Saturday, September 10, 2016

What is atheism?

Since some atheists define atheism as simply lack of belief in God or gods, it's useful to compare that with Graham Oppy's definition:

Atheism is the rejection of theism: a-theism. Atheists maintain some or all of the following claims: that theism is false; that theism is unbelievable; that theism is rationally unacceptable; that theism is morally unacceptable. G. Oppy, "Arguments for Atheism," S. Bullivant & M. Ruse, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (OUP, 2014), 53.

Must God make the best?

This post is a sequel to my previous post:

In Describing Gods: An Investigation of Divine Attributes, Graham Oppy expands on the question of whether God is a free agent. The motivation is to attack theism by posing a dilemma for the theist, viz. positing tensions between two or more divine attributes. In addition, there's the question of whether God is still praiseworthy if he cannot do otherwise.

To his credit, Oppy realizes that the question is ambiguous. The answer depends in part on whether we define freedom in compatibilist or incompatibilist terms. So he says:

Suppose, first, that motives are causes. In this case, we suppose – at least roughly – that an agent acts freely just in case she acts on appropriate motives in the absence of relevant defeating conditions; and that an agent chooses freely just in case she chooses on appropriate motives in the absence of relevant defeating conditions. On this conception of freedom it seems unproblematic that God’s actions and choices will be free: after all, there are no external constraints on God’s initial actions and choices, and only irrelevant constraints on God’s subsequent actions and choices; and there are no defeating conditions that could apply to God’s acquisition of motives; and there can be nothing deviant about the connection between God’s actions or choices and God’s motives (258).
Clearly, Rowe’s argument depends upon the assumption that an agent acts freely just in case she causes her actions, and hence upon denial of the competing assumption that an agent acts freely just in case her motives cause her actions. If we suppose that an agent acts freely just in case she acts on appropriate motives in the absence of relevant defeating conditions (concerning acquisition of motives and external constraint), then we shall have no difficulty with the idea that God acts freely in creating the best possible universe that God can make, or one among the best possible universes that God can make, even if it is true that God could not have had motives other than the ones that God actually possesses. It is only if we suppose that an agent acts freely just in case she is, but her motives are not, the non-deviant cause of her action in the absence of relevant internal and external defeating conditions – and, in particular, if we suppose that it follows from this view that an agent acts freely just in case that agent could have acted differently in the very circumstances in which she acted – that we shall suppose that God cannot act freely in creating the best possible universe that God can make if it is necessary that God should perform this action (261).

However, even if compatibilism is a satisfactory model for creaturely freedom, it is not a good satisfactory for divine freedom. Although Calvinism is deterministic, it is typically defined in terms of conditional necessity rather than absolute necessity. Given predestination, the outcome cannot be otherwise; however, predestination might be otherwise, had God chosen to predestine a different outcome. Typically, Calvinism does grant that God chooses between alternate possibilities. So Calvinism doesn't have that out.

If, for any possible universe that God can make, there is a better possible universe that God can make, then, necessarily, there is a ‘cut- off’ on the goodness of universes that God can make below which God cannot stray, and necessarily, God creates one of the universes above this ‘cut-off’ (262).

I think there's some truth to that, although I'd put it differently:

Possible worlds range along a continuum from very good to very bad. For reasons I gave in the previous post, I don't think there's a best possible world. Rather, there are better worlds and worse worlds. A "collection" of better possible words from which to choose. A good God will not create a world with no redeeming values. That's the cut off. A wise and benevolent God isn't free to act contrary to his wisdom and benevolence. It would be defect if God were free in that respect. A God who was free in that sense would be imperfect. 

[Premise #5] is perhaps not quite so compelling, but there is quite a bit to be said in defence of it. If there is an infinite collection of actions, any one of which God can perform if God arbitrarily selects it from the collection, and the best meta-action that God can perform is to arbitrarily select an action from the collection in question, and God is essentially omnipotent, essentially omniscient and essentially perfectly good, then how could God fail to arbitrarily select one of the actions from the collection, and then perform it? (264). 

A problem with that premise is Oppy's failure to explain why God's selection must be arbitrary. Since different possible worlds are different, having alternate histories–like stories with different plots and characters–there's no reason to assume God's selection must be indiscriminate. 

Either there is a best possible universe that God can make, or there is a collection of best possible universes that God can make, or for any possible universe that God can make, there is a better possible universe that God can make. If there is a best possible universe that God can make, then God must create it, and hence is not free with respect to creating it. If there is a collection of best possible universes that God can make, then God must create one of them, and hence is not significantly free with respect to the creation of universes. If, for any universe that God can make, there is a better possible universe that God can make, then, whatever God does, God is not perfectly good. So either God is not perfectly good, or God is not significantly free to create a universe other than ours (260-61).
First, can theists reject one or more of the principles that are assumed in the reasoning?…[Premise #1] seems compelling. If there is a unique best possible action that God can perform, and God is essentially omnipotent, essentially omniscient and essentially perfectly good, then how could God fail to perform that action? (263). 

