Friday, November 23, 2018

Calvinism in a nutshell

Sometimes when I talk to people in on line forums, I'll mention that I'm a Calvinist, and somebody will ask, "What's a Calvinist?" or "What is Calvinism?" Instead of explaining it over and over again, I thought I'd just leave this here for a quick reference so I can just find it and cut and paste from it whenever I need to. I'm lazy that way.

See also my post on "One point Calvinism."

Calvinism is a theological point of view that came out of the protestant reformation. Essentially, it boils down to the absolute sovereignty of God, especially when it comes to the subject of salvation. Calvinism is typically summarized by five points which all derive from the one principle of the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation. Here are the five points of Calvinism:

  • Total depravity--This is the view that apart from God's intervention, people have an inability to come to Christ for salvation. Our desires, character, hearts, etc. are in such a fallen state that we would never go to Christ for salvation willingly unless God changed us.
  • Unconditional election--This is the view that out of all the people who have existed, God elects some of them for salvation, and he does so purely for his own good pleasure and not because of anything any of them did to deserve it.
  • Limited atonement--This is the view that God only intended Christ's death on the cross to atone for the sins of those God elected to receive salvation. Most Calvinists prefer to call this "particular atonement" rather than "limited atonement" since even non-Calvinists limit the atonement in one way or another.
  • Irresistible grace--This is the idea that when God bestows his grace on his elect, those people will come to Christ for salvation. Having their hearts changed, they will not be able to resist the draw. In other words, they are unable to reject Christ.
  • Preservation of the saints--This is the view that all of those who God has caused to embrace Christ will continue to embrace Christ until they die. Of course they can backslide from time to time, but the over all effect is that they will remain in Christ.
There are some additional points that typically go along with Calvinist theology called "the five solas":
  • Sola scripture: This is the view that the Bible alone is God's infallible source of theological truth. This is not a denial that God can reveal things through prophets, though some Calvinists interpret it that way. Rather, it's the view that the Bible alone is the rule of faith for the Christian church. So any other supposed authority, whether a person claims it came from God or not, should be scrutinized in light of its consistency with scripture. Scripture is the ultimate test of theological truths.
  • Sola Fide: This is the view that it is through faith alone that we are justified. In other words, our good deeds do not contribute to our justification.
  • Sola gratia: This is the view that we are saved by the grace of God alone. In other words, salvation is a gift from God that is not based on any merit of our own.
  • Sola Christus: This is the view that Christ alone is our savior. This is something almost all Christians believe.
  • Soli Deo Gloria: This is the idea that God alone is glorified in salvation. The reason for it is because salvation is totally and completely the work of God alone. He gets the glory because he accomplishes it. Calvinists are monergists, as opposed to synergists. That means salvation isn't a cooperative effort between man and God where man does his part and God does his part; rather, God does it all. God takes people who are dead in sins and unable to repent or come to Christ for salvation, and he heals them, draws them to himself, and justifies them, giving them salvation, and he does it all for his glory.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

A difficulty with Calvinism and compatibilism

According to the doctrine of total depravity, we are determined by our sinful desires to reject Christ. We are unable to accept Christ for psychological reasons. Yet we are still responsible for our sinfulness. In fact, according to compatibilism, it's is because our actions are determined by our own desires and motives that we are responsible for them. We are responsible for our actions to the degree that we do them on purpose, and we do them on purpose do the degree that they are determined by our own antecedent psychological states, including our desires, plans, motives, inclinations, preferences, etc.

According to the doctrine of irresistible grace, once God changes our hearts, we are determined by our new desires to embrace Christ. We are unable to resist Christ, again, for psychological reasons. But here's the difficulty. Whereas we could be blamed for our sins and for our failure to come to Christ when we were totally depraved since we acted willfully, on purpose, out of our own sinful desires, etc., we cannot be praised for our decision to follow Christ, even though we do so willfully, on purpose, and because of our desire to do so. The reason is because it is God who changed our hearts.

Irresistible grace is supposed to remove all basis for boasting on our parts because it makes salvation a monergistic act of God. We cannot be praised for our decision to come to Christ because it is God who acted in us to produce that result. Since God brought about the change, he gets all the glory, and there is no room for boasting on our parts.

But surely something causes us to have the desire to reject Christ and to sin. Why should it matter what is doing the causing? Suppose the devil caused us to have sinful desires. Would that mean we're not blamable for sin? Or what if it's just that we inherited a sinful nature or sinful genes or whatever? Somehow or other, something outside of us ultimately caused us to have sinful desires. Yet we are morally responsible for giving into them.

So why is it that if God causes us to have good desires, and those desires cause us to follow Christ, that we are not just as praiseworthy for doing so as we were blameworthy for sinning? In both cases, we acted out of desires that were created in us by external causes.

Jonathan Edwards argued persuasively in his book on the freedom of the will that "The essence of the virtue and vice of dispositions of the heart, and acts of the will, lies not in their cause, but their nature." I wish I could ask Jonathan Edwards about this. I wonder what James White would say. I wonder what John Piper would say. John Piper would probably be a better person to ask since he's a big fan of Edwards like I am.

What do you think?

Sunday, November 11, 2018

What determines gender?

A while back, I wrote a post explaining how I didn't understand transgenderism. I think I have a better handle on it now, but I think there's an inconsistency in how people define gender.

A lot of us still think gender is determined by your biological sex (unless you're talking about words or pipe fittings). But there are two mutually exclusive definitions of gender being used by the transgendered community as well as people who are sympathetic to their redefinition. Here are the two definitions that I keep coming across:

1. Gender is determined by your behavior. If you look and behave in ways that are typically associated with the looks and behavior of people who have one sex organ or the other, then that's your gender.

2. Gender is determined by your self-identification. If you see yourself as being a man, then your gender is male, and if you see yourself as being a woman, then your gender is female.

This morning I saw a guy write this post on a discussion forum, and he vacillated between these two different definitions without even realizing he was doing it. But these are mutually exclusive definitions.

Imagine a person who sees themselves as a man but nevertheless behaves in ways typically associated with people who have vaginas. Is that person's gender male or female? Well, you get contradictory answers depending on whether you think gender is determined by your behavior or your self-identification.

How are the rest of us supposed to get behind the redefinition of "gender" if we can't even get a clear explanation of what it means by the people who are redefining it?

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Sibling rivalry and the beginning of time

Greg Koukl has this tactic he calls "sibling rivalry." That's when somebody raises two objections, often unrelated to each other, but these objections are inconsistent with each other. The tactic is just to point it out. You say something like, "When you were objecting to this thing, you said P, but now that you're objecting to this other thing, you say not-P. Which is it?"

I wanted to mