Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Hedge maze

I'm going to comment on some related statements by A. J. Ayer. He was a prominent English atheist, not as famous as Russell, but also not as flippant. I'd note in passing that Russell and Ayer were both gifted children as well as emotionally neglected children. Both men were womanizers. As Paul Vitz has documented (Faith of the Fatherless), emotional neglect is a pathway to atheism. 

Nevertheless the vast majority of those who believe that the universe serves a purpose do so because they take this as conferring a meaning on life. How far down in the scale of organisms are they prepared to go is not always clear. The hymnodist Mrs. Alexander boldly strikes out with 'All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.' 

Even if life had a meaning in the sense that we have just been discussing, it would not be known to the persons who had faith in it, nor would they have any inkling of the part that their own lives played in the overall plan. It might, therefore, seem surprising that the question was so important to them. Why should it matter to them that they followed a course which was not of their own choosing as a means to an end of which they were ignorant? Why should they derive any satisfaction from the belief that they were puppets in the hands of a superior agent? I believe the answer is that most people are excited by the feeling that they are involved in a larger enterprise, even if they have no responsibility for its direction. A. J. Ayer, The Meaning of Life and Other Essays (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1990), 120,122.

i) One obvious answer is that God is infinitely wiser than we are, so he can devise far better plans for our lives than we can if left to our own devices. 

ii) To take a comparison, suppose a military unit is sent on a mission of pivotal strategic value. If successful, it will be a turning-point in the war effort. But their superiors don't inform team regarding the strategic value of the mission. They don't know that in advance. It's only after the war, with the benefit of hindsight, that they come to appreciate the critical significance of their role. Why does Ayer seem to assume that creatures need to know ahead of time what part their lives play in the overall plan? Why can't that be something they discover as they go along? Why can't that be retrospective rather than prospective? 

iii) Consider a father who builds a jungle gym in the backyard for his young sons. Or maybe a tree house. His kids didn't choose that playground equipment. Their father created that recreational opportunity for them. He gives their lives structure. Something fun to do. Something they couldn't imagine or construct on their own. Should they not derive satisfaction in the jungle gym or tree house because they didn't choose that course of action? 

iv) When a creative writer invents characters, he doesn't create them in a vacuum, with nothing to do. He also creates a setting and a plot. Should God make rational creatures without giving them any direction in life? Just blunder along without any sense of purpose? Thrown them into existence with no guidance, like feral children, to fend for themselves? 

What does he even mean by saying they have no inkling about their place in the great scheme of things? The Bible describes the origin, fall, redemption, and destiny of man. Indeed, that's the great narrative arc of Scripture.  

Sure, Ayer doesn't believe in God, but he needs to adopt a Christian viewpoint for the sake of argument to critique it. Yet he's made no effort to get inside that viewpoint. 

But now, it may be objected, suppose that the world is designed by a superior being. In that case the purpose of our existence will be the purpose that it realizes for him; and the meaning of life will be found in our conscious adaptation to his purpose…Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that everything happens as it does because a superior being has intended it should. As far as we are concerned, the course of events still remains entirely arbitrary. True, it can now be said to fulfill a purpose; but the purpose is not ours…It merely happens to be the case that the deity has the purpose that he has and not some other purpose, or no purpose at all. E. Klemke & S. Cahn, The Meaning of Life: A Reader (Oxford, 3rd. ed., 2008), 200.

Why does Ayer assume that God can have no good reason for intending one thing rather than another? Why assume the choice must be arbitrary rather than judicious? 

Nor does this unwarrantable assumption provide us even with a rule of life. For even those who believe most firmly that the world was designed by a superior being are not in a position to tell us what his purpose can have been. 

Scripture does provide a rule of life. Scripture contains many instructions about how to live. Scripture contains a roadmap about where to go, how to get there, and what to avoid. So what is Ayer talking about? Yeah, he doesn't believe in the Bible, but he makes no effort to refute Christianity on its own terms. It's like he never really thought about it. 

They may indeed claim that it has been mysteriously revealed to them, but how can it be proved that the revelation is genuine?

i) What makes  him think there's something mysterious about the process of divine revelation?

ii) There are various lines of evidence that Scripture is what it purports to be, viz. argument from prophecy, argument from miracles, archeological corroboration, answered prayer. 

Either his purpose is sovereign or it is not. If it is sovereign, that is, if everything that happens is necessarily in accordance with it, then this is true also of our behavior. Consequently, there is no point in our deciding to conform to it, for the simple reason that we cannot do otherwise. However we behave, we shall fulfill the purpose of this deity; and if we were to behave differently we should still be fulfilling it; for if it were possible for us not to fulfill it it would not be sovereign in the requisite sense. 