That's the key assumption. Unfortunately for his argument, Oppy fails to defend his key assumption. He gives the reader no reason to believe that God must select a better world rather than a lesser world. He says that seems "compelling". By contrast, I don't find that assumption even plausible. I don't find it theologically or intuitively plausible. Indeed, I find it highly implausible. 

i) I think the assumption is persuasive to people like Leibniz, Rowe, and Oppy based on a specious but appealing parallel between divine perfection and his handiwork as a counterpart to divine perfection. If God is perfect, then whatever God does is perfect. I suspect that's the unspoken intuition, but it's vitiated by equivocation. Given the categorical disparity between the Creator and the creature, the world can't be perfect in the same sense, or even similar sense, that God is perfect. Anything God makes will be incomparably inferior to God himself. That doesn't make it morally bad or defective. It's not a flaw for a creature to be creaturely. But there's no parity between the Creator and the creature.

ii) There's another equivocation. Suppose you have two good possible worlds, but one is better overall. Nevertheless, it isn't absolutely better. Indeed, in some respects, the better world is worse than the lesser world. Suppose the lesser world has heavenbound people who don't exist in the better world. So the better world isn't better for them. If God creates the better world, he does so at the expense of people who were left out. So we have to ask, better in relation to whom? And there is no single answer, since that's relative to the winners and losers, depending on the world in question. There's no uniform standard of comparison that's applicable to both scenarios, because different possible worlds have different people with different destinies. 

iii) In addition, the whole notion that God must create "the best" is actually inimical to Christian theology. In Christian theology, God deliberately creates messed up people, then redeems them. The notion that a good God must create "the best" reminds me of those utopian science fiction stories about a world populated by "perfect" men and women. In that world, parents don't make children the old fashioned way. For that would run the risk of making ordinary or defective kids. Rather, you have reproductive technologies to ensure the production of kids without congenital disease. Indeed, genetically enhanced offspring. In this utopian world, no one has birth defects. In fact, no one is "ordinary". Everyone is a specimen of physical perfection. Smart. Pretty. Handsome. Athletic. Good at chess. Artistically talented. Everyone has perfect hygiene. Perfect teeth. Moreover, people are euthanized when they pass their prime, because imperfection is intolerable in utopia. 

The notion that God must create "the best" implicitly operates with a eugenic criterion of excellence that's antithetical to Christian theology. Moreover, in utopian stories of this genre, perfection comes at the cost of moral development. You only have to put these "perfect" people in a survival situation to expose their lack of character. Because everything comes so easily to them, because they lead an ouchless, painless existence, they have no altruism. They are selfish spoiled people who can't be inconvenienced by others. They will leave an injured friend behind because he slows them down. The notion of personal sacrifice for the benefit of others is alien to their psychological makeup. It's a perfect world so long as their nonexistent virtue isn't put to the test. 

And this isn't just hypothetical. Abortion, "after-birth abortion," euthanasia, and transhumanism reflect this eugenic notion of "the best". Frankly, you have to wonder how people like Oppy would perform in a lifeboat situation. 

Friday, September 09, 2016

Armchair debunkers

This is a sequel to my prior post:

I'm been interacting with some of Graham Oppy's material. It's useful for Christians to be able to take on the most sophisticated atheists. I'll be quoting from his monograph on The Best Argument Against God (Palgrave Pivot, 2013). Here Oppy expands on his objection to miracles:

Some might be inclined to think that the content of the accumulated body of 'social science' is bound to favour Naturalism over Theism. In particular, some might think to draw attention to the fact that there is not one single well-established result in the 'social sciences' that depends upon the postulation of the existence of God. There is no established knowledge in archaeology, or anthropology, or ethnography, or human geography, or sociology, or psychology, or cognitive science, or economics, or political science, or criminology, or linguistics, or education, or international relations, or legal studies, or human history, or communication studies, or any other of the 'social sciences' that relies upon the assumption that God exists (35).

i) To begin with, that's an exercise in misdirection. The question isn't whether particular disciplines depend on the postulate of God's existence, but whether, say, there's archaeological confirmation for Bible history or medical verification for some reported miracles. 

ii) But in addition, the "God postulate" is germane to some disciplines. Take the role of proper function in medical science. Physicians approach the human body the way engineers approach a machine. They act as though the heart is a pump. They act as though lungs were designed to oxygenate blood. An eye is for seeing, an ear is for hearing. They can only fix malfunctioning organs, &c., by assuming a teleological viewpoint. If, however, the human body is the byproduct of a mindless, aimless process, then that's misplaced. 

Thursday, September 08, 2016

The Apostle Paul: His Life, Thought, and Letters

Homosexual ordinands

I'm going to comment on this:

Would you allow me to begin with a question? You say that the mere presence of same-sex attraction is itself sinful, and because of this we have no business inviting someone who experiences same-sex attraction to speak to our community. Friend, do you believe that there is a difference between temptation and sin? At Gethsemane, Jesus had desires that were contrary to the Father’s will — and so he prayed, “Father, take this cup from me.” Father, do I have to die for your will to be accomplished? Papa, I don’t WANT to die. Your will is HARD, it goes against my feelings. It is because of Jesus’ courageous, “Not my will, but yours be done” that we can say that he was tempted and yet without sin, yes? Can we not say the same about Stephen’s experience with same-sex attraction — that it is temptation for him, temptation which he has faithfully surrendered to the Father’s will?
Let’s say that there are two alcoholics who have been sober for ten years. The first, miraculously, no longer craves alcohol. The second, on the other hand, still battles hard against cravings every single day. Does the presence of cravings for the latter make him less faithful than the former? Some would argue, Friend, that he actually might be more faithful in his sobriety because for him, sobriety is a daily fight against the flesh — a fight that he keeps on, by the grace of God, winning.
If we would not condemn the alcoholic for having cravings, why would we condemn someone who experiences same-sex attraction? In the end, how are the two any different? Would we celebrate the sober alcoholic’s story as victory but not do the same with the sexually chaste man experiencing same-sex attraction? If Stephen is welcomed into our church’s seminary and has faithfully served as staff for our church’s campus ministry, do you really feel that it is a right, good, excellent, pleasing, and praiseworthy thing in the eyes of Jesus to take us to task on social media and in blogs because we have given him (and the many in our churches whom he represents) a voice?

The issue at hand centers on the actions of the pastor of a large and influential PCA church who decided to promote pro-homosexual ideology from the pulpit through a morally compromised young man seeking ordination as a teaching elder (TE, minister) in the PCA. This young man not only claims to be homosexually-attracted to men but is very firm in his unrepentant attitude regarding that attraction. His struggle is not with homosexual attraction itself. He embraces it. However, to be obedient to God as a homosexually-attracted man, he claims to remain celibate. The pastor and the Presbytery all agree that homosexual lusts and behaviors are sinful. However, they also agree that homosexual attractions (desires, thoughts and feelings) are not sinful. When the ministerial candidate was asked if he believes “his homosexual feelings, attractions, thoughts and desires are sinful,” he believes they are not and further upholds that homosexual attractions and God-given heterosexual attractions are morally equivalent:

“I believe my same-sex attractions are broken, but I do not believe they are sinful. It is not a sin for me to be attracted to another man, in the same way it is not sinful for you to be attracted to a woman.”
These are the pastor’s exact words from the pulpit:

“He (Jesus) says some have been made eunuchs or some have been made celibate from birth. They were born to be celibate, born this way. And this could be through a physical disability of some sort, or it could be through an orientation. That if given into would represent infidelity to the gospel. And so with this orientation, assuming it doesn’t go away, the call to faithfulness is the call to chastity and to celibacy. Because you were this way from birth Jesus said. Celibate from birth the way you were made.You remember when, when, when the Pharisees were asking why is the man who was born blind, why was he born this way. You know, who sinned, the Pharisees said, “Who did something wrong that he was born this way; was it him or was it his parents?” And Jesus said, “Nobody did anything wrong. It wasn’t his parents, it wasn’t him. He wasn’t born this way because there’s something wrong with him. He was born this way so that through his affliction, through his minority position as a blind person, God can be glorified.”

My operating assumption is that the Aquila article is accurate. I notice that Scott Sauls didn't challenge the factual accuracy of the article. The reply of Scott Sauls is unresponsive to some key issues raised in the article. 

1. According to Rom 1, homosexual desires as well as homosexual activities are sinful. It speaks not merely of "shameful acts," but the "dishonorable passions" that motivate the dishonorable acts. 

2. Even if we didn't have a passage of Scripture (e.g. Rom 1) that's specifically addressed to this particular issue (i.e. homosexual attraction), it's a general truth that sinful actions often act out or act on sinful motives. For instance, murder is, in the first instance, sinful because the attitude is sinful. 

That, of itself, doesn't disqualify a person from church office. But we need to correct a false premise in this debate. Insofar as the ordination of homosexuals is justified by dichotomizing sinless feelings from sinful actions, that's a false dichotomy. And that invalidates a justification predicated on that false dichotomy.

3. Jesus didn't say homosexuals are born that way. Moreover, to be born a eunuch has reference to genital deformities, not "orientation". See Nolland's commentary on Matthew. It is illicit for Scott Sauls to prooftext his position from Mt 19. 

Likewise, the attempted analogy from Jn 9 begs the question. We have no evidence that Jesus thought homosexual attraction is genetic. Even if, for the sake of argument, Jesus did think homosexual attraction is genetic, we can't read his mind. Since he never said that, we have no way to determine if that's what he thought. It is therefore illicit to invoke the authority of Christ when there's no evidence to believe he'd affirm the analogy. 

4. Notice how Scott Sauls smuggles in the blind man's "minority position" to create a parallel with homosexual minorities. But that's entirely extraneous to Jn 9. Jesus says nothing about the blind man's minority position. The narrator says nothing about the blind man's minority position. That intrudes an extrinsic consideration into the text. 

5. It's quite possible for someone to have a disqualifying impediment through no fault of their own. For instance, if I was born with defective vision, that disqualifies me from becoming a fighter pilot. Or suppose I contract AIDS from infected blood during surgery. That disqualifies me from becoming a blood donor. So even if, for the sake of argument, we say that homosexual attraction is innocent, it could still be an impediment to church office. 

6. Church office is not a human right or entitlement. It's not as if "gay Christians" have an inalienable right to be ordained to church office. 

7. The comparison with a recovering alcoholic is problematic on two grounds:

i) A desire for alcohol isn't sinful. So the attempted analogy is disanalogous in that respect.

ii) Moreover, the comparison backfires. Would it be prudent for a recovering alcoholic to be a bartender? Should he work in a liquor store?

By the same token, is it prudent to put a "gay Christian" in tempting situations where he has access to young people, in a position of authority over young people? 

We've seen this movie before. It doesn't have a happy ending. We've seen what happened in the church of Rome when homosexual priests sworn to celibacy are put in that position.

8. In addition, we've also seen an incremental strategy in play where "celibate gay Christians" serve as a wedge tactic. Once that's acceptable, once they have that foot in the door, the next step is "faithful, covenanted" homosexual relationships. The complaint is how unfair it is for straight Christians to have the emotional and sexual fulfillment of marriage and kids, but deny that to "gay Christians". How hypocritical! 

That's the "noble lie": you break down resistance through a softening-up exercise. You intend all along to normalize homosexuality within the church, but that's not where you start.

I'm not accusing Stephen Moss of that. Maybe he's sincere. But I'm discussing this from a policy perspective and not isolated individuals. Once you have the momentum of a policy shift, there's a preexisting homosexual lobby that will take advantage of that policy shift. 

Is the world a brute fact?

Graham Oppy is a cream of the crop atheist philosopher. His book The Best Argument Against God (Palgrave Pivot, 2013) is a state of the art attack on theism. I'd like to evaluate one of his arguments. 

