity. That judges Christianity by a single variable. 

Suppose you're bitten by a cobra. As luck would have it, your medicine cabinet has three vials of antivenom for three different kinds of snakebite, only you don't know which one is for cobras, and it would be fatal to take more than one. So you have a one in three chance of injecting yourself with the right life-saving antivenom. Lousy odds, but consider the alternative. 

To take a more mundane example, having kids is a big gamble. Kids can be a source of heartache and heartbreak. You pour the best years of your life into your kids, but some kid are ingrates. You don't know in advance.

So there's a risk. You can be lonely with or without kids, depending on how they turn out. But it's still reasonable to have kids, even though the outcome is unpredictable.

If another religion was more probable than Christianity, that would change the cost/benefit assessment. But Judaism is the only serious contender. And Judaism is like a puzzle with half the pieces missing. 

Suppose for argument's sake that atheism is more likely to be true than Christianity. But that has no payout.  

Of course, there's more to Christian faith than calculating the benefits. It requires commitment and conviction. But to constantly frame the case for Christianity in terms of probabilities is dangerously one-sided. If a Christian is passing through a desert, the cost/benefit approach can tide him over until he gets back onto green pastures. 

A case for Christ

What's the best evidence for Jesus? Many Christian apologists and Jesus scholars make a case for the historical Jesus. Having read so much material over the years, this is how I approach the issue. To a great extent I'm summarizing the best arguments, as I see them. But I also have some reservations about the stereotypical apologetic. Because apologist are influenced by other apologists, and scholars read other scholars, that has a conditioning effect, which produces a stereotypical apologetic. The standard apologetic has some good elements, but the conditioning effect fosters tunnel vision, so that other lines of evidence are neglected. In addition, there are bad elements in the standard apologetic. 

I. Preliminaries

1. The historical Jesus

The "historical Jesus" is often a downsized Jesus or even a naturalized Jesus. What's left over after the NT is filtered through the sieve of standard criteria. A historical reconstruction of the real Jesus, once we peel back the layers. However, the scope of my post isn't the "historical Jesus" in that residual sense, not about a reconstructed Jesus, hidden behind the NT record, but about the NT Jesus in toto. 

Of course, there is a Jesus who stands behind the NT record, independent of the NT record. A Jesus who is, in a sense, bigger than the NT. But for me, the real Jesus corresponds to the NT Jesus. While Jesus is ontologically prior to the record, yet our knowledge of Jesus is epistemologically dependent on the NT record.

2. "Bias"

A stock objection to using the Gospels is the allegation that the Gospels are partisan sources since their writers are Christian. But that's a confused objection:

i) The fact that an author has a viewpoint doesn't mean he's biased. The real question is the source of his viewpoint. Suppose a kid who grew up in the tropics moves to Canada, and sees his first snowman. He excitedly tells his parents about the snowman sighting. Should his discount be reported because he's now a believer in snowmen? But his newfound belief in snowmen isn't a reflection of bias. Prior to his encounter with the snowman, he had no  predisposition to believe in snowmen. Indeed, his default plausibility structure might be skeptical of reports about the existence of snowmen. His viewpoint is due to a formative experience rather than a prior belief. 

ii) But even in the case of viewpoints that do reflect bias, that doesn't automatically discredit the report. I sometimes see moving objects in the sky. They may be too small or distant for me to clearly make them out. But if the motion is geometric, I assume that's an airplane, and if the motion is erratic, I assume that's a bird. My identification is "biased" because I know about planes and birds, so I use that background knowledge as an interpretive frame of reference. But my predilection doesn't discredit my observation.

iii) If traditional NT authorship is correct, then all the NT writers were converts to Christianity. Nearly all of them were Jewish converts to Christianity, while one (Luke) was a gentile convert to Christianity, although he was probably an intellectual convert to Judaism (Godfearer) prior to his Christian conversion. So all of them came to believe in Jesus. 

And, once again, if traditional NT authorship is correct, then all of them came to believe in Jesus by knowing Jesus or knowing people who knew Jesus. That's not bias any more than coming to believe in something generally based on eyewitness experience or eyewitness testimony is bias. 

Of course, critics who complain about the Gospels as "biased" sources usually deny that they are based on firsthand knowledge of Jesus. But that needs to be separated from the allegation of bias. Those are distinct issues.  

3. Eyewitness memory

i) Another stock objection is the alleged unreliability of eyewitness memory. In particular, people remember events better than words. So how can the Gospels be an accurate record of what Jesus said? 

ii) A similar objection is that the phenomenon of the omniscient narrator. Gospels writers sometimes relate incidents which they wouldn't ordinarily be privy to. 