That confounds sovereignty with fatalism. However, predestination and providence employ multiple means to achieve the end. Opening doors, closing doors, incentives and disincentives. It's not whatever will be will be, for sovereignty coordinates ends and means. There's one particular pathway to the goal–like a hedge maze. 

But suppose that it is not sovereign…In that case, there is no reason why we should try to conform to it unless we independently judge it to be good. But that means the significance of our behavior depends  finally upon our own judgments of value; and the concurrence of a deity then becomes superfluous. 

That may be a valid critique of freewill theism. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Does prayer stop bullets?

Tyson is a "public intellectual". Like Carl Sagan, Jerry Coyne, and Richard Dawkins, he's become a vocal spokesman for "scientific" atheism.

There's a problem when people try to act cleverer than they are. His tweet is meant to be witty, but it's really stupid.

i) To begin with, we can't pray for things we can't anticipate. We can't pray to God to stop things we didn't see coming. School shootings at any particular location are very rare and highly unpredictable. It's too late to pray to God to stop something after the fact, when the outcome is known. To pray is not an act of prophecy. It doesn't see the future.

ii) The theology of prayer was never predicated on God answering every prayer.

iii) How does Tyson know that prayer is insufficient to stop bullets from killing students? To take a comparison, suppose Tyson said time-travel is insufficient to stop bullets from killing students? But if a time-traveler succeeded in changing the timeline to avert a catastrophe, then that erases the original timeline. The very success of his temporal incursion covers his tracks.

By the same token, if there are occasions when prayer prevents a massacre, there will be no record of what didn't happen. A nonevent leaves no trace evidence. If prayer changes the future, in a counterfactual sense, then that's consistent with the future that actually eventuates. Efficacious prayer and naturalism are empirically equivalent at that level.

There are, however, situations in which there's evidence for the efficacy of prayer. But atheists don't move in circles where that happens, since their social circle generally consists of people who don't pray, so they've excluded themselves from the evidence.

Teens with guns

I going to make a couple of loosely related observations about schoolyard snipers. Many advocates of "sensible gun control" seem to think we need to keep guns out of the hands of teenagers, or at the very least, military grade weapons. 

1. Some people think the solution, or at least one solution, is to have police officers permanently stationed in public schools. In that regard I'd simply point out that many many teenage boys can easily subdue and disarm a policewoman. I don't mean if her gun is drawn. I mean in the more casual atmosphere of a high school, where police officers wouldn't maintain the same physical distance or be on guard in the same way if they were walking the beat and interacting with strangers (which they usually do in pairs). They see these students everyday. 

A boy who had designs on shooting his classmates wouldn't have to smuggle a gun through metal detectors. There'd already be police firearms on site. The policewoman would be the armory. So long as he had the ability to overpower her and take her gun away, that's all he needs. 

2. Teenagers regularly enlist in the military. You can volunteer at 18, or join at 17 with parental permission. I don't have these statistics at my fingertips, but just since the advent of the all-voluntary military, we've probably had hundreds of thousands of teenagers (junior NCOs) with access to military grade weaponry. And that's not counting teenage draftees during WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. I'm guessing we've had millions of teenagers with access to military grade weaponry over the decades. How many of them have perpetrated domestic mass shootings? Surely the percentage is infinitesimal. Likewise, you can go straight from high school to police academy, which gives cadets access to police firearms. 

What A Major New Commentary Says About Isaiah 9

H.G.M. Williamson's commentary on Isaiah 6-12 came out recently. I just wrote a post on Facebook about Williamson's material on Isaiah 9:1-7.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Clinging to nihilism

I'm going to quote and comment on some statements in David Benatar's The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life's Biggest Questions (Oxford 2016). 

Debates about the existence of God are interminable, and I cannot hope to settle them here (39). 

Of course, there are those who remain resolute in their belief in either resurrection or the immortality of the soul. In this sense, at least, the issue is unresolved. However, merely because a view has (even vast numbers) of adherents does not mean that it is a reasonable position worth taking seriously. Thus, while I cannot pretend that my comments constitute a full refutation of their view, I do not intend to engage any further with the beliefs that we are immortal in in either of these senses (144).

I'm struck by Benetar's intellectual impatience. That would be understandable if he had something better in the offing, but Benatar has such an acidic outlook on life that he deems it an unmitigated tragedy that anyone even exists! Given that frame of reference, wouldn't just about anything be a huge improvement over his dyseptic, despairing antinatalism? Why not invest more effort into investigating the evidence for Christian theism? Does he have something better to do with his time? Why does he cling to nihilism for dear life? 

However, human nature tends to abhor a meaning vacuum...Arguably, the most ancient and also the most pervasive of the coping mechanisms is theism and associated doctrines. Many theists believe that even if our lives seem meaningless from a cosmic perspective, they are not in fact so. This, they say, is because we are not an accident of purposeless evolution, but rather the creation of a God who endows our lives with meaning. According to this view, we serve not merely a cosmic purpose, but a divine one.

This is a seductively comforting thought. For that reason alone, we should be suspicious of it, given how easy it is for humans to believe what they would like to believe.

A related objection notes that not merely any divine purpose would give us the kind of meaning we seek (36-37).

i) While it's true that not just any divine purpose would give us the kind of meaning we seek, that would only undercut the theistic "coping mechanism" if, in fact, the actual divine purposes are of that unenviable kind. So how is that hypothetical observation germane unless there's some reason to think that would be the case? 

ii) There is, moreover, a difference between a meaning vacuum and the kind of meaning we seek. Existence would still be meaningful rather than vacuous even if it's not the kind of meaning that some people seek. Need it be equally meaningful for everyone to be meaningful for anyone? 

iii) How many Christians believe our life seems to be meaningless from a cosmic perspective? Is that really their viewpoint and experience–or Benatar's? 

Many people have raised the objection that theism cannot do the meaning-endowing work it is purported to do here. For example, it has been suggested that serving God's purposes does not suffice, as this makes people "puppets in the hands of a superior agent" or mere instruments to the goals of God. 

The theist could say say, there is no problem in being a means to any end set for us by such a God; better to be a means to a supreme being's beneficent purpose than neither to be an end of cosmic significance nor to have any (cosmic) purpose at all. 

The problem with such a response is that, insofar as it provides any reassurance about life's cosmos meaning, it does so by providing a hand-waving account of what that meaning is. The account is as mysterious as the ways in which the Lord is often said to move. We are told that serving the purposes of a beneficent deity provides (cosmic) meaning to our lives, but to be told that is not to be told what those purposes are. "Serving God's purposes" is a placeholder for details that need to be provided.

When the details are provided, however, the results are unsatisfactory. If, for example, we are told that our purpose is to love God and serve him, we might reasonably ask why a being as great as God is said to be would possibly want or need the love and service of humans at all–let alone so badly that he would create them to serve that purpose. If loving and serving God is our purpose, the act of creating us sounds like that of a supremely narcissistic rather than a supremely beneficent being. This alleged purpose is thus unconvincing (37-38).

i) I don't know how Benatar (or Ayer) is using "puppets". What's the precise point of objection? 

ii) It's not a question of what God needs. If God is the supreme good and source of all finite goods, then loving and serving God is equivalent to loving goodness and acting accordingly. 

iii) Perhaps Benatar thinks that to say our purpose is to serve God or serve his purposes implies that humans are only a means to an end: God uses us to achieve his goals. We are pawns on a cosmic chessboard. Pawns are expendable. You sacrifice a pawn to checkmate your opponent. Something like that.

If so, this assumes that humans are simply instrumental to the realization of God's purposes rather than the object of God's purposes. If, however, God's purpose is that humans , or at least a subset of humanity, enjoys eternal felicity, then we don't exist primarily to facilitate God's objective; rather, we are the intended beneficiaries of his designs. 

iv) Likewise, we don't have to know God's purpose for our lives to benefit from his purpose for our lives, assuming that's a beneficent plan. To take a comparison, consider a father who takes his young son on a camping trip. The purpose is to have a shared experience. His young son may not be privy to the details of the excursion. And his father can contrive enjoyable pursuits for his young son which his son lacks the imagination and ability to contrive on his own. His son needn't be told ahead of time what fun plans his father has in store for him to find their time together meaningful. Indeed, an element of surprise might make it more enjoyable. His father's goal isn't separate from their time together; rather, that is the goal.

By the same token, Christians discover God's purpose for their lives by…living. It's not something they need to know in advance. They find out by experience. That's how it works. These aren't separable things. 

Another possible suggestion is that our purpose on earth is to prepare us for the afterlife. That does not explain what the purpose of the afterlife is. If it is eternal bliss, it might be thought not to require any further end. However, if religious doctrine is to be believed, then for a great many people, the afterlife is not a final good but rather a final bad–hardly the sort of meaning people yearn for (38-39).

i) Must it be eternal bliss for everyone to be eternal bliss for anyone?

ii) A bad end is meaningful if that's their just desert. 

Even in the best-case scenario, it is hard to understand why God would create a being in order to prepare it for an afterlife, given that no afterlife would be needed or desired if the being had not been created in the first place. It is much like a parent creating a child for the purpose of that child's having a satisfying retirement. Satisfying retirements are worth aiming at if one already exists, but they hardly provide grounds for creating people who will have such a retirement. The sort of meaning that the afterlife provides cannot explain why God would have created us at all (39). 

But that's a reflection of Benatar's thankless, venomous antinatalism. In a "best-case scenario," God makes rational beings out of sheer generosity, to experience happiness. Benetar acts as though, since a nonentity can't desire happiness, that it's better never to exist than to be happy.  

As all this illustrates, it is not easy to specify a divine ordained meaning that convincingly and non-circularly explains the cosmic meaning of human life in a way that affirms rather than demeans humanity (39). 

The blind irony of an antinatalist who frowns on "demeaning humanity". 

Upton Sinclair famously remarked that it "is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it". It is similarly difficult to get somebody to understand something when the meaning of his life depends on his not understanding it (39).

What's the value of understanding that life is worthless? What's the point of promoting that outlook? 

Imagine you were to visit a country in which the evidence of repression is pervasive: There is no freedom of the press or expression; vast numbers of people live in squalor and suffer severe malnutrition; those attempting to flee the country are imprisoned; torture and executions are rampant; and fear is widespread…When you muster the courage to express skepticism, citing various disturbing facts, you are treated to elaborate rationalizations that things are not as they seem. 

It would be wonderful if North Korea were led by an omnibenevolent, infallible, and incorruptible ruler, but if it had such a leader, North Korea would look very different from the way it does look. The fact that many people in North Korea would disagree with us can be explained either by their vested interests in the regime, by their having been indoctrinated, or by their fear of speaking out.

Not all of earth is as bad as North Korea, but North Korea is part of "God's earth"; so are Afghanistan, Burma, China, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, and Zimbabwe, to name but a few appalling places for many to live…My point is that they all occur within the jurisdiction of a purportedly omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God (41-42).

i) That's just rehashing the problem of evil. It makes no effort to engage Christian theodicies.

ii) Moreover, the comparison is tendentiously one-sided, as if life on earth is unmitigated evil with no compensatory goods. 

iii) Why does Benatar cling to nihilism? He clutches nihilism to his breast. Don't you dare take my misery away from me! I live to be miserable! That's my purpose in life!  

Consider, first, the denial of our mortality. One form this takes is belief in physical resurrection at some future time. If this belief were true it would make death a kind of suspended animation rather than annihilation. Assuming that the resurrected person would either not die a second time…this promises a kind of immortality.

Perhaps more common is the belief in an immortal soul. The comfort sought here is that though our bodies may die, we shall continue in some–preferably blissful–disembodied state despite our corporeal death and decay. 

Such beliefs are instances of wishful thinking. We have no evidence that we shall ever be physical resurrected or that we shall endure as disembodied souls after our physical deaths. Religious texts may speak of these phenomena, but even when they are not waxing poetic and metaphorical, they do not constitute evidence. Indeed, it is much more reasonable to believe that death is annihilation of the self (142-43).

If there's evidence that the texts are true, then that's evidence for the truth of what they say.

Are we really to believe that decomposed, cremated, atomically incinerated and ingested bodies are to be reconstituted and reanimated? The challenges in understanding the mechanics of this dwarf even the other notable problems, such as the logistics of physically accommodating all the resurrected (143).

I don't see any difficulty in principle. A body is a specific organization of matter. God can recreate a particular body by reproducing that particular pattern of atoms and molecules. A body is a concrete exemplification of an abstract pattern. God has the power to replicate a specific configuration of atoms and molecules. 

These practical problems do not confront the belief in an immortal soul, but that belief faces no shortage of other problems. We have plenty of evidence that our consciousness is a product of our brains. When we are given general anesthesia–administrated to our physical bodies and affecting our physical brains–we lose consciousness. When our brains are deprived of oxygenate or when we suffer a sufficiently powerful blow to the head, we similarly lose consciousness. It seems unlikely that consciousness, so vulnerable even during life, could then survive the death and decay of our brains (143-44). 

i) Of course, those are cliche-ridden objections to dualism. But it's not as if dualists are speechless in the face of stock objections. On the one hand, based on the receiver view of William James and the filter view of Aldous Huxley, physicalism and substance dualism are empirically equivalent.