…the initial causal state might have been other than it actually was–even though God could not have failed to exist–because God's initial disposition to make other things could have been other than it actually was (either because God could have failed to have an initial disposition to create, or because God could have had initial dispositions to create that differed from the particular initial dispositions to create that he actually had in the initial state.) (13).
The first piece of data that we introduce is the observation that there is a global causal structure: the world is a network of causal relations. One of the standard philosophical questions is, "why is there something rather than nothing?" In the present context we interpret this question to mean "why is there causal stuff, rather than complete absence of causal stuff"? 
How Theist answers this question depends upon the view that Theist takes of the scope of possibility. If Theist supposes that every possible world is one in which God engages in causal activity, then Theist can say: it was impossible for there to be complete absence of causal stuff. In other words: there is causal stuff because there had to be causal stuff. If Theist has a more relaxed view of the scope of possibilities–and, in particular, if Theist supposes that it is possible that God might have engaged in no causal activity–then Theist will say: there is no reason why there is causal stuff rather than complete absence of causal stuff–it is a brute fact that there is causal stuff (23-24).
…there is a serious problem for proponents of cosmological arguments that arise with the question "from whence came the causal order?" Once we focus our attention on the global causal order–and not on the question whether the natural causal order itself has a cause–we see clearly that considerations about the shape of the global causal order do not differentially support either Theism or Naturalism (26).
Could God have chosen to make a universe that lasts for less than a second? Could God have chosen to make a universe that blows apart so rapidly that it is mostly empty space? If we suppose that the answer to either of these questions is affirmative, then we cannot also say that God must have all-things-considered reason to prefer a "life-permitting" universe to one of these "non-life-permitting" alternatives. But, if God needn't have all-things-considered reason to prefer a "life-permitting" universe to one of these "non-life-permitting" alternates, then, on the assumption that God's choosing is a brute fact, it surely does turn out that Theist has no better explanation that Naturalist for why it is that relevant cosmic parameters take the values that they do (29-30). 

i) Broadly speaking, I think Oppy is saying both theism and atheism must admit that reality is ultimately arbitrary. You run out of explanations. You bottom out with brute factuality. Therefore, theism has no greater explanatory power than atheism–although it may have less explanatory power, given other considerations. In addition, Oppy is targeting the fine-tuning argument in particular, as well as cosmological arguments generally. 

ii) I think that much is clear. However, the detailed reasoning by which he attempts to justify his conclusion is obscure. What makes him think "why is there something rather than nothing?" is synonymous with "why is there causal stuff, rather than complete absence of causal stuff"? The phrase "causal stuff" is hardly self-explanatory. Indeed, that's a good deal less clear than the Leibnizian question. 

iii) It's unclear what he means by "every possible world is one in which God engages in causal activity". Does he mean the metaphysical relationship between God and possible worlds? If so, a standard theistic explanation is that possible worlds are divine ideas. God's compete concept of possible world history. Possible worlds are constituted by the mind of God. By God's infinite imagination. And in that respect, possible worlds are necessary ideas. 

On that construction, possible worlds aren't brute facts. Rather, there's an underlying explanation for their existence. A dependence-relation. They exist because God exists. 

iv) However, the point he seems to be driving at isn't the ontology of possible worlds, but why some possibilities are reified while other possibilities remain unexemplified. Not so much, why are there possible worlds, what's the explanation for possible worlds–but what caused this set of possibilities to be actual rather than another?

That's certainly where Leibniz is coming from. When Leibniz asks, "why is there something rather than nothing," what he has in mind is more specific. Not just in general why is there something rather than nothing, but why does this particular something exist rather than something else. Why does the real world exemplify this set of possibilities rather than an alternative set of possibilities? What selects for that when other possibilities were available? 

For Leibniz, this implies personal agency. Someone (i.e. God) had to make that selection. Given the number of possible worlds, God had to choose which possible world to instantiate. 

v) Now, Oppy's contention seems to be that if the real world is contingent rather than necessary–contingent because it might have been otherwise–then God's choice (if there is a God) is arbitrary. A brute fact. Like rolling the dice. And in that event, theism has no more explanatory power than atheism. 

But if that's what Oppy has in mind, then his comparison is fallacious. God could have a reason for preferring one possible world over another because different possible worlds are…different. Different possible worlds have different histories. God opts for one rather than another because one world history is more interesting than another. Has greater values. The way some novels and movies have more interesting characters and more meaningful plots than other novels and movies. 

vi) Perhaps, though, hovering in the background of Oppy's discussion is a point of tension in Leibniz. For Leibniz, God had sufficient reason to instantiate this world because this is the best possible world. That's why God chose this world over some other world. But that seems to be necessitarian. God had to choose the best. His hands were tied. 

But of that's what underlies Oppy's argument, I'd make two observations:

vii) We can deny that there is one best possible world. Different possible worlds have different histories. Different histories have different goods. No one possible world combines all goods because no one possible world combines different histories. Each possible world exemplifies a single history. There is no best possible world, for each possible world has some goods absent from another possible world. (There may be some possible words devoid of good, but God wouldn't choose one of those.)

viii) In addition, it isn't clear that God is confronted with a binary choice, where he must choose just one option to the exclusion of others. In principle, God could create a multiverse that exemplifies many alternate histories. 

Finally, let's consider Oppy's view of what possible worlds are:

I think that the best position for Naturalist to adopt is one according to which theism is impossible. All possible worlds share an initial segment in the actual world. All possible worlds evolve according to the same laws as the actual world. It is impossible that the actual laws could oversee a transition from a purely natural state to a state in which there are supernatural entities. There have never been any supernatural entities. So supernatural entities are impossible; and hence, in particular, gods are impossible. Graham Oppy, "Arguments for Atheism," S. Bullivant & M. Ruse, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (OUP, 2013), 57-58.

i) I agree with him that "it is impossible that the actual laws could oversee a transition from a purely natural state to a state in which there are supernatural entities." But, of course, that only follows from a naturalistic definition of possible worlds.

ii) It's unclear what he means by evolving possible worlds. If, say, we view possible worlds as abstract objects (or divine ideas), then they are static. Each possible world has a complete history. Perhaps, though, Oppy is using "evolve" as a synonym for the succession of events. 