Many Christian apologists and evangelical scholars offer naturalistic explanations. And sometimes those make sense. However, treating the Gospels as naturalistic records of supernatural agents and events erects a false dichotomy. The Gospels aren't merely reports about a world containing miracles, revelations, angels and demons–detached from the world they narrate, for the Gospels are products of the same kind of world. So it's artificial to bifurcate the nature of the Gospels from the nature of the world they recount, as if the writers had to be limited to natural means of knowledge. As if fallible, unaided memory, direct observation, or informants was necessarily all they had to go by. For instance, consider Elisha's clairvoyance (2 Kgs 6). It's a philosophical and theological mistake for apologists and evangelical scholars to eliminate inspiration from consideration. Inspiration and revelation are no more or less credible than what the Gospels report. 

iii) A related objection is whether "peasants" and fishermen like James, John, and Jude could write good Greek. Now, there are plausible naturalistic explanations, but over an above that, xenoglossy is a gift of the Spirit (according to Acts). So if it came to that, it would be possible for James, John, and Jude to be supernaturally enabled. For that matter, verbal inspiration might do the trick.

But supernatural explanations aren't considered, even by scholars who believe in NT miracles. It illustrates the default secular paradigm that unconsciously conditions so much NT scholarship, even among evangelicals or apologists. 

For more on memory, cf. C. Keener, Christobiography (Eerdmans  2019), Part 5. 

4. Tradition

"Traditions" about Jesus uses the word "tradition" loosely and misleadingly. For instance, Eusebius has a number of historically useful anecdotes about the apostles. By the time that gets down to him, those are traditions. 

By contrast, it's misleading to classify 1 Cor 15:3-8 or Heb 2:4 as "traditions". Rather, those are examples of living memory. While tradition can preserve living memory, tradition is one or more steps removed from living memory. 

5. As is often noted, the documentary evidence for Jesus satisfies standard criteria like multiple attestation and the criterion of embarrassment.

The faithless prayer meeting

Are faith and science at war?

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Take it or leave it

Edwin Curley

What started me on this path was reading the prayer book my mother gave me when I was 16. At the back were printed the Articles of Religion members of my church, the Episcopal Church, were expected to accept. I had not read them carefully when I was preparing for confirmation. Then I was only 13, and there was much I did not understand. Our minister was a good man: highly intelligent, cultured, and humane. At 13, I was content to accept what he told me, simply on his authority.

Then, at 16, I read those Articles of Religion, carefully and critically for the first time. I was disturbed that my church accepted predestination. Before the foundation of the world, the Articles said, God had chosen some vessels for honor and others for dishonor. So far as I could see, there was as good scriptural foundation for this teaching as there was for any doctrine the church affirmed. One of the first principles of my church was that no one should be required to believe, as necessary for salvation, any doctrine which could not be proved from scripture.

There were also strong philosophical reasons for accepting predestination. If God is omniscient, if he knows everything, he must have foreknowledge of his creatures' fate. If he is omnipotent, can do anything, or anything that is logically possible to do, then nothing happens except by his will. So, if I wind up in Hell, he will have known that from eternity, and he will have willed it from eternity.

Predestination is not so widely accepted now as it was when my church was founded in the 16th century. I find many Christians who reject it. And I sympathize with them. Their hearts are in the right place, certainly. I cannot believe that a just and loving God would create beings he knew and had pre-determined would spend eternity in hell. But Christians can reject pre-destination only at the cost of ignoring the authority of their scriptures and the implications of their theology.

Well, so far my objections have been mainly theological; they are objections to teachings whose basis is primarily scriptural rather than philosophical. The main exception to that generalization is the doctrine of predestination, which has philosophical grounds as well as scriptural grounds. I know many Christians here tonight will not feel that their understanding of Christianity requires them to accept all these doctrines, either because they have a different interpretation of scripture, or because they do not regard the Christian scriptures as absolutely authoritative in determining their beliefs and conduct. I've said I think those Christians who adopt a freer attitude toward scripture and do not feel that their acceptance of Christianity commits them to predestination, or Hell, or original sin, or justification by faith, or exclusivism those Christians have their hearts in the right place, I say. But I also think their feet may be planted on the slippery slope to heresy, and that more conservative Christians, who would accord greater authority to scripture, have a clearer right to call themselves Christians. How much of traditional Christianity can you reject and still be a Christian?

Begging the question

Andrew Loke replied to my post:

In his rejoinder, Loke repeats the allegation that presuppositionalists, or Frame in particular, are guilty of "circularity". I'll have more to say about that later on, but for the moment I'd like to focus on Loke's usage. What does he mean by circular argumentation? Here's one explanation:

In reply, while some authors may think that circularity is necessary, this does not imply that circular arguments of the sort which Presuppositionalists use — the sort which presuppose the conclusion as the premise (e.g. ‘God exists [presupposition], therefore God exists [conclusion]’49) — are therefore valid.

Here Loke seems to be defining circularity in logical terms: a premise/conclusion relation. But one problem with Locke's explanation is failure to distinguish between a premise and a presupposition. A premise is an element in a logical syllogism. For instance, many philosophical, historical, and scientific arguments take for granted the existence of other minds, the external world, sense knowledge, &c. Those are presuppositions rather than syllogistic premises. They don't figure in the actual argument. Rather, they function as necessary background conditions or background assumptions. 

Here's another explanation: 

to show by non-circular argument (i.e. without begging the question)

In my article, I explain why his circularity implies begging-the-question, and why his claim ought to be rejected.

i) Here Loke seems to define circularity in terms of begging the question. If so, that's a different definition than a premise/conclusion relation. So he appears to oscillate between two different explanations. How do these relate to each other?

ii) Is his claim that circular reasoning is the same thing as begging the question, or is circular reasoning a general fallacy while begging the question is a specific kind of circular reasoning? How do these relate to each other?

iii) To say circular reasoning begs the question only pushes the issue back a step, because that raises the question: what does he mean by begging the question? Here's how he seems to answer that question:

My use of hypothetical alternatives is to demonstrate the fallacy of the question-begging type of argument used by Frame. An evidentialist argument for Christianity does not beg the question against non-Christian accounts of reason, evidence, and experience, and thus is not beset by the problem.

Which even sceptics of the Bible would need to rely on, thus it is non-circular in the sense that it doesn’t beg the question against the epistemology of the sceptics of the Bible...

i) So he appears to define begging the question by making the epistemology of non-Christians the standard of comparison. A presuppostionalist begs the question by failing to meet the non-Christian on his own grounds. Their accounts of reason, evidence, and experience is the yardstick. Presuppositionalism is fallacious because it doesn't measure up to that benchmark. 

ii) So the relation seems to be: circularity>begging the question>coming up short according to non-Christian epistemology. 

iii) If that's what he means, then he thinks the Christian apologist unilaterally shoulders the burden of proof. The onus is not on the non-Christian since non-Christian epistemology is the criterion. The way to avoid begging the question is for the Christian apologist to operate according to non-Christian accounts of reason, evidence, and experience. If that's what Loke means, then the non-Christian controls the terms of the debate. The game is played on his turf by his rules. You can only win if you beat him by his own rules. 

iv) If, however, that's what Loke means, it's unclear how that constitutes a fallacy. While it may well be unconvincing to a non-Christian for a Christian apologist to operate with a Christian epistemology, persuasiveness is a psychological rather than logical condition. A sound or valid argument can be unconvincing. 

v) And even assuming that's a fallacy, why wouldn't that be a two-sided fallacy? If it's fallacious for a Christian to operate with a Christian epistemology when debating a non-Christian, is it not equally fallacious for a non-Christian to operate with a non-Christian epistemology when debating a Christian? Why does Loke seem to insist on a double standard–where there's a higher standard for Christian than non-Christian? 

Indeed, Loke goes on to say:

I wrote on p.7: ‘Luke portrays Paul as questioning the reasonableness of the sceptics’ presupposition by asking ‘Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?’ (Acts 26:8, NIV). Following the Scriptural example of Paul (to which Frame would be committed) would imply that, when facing sceptics who reject all supernatural claims from the onset (such as Bultmann and Hume), the Christian should not argue for his/her view in a circular manner. Rather, he/she should show the unreasonableness of their rejection without circularity.’

i) So here he concedes that a non-Christian epistemology is not automatically the standard of comparison. But if a non-Christian epistemology is not necessarily the default criterion, then what does it mean for Loke to say the presuppositionalist begs the question against non-Christian accounts of reason, evidence, and experience? If that's not the benchmark, how do you beg the question against it? 

ii) Maybe his point is not that non-Christian epistemologies set the ground rules, but that presuppositionalists fail to even engage the other side. He concedes that it's sometimes necessary to challenge non-Christian accounts of reason, evidence, and experience. So perhaps he believes there's epistemological common ground that isn't distinctively Christian or distinctively non-Christian. A generic epistemology independent of any particular worldview. 

If so, doesn't that entail an artificially compartmentalized view of reality? If Christianity is true, then ultimately a true theory of knowledge must be grounded in Christian reality. Suppose a non-Christian epistemology is partially true. But to be consistently true, it must be developed in a Christian direction. The task of a presuppositionalist is to trace out the interconnectedness of that Christian reality. Reality as a tapestry of interwoven threads. 

I'll have more to say about this further down. I'm just attempting to clarify Loke's categories.