On the other hand, there's positive evidence (e.g. veridical near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, terminal lucidity, apparitions of the death) that the mind can function independent of the body, so that tips the scales in favor of dualism. 

ii) So long as the mind is coupled with the brain, that coupling will affect transmission–in both directions We'd expect that given interactionist dualism. 

Is immortality a road to nowhere?

An unending life would be one that lacked any meaningful shape or pattern. It would resemble an infinitely long river that meandered eternally without ever reaching the sea. There would be no arch-shaped structure of birth, growth, maturity, decline and death. Although phases of the life might have their own internal structure, it would be as a whole (not that it could ever be grasped that way) completely shapeless. It would be a life that was going nowhere specific, and in which the people, projects, and aspirations that were important at one stage would be insignificant and forgotten at another. Geoffrey Scarre, Death (Routledge 2014).

i) To play along with his metaphor, boating down an infinitely long river means we'd never see the same scene twice. The scene would constantly change. And that would indeed be maddening.

But why suppose unending life must be analogous to that? Why can't eternal life combine variety with repeatable experiences? 

ii) Scarre fails to distinguish between temporal ends and teleological ends, yet something that's endless can still be patterned. The Mandelbrot set is infinite, yet highly structured. 

Finnegans Wake has a circular plot. It has no real beginning or ending. In principle, you can open the book at any point and start reading. You can break into the circle anywhere. Once inside the plot, repeated reading will deepen your understanding of the plot. Things you initially miss you will appreciate after going around a few more times. Of course, that could still become tedious, but we're just toying with metaphors. 

Take the common experience of leaving home and returning home. That's repetitious and circular, yet it doesn't mean you're going nowhere. Moreover, leaving home enriches the experience of returning home. 

Furthermore, if we lived forever we would need to be equipped with vastly more powerful memories than we have now to be able to recall our own distant pasts. McMahan might contend that it would not be important to be able to remember our origins or ancient history so long as we could remember our more recent past (say, the last century or so). But if we retained anything like our present psychology, we would feel ourselves deeply alienated from our own pasts if we had to consult the history books to learn about our former deeds. (Also think what an unsatisfactory sense of self one would have if one could no longer remember one's childhood or one's parents.) We care about what will happen to us in the future, and what happened to us in the past, because we see our past and our future as parts of one and the same life, chapters in the same narrative. No coherent, graspable narrative, however, could link together our existence over endless ages. Fischer has suggested that while an infinitely long life would not have "narrative structure, strictly conceived", the "literary analogue for such a life is not the novel, but perhaps a collection of short stories…with the same character appearing as the protagonist" 

That objection seems to be based on immortality in the sense of never dying, rather than a Christian model, where there's distinct phases: life before you die, the intermediate state, and the final state. His objection involves an undifferentiated continuum. But on a Christian model, I don't think it would require a vastly more powerful memory to recall your life before you died. 

And do we actually need a vastly more powerful memory to recollect what happens to us if we just keep on living? That's never been put to the test. Memory is already highly selective.  

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Nikolas Cruz

A few observations, in no particular order, about the Florida school massacre:

i) Guns take lives, guns save lives. News reports are slanted and one-sided because the liberal media gives the former saturation coverage while the latter is underreported. For instance:

ii) I saw a group on Facebook draw invidious comparisons between Japan and the USA. I hesitate to make international comparisons because I know less about other countries, but from what I've read, Japan has its own problems. For instance:

iii) It's instructive that when the story concerns black-on-black crime or jihadist attacks, sociologists rush in to tell us that we need to consider the "root-cause" of violence, which they blame on the "system", racism, colonialism, &c. but when it's a sniper, they blame guns. 

iv) The FBI has been blamed for dropping the ball in this case. It had at least two tips, but did nothing of consequence. However, I'm not sure what the FBI should do in cases like this. I'm not a child psychologist, but aren't many teenagers prone to emotional volatility, overreaction, exaggerated feelings? They usually outgrow it, but isn't that a common phase that many adolescent boys and girls go through? Are we going to start rounding up millions of teenagers who are exhibit wild mood swings, erratic behavior, &c.? Should they be institutionalized and medicated with psychotropic drugs?

