Thursday, October 4, 2018

Should I Stay or Can I Go? Divine Determinism and the Bible

Divine causal determinism is the view that God causes every aspect of anything that happens. This is sometimes referred to as meticulous determinism. It means that there is nothing that happens, from a person’s thoughts to their will (however this is defined), to their actions that is not made to happen exactly as it does by God. The human agent is not free in any real sense to choose one thing or another. There is no contingency in the world, all events are foreordained. Every outcome was decreed to happen as it does before the foundation of the world. An example of this view comes from the Westminster Confession of Faith “Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet has he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.” (WCF, 3, II). See also here and here for other examples of this position.

The philosophical case for determinism, whether divine or natural, has been discussed at length elsewhere. The chief concern in this post is the biblical case. I am concerned about whether the Christian Bible teaches determinism. I think the answer is a resounding ‘no’. Of course, developing a comprehensive case would be a book-length project. My hope is simply to offer a few thoughts deriving from the historical passages presented in 1 Samuel 23:1-14. The exchanges between God and David are very instructive. In his book The Unseen Realm, Dr. Michael Heiser also raises these passages against the determinist/predestinarian view, although the treatment is not lengthy. But the point is well taken, and these passages are especially instructive because of the historical record they present, as opposed to other biblical literary genres.

To summarize, David inquires of God about attacking the Philistines in Keilah, which would save the city. The Lord answers in the affirmative. David’s men are afraid of the Philistines, so David double-checks with God about sure victory. God confirms that David will be victorious. David then attacks and saves the city. Saul finds out David is in Keilah and sets out to confront him. David inquires of God whether Saul will indeed look to pursue him there. God tells David that Saul will come to Keilah. David then inquires of God whether the men of Keilah will betray him to Saul. God tells David that the men of Keilah will betray him. David and his men flee from Keilah, taking refuge in the forest. Saul hears that David is no longer in Keilah and ceases his journey.

What is striking here is that God tells David about future events that both occur and do not occur. The attack on Keilah and victory over the Philistines happen exactly as God tells David, yet the Keilahite betrayal and attack from Saul do not happen as God says. How does the determinist understand these scriptures? The ultimate conclusion must be that God immutably decreed everything in the sequence of events. God caused David to ask questions, caused Saul to begin the trek to Keilah, decreed what He would say to David, and so forth. There was no other way for these events to be except how they occurred.

Tension quickly arises because God is causing David to ask questions where the answer from God about what would happen differs from what actually happened. If there is no contingency, that is, if human agents do not have genuine choice and real impact on outcomes, then the passages become unintelligible. It strains the text to think that there would have been no confrontation between David and Saul if David had remained in Keilah. It strains the text to think that Saul would have continued to Keilah upon learning that David had fled. Contingency and choice is the only plausible reading.

The determinist has a deus ex machina at the ready, and it can be wielded to deal with passages like 1 Samuel 23.[1] It might be just a mystery as to why God spoke to David like this. It might be that God was speaking in hypotheticals to David, where there was an implicit wink that such contingencies were principally impossible. As in the message from God would be something like “David, Saul is on his way. And if per impossible, you were to stay, there would be a battle. But I have decreed from eternity that you will depart before Saul arrives so you will not be betrayed, Saul will not arrive here. I have already immutably chosen what will happen.” Of course, the determinist might also appeal to the completed biblical canon where we can see from a birds-eye view of how and (sometimes) why God made everything as it was. There was accordingly no real chance that David would have stayed at Keilah. God decreed from eternity that David would flee, survive, and progenerate the lineage of Messiah.

We are still left with the fact that God told David about an event that would happen which never had a chance of actually happening. Why would God do this? It was never a “live” option on determinism. This gets at a larger biblical problem for the determinist, which is the utter frivolity of divine commands and most of special revelation. God tells the Israelites they will be blessed in the Promised Land if they obey the covenant commands, and cursed if they disobey. Yet, God had foreordained and then caused their disobedience. God has prophets instruct His people about pending doom for their rampant sin unless they repent. But God is the one causing their impenitence; it is He that is making them impenitent, the humans are not real causal agents in rebellion or repentance. When Ezekiel 18:21 says “if a wicked person turns away from his sins . . .”, it really means if God causes the wicked person to turn away from his sins. When this same chapter says that the soul who sins will die, it really means – per determinism – that the soul that God causes to sin will die.

A coherent reading of the events of David at Keilah is true contingency. There are genuine “if/then” scenarios present, there are rational agents with real choices. The statements from God about what will happen are not necessarily making them happen. David has a choice at the beginning; he can march and defeat the Philistines or not make the trip to Keilah. There is nothing in the text to make us think that it was inevitable that David go to Keilah. We have examples in the Bible where God’s promise of victory in battle does not result in the people listening (Numbers 13). David has a choice to stay in Keilah or flee. Saul had a choice to pursue David there or stay home.

In His omniscience, God perfectly knows what will happen if X or not-X. He knows that if David stays, Saul will attack Him. He knows that if David leaves, he will be safe in the woods. I think the 1 Samuel 23 passages clearly show that God’s knowledge of events does not necessitate their occurrence. This is foul to the determinist because it blasphemes to speak of God knowing something that He does not ordain to pass or related phraseology. If God knows it, He must have immutably decreed it. It is also out of bounds for the determinist to think that anything in God is caused by the actions of creatures, however impoverished a rendering of non-determinism this might be. Yet, the lower view of God maintains that He cannot will and cause creatures to exist that have genuine agency and affect outcomes in certain situations (moral choice, etc.) It is true and part (metaphorically speaking regarding ‘part’ in God) of God’s knowledge that if David stays, he will be attacked. It is also true that if David leaves, he will be safe.

What is simply too difficult for the deterministic case here is the statements God makes to David. If things are determined, then how can God truthfully say that David will suffer betrayal and Saul will pursue him? Surely, if God is speaking about what will occur, on determinism, then the events will certainly occur. Yet the Keilahites do not betray David and Saul does not arrive at Keilah. Since these events did not happen, the determinist must say it is because God did not decree them to be so. But then why did He speak to David as He did? The only way out is to affirm genuine choice on the part of the human agents. God knew what would happen upon any choices made. God’s knowledge of the choices and outcomes of each did not casually determine the outcome. If God’s knowledge determines deliberative agent choices, then there is no way to avoid extremely problematic divine predication (such as dishonesty or non-omniscience). For the determinist, this issue arises because God clearly foreordained the falsification of His own statements about events at Keilah. On determinism, there is no contingency, so God speaking in “if/then” terms to David is out-of-bounds. But reading this reading of the text in a deterministic way represents the importation of a foreign philosophical construct. The result is countless contradictions.

As I stated above, my intent here is a brief exploration of the 1 Samuel 23:1-14 passages in light of divine causal determinism. These passages demonstrate just one case for the untenability of determinism as a biblical doctrine. Of course, the deterministic opponent might simply reply that I have been determined to be a non-determinist, but that was decided for all of us before the world began. However, avoiding this self-inflicted vertigo, which is part and parcel of the determinist position, is the first step toward a remedy.

[1] What I mean by deus ex machina here is that God’s eternal decree, by His secret, inscrutable, immutable will, can be used to explain away anything theologically or philosophically problematic/contradictory. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Extra-Mentally Real

Contemporary philosophy and apologetics often use the phrase “extra-mental reality.” This usually means the person is qualifying their argument or comment to hold constant certain epistemological commitments or assumptions.

Why should we speak in terms of ‘extra-mental’ reality? This seems to be a misnomer or implies the mind cut off and distinct from the world in a subjectively perceptualist sense. Such a view reflects precepts which are certainly non-compulsory.