It's like shooting a movie. Once you shoot the movie (and edit the movie), the movie is complete. It has a complete plot. But that allows for plot developments within the movie. Likewise, viewing the movie takes time. 

iii) Why does Oppy think "all possible worlds share an initial segment in the actual world"? Maybe because, as an atheist, he thinks the physical universe is all there is. That's the whole of reality. So possibilities must be variations on the physical universe or actual world.

Mind you, that fails to solve the problem that possible worlds were invoked to explain in the first place. In the nature of the case, what might have been didn't happen in the actual world. So what makes counterfactuals true? It can't be a fact in the actual world. For that alternate course of events never took place in the actual world. 

iv) From the standpoint of Christian metaphysics, the actual world is not the standard of comparison for possible worlds. The actual world is just one possible world among many. It's is simply distinguished from other possible worlds by actuality. God chooses to objectify that particular idea in time and space. 

Some possible worlds have overlapping histories. Up to a point they have the same past, then split off in different directions. Other possible worlds have histories that don't intersect. A different past as well as a different future. So they have nothing in common. 

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

The PCA on gay ordination

Is there libertarian freedom in heaven?

Oppy on supernatural encounters

Among the current crop of atheist philosophers, Graham Oppy is one of the best they've got. So it's useful to see him summarize his case against the credibility of reported supernatural encounters. The argument doesn't get any better than this:

First, there is no question that the history of reports of encounters with supernatural beings and forces is, at least in very large part, a history of fraud, gullibility, deception, stupidity, ignorance, and so forth. Second, there is no serious doubt that there is at least good prima facie reason to believe that there is a huge panoply of supernatural beings whose existence would be vindicated by the recorded supernatural experience of humanity if the existence of any supernatural beings was vindicated by that recorded supernatural experience. Third, it is quite clear that the joint effect of these first two points is to raise serious questions about the evidential worth of any reports of experiences that are claimed to be of, or directly caused by, supernatural agents. Fourth, it may well be that, in the absence of defeating considerations, it is the case that p (cf. Swinburne 1979). But, as we have just noted, there is no serious doubt that there are very weighty candidate defeating considerations in the case of "seemings" that are tied to the supernatural. 
In the absence of any independent support for belief in gods–i.e., support founded in something other that reports of experiences that have been taken to be of, or directly caused by, gods–there is clearly reason to prefer the uniform treatment of reports of supernatural experiences that naturalism affords to the non-uniform treatment of reports of supernatural experiences that is required by any developed version of theism. Graham Oppy, "Arguments for Atheism," S. Bullivant & M. Ruse, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (OUP, 2013), 67.

By defining "encounters with supernatural beings" as "experiences that are claimed to be of, or directly caused by, supernatural agents," I take it that he's using a definition broad enough to cover diverse phenomena like apparitions, miracles, precognition, and answered prayer. With that in mind, let's run back through his objections:

1. Regarding the first claim:

i) What does he mean by "in very large part"? Does he mean most reported supernatural encounters reflect a history of "fraud, gullibility, deception, stupidity, ignorance, and so forth"? If so, what's his quantitative evidence for that assessment? What's the sample group? How representative is the sample group?  

ii) What's the intended distinction, if any, between "fraud" and "deception"? Does Oppy uses those as synonyms? 

iii) Wouldn't the primary motivation for fraud be cases where appeal to supernatural encounters is used for personal or institutional gain? To lend credence to a new religion or a new dogma? Maybe a career booster (e.g. faith-healer)? 

iv) Even when supernatural encounters are invoked to attest the message or the messenger, the ostensible witness may have something to lose rather than something to gain. What if his claim exposes him to predictable persecution? Wouldn't that be a disincentive to make fraudulent claims about supernatural encounters? So we need to draw that distinction in assessing the credibility of the witness. 

v) Just to play it safe, suppose, for the sake of argument, that we discount the subset of reported supernatural encounters where there might be an incentive to deceive or commit fraud. That leaves "gullibility, stupidity, and ignorance." However, gullibility, stupidity, and ignorance aren't distinctive to reported supernatural encounters. That, therefore, would not be a specific reason to doubt reported supernatural encounters. There are gullible, stupid, and/or ignorant witnesses to everything under the sun. That, however, is not a reason to doubt testimonial evidence in general. Indeed, Oppy's claim about "a history of fraud, gullibility, deception, stupidity, ignorance, and so forth" is, in itself, dependent on historical testimony. Therefore, his objection would be self-refuting if he were propounding skepticism about testimonial evidence in general. So, at best, his skepticism is only warranted in reference to cases where we might suspect fraud and deception, even assuming that fraud and deception are more prevalent in reported supernatural encounters. 

vi) Of course, fraudulent and deceptive reports are hardly unique to reported supernatural encounters, so Oppy needs more discriminating criteria to justify his skepticism about reported supernatural encounters, in contradistinction to other kinds of fraudulent reports. 

vi) What about reported supernatural encounters where personal or institutional gain is not a plausible motive? Take answered prayer or a miraculous healing. A witness might share that experience with a small circle of friends and family. He (or she) doesn't do that for social advancement. Doesn't do that to start a new religion. He simply wants to share his marvelous experience with friends and relatives. He's so thankful and overawed by his experience that he wants other people to know how wonderful God is. He can't contain himself. He doesn't do it to become the founder of a new religion, or kickstart a career as a prophet or faith-healer. It may be a once in a lifetime experience. 