I'd turn the question around. I think the issue isn't so much whether the FBI should intervene in cases like this, but what is the raison d'être for the FBI? Does that agency do more harm than good? Is it maker us safer, or is it a threat to civil liberties? When you trade civil liberties for security, you lose both. 

v) BTW, this is a problem with dragnet surveillance. Our so-called law enforcement agencies have too much information, not too little. When they hoover up information on Americans generally, there's an enormous amount of static to sift through. 

vi) There's a curious analogy between advocates of "sensible gun control" and the reaction of atheists to the latest natural disaster. Atheists always act as if when you have a fresh natural disaster that kills hundreds or thousands of people, this should be the tipping-point. When are you going to stop believing in God? What does it take? How much more do you need? But astute Christians already have theodicies for that. A new natural disaster doesn't change anything in that regard. It doesn't add a new kind of evidence we didn't have before. 

By the same token, Americans who support the 2nd Amendment have principled reasons for their position. That takes abuse of the 2nd Amendment into account. That's a necessary tradeoff for living in a free and open society. And that's true for civil liberties in general. Should we repeal the 1st Amendment because it's abused?

There is no tipping-point. We expect access to guns will sometimes have tragic results. But that's just one side of the story. I believe Cambodia has about 2 million piles of skulls with bullet holes in the back of the head because the Khmer Rouge disarmed the populace before committing genocide. Then there's Mao's Cultural Revolution. When the state has all the firepower, what's to deter it? 

vii) One issue is whether we should seek a general motivation for snipers, or consider the snipers individually. 

In some cases, snipers may be motivated by celebrity. They'd rather be infamous than a nobody. Likewise, it gives them a sense of power. The power of life and death. 

In some cases this may reflect backlash against feminism and the "war on boys". 

In some cases a sniper was bullied, and this is revenge. Moreover, a kid who's bullied dreads going to school, and this puts an end to that prospect. It also reverses the power dynamic by putting them in control. 

There's also a vicious cycle where unpopular kids respond to their unpopularity by becoming more morose and withdrawn, which makes them even more shunned, which aggravates their sense of alienation and resentment. 

Cruz's adoptive mother, Lynda Cruz, reportedly had trouble with his behavior in the past. She would occasionally contact the police to give him behavioral advice at their home, Helen Pasciolla, a former neighbor, told The New York Times.

"I think she wanted to scare them a little bit," Pasciolla said. "Nikolas has behavioral problems, I think, but I never thought he would be violent."

Lynda Cruz died in November, according to Fort Lauderdale's Sun Sentinel. Her husband died years earlier of a heart attack; Cruz and his brother were in the care of a family friend at the time of the shooting, people close to the family told the Associated Press.

I expect the unstable domestic situation, lack of contact with his biological parents–especially his real father–may be the source of his rage. 

Hampster on a wheel

I'll be quoting some passages from David Benatar's The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life's Biggest Questions (Oxford 2016). 

The only consistent atheists are atheists who commit suicide. All other atheists pull their punches. There are several reasons I harp on the nihilistic consequences of atheism:

i) It's useful in evangelism and offensive apologetics. Many atheists are atheists because they don't take atheism seriously enough. They compartmentalize their atheism. They fail to appreciate what's at stake in the debate between Christianity and atheism. They act as if these are symmetrical options. 

ii) It's useful in defensive apologetics. Some professing Christians commit apostasy because they think atheism is a viable alternative. They never had a deep appreciation of what Christianity offers. They never understood the contrast. They never thought through what makes human life worthwhile. 

iii) It's devotional and edifying to have a point of contrast between Christianity and the stark alternative. That's something on which we should meditate regularly. 

Benatar does take some swipes at Christianity. I may respond to that at some point, although he doesn't say anything original. What's striking is that even though Benatar has nothing to lose and everything to gain by ditching atheism and adopting Christianity, he doesn't appear to have made much effort to study the evidence for Christianity. Why admit that atheism is a worst-case scenario, yet cling to atheism for dear life? 

Even Benatar blinks and balks in the face of his own position. But he comes closer than most before swerving. His basic thesis is that human existence poses a hopeless dilemma: life is a curse and death is a curse. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Am I a presuppositionalist?

1. Am I still a presuppositionalist after all these years? If so, what kind of presuppositionalist, and why?

It's difficult to discuss the question in separation from alternate positions since these are mutually defining to some degree. To be a presuppositionalist is not to be an evidentialist or vice versa. The distinctives of each differentiate it from the other.

But then that pushes the question back a step. What's evidentialism? Who are good representatives of evidentialism? 