If we are going to bifurcate the mind and the world, then we are committing to idealism. Reality just is. It is what we are, what we talk about. To deny it is to affirm it. The ‘out there” and the “in here” are not two different realities. For if things do not impose themselves upon our unified selves, if we only apprehend ideas and beliefs and not things, then we are left with creating reality. And a created reality is not reality at all. We are then stuck with many contrivances to extricate ourselves from a mess of our own creation. (My own position in this area agrees with the arguments laid out by Frederick Wilhelmsen in Man’s Knowledge of Reality and Etienne Gilson in Methodical Realism).

How does something that is real assess the “extra-mental” to determine its reality or nonreality? Among the problems alluded to above, this very ‘bird’s-eye’ view begs a regress, where a higher view becomes necessary to render the judgment (of reality/non-reality) on that which is under it. However, what renders this third perspective correct? We need a fourth perspective, and so on.

It is implicit that I am real if I am making a judgment on reality by making a statement about extra-mental reality. But if I, the one making the judgement, am implicitly cut-off from reality, then how can I judge that it is real? It seems that I need to be above “myself” and “the world” to judge the difference. It is this very act of the third, transcendent position that is an artificial reconstruction. It is only possible because the mind and world are equally real, and that certain acts of the intellect entail an abstraction from things apprehended; where abstractions are possible only because the absolute exists as a tether.

I recently heard an apologist begin a debate with a qualifying commentary that there is no absolute “proof” for God because one could always raise doubts, we could be in The Matrix or tormented by Descartes’ demon, and so forth. Such a delimiter was unfortunate because it plunges dialogue into the realm of idealism. Here there is no limit to what artificial devices and analytical fabrications might be used to justify one’s rationality in denying the premise of an argument that is otherwise evident. There is little ground to be gained because metaphysics and idealism are very strange bedfellows. A priori commitments to idealism do not allow for genuine metaphysics. 

The ‘extra-mental’ qualifier introduces a stiff headwind. Unfortunately, it almost certainly will not be done away with unless a monumental paradigm shift occurs in philosophy. Since these shifts usually take hundreds of years, I am not holding out much hope. On the upside, we can carefully vet the ‘extra-mental qualifier; we can choose to not let it slip by when we see it or hear it. We can press for greater clarification and better judge how useful a discussion will be in each context.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Should We Ditch the Moral Argument?

You do not have to look very far into the modern historical dialogue on religion to find some rendition of “all things are lawful without God.” We read this in Dostoyevsky, hear it in debates between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, and read it in our Facebook or Twitter feeds. The discussion I have in view is situated within the realm of moral arguments for the existence of God. My goal in this post is to sketch out some basic reasons why we should think about abandoning these arguments.

What I like about the moral argument is that it engenders debate across the spectrum, from the everyday person to the academic. If you want to connect with someone, the idea of good/bad, right/wrong is a great place to start. One of the major things I dislike about these arguments is they rely on background metaphysics that are rarely drawn out. For example, we often hear that the atheist confuses moral ontology with moral epistemology. Besides creating what I think is an unnecessary bifurcation (artificially separating the knowing subject from known object), the atheist can grant this misstep and still proceed in his/her critique. The ontology of the theist is often not very explicit, frequently relying on a nebulous notion of ‘good’ that seems it could find a home in Platonism. Moreover, how does this ‘good’ equate to God (or YHWH)? It seems like there is a big leap from ‘objective morality’ to God. At least the God Christians claim as revealed in the Bible.

Some theists try to close this gap, and avoid Platonism, by including moral duties in their argument. This is based on the idea that a Platonic entity or abstract object cannot make it a duty to act in a certain way. Yet it still seems to land at something lesser than the God of the Bible or a ‘maximally great being’. Arguments supporting why it must be God that grounds objective moral values and duties inevitably shift into metaphysics that need their own defense to avoid Euthyphro and retain coherence. And then it seems the moral argument has really been a cover for an altogether different argument for God. [For instance, to avoid Euthyphro on divine command theory, the appeal is often made to the nature of God as good to ground commands. But this is precisely what is at issue. The command is not what makes the action right or wrong, it is the nature of God. Yet, this introduces an additional wrinkle into the argument. How is God good without an external property to Him? Answering this question really becomes the argument for God’s existence, as the theist needs to lay out a more tightly argued, and ultimately comprehensive, metaphysical argument.

I think the moral argument should be abandoned because it is a type of Trojan Horse. Reflective skeptics pick up on the fact that there is just too much compressed into it; it tends burst at the seams, scattering over too broad of an area to be effective. We often see the argument digress into discussions of moral realism and philosophy of science. For example, should we think that evolution is a defeater for the moral argument? That depends on whether you are a realist or not about the scientific theory. Thus, we end up going farther afield from the natural theology we need for effective apologetics.

We are better served to keep the metaphysical within its own realm. I think this best done in the Aristotelian/Thomist (A/T) tradition, where natural/law ethics are baked into the same systematic framework that demonstrate the existence of God. This keeps the conversation more transparent and helps cut wheat from the chaff. Most of the disagreements between theist and atheist will be on the fundamental level of reality itself, from which morality would be downstream anyway. Why not keep the main thing the main thing? Act/potency, matter/form, essence/existence; these concepts found within the A/t tradition form a nice dividing line, as it were. Perhaps similarly in the analytic tradition, there would be certain things that would principally divide the theist and non-theist upstream from morality; perhaps what attaches meaning to a given sentence or proposition. 

Healthy dialogue on morality should have a prominent place. We should absolutely use this as a starting point in conversations. Questions about morality, evil, good, suffering, and the like place our thoughts in the correct realm of inquiry; we begin taking existential issues seriously. The attending quandaries and paradoxes stalk all of us, so the appeal is still there. The best way to proceed is from a foundational metaphysics. And we do arrive at a robust set of moral principles and precepts. It is how we arrive at them that makes all the difference. This is one reason why we must demonstrate God on other grounds before proceeding to moral discussion. The moral discussion is better situated within an already established theistic framework, giving proper context. A theistic framework also helps the Christian connect theology and philosophy. We can then introduce biblical ethics in a holistic manner. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Upholding Divine Immutability: Considering Some Difficulties with God as Unchanging

It is sometimes very difficult to think of God as unchanging or outside of time because we want Him to be just like us. We think that we cannot have a relationship with Him unless He is just like us. We suppose the Bible verses about God’s anger and changing His mind are just like what we go through. If we think of God as Pure Act, impassible, immutable, as the classical theist does, it seems like He is too abstract to be what the Bible presents to us. Those outside the faith, and some within, like to point out differences they see in the ‘’god of the philosophers” and the “God of the Bible.” The classical theist has often gone to great lengths in showing this dichotomy is false, provided the former is correctly understood.

I think many people struggle with divine immutability for two reasons. The first is that classical theism is often not properly understood. The second is that the implications denying immutability are accepted without serious reflection. Conceiving of God as changing, emotional, affected by things outside Himself, within time, and other neo-theistic notions have negative implications for the Christian faith. In this post, I will briefly explore how one might navigate a struggle with divine immutability.

Immutability in the classical theist sense means that it is impossible for God to change. The very nature of God is unchanging. There is no way and in absolutely no sense that change can be predicated of God. Divine immutability is arrived at via the process of natural theology, whereby something true of God is known by reasoning from effect to cause beginning with observable everyday things (“medium-sized objects”) in the created order. Immutability belongs to God alone because in God alone there exists no potential to change; there is nothing in God or outside of God that could bring about a change in Him. If God is the first cause, as understood in any hierarchically ordered (per se, vertical) causal series, then God must be Pure Act, One whose essence and existence are identical. (the hierarchical causal series being the one primary concern to the classical theist and his conception of causes). Of course, anything other than this would not be God, it would be something else. The classical theist understands God as Pure Act, demonstrable through unaided reason. All this informs the classical theist theology and biblical prolegomena. The unchangingness of God underwrites proper biblical interpretation. Passages that speak of God as changing are understood as anthropomorphisms, metaphors, or perhaps other means of communicating true things about God’s activity in the world and man’s action in the world and in relation to God. Passages that speak of God as unchanging, such as Malachi 3:6, should be understood as more literal descriptions of God’s nature.

There is a certain qualified agnosticism that the classical theist will accept. After all, we are talking about God. We cannot possibly have comprehensive knowledge of the divine. We can know many things about God, but this will be relatively insignificant in comparison to the entirely of Him. The inherent limitation in the finite creature’s discussion of the infinite Creator is important. We can speak about God from our standpoint, using analogical language. God knows all things, man knows some things. But God knows things in a different way than man does. Both man and God know things truly, the former in a limited way appropriate to his nature, the latter in an infinite and complete way, appropriate to His nature.

The occasional temptation would be to capitulate to a more overarching agnosticism; God is just unknowable or “we cannot really know the answer, so let’s put it in the category of mystery.” To be wholly agnostic is self-defeating and anti-biblical. To throw the whole question of changingness in God into mystery would be unnecessary. At least, this is what the classical theist will argue. There are indeed great mysteries of the Christian faith, such as the Trinity and Incarnation. How does Jesus Christ have both a divine and human nature without mixing, conflict, etc.? This is a mystery. Chalcedon and Athanasius give us many more negations than positive affirmations. However, sound Biblical exegesis demonstrates the nature of God as Triune. Divine immutability, however, is not a mystery like this or the Incarnation. That God is immutable is within our ability to deduce without special divine revelation, whereas the Trinity, Incarnation, atonement, heaven, hell, etc. are not.

An interesting point is sometimes pressed regarding the Incarnation; does this not present us with a change in God? It does not. At least if the Incarnation is understood along biblical lines. God the Son, the Second Divine Person of the Trinity, added a human nature to His divine nature. The hypostatic union does not in any way bring about a change in the divine nature. Most early heresies, and many existing today surround the Person of Jesus Christ and the relation of the divine and human natures in Him. We do well to consider the inner workings of the hypostatic union as a great mystery while understanding the basis for our conception of God provides a solid foundation for apprehension and acceptance of the doctrine.

There are serious implications for denying divine immutability. Those struggling with, or opposed to, classical theism will typically hold that God at least changes His mind, as seemingly evinced in the Bible (Genesis 6:6, Exodus 32:14). They might deny that God has physical body parts but might see no problem with the possibility of something in God changing. The divine mutability proponent might think that a change in God’s mind is not a change in His nature. Or they might say that God does not change because He says He will not, but He could change if He wanted to. Thus, it is at least possible in principle for God to change.

But how should these claims about God and mutability be understood? For example, if we take the same rationale given by those citing Bible passages approving of God changing, then we would have to affirm many problematic things. God has feet (Genesis 3:8), lungs (Genesis 2:7), eyes (2 Chronicles 16:9), a voice box (Genesis 1:3), arms (Deuteronomy 26:8). Further, on this interpretation, God needs to find out happenings in the human world (Genesis 11:5, 7) and needs directions to find someone (Genesis 4:9). Yet, the historic Christian faith (classical theist or not) has rightly denied all these things of God. So, there must be another way of correctly understanding these biblical texts. First, because they are internally inconsistent with the word “God.” For instance, God cannot create the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1) if He is a physical object within the universe. Secondly, because following these biblical texts in a wooden sense would lead to many contradictions in the Bible (ex. John 4:24). And the extent of these contradictions would be such that any Scriptures referring to God would be thrown into agnosticism at the very least, which would then have downstream implications on all the rest.

Another negative implication as it relates to immutability is the very promise of salvation. If God can in principle change, then do we have any basis to trust that we can be saved from our sins and spend eternity with Him? It is no comfort to say something like “God can change, but said He will not change, and that is good enough for me.” The advocate of such a view has likely not considered something very important here, viz. how is it possible to say that God can, in principle, change? Would God come to know something new? Would He be surprised at something? Would He need to change location? Would He need to feel loved? Would He lack something if every person created since Adam rejected Him? I think the first rhetorical question posed regarding omniscience is enough on its own. Should we really think the Bible is teaching that God needed to know something about the Tower of Babel? Or that He did not know that the Israelites would rebel in the wilderness? Clearly, the Christian must answer in the negative.

An important thing to keep in mind is how we are defining change. The classical theist will typically understand change as the actualization of a potential. The apple is actually on the tree, but potentially on the ground. My skin is actually pale white but potentially tan. When thinking about change, there must be something already actual to bring about the actualization of a potential. Something extrinsic to the changing object is responsible for the change. The chemical reactions in my skin are brought about by the effects of the sun’s rays. The actuality of gravitation and motion draws the apple downward. There might be other ways of defining change, perhaps different states of affairs or something else. In any event, it is not possible for anything to change without there being something outside of the thing that is changing. Even a purely immaterial being thinking about something new or having a different inclination toward one thing or another would have to come about this via new information, a discursively reasoned conclusion, proceeding through a sequence of time of realizing that a new conclusion was reached.

To claim that God can even in principle change is to tacitly admit that there is something outside of God. It is to admit that God has a potential (or potency). This is why it does no good to claim that God could change, but simply wills not to. There is a problem with making a distinction within the divine mind (God’s will versus His knowledge, or something else). Further, if we are basing our salvation on the promise God has made, then our assurance of God keeping this promise is rooted in His nature. If we admit the possibility of change in God, then we allow the possibility that the promise of salvation in Christ might change. There is no way around this. I can say that I trust my wife enough to bet my life that she will not deny her love for me. But I cannot make this claim unequivocally and absolutely. As much as I love her, my wife is a mutable, finite being. Similarly, we treat God as a mutable finite being when we hold that He can change. I can unequivocally place my life in His hands because His very nature assures that His promise is immutable.

Hebrews 13:8 tells us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This text speaks to the divine nature of the Lord. But how can this really be true if God can change? Strictly speaking, if God can change, this verse would be false or at least indeterminate (requiring infinite time to verify its truthfulness). For, if God can change, then there is no way to affirm that Jesus Christ is the same forever. A ‘hedge’ of some kind would have to be input for the passage to be truthful. Like “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever if He so chooses.” But I think this verse is meant to give believers more confidence in the faith, which would be undermined on the premise of God changing.

Working through revealed and natural theology on classical theism can be very difficult (well, what worthwhile theology is easy?). We must keep in mind the fine-grained distinctions and objects of intellectual engagement that exceed the imagination. We must tread very carefully as we approach the limits of our reason. We must walk within the bounds of Scriptures, rightly dividing the word of truth. We must always approach our study with great humility.

One of the many beautiful aspects of Jesus Christ is that it is through Him, human and divine, that we connect to God. God came to us. In Christ, we connect with One who can identify with our sorrows, pain, affliction. God is thus not distant or abstract; He reaches us where we are. We cannot comprehensively know the divine essence, but we can know Jesus Christ. There is still an element of mystery but also an element of great satisfaction. We can affirm the unchangingness of God while embracing the divine and human in Christ.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A Necessary Pairing: Evolutionary Theory and Realism

In this post, I would like to briefly explore some reasons why I think those committed to the theory of evolution (via the extended, modern, or some variation of the core synthesis) should give very careful consideration to their implicit metaphysical commitments. What often gets lost in popular public bantering between proponents/expositors of evolution and (typically religious) detractors is that the theory makes certain claims about reality. And these claims purport to be true, or at least the evolutionary theorist usually claims they are true in some way. For example, natural selection is something that occurs and acts on genes within species structure, population groups, etc. Another example might be common ancestry and speciation events are actual historical events. These examples might be oversimplifications, but my point is simply that are a lot of claims baked into the theory. One must decide how important for components of the theory are literally true. Without a commitment to some form of realism, the evolutionist loses the grounds by which to make a truth claim about his theory.