This isn't just hypothetical. Rather, it's commonplace if you move in religious circles. 

vii) Perhaps Oppy would object that a primary function of reported supernatural encounters is to authenticate religious claims. But even though that's true, we can, for the sake of argument, take those examples off the table because we don't need to include them to test Oppy's claim. Oppy rejects reported supernatural encounters in toto. So even if we bracket the subset of reported supernatural encounters that serve to validate religious claims, that leaves us with an enormous margin for error, given the remaining reports that don't fall under that rubric. 

2. Regarding the second claim:

i) It's hard to see how that's supposed to be an argument for atheism. For Oppy fails to explain why that would be an unacceptable consequence. On the face of it, his objection seems to be circular: once you credit reported supernatural experiences, you open the door for the existence of supernatural beings! Okay, but how does that consequence undercut the credibility of reported supernatural experiences? 

ii) Perhaps, though, he's attempting to cast a dilemma for supernaturalists. Perhaps he means that swings the door wide open for every supernatural claimant. For instance, Christians have no problem with supernatural beings like God, angels, and demons. Some might also make allowance for the existence of ghosts or poltergeists. But perhaps he means that once you open the door a crack, you can't shut out the whole "panoply" of candidates, viz. Zeus, Thor, jinn, genies, elves, wood nymphs and water nymphs, trolls, leprechauns, fairies. If you credit any supernatural being, you must credit them all. If that's what he means, I'd say the following:

a) We need to distinguish between the ostensible experience and how that's interpreted. For instance, suppose pagans experience supernatural beings. However, they then create a backstory about the supernatural being. A story about the origin, abode, and social life of the supernatural beings in question. That backstory is not a part of the encounter. They didn't experience the backstory. Rather, they created a narrative to explain where the supernatural being fits in their world. Likewise, once a society has developed a mythology for experiences of this type, people in that society automatically classify their experience according to the available cultural categories. 

To credit the underlying experience doesn't commit you to the backstory, since that's not given in the experience itself. That's a cultural overlay. 

b) Apropos (a), this means you can have a multiplication of categories for the same thing. Different cultures will have different names, categories, and narratives. That doesn't imply that there's actually a different supernatural being for each cultural classification. Suppose for the sake of argument that there are really just six different kinds of supernatural beings. Yet there might be a "panoply" of supernatural beings in comparative mythology and comparative folklore, even though these are actually reducible to our half-dozen different kinds of supernatural beings. Different cultures will develop their own folkloric classifications. That gives the appearance of a "panoply" of supernatural beings, yet that's not because we're combining different entities, but because we're combining different cultural descriptions of the same kinds of entities. A poltergeist in one culture might be a goblin or gremlin in another culture. That doesn't mean there's a corresponding entity for each category. To take a comparison, different cultures have different mythologies for the same animals.

c) It's not even possible for some candidates to exist. Thor is a barely disguised personification of thunderstorms. Moreover, pagan deities like Thor are physical beings. It isn't possible for a finite physical being like Thor, even if he did exist, to control the weather. Likewise, there is no palace of the gods on the summit of Mt. Olympus. By the same token, Greek mythology treats wood nymphs and water nymphs as visible, physical beings. If they did exist, there'd be abundant evidence for their existence. 

3. Regarding the third claim:

He uses the first two claims to support the third claim. The first two claims, in conjunction, constitute "defeating considerations". But having critiqued the first two claims, the third claim is unwarranted, while his fourth claim piggybacks on his third claim, which piggybacks on the first two claims. 

4. Regarding his conclusion:

i) He acts as though his first two claims are sufficient to discredit any and every reported supernatural experience, without regard to the specific evidence in any particular case. But even if you grant his first claim, at best that's just a generalization. It hardly preempts exceptions. 

And it's illicit for him to insist that you mustn't credit any supernatural being unless you credit every supernatural being. That's like saying you can't give credence to any reported seamonsters unless you give credence to all reports seamonsters. By that logic, you can't believe in giant squid unless you believe in Scylla and Charybdis.

ii) To say we should always prefer a uniform treatment begs the question. That's like saying we should automatically dismiss any and all reports of water flowing uphill. But sometimes water does flow uphill, because humans build water pumps. To demand a uniform treatment ignores the evidence in any particular case. 

iii) The basic problem with Oppy's overall argument is that he's laboring to sidestep the duty to examine specific evidence on a case-by-case basis by invoking general considerations. Yet general considerations are, at best, inductive abstractions, based on a sampling of particular cases. You can't rightly use them to prejudge any particular case on pain of vicious circularity. Your generalization is only as good as your sample. 

Oppy's entire argument becomes an exercise in intellectual evasion. He doesn't need to consult the evidence because he's concluded in advance that supernatural encounters lack credibility. But that's premature. That forecloses further investigation in spite of counterevidence. 

What I haven't learned from Karl Barth

Calvinism, masculinity, and niceness

Monday, September 05, 2016

Betting on the Resurrection

Atheists typically argue that any naturalistic explanation, however far-fetched, is more likely to be true than a supernatural explanation. So, for instance, any naturalistic alternative to the Resurrection is preferable, viz. Jesus had a secret twin brother, Jesus was a space alien.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a naturalistic explanation for the empty tomb and reported post-mortem appearances of Jesus is more likely than a supernatural explanation. Does it follow that we should opt for the naturalistic explanation? Would that be more rational?

Recently, as I was standing at the checkout stand, I glanced over and saw two people–presumably related–seated at a table, scratching a stack of lottery tickets. Did they blow their entire paycheck on lottery tickets?

I assume their reasoning is this: the more tickets you buy, the more that ups the odds of winning. If you have two tickets, you're twice as likely. Ten tickets: ten times as likely. One hundred tickets… You get the idea.

Assuming the math is sound, it's a thousand times more probable that someone with a thousand tickets will win the lottery than someone with just one ticket. If, therefore, officials announce that the winner bought just one ticket, is it reasonable to disbelieve the official announcement? Should we believe that someone who bought more tickets actually won–and surely there's someone out there who bought more tickets–but he got cheated? Should we believe that the person with the most tickets will win? After all, doesn't he have the best chance of winning? 

Even if, given the odds, one explanation is far more likely to be true, yet in this case, that's not the true explanation. And in this case, it would be irrational to opt for the most probable explanation. Abstract odds don't outweigh concrete evidence that the guy who won the lottery only bought one ticket. 

There's no evidence for atheism

The debate between atheism and Christian theism has such a stereotypical form that it's easy to overlook the radical disparity: when you think about it, there is no positive evidence for atheism. The case for atheism boils down to an argument from silence. 

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with an argument from silence, but that's a very vulnerable argument. Atheists don't really present any positive evidence for atheism; rather, they argue against theism. 

The case for atheism boils down to the alleged lack of evidence for an interventionist God. Claiming that we can explain the origin of the universe naturalistically. We can explain the origin of life naturalistically. We can explain every illness and recovery naturalistically. 

Or take the claim that answers to prayer are random. Likewise, the argument from evil is an appeal to randomness. The distribution of weal and woe seems to be random. By the same token, mass extinction seems to be random. What species survive or perish seems to be random.

Some atheists allege that biological organisms exhibit design flaws. Suboptimal adaptations. That allegation is refutable on different grounds, but in any event, it's not a positive argument for atheism. 

A few atheists say God-talk is meaningless. That poses a bit of a dilemma inasmuch as it is no longer clear what the atheist is denying. In any event, that's not a positive argument for atheism. 

Some ambitious atheists say the existence of God is not merely improbable but impossible: the very idea of God is incoherent (e.g. "paradoxes of omnipotence"). That generally depends on arbitrary, stimulative definitions of the divine attributes, or dubious postulates about a best possible world. And in any event, that's not a positive argument for atheism. 

Many atheists find the Bible is morally repugnant. Of course, many atheists reject moral realism. In any event, that's not a positive argument for atheism. 

If you go down the list, atheists don't offer any evidence for atheism except in the roundabout sense that if there's no evidence for God, then atheism wins by default.

In some respects, the argument for atheism is decidedly odd. Once again, take the argument from evil. How does evil undercut Christian theism? After all, Christian theism is predicated on the existence of evil, so how can evil be inconsistent with Christian theism? It's not the presence of evil, but the absence of evil, that would falsify Christian theism. At best, the argument from evil might undercut "mere theism" or philosophical theism. 

By the same token, how can the argument from evil disprove or even undercut biblical theism when biblical theism grants the existence of evil? It's not as if the Bible depicts a utopian world. The Bible is a chronicle of evil. 

So there really is no direct evidence for atheism. By contrast, Christian scholars and philosophers marshall reams of evidence for Christianity. And it's important to keep our eye on the burden of proof. If the case for atheism is an argument from silence, then it takes next to nothing to overthrow it. Suppose 99% of the ostensible evidence for an interventionist God is naturally explicable. If just 1% (indeed, even less than 1%) gets through, then atheism is false. Atheism can't permit a single counterexample to slip through its sieve. 

Labor Day For A Lazy Nation

You can be a hard worker in one context, but lazy in another. However hard Americans work on their jobs, and many of them are lazy even in that context, they're horribly negligent when it comes to the most important matters in life. You can click on our label for posts on Time Management for documentation of what Americans' priorities are, how they spend their time, how ignorant they are of religion, politics, and other important issues, etc. We shouldn't just look at the current state of our nation, but also its state relative to its potential. We're better than other parts of the world in many ways, but often largely because of what we received from our forefathers rather than what we achieved ourselves, and we fall far shorter of our potential. "From everyone who has been given much, much will be required" (Luke 12:48).

I've written in the past about how parents, pastors, and others in positions of so much influence often fail to make good use of holidays. Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, and Father's Day, for example, could be put to so much good use as opportunities to teach people about the differences between the genders, the nature of marriage, parenting, etc. But we don't make much use of those holidays. The Supreme Court's Obergefell decision was announced the same week as Father's Day. I rarely see people make an issue of that, even though it has so much potential for teaching and providing illustrations of how absurd the Court's ruling is.

Labor Day is another holiday that has a lot of potential for good use, but instead is wasted. Often, it's used to do the opposite of what it should be used for. Instead of using it to refocus people on the areas of life where hard work is the most important and so neglected, we use the holiday as an opportunity to encourage laziness in those contexts while commending people for being such hard workers on their jobs. When the book of Proverbs warns about laziness, for example, does it only do so in the context of employment? No, it addresses the subject more broadly. Most of the people who will be spending today at barbecues, watching sporting events, reading romance novels, getting drunk, doing housework, watching trivial television programs and movies, etc. are so ignorant of the Bible that they can't name the four gospels and so ignorant of history, politics, and current events that they can't name the three branches of government. They're also ignorant of a lot of other important things, as I've been documenting for years. Instead of commending them for being such hard workers on their jobs while encouraging laziness in more important contexts, we should make better use of the holiday.

For example, it would help if pastors would stop commending their congregations as hard workers when the evidence for that commendation is so lacking. It would be good if they'd stop encouraging people to spend so much time on sports, movies, etc. when Americans have such a major problem with spending too much time on such things. Instead of joking about how you'll be sure to have the sermon finished before the football game starts or frequently making comments to your congregation about how many movies you watch, why don't you encourage them to be more wise in their use of time (Ephesians 5:15-6)?

We need to rethink our use of holidays, including Labor Day.

The Big Bad Wolf

This is a sequel to my previous post on Andy Stanley:

To recap, Andy's sermon was directed at apostates. In particular, cradle Christians whose belief in the historicity/inerrancy of Scripture was a "house of cards" because they were raised in fideistic churches where they got faith-based answers to fact-based questions. So when they went to college, Prof. Big Bad Wolf blew down their house of cards. 