For instance, Tim and Lydia McGrew are among the most astute evidentialists of their generation, so that's a useful point of contrast. In this presentation:

Lydia only cites two defining tenets of evidentialism:

i) No dichotomy between faith and reason 

ii) Christianity cannot be known directly, without reasons

I'm somewhat puzzled by why Lydia oversimplifies evidentialism, since that's surely a very incomplete description of evidentialism. Perhaps that's due to time-constraints in combination with the lay audience which causes her to oversimplify. I'm sure she could go several layers deep if need be. 

Do those two tenets demarcate evidentialism from presuppositionalism? 

2. Regarding (i), to some degree I think she's pushing back against the atheist caricature of Christian belief as fideistic. And, of course, many lay Christians are fideistic. 

A presuppositionalism can and should agree with her that there's no ultimate dichotomy between faith and reason. There is, though, the venerable issue of whether there's sometimes prima facie evidence against certain aspects of the Christian faith. One way of modeling that tension is a balance where there's evidence for Christianity as well as some apparent evidence to the contrary, and when you put all that on the scales, the weight of evidence for Christianity tips the scales in favor of Christianity. 

That isn't distinctive to religion. Apart from religion, many of our beliefs are a balancing act, where there may be some apparent counterevidence, and we simply hold that in tension with what we continue to believe. That's somewhat weak, and I'll have more to say about that in due course (see below). 

3. Regarding (ii), I'm unclear on how Lydia distinguishes knowledge from reasons. On the one hand the content of the Christian faith can be known apart from reasons. You can know what Christian theology represents, you can know Christian doctrine, without having any reasons. 

Perhaps Lydia is speaking in shorthand for knowing that it's true. If so, there are two elements: (i) knowing what it stands for, and (ii) supporting evidence.

There's an obvious sense in which most Christians lack direct knowledge of the Christian faith. That's a type of historical knowledge. We rely on historical records (i.e. the Bible). Unlike 1C Palestinian Jews who witnessed the public ministry of Christ, our knowledge is mediated by the Biblical record. Perhaps that's part of what Lydia has in mind. If so, a presuppositionalist can and should agree with that.

4. By "reasons", she cites miraculous signs (e.g. Exod 4). However, the Bible is ambivalent about the role of miraculous signs. Take the classic:

29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn 20:29).

Thomas had a sign. Thomas had reasons to believe in the form of the the Risen Jesus, standing right before him. But that's the kind of evidence most Christians don't have. 

Indeed, it's not coincidental that this is the lead-in to the following conclusion:

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (Jn 20:30-21).

From the narrator perspective, the reader's evidence isn't miraculous signs, but his eyewitness account. It turns on the historical accuracy of his record. 

In fairness, that could be supplemented by Jn 14:12. Although that's hyperbolic, it's the case that some Christians throughout church history do receive miraculous confirmation. So it's not confined to testimonial evidence. Yet I don't believe that Tim and Lydia McGrew have directly witnessed a miracle. So they don't have signs in the Exod 4 sense. 

5. Although she doesn't mention it in the introduction to her presentation, another tenet of evidentialism distinguishing that position from classical apologetics is the evidentialist position that miracles can furnish direct evidence for God's existence or the supernatural. It isn't necessary to first prove God's existence before you can credit a miracle and regard that as evidence for God's activity in the world. As a presuppositionalist, I agree with that. 

6. Another tenet of evidentialism that crops up in the literature is appeal to common ground. Assumptions that Christian believers and unbelievers share alike. Stock examples include beliefs and criteria like the existence of an external world and other minds, the basic reliability of the senses, the basic reliability of reason, the general uniformity of nature and induction, the correspondence theory of truth, and the role of logic. But as presuppositionalist, I have some reservations about that appeal:

i) There's a problem is when common ground is classified as beliefs or criteria that aren't Christian/theistic on the one hand or naturalistic on the other hand. But that's very artificial. Are the aforesaid assumptions independent of naturalism, theism, and Christianity? Assuming those are true beliefs and good criteria, they either obtain in a world where God exists or where God does not exist. There is no third alternative. They can't very well obtain in a world that isn't Christian or theistic or naturalistic. Reality must match one of those options. So those assumptions can't be truly agnostic. In what kind of world to they actually obtain? 

ii) Apropos (i), a presuppositionalist simultaneously argues from and for his Christian beliefs and criteria. These "common ground" assumptions implicate the Christian worldview.  Naturalism lacks the metaphysical resources to underpin them. That's where transcendental arguments can come into play. Mind you, many presuppositionalists never get beyond question-begging slogans, but thinkers like Greg Welty and James Anderson have been making progress on that front, by formulated detailed arguments. Much work remains to be done. 

iii) Another problem with common ground appeals is that unbelievers range along a spectrum. Some of them are intellectually evasive. Some of them are irrationally skeptical. It isn't always possible to have a constructive dialogue with an atheist. Take methodological atheism. The proper reaction is not to operate within that paradigm but to challenge that paradigm. 