To start, let us say that the evolutionist is a nominalist. Where does this leave the evolutionary theory? It seems we would be left with anti-realism. One reason is that “species” (or class, phyla, etc.) would be a mere linguistic convention or some logical or semantic placeholder that does not correspond to anything real. If there is nothing essential to a species, then how can we construe speciation events along realist lines? Without a commitment to real species distinction, it is difficult to see how the theory can make consistent truth claims. For example, that at some point there was a Pan-Homo split.

The evolutionist could perhaps be a conceptualist. On this view, something like homo habilis would be a (presumably reducible) mental concept. You or I could think and speak about the same general idea (maybe), but there would still not be anything extra-mentally real about homo habilis. This also leads to anti-realism about the evolutionary theory. There are numerous other anti-realist views. And each of these would be equally unhelpful to the evolutionist.

If one is going to be realist about evolutionary theory, then some type of metaphysical realism is necessary. A committed naturalist/materialist might balk at this. But they have no other good options. If a class, species, group, etc. are not real things in some way, then what can the theory help us know about the genuine history of biological organisms, their variation, operation, and so on? Can one really execute a proper taxonomy or determine LCAs without upholding some type of realism? Surely, one would not want to argue that a critical speciation event such as CHLCA was not a real occurrence (whether more complex and gradual or sudden). But if species are not real things, then what can we make of CHLCA? The answer is not very much. The evolutionist is aiming at the truth in scientific results, and realism must be part and parcel of that.

Since the evolutionist should be some type of realist, what type of realist should he be? Platonism might be an option. There are, of course, myriad variations, but one might take a basic version and think the particulars of biological study are merely instantiations of universals that exist in another realm. There is a library of Platonic forms by which the evolutionary biologist could classify and organize his work. Besides the standard objections to Platonism, I think there is some extra baggage in applying this theory to evolutionary biology. The Third Trilobite Argument is surely a problem to address. But questions of supervenience, causal relations, and others seem like they would be quite difficult to overcome. Here I think some of the issues raised against Erik Weilenberg’s Atheistic Moral Platonism would apply. Still, I will leave this as a potential, yet unlikely, option for the time being.

I think a more plausible and ultimately helpful account would be something like an Aristotelian-Thomist moderate realism. This is for two reasons. First, the notion of formal causes or substantial forms would present the necessary ‘natural kind’ or ‘species-essence’ by which to conceive of a species or class in a truth-testable way. Speciation events could be true in principle because there could presumably be a way, via genetics, cladistics, etc., to affirm distinct biological substances, A vs. B. Without this type of realism, what exactly would be correspondent to a speciation event? Species pliability is problematic for evolutionary realism, but nominalism (per above) is a bad option. The evolutionist should want to stay away from holding these things as nominal or mere constructs.

Secondly, the notion of Aristotelian final causes would provide additional lift. Intrinsic final causes, the inherent tendency of X to Y, would underpin the understanding of organisms to act in certain ways. The process of selection itself seems dependent upon this notion for coherence. In the absence of final causes, there would be no compelling reason to even rationalize observed regularity in nature at the fundamental level of physics and chemistry. At a higher level, species are intelligible insofar as they tend toward certain operations and actions. Species A tends toward a certain diet, reproductive cycle, migration pattern, and so forth. Too many aberrational observations in A leads us to re-think A, break out sub-variations within A, or draw other conclusions entirely. It is precisely due to final causes that A is analyzable for science.

I have tried to sketch a few reasons why the evolutionary realist must necessarily step into realism to preserve the truth value of his theory. Aristotelian realism presents the most attractive option, and perhaps the shortest move. Without formal and final causes, essences and goal-directedness, evolutionary theory can only turn to Platonism. There does not seem to be a good reason to force Platonism given the advantages of the Aristotelian apparatus. If evolutionary theory is anti-realist, it cannot be taken as a true or likely even a limiting account of natural history.

Following closely on the heels of these conclusions are deeper questions about natures/essences and final causes. Can we just stop there without asking more questions? Questions that perhaps go beyond the bounds of physical sciences? For Aristotle, the answer is that we cannot prevent further inquiry into the science of causes and being qua being, viz. metaphysics. Studying the physical sciences leads us to seek further knowledge. I think this is very exciting and shows the systematic compatibility of science and metaphysics. There are also theistic implications that come into the fold, which I will leave for a future post.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Presupposing Idealism (Part 2 of 2)

This post is a continuation of "Presupposing Idealism (Part 1 of 2)"

The presuppositionalist cannot be a realist for the fact that he demands a mode of knowing that is simply not possible on realism. He demands the starting point of an idea or belief. But ideas are not things. He must also account for connecting thought to reality, which is not possible when thought and reality are walled off from each other. 

If the presuppositionalist started from things and not ideas/beliefs, then his view would not get off the ground. Because to start from things would be to acknowledge that we come to know things through the senses, that we know truth by correspondence to reality, that we can know God through His effects, and that we know the Bible is true because we first know what truth is, what language means, and so forth. For example, how can we understand the Bible if we do not first know language or understand concepts derived from the apprehension of being as it is? So, we cannot truly start with presupposing the Bible because such a thing cannot in principle be done. The logical and sequential order of man’s natural mode of knowing is reversed on the presuppositionalist view. Per Van Til:

"We should accept the Scripture testimony about itself. If we did anything else we would not be accepting Scripture as absolute. The only alternative then to bringing in a God who testifies of himself and upon whose testimony we are wholly dependent, is not to bringing in God at all. And not to bring in God at all spells nothing but utter ruin for knowledge" A Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. 202

One accepting what Van Til says here, and in other places, cannot be a realist. The mode of knowledge posited by Van Til can only be understood within an idealist framework. 

When the Christian claims that the Bible is true, we are claiming that the Bible corresponds to reality. We are claiming that what the Bible reports about events is true, what it tells us about God is true, and all the rest. Yet, how can we know something is true if the mode of human knowing is circumvented? This is precisely what the presuppositionalist is asking. He is essentially saying that the way we normally know things does not apply to the Bible or God. So, taking our que from the presuppositionalist, should the unbeliever suspect that his normal way of knowing things is delivering falsehood? It seems so. Yet, if this is the case, then why should he trust the normal way he is knowing the things that the presuppositionalist is telling him about God and the Bible?! Throwing shade at the unbelievers’ knowing faculties undermines the entire conversation. Further, arguing that a person’s knowing faculties are mixed with error is an argument for skepticism. And the only fertile ground for skepticism is in idealism. Moreover, one would be arguing from an epistemic elitism; the presuppositionalist holds that only they have proper knowing faculties to adjudicate truth and falsehood. This would then amount to an a priori denial of anything the opposing person says in disagreement.

What the presuppositionalist must also avoid is claiming that, once the Bible is presupposed as true, the truth of it will then be evident. This self-defeating rationale is employed in other religions (such as LDS). Further, I do not see any limit to the potential post-hoc rationalization or confirmation bias problems that can arise if it is asked that the Bible be presupposed as true in order to establish its truth.

Is the Bible true for the believer and unbeliever? Certainly, we want to say that it is. Thus, we must say that it is objectively true, and that the unbeliever may withhold assent or try to undermine its truth. In any event, there are propositions within the Bible which we assert correspond to mind-independent reality. And if we desire to maintain this correspondence, we cannot demand a bifurcated way of knowing things. So, do we know the Bible because the ideas of it are implanted in us? Or, do we know the Bible because we learn language, understand truth, then apprehend that the Bible is not contradicting itself, reports historical events, etc.? I think the latter is much more plausible.

What about God simply giving us knowledge of things? Surely, He could circumvent the natural knowing process and grant us knowledge of Himself directly (beaming it into our mind) or of the Scriptures. I would not necessarily disagree but would qualify my response, lest we saw off the branch upon which we are sitting. The only way we can be sure that God is revealing things to us is by having a reality by which we can understand such revelation. If God tells Noah to build an ark, Noah knows what an ark is, what rain is, what a flood is, and so forth. Noah understands and grasps language and meaning. And Noah understood this before God spoke to Him. God communicates to us in accordance with the type of beings we are. It would go against the nature of God to usurp how He created man and would go against His nature to think that He would create us to understand things in a certain way and then constantly override that when He needed to especially reveal something to us (whether an Old Testament patriarch or New Testament believer). I think God communicates to us in accordance with our nature. If God shows the Hebrew special instructions for metalworking within the Tabernacle, then this is understood as a human understand things. This is, of course, one of the reasons why the Bible is written in human language, for us to learn, pass along, teach from, and to treasure. Does the Holy Spirit tell us what the passages mean? Or does He guide us in our understanding, drawing is closer to the Lord and His Word? I think our sanctification is described in the Bible as a cooperative effort, and it is for our benefit that we become obedient. This does not at all diminish the spiritual life of the believer but makes it intelligible and veridical.

I suspect a major reason why the presuppositionalist must posit God on pain of never getting to God is because his idealism forbids him from knowing things in themselves. Baked into his philosophical anthropology is a tacit perceptual subjectivism. Without God as the transcendental, there be only nihilistic relativism because things cannot ultimately be known as they are. Thus, Christian proofs for God, as famously attacked by Kant, are vulnerable because the reasoning gap of effect to cause cannot be bridged. Positing God at the outset, and the Christian worldview as a transcendental framework, solves this problem. Again from Van Til:

That is, we must seek to determine what presuppositions are necessary to any object of knowledge in order that it may be intelligible to us. It is not as though we already know some facts and laws to begin with, irrespective of the existence of God, in order then to reason from such a beginning to further conclusions. It is certainly true that if God has any significance for any object of knowledge at all, the relation of God to that object of knowledge must be taken into consideration from the outset. It is this fact that the transcendental method seeks to recognize. - A Survey of Christian Epistemology p.201

It is clear how the idealist lays down his method before exploration as if he knows what he will encounter and how he will react and respond before he sets out. The backwardness of this approach is evident of a type of “taxi-cab” fallacy; one arbitrary dismisses how he arrived at his present location. As Gilson accurately states, the idealist puts forth a method as a precondition for philosophy instead of finding method in his philosophy (as the realist does). The idealist starting point “has neither the evidence of an axiom nor the value of a principle” (Gilson, Methodical Realism, p.85). Further, there are no compelling reasons to accept the major problems that Descartes, Kant, or others in the modern era, were trying to solve. The problems begetting idealism and the transcendental are demonstrable facades. And once we see these problems for what they are, the need for the transcendental method – and all of its attending problems - fades away.

I think the presuppositionalist could resort to saying, “God must regenerate you, then you will know the truth.” But how does the presuppositionalist know that he has been regenerated to know the truth? He would just be appealing to the Scriptures to establish the truth he has already presupposed as true. Or, how does he avoid the question of a demon or evil spirit giving him a false idea of regeneration? The presuppositionalist might also reply that only a regenerated person can understand the truth of the Scriptures and God, the unbeliever cannot. The Bible does say the things of God are foolishness to the impenitent man, but this does not mean the unbeliever cannot understand and apprehend what is being told to him; he simply rejects it as false based on myriad (futile, I think) grounds. And, of course, I agree that the unbeliever’s view is irrational. But, again, the way we establish the rationality of our view is of the utmost importance. The believer may understand the truths of the Scriptures in a much deeper, and entirely distinct way than the unbeliever. Think of an orphan reading a letter from what he took to be another person’s father, and then later discovering through various means that he was actually reading a letter from his own father. The letter would mean much more on the second reading.

Moving away from idealism is important for Christians. Upholding the divide between object and subject, whether explicitly or implicitly, brings intractable problems for the Christian worldview. We must maintain that what man knows are things. Thus, the point of departure and proper starting point for philosophy is being. There is nothing to know if there are not things. Getting this out of order led to the problems that the presuppositionalist sees as highly relevant. These problems need not have arisen in the first place, so continuing to give them life and constructing philosophical and apologetic systems around them represents time that could be better spent elsewhere.

I realize the presuppositional question and method is closely tied to Reformed Theology. And those strongly committed to that tradition will bristle at the points raised above. Still, we should seek a unified worldview and biblical prolegomena. Inconsistency must be rooted out where we find it.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Presupposing Idealism (Part 1 of 2)

Taking epistemology as the point of departure is fraught with insufferable difficulty. Yet, this is the lamentable method used in a great deal of modern philosophy.  We take knowledge, or even the idea of our own existence, and then ask questions and analyze it. How did I come to have the thought, idea, perception, etc. that is before me right now? What is the logical relation between the ideas I have, the propositions I take as true, etc.? Only once I establish that I know can I then explore that which I know. Without a foundation of knowledge, I cannot speak about anything. If I posit something as existing, someone will ask me how I know about it. And if I cannot provide a good answer, then I might as well not even talk about it. Ontology is subordinated to epistemology. This is particularly evident in the Christian presuppositional tradition.

One problem I see with the presuppositional approach is that it is fundamentally idealist. In this post, I will try to explain what I mean by this and why it is an issue. Note, I am not making a critique of presuppositional apologetics per se. A great deal of ink has already been spilled on that. There are underlying philosophical commitments that are prior, and, I think, more interesting than strictly apologetic approach. I do not have a particular brand of presuppositionalism in mind. Rather, what lies within my sights is a consistent philosophical theme in Van Til, Bahnsen, Frame, Oliphint, and others in this tradition, as well as those they have either directly or indirectly influenced. I also see presuppositionalism evident in preaching and pulpit teaching in many evangelical churches, so I aim to address this incipience also.

If we know anything, an important thing to ask is what man knows. Here we have two choices; does he know ideas/beliefs (thought) or things? If we say ideas (or beliefs), then our outlook changes quite a bit. For one thing, to say we know ideas immediately severs any possible physical world from the mind. Such a position naturally radiates from perceptual subjectivism. On this view, the mind is cut-off or mediated from the physical world (if the world is even held to exist). A dimly lit exit sign directs us to a dubious abductive labyrinth. Escape has been attempted by the greatest minds in modern philosophy to no avail because there is no way out. On the other hand, we can say man knows things. And if man knows things, he must know them as they really are. This can only occur if objects are antecedent to the knowing subject, impinging upon the subject’s senses. Such would be man’s natural mode of knowing, the way he comes to know things in his physical, temporal state.

Something of great importance follows if man knows reality (things). His mode of knowing proceeds from object to subject, from sensation to perception to abstraction to intellection. As a rational being, this process is natural; it belongs to his very essence. It is just what man does qua man. There is something outside of man by which man comes to know himself. I am, therefore I think versus I think, therefore I am. It is the Cogito of Descartes in reverse. If the way we know reality is through the process as outlined above, then the yardstick for truth is reality (being). To speak truly is to say that which is. There is a correspondence to reality, where a formal identity comes to exist between the knower and object known. I do not aim to fully defend direct realism here, but merely to highly its differences with idealism and the attending consequences of each. Even if an extended defense of my account of realism fails, the rendering and critique of idealism would remain.