1. There's a grain of truth to what Andy says. Ideally, it's good to bring the conversation back to Jesus. 

2. But sometimes we need to begin where people are. Andy says the people he's addressing left the faith because their 
questions never got answered. They were not allowed to ask certain questions. 

Yet ironically, Andy is now doing the very same thing. He deflects most questions about the inerrancy/historicity of the Bible. He wants to steer the conversation back to Jesus. 

But this means that when young people in his congregation ask questions about the inerrancy/historicity of the Bible, their questions are disallowed. Their questions don't get answered. They're only permitted to ask questions about Jesus. 

3. Apropos (2), when people like Andy duck questions about the inerrancy/historicity of Scripture, that's counterproductive. People can tell that's intellectually evasive. If they have doubts about Scripture, and they see Andy dodging tough questions, that confirms their doubts about Scripture.

4. Moreover, a Jesus-centered approach can't avoid questions about the inerrancy/historicity of Scripture. Prof. Wolf can raise all the same kinds of objections to the Gospels:

i) He will say the Gospels contain contradictions and historical blunders. 

ii) He will say the miracles of Jesus are unbelievable. 

It's arbitrary to act as if the Bible in general is fallible and unreliable, but suddenly becomes trustworthy when reporting the words and deeds of Jesus. 

5. Likewise, Prof. Wolf will say Jesus was wrong to believe in:

i) The creation account (Gen 1-2)

ii) Noah's flood

iii) Jonah and the whale

iv) Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch

v) The miraculous destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

vi) A personal Devil

vii) Demonic possession

viii) The Exodus (i.e. manna from heaven)

ix) The historicity of the patriarchs

x) The fate of Lot's wife

xi) The prophet Daniel

xii) The fast-approaching end of the world

Andy's Jesus-centered approach requires its own apologetic. 

5. Andy's approach isn't surprising. By his own admission, it's a reactionary stance, provoked by his own upbringing. But his approach is deeply misleading: 

i) A lopsided preoccupation with objections to Scripture puts Christians on the defensive. That one-sided focus makes it easy to feel that Christians on the losing side of the argument. It acts as though atheism is the default position. The standard of comparison. 

That's natural for cradle Christians like Andy, since the Bible is their frame of reference. Therefore, the debate may feel like a losing battle. Seems like inerrantists can only resort to rearguard actions.

ii) But his reactionary stance neglects two or three considerations: There are multiple lines of positive evidence for the Bible. 

iii) By contrast, there's no positive evidence for atheism. Rather, the argument for atheism boils down to the alleged lack of evidence for an interventionist God. The apparent randomness of world events. And it only takes a few counterexamples to overturn an argument from silence. 

iv) Objections to Scripture are dwarfed by objections to atheism. A consistent atheist must deny many fundamentals at we normally take for granted. A consistent atheist must deny intrinsic right and wrong. Must deny the significance of human life. Must deny abstract objects like logic, numbers, and possible worlds. Must deny that human reason is reliable. Indeed, must deny that physicalism can even make room for minds. 

6. Every Christian needn't be a Christian apologist. Christians vary in their intellectual aptitude and educational opportunities. For many Christians, the argument from religious experience is sufficient. Suppose a woman is a lifelong Christian. She's not an intellectual. She's not highly educated.

But over the years she's prayed to Jesus, and on a few occasions she received unmistakable answers to her prayers. For her, that's reason enough. She prayed to Jesus and Jesus answered her. 

No one knows all the answers. Certainly atheists don't know all the answers, although atheists do have an abundance of wrong answers. 

The better part of wisdom is discerning the difference between the answers we can't live without and the answers we can live without. 

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Is Christianity a bookish faith?

I'm going to comment on some recent statements by Andy Stanley. I believe the first was from about two years ago:

He says that in his freshman lit. class at Georgia State U., the professor referred to many creation myths, and thereby dismantled the faith of every student who grew up in church.

i) Andy's inference is so illogical. But it illustrates the dangers of false expectations. He acts as though, if Gen 1-2 is true, other cultures wouldn't have creation myths. How does that follow? How would the historicity of Gen 1-2 prevent pagans in other cultures from developing independent creation myths? Primitive people are curious about where everything came from. If they are heathen, they will make up stories that reflect their belief in animism or polytheism. This creates no presumption that Gen 1-2 is just another creation myth. 

ii) Andy says he believes Gen 1-2, not because the Bible says so, but because Jesus says so. Now, there's a sense in which Jesus can verify the OT. There is, however, another sense in which the OT must verify the messiahship of Jesus. The claims of Christ are not independent of the OT. To some extent, the claims of Christ presume and depend on the authority of the OT. 

Now, you can have different lines of evidence. There's historical evidence for the NT. And there's the argument from miracles. If you've already established that Jesus is the messiah, then you can deploy that as an argument from authority to verify the OT. 

However, it's also the case that the OT is a necessary standard of comparison for assessing messianic claimants. In that respect, the OT is an independent authority. One wonders how Andy would witness to an Orthodox Jew.

iii) Andy's methodology is naive in another respect. If allegedly parallel creation myths cast doubt on the historicity of Gen 1-2, then by parity of argument, allegedly parallel dying-and-rising savior gods cast doubt on the NT Jesus. Notice how Andy's argument unwittingly plays right into the hands of someone like Robert Price or Richard Carrier who claims that Jesus is just another fictional character in the mythic hero archetype or Rank-Raglan mythotype. Suppose Andy's lit. prof. made Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces required reading? Where would that leave Andy? 

Andy is seeking an intellectual shortcut. But that's an ambush. That simply relocates the battlefield. You can't eliminate the need for Christian apologetics. You can't avoid defending the Bible.