7. Apropos (6), a popular evidentialist slogan is to "follow the evidence wherever it leads". That's often a good rule of thumb, but it has limitations:

i) Everything can't be up for grabs. Our belief-system must have some stability and priorities. 

ii) There's a dialectical relation between evidence and one's priority structure. On the one hand, one's plausibility structure ought to be informed by evidence. On the other hand, one's plausibility structure a ranking system that assigns degrees of plausibility to different kinds of claims. There needs to be some give, some flexibility, in both directions. 

For instance, how should I assess alien abduction stories? That involves conflicting lines of evidence. On the one hand there's testimonial evidence, which has some prima facie value. On the other hand, there's theoretical physics, which provides some prima facie evidence that aliens couldn't surmount the distance in light years. Not to mention other considerations. 

iii) What if there's some prima facie evidence for physicalism, but physicalism entails eliminative materialism, which is arguably self-refuting? If following the evidence wherever it leads ends up leading you to a blind alley, then you need to back up. I refuse to follow the evidence over the cliff, which is what atheism amounts to. I have no epistemic duty to embrace nihilism. That's diabolically idiotic. 

High school gun clubs


Is TAG viable?

I was asked to comment on this article:


I just skimmed his article, so maybe my cursory impressions fail to do it justice. That said:

1. Seems to me that Békefi fails to adequately interact with critics of Stroud, or with Stroud's own reformulations, viz.

2. I find Békefi's treatment too scattershot, abstract, and generic. He tries to cover too much ground. 

Transcendental arguments are a family of arguments. I doubt it's meaningful to try to evaluate them in general. Rather, I think they must be assessed on a case-by-case basis depending on the particular X they claim to be a necessary condition for the possibility of Y. 

3. Since there's nothing in philosophy that goes unchallenged, I think it's unnecessary that a transcendent argument should have a major premise that no philosopher questions or denies. That's just not how philosophy works. And it makes the success of transcendent arguments hostage to opponents who are, by definition, the most unreasonable. Why should that be the standard of comparison?

I think it would be wiser to recast transcendental arguments as dilemmas. They demonstrate the ethical, epistemological, or metaphysical cost of denying certain things. They needn't be rationally coercive in the sense of compelling the opponent to say uncle. If an opponent responds to a dilemma by accepting one horn of the dilemma, and if that commits him to radical skepticism or nihilism, that's a successful dilemma because it's exposed how extreme, irrational and/or nihilistic the non-Christian opponent is. That in itself is a very useful exercise. It demonstrates the starkness of the alternatives. 

4. Although orthodox Christianity requires the existence of a physical universe, some theistic proofs can be adapted to a Matrix-type scenario. 

5. I think it's probably best to use transcendental arguments as part of a cumulative case strategy for proving the Christian faith, rather than a silver bullet. Reality is complex. 

6. The Christian faith is a combination of necessary truths and contingent truths. I don't think historical events can be proven a priori. 

7. What kinds of things should furnish a major premise for TAG? Candidates include:

i) Abstract objects like possible worlds, laws of logic, and mathematical truths. James Anderson and Greg Welty have been doing yeoman work in that field.

ii) The Trinity

It may not be possible to construct a philosophical argument that specifically demonstrates the Trinity. There are, however, general aspects of the Trinity that may be more amendable to philosophical demonstration:

a) The ontological priority of mind over matter and energy. 

b) Reality as ultimately complex rather than simple

c) Interpersonality

iii) Predestination

It's not coincidental that Van Til was a Calvinist. If everything happens according to the master plan of a benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent agent, then everything happens for a reason. The alternative is to interject a destabilizing and decoherent principle of cosmic surdity. We have that in freewill theism and secular alternatives. Where events happen either by blind chance or blind necessity.

iv) Divine revelation

Quine has discussed how our scientific description of the world greatly outstrips the meager input from our five senses. Is it enough to have raw input? Or do we require an authoritative interpretation from a source outside ourselves? To take a comparison, it's like the difference between seeing a strange light in the night sky crash, and hearing (or watching) a TV newscast announce that an Air Force jet crashed. If all you had to go by was what you saw (heard, and felt), that would be open to multiple interpretations. Having an authoritative explanation outside the purview of the observer is necessary to arrive at the right interpretation.