Where does the presuppositionalist land? As I said above, I think he cannot help but land in idealism. Though, it would certainly be problematic to affirm idealism outright. It should be further noted that, by idealism, I do not mean anything other than the basic view that what man knows are beliefs and ideas. For example, holding that knowledge is justified true belief is fundamentally idealist. By idealism, I mean any view that affirms perceptual subjectivism. And by idealism, I mean one that would hold the only possible starting point for knowing reality is the thoughts/ideas/beliefs we have.

The modern/critical problem of Descartes begat idealism, cutting the mind off from things in pursuit of an indubitable foundation. The offspring of idealism is the mind/body problem, which in turn yields the substance dualism/materialism dilemma. (We might add panpsychism in there as a third option, but I think that quickly lands in idealism). Both the substance dualist and materialist options are bitter pills, viz. the interaction problem and the reductionist problem. The mind/body problem is also biblically troubling. Substance dualism, in the Cartesian or Platonic sense, strains the bounds of exegetical credulity. Does the Bible really teach that man is two distinct substances? On the other side, materialism eviscerates the biblical text entirely.

The presuppositionalist tells us that, unless we presuppose the triune God of the Bible (and the truth of the Scriptures), nothing could in principle ultimately make sense. We would contradict ourselves somewhere, probably very soon in the discussion. Any time we use logic, reason, math, etc. we are, in a very real way, implicitly affirming Christian theism. Thus, to deny God is to deny any basis by which we might make such a denial. The non-Christian must borrow from the Christian worldview to argue against the Christian. The Christian framework is the only coherent means of understanding and explaining things.

Given his fundamental position, I contend that the presuppositionalist cannot be a realist. He cannot be a realist because he takes epistemology as his point of departure, thus beginning with knowledge and not things. The presuppositionalist cannot be a realist because realism would open up the possibility of knowing God through the things He has made. On realism, man would know things, apprehend causes, and would reason from effect to cause. In short, with realism comes natural theology. And natural theology is what the presuppositionalist will deny.

A major question that arises is how the presuppositionalist knows about the triune God of the Bible. More importantly, how does he think that the pagan knows about God (Romans 1:18-20). It could only be from either (a) having the idea or belief in God or (b) based on conclusions drawn from interaction with the world. The presuppositionalist can opt for (a), holding that God implanted knowledge of Himself in all men. Perhaps the sensus divinatatus per John Calvin is in view. There are a few issues here. First, this does not necessarily seem like the triune God of Scripture. For if it were, the divinely implanted idea of God manifests quite differently throughout observed cultures in the world. The presuppositionalist will immediately revert that sinful man suppresses true knowledge of God. But then we have still not accounted for that true knowledge in the first place. How does the presuppositional (or covenantal) understand truth =? They might respond that God gives the idea, and then we interact with reality to calibrate the idea (prior to suppressing it). But this is the exact opposite process of how we come to know things unless we think that Plato’s theory of reminisce, or something like it, is true.

Even within an idealist context, it would be bizarre to claim that knowledge starts with an idea and then we reverse engineer or justify it via some investigatory process of prior ideas. A reverse building process, as it were. Do we always start with a complex idea and then investigate how we came to that via simpler ideas? Or do we move from the simple to the complex? Further, why would the way of having the idea of God be different than other ideas? Is knowledge of God innate? If so, what other innate knowledge might we have, and how do we distinguish? I cannot see any non-special pleading answers to these questions that can escape idealism. Starting with an idea will always result in capitulating to a coherence version of truth or making an unjustified leap to the physical world.  

The presuppositionalist holds that without first positing Christianity, the world cannot ultimately make sense. The contention that the universe is only intelligible because of God is true, but the method by which we make this assertion makes all the difference. I remain with the question of where the notion of God is coming from? And the presuppositionalist certainly holds that man has knowledge of God and truth. Here is Oliphint’s position, via a summary from his tenets in Covenantal Apologetics “All people know the true God, and that knowledge entails covenantal obligations…Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know.”

Given that man does know God and about Him, can the presuppositionalist maintain (b) per above? He cannot if he wishes to remain consistent. Such a move would undermine the entire project. However, this is what I think the presuppositionalist does. He concludes God exists by his natural mode of knowing (reasoning from effect to cause). Once arriving at that conclusion, he then claims the only reason he was able to reason in the first place is because of the conclusions he made based upon use of his reason (God). The presuppositionalist ignores the fact that he did not (nor could not) actually start with the existence of the God of the Bible. Yet he places this demand upon others. It is a highly unreasonable demand, and one that is completely unnecessary. 

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Bible: Where Do We Start?

“You have to start with the Bible.”

The foregoing is typically meant as a pious statement about one’s commitment to the authority of biblical instruction. If you accept the Bible as the inerrant and infallible Word of God, then the notion of “starting with the Bible” seems to follow necessarily. It seems one cannot, at least as an Evangelical Christian, deny this statement as it applies to faith and, by extension, all of life. When questions arise concerning church practice (“should we worship on Saturday or Sunday?”)  or doctrine (“did Christ die for all sinners or only certain sinners?”) it seems that only the Bible alone can decide these matters. Further, when it comes to matters of life, such as divorce and remarriage, childrearing, or entertainment choice, the first and final word on the matter is the Bible. This position would hold that most of man’s problems arise by not starting decision procedures with biblical consultation. As I see it, this notion points to the famous Reformation Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). My aim in this post is to discuss some reasons why this line of thinking is problematic.

We are immediately faced with the question of what “starting with the Bible” actually means. The more unreflective answer is that it means the Bible is authoritative for Christian life and practice. The things prohibited in the Bible should not be done and the things prescribed in the Bible should be done. True enough. But that does not really help us with the underlying issues. It does not help us understand exactly what the Bible wants us to do. Moreover, the Bible does not provide a comprehensive and systematically organized doctrinal list, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith. Of course, the Bible is written in human language, to be understood by people of all different cultures and languages, across wide-ranging geography and time. Communication requires a sender and a receiver. God inspired the biblical writing through an individual person, and the individual person wrote in their language and according to their personality (the apostle Paul, anyone?). People read the words of God on paper or listen to them as they are spoken. We understand they express propositions that are objectively true. Yet, how does this come about?

Communication is possible because humans are rational beings, capable of understanding language and concepts. Before a person can understand the Bible, they must know the meaning of words and have the ability to grasp abstract ideas. An example of an abstraction is “tree.” To understand that an oak is a tree and a walnut is a tree is to understand the concept of "tree," and how “tree” applies to numerous diverse and differentiated objects. If man was not a rational being, endowed with a will and intellect, God could not communicate nor have any relationship with us. It seems unavoidable that certain things must be in place before God can meaningfully speak to us. We can only understand higher level things because we understand those that are more basic.

The first words in the Bible are “In the beginning God…” Christians believe this is true. But if a person had no idea who or what God is, did not have a notion of God, apprehend the idea of “beginning,” or had a defective concept of God, etc. then the words of Genesis 1:1, and the rest of Scripture, would make little sense, either taken in whole or part. When we interpret the Bible, we must explicate certain criteria that govern such interpretation. These criteria are sometimes called “prolegomena.” Examples of this are a monotheism, a God who speaks and acts, and so forth. It is important to note that the Bible does not make a list of prolegomena for us to examine. When we organize and reconcile biblical passages, we rely on logic and reason. We do not question our reasoning faculties when systematizing Scripture. To do so would undermine the entire enterprise, as we would be relegated to skepticism. 

Some Christians hold the view that the unredeemed cannot successfully understand the Scriptures or understand them in a meaningful way. Nor can the unregenerate truly understand God or things that are about God. The sin of Adam has so infected every aspect of man that, prior to being non-volitionally born-again, he cannot truly seek to know about God (or the Bible). The impenitent man willfully suppresses the truth. On this rationale, it is hard to avoid the claim that the atheist cannot understand Scripture. Of course, this is clearly false. There are plenty of atheists who can read and grasp the words and concepts within the Bible, in some cases better than Christians. What the atheist does not accept is that what they are reading is true. And, of course, they cannot believe it is true because they are unbelievers. If they were believers, they would immediately see the truth of divine revelation, or so this view would hold. If they really understood the Bible, they would accept it. At least this position is encompassed in the view of Christians sometimes called “presuppositional.”

There are a few problems with this view that I have not yet been able to successfully resolve. The first is the implication that God endows the regenerate with a truth-rendering interpretative framework. What might explain this implication as the role of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Spirit Himself shows the believer the truth of God’s Word. Yet, without resorting to occasionalism, the empirical evidence works strongly against this view. Certainly, believers can be mistaken in their interpretation. We see widespread disparity even among the original expositors of Sola Scriptura. Therefore, we must say that the reasoning faculties of the believer are still fallible. What is the difference, then, between an unbeliever and a believer in this category? Perhaps just that the believer desires to know the Word of God. But this does not mean that He will actually succeed in grasping it or making a coherent doctrine and staking out a sound position. Unless occasionalism is true, then it seems God desires some cooperation on the role of the believer in understanding the Bible. The believer has to do some work, learn Hebrew, Greek, systematize it, and the like. But if the believer has fallible reasoning and the unbeliever also has fallible reason, then where is the material difference? Can we really make a distinction in the type of rational fallibility? Is not the whole notion of sin-tainted reason bound up with the notion of fallibility? The answer cannot be because the unbeliever merely suppresses the truth. 

As I understand it, the presuppositional position will affirm the unbeliever can successfully use reason in non-biblical/spiritual activities (such as science) in much the same or identical way as a believer. Yet, granting that the regenerate person is indeed changed in a substantial way (viz his relation to God), there is still no sound basis for the radical bifurcation of reasoning faculties in the believer and unbeliever. It is only by systematizing certain Reformed doctrines that one can arrive at this conclusion. However, such doctrinal compilation itself is done with admittedly fallible human reason. And the myriad systematics available within the Reformed tradition attest to variation in result. What grounds are there for thinking any superiority in the reasoning faculty itself between the regenerate and the unregenerate? Unless one presupposing the truth of their doctrine (distinct itself from presupposing the truth the Bible), I do not see how such a view can be sustained. From this, it follows that a prolegomena incorporating man’s ability to know God (Yahweh, the One and Only) exists and certain divine attributes are predicable of Him in the absence of Scripture is defensible.

One rebuttal to this conclusion is that such a prolegomena will not lead one to the Triune God of Scripture because it ends up (or starts biblical interpretation) in disputed abstractions, posits a “god of the philosophers,” and so on. I think such a response is a red-herring. It should be noted that one hears this in more of an apologetic setting versus a backdrop of biblical prolegomena. In any event, the reconciliation of biblical theism with what is knowable via unaided reason does not even present a gap to traverse when properly done. The same divine attributes found in the Bible agree with those found via unaided reason. That this cannot be one and the same being is a demonstrably strange conclusion. One exploring and describing God via His effects in creation does not seek to fully explicate God as is done within the Bible. Rather, he seeks to demonstrate in another way what the Scriptures brightly illuminate.

Another issue I see with the “starting with the Bible” position is that it implies that knowledge of God’s specifically revealed truth and salvific belief are necessarily connected. That is, one cannot truly understand the Bible without affirming it as true. I alluded to this notion above. Is it really impossible for an unbeliever to know and yet reject what the Bible claims? Perhaps the answer is “yes” for those who affirm certain soteriological distinctives. However, it is difficult to see how this actually works out. A person can certainly know something is true, such as that smoking is bad for them, and yet act contrary to this knowledge. A person can also know what the Bible says and teaches, and still withhold belief. They can know exactly what the Bible says about God and salvation and remain unconvinced of its truth and/or still withhold assent. Likewise, I can understand Buddhism in a comprehensive manner yet still reject it as false. Many Christians clearly understand Islam, the teachings and life of Mohammed, and still boldly proclaim the truth of Christianity (which is, at its core, antithetical to Islam).

Something that often gets lost in this matter is that the Scriptures tell us that believing in God is not enough for salvation. “Even the demons believe, and shudder” (James 2:19). Given this, I cannot see how it is problematic for any view of Christian soteriology (and attending systematic) to affirm that an unbeliever can know about God’s existence via reasoning from what is observed in the created order, and also a great deal about God, yet still not be redeemed. Many in the presuppositional camp will readily say that man knows the truth about God, yet suppresses this; the sinner knows it but does not admit it. But this brings up a thorny issue. They would have to say that man knows God because God has planted the idea in man as an image bearer, but this would effectively import an idealist epistemology; man knows and thinks about ideas, not things. The result ends up burying us in the post-Cartesian debate of arranging ideas, subjective perceptualism, and futilely trying to connect ideas in the mind to things in the world. Without idealism, the only playable game left is realism. Yet, if realism is true, then the only way the impenitent man can know about God in the first place is by inferring and reasoning from effect to cause, which is the method starkly opposed by the presuppositionalist. I cannot see a way out for the presuppositionalist here; he must deny idealism and affirm that man can, in fact, know God from the light of natural reason by observing God's effects in creation. But if he denies this and embraces idealism, he must explain how the suppressed truth about God is actually knowable. I will leave further explication of this dilemma for another time. 

Returning to an issue raised above, the Bible requires interpretation. Does “starting with the Bible” help at all? Let examine how this might be. We sometimes hear things like “the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible.” If this is taken to mean that many passages in Scripture help explain or contextualize others, then there are no prima facie issues. But does “starting with the Bible” actually give us a means of understanding passages so that we might successfully compare them to others for intra-textual reference? Antecedently, what interpretative method should we utilize? The historical-grammatical? Does the Bible actually say “thou shalt use the historical-grammatical method unless the text is allegorical, metaphorical, etc.?” And how do we know when a text is allegorical or hyperbolical? We read the text and ask what it means. We then seek a way to anchor word, symbol, and conceptual connection. This should not be understood as “going outside” the Bible here; one is not importing meaning or words into the text.

When we read certain texts that seem to interpret other texts in the historical-grammatical way, we still must make a meta-decision about this move. Why does such a method make sense when others do not? Again, the Bible does not tell us specifically. We must resort to those pesky reasoning faculties once again. Further, what about the many passages which describe God in contradictory ways? How do we adjudicate which ones are metaphorical and which ones are literal? For example, does God change? We must first know what change is and why it would be problematic to predicate change in God before we can rightly divide the relevant biblical texts. Does God have physical arms and legs? If not, how is it that we determine that John 4:24 is speaking literally about God’s nature and Deuteronomy 4:34 is speaking metaphorically? Clearly, we must bring something to the Scriptures in order to properly interpret them. We cannot derive a method of interpretation from the text we are trying to interpret. Such rationale would lead to a self-undermining vertigo.

It has been said that “we can either start with the Word of God or man’s word.” Such a statement seems well-intentioned, but badly misses the point. The latter of the disjunct is a straw-man. I have never heard it said that we should start with “man’s word.” The dichotomy so presented implies that not “starting with God’s word” is tantamount to idolatry and can only lead us astray. Thus, rejecting a presuppositional or covenantal approach is wrongheaded. Still, I wonder how such a statement is even informed. Does one find that in the Bible? If not, then on what grounds does the proponent base it? Clearly, it came about by means of some faculty which allowed the adjudication of various claims and came up with that one as a truth proposition. Yet, how is this not “starting with man’s word?”, at least in terms of how this phrase is bandied about in a frequently derogatory manner.  

I find myself continually thinking the “starting with the Bible” view is a “heads I win, tails you lose” position. If you dispute it, you somehow deny the power of God to speak through special revelation; you somehow elevate man’s word above God’s (whatever that means). If you affirm it, you stand on the sacred ground of the Protestant Reformers in upholding Sola Scriptura; you are a pious Christian. Those in the Reformed camp will typically couch their presuppositional or covenantal view within their overall systematic. I think that such a position is self-defeating.

The Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God. And we know this because God reveals Himself in ways that allow us to first know truth, so we can then know that God’s word is true. The Bible is written in human language, requiring a rational and intellectual framework for understanding. This rational (please note, not rationalist) framework is the means by which the Bible is intelligible to man. We must interpret the Scriptures, and we have the tools to correctly do that. We are born with these tools, and the stain of sin does not delete them, even if it does reduce their efficacy and aim in use. If we affirm that the only way we know something is true is because it is in the Bible (or because of the Bible), then we lose the objective ground by which to claim the Bible itself is true. And the Christian certainly affirms that the Bible is true for both the believer and unbeliever. The Christian holds that the events of the Exodus, Exile, Crucifixion, Resurrection, the early church, and countless other things, are historical facts. This would mean that they are accessible, in principle, to anyone. Why a person would voluntarily walk away from a methodology that upholds the integrity of these claims is puzzling.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Because...Why? Making Causal Inquiry Interesting

Causation has long engendered deep and passionate discussion. This springs from our innate desire to know. We want to know why and how things are the way we observe them. Why do unimpeded objects always fall back toward earth when we throw them up in the air? Why does the universe exist? What explains variation and complexity in biological species? Why does my child think it a crime against humanity to sleep at night? Countless other questions could be raised as examples. But is causation interesting in itself? Metaphysicians certainly think so. Few others, including philosophers, take much notice. I think most people give perhaps only a passing thought to causes because they unreflectively accept a very narrow, and highly problematic, view of causation. They take temporally sequenced events as a de facto explanation of causes. Not only is this position untenable, it is (worse) completely uninteresting. In what follows, I will offer a few brief thoughts on why this is the case.

When most people think of A causing B, they think that A moved B from point 1 to point 2. Or that A made B from a collection of raw materials, so A caused B. Or, if B regularly follows A, then A is the most likely cause of B. Causation is typically bound up with some type of temporal succession of events. Ceteris paribus, if C is always observed to follow B, and B follows A, A is thought of as the probable cause of C.

The preceding description of causality is precisely what David Hume had in his gunsights. Such events, loose and separate, as it were, cannot really tell us anything. We cannot empirically observe “causal powers” and we have no logical contradiction in B not following A (no matter how regularly it does), so causality is committed to the flames. Sure, we could say that A caused B, but there is no state of affairs where A is causing anything, whether it is B, bicycles, or bananas.

If we buy into the strictly temporal/sequential view of causality, then it is very difficult to demonstrate why Hume is wrong. Sure, his conclusions might be intuitively absurd. But, as Hume would no doubt rebut, “so what?” Intuition does not falsify his position nor establish causality (so understood). Other responses to Hume, such as appealing to possible worlds, counterfactuals, and so forth do not, it seems to me, really get at the heart of Hume’s argument. In the end, I think it is very difficult to respond to the portly Scotsman without appealing to an Aristotelian conception of nature and causes. Most contemporary philosophers will not make this move and will largely leave causation neglected in the corner of a dark room. The Stagirite looms outside, not being invited to the party at all.

The most interesting questions, such as why and how, are answerable on Aristotle’s view. And satisfyingly so. We seek explanations and we find them. Take a very simple example; my tan floor tile. Not much interesting about that, right? But what if we started with a few questions that we could ask about anything in our daily experience? Like why is the floor tile here? Am I the cause of the floor tile under my foot? After all, six months ago, I bought it from the store, mixed the mortar, cut, and laid the tile on the floor. Yet, on an Aristotelian view of causation, it really cannot be wholly said that what I did previously is the cause of the tile under my foot.

We could perhaps say that I was the cause of the tile getting where it is at a time in the past. But why is it here right now? Why does it keep the qualities it has, like color, size, weight? If we really think about it, there are myriad other factors involved, such as the subfloor, house foundation, earth, and all the other laws of physics that must hold constant for the floor tile to be under my foot at any given moment. The reason the tile is under my foot right now is not explainable in any interesting way by the fact that I transported and laid it. Nor does the metaphysical interest lie with the tile manufacturer. When we are concerned about causality, the less relevant thing is the preceding event in time. This is because the prior temporal event does not really answer the basic metaphysical questions we are after. We want to know why this and not something else. The floor tile could, in principle, not be under my foot right now (even if it was in the prior second). We even might put something like this back to Hume. In any event, the temporal sequence might be metaphysically interesting in some way to us, such as understanding the process by which one might lay floor tile, or how floor tile is made and successfully transported. Yet there would be underlying metaphysical questions for each of these events that would necessarily force us into a deeper inquiry.

What if we just stopped at the manufacturing of the floor tile? Is there anything about this that assures it will stay the same shape and color on the way to my house? Here, again, we could resort quickly to various laws of physics and chemistry. But, what about those? Surely these physical laws and chemical compounds held constant during each moment of my journey. At any moment of investigation along the way, I would have the same question. Why this, and not that? Aristotle gives us answers. Formal, material, efficient, and final causes each represent actualized potentials. Thus, we can understand the cause(s) of the floor tile in a multifaceted way. We need not stop with a sequence of events. Such a sequence is accidental to the tile itself as it stands (or is stood upon) right now.

If we are only focused on causality in terms of temporal events, then we will ultimately lack sufficient explanation for anything. To take another example, as I look out into my front yard, I see my son’s Big Wheel. I could say the cause of the Big Wheel in my front yard is that my son left it there yesterday afternoon. Maybe I could press on and ask how the Big Wheel got to my son. And then we could talk about the plant, factory, workers, shipping, etc. Ultimately, we would just be explaining each thing by appealing to the prior event ad infinitum. However, this does not really tell us much. Why not ask why the Big Wheel exists as it does? Why does the Big Wheel not spontaneously melt or turn into a pumpkin? Why not ask why the Big Wheel does not collapse into non-being? These are metaphysically interesting questions. Such questions help us understand reality.

We can explain the existence of the floor tile or the Big Wheel in Aristotelian causal terms in a layered analysis, going so far as we desire in hierarchically ordered causes until terminating in Pure Act. Or, we can stop with a more basic, coherent, and robust understanding of the physical object; existing as a substance with various accidents, having a certain a form, material, efficient, and final cause(s). In any event, we can have a deep metaphysical conversation starting with the simplest objects. I am not aware of another system from which such a fruitful discussion can spring forth. This is especially true of efficient causality, which should be conceived as much more than the mere bringing forth of something from one state to another as most artifactual examples entail. This is, of course, one of the many benefits Aquinas brings in his Aristotelian-grounded philosophy and not an incidental reason why one should consider moving beyond thinking of causes merely in temporally sequenced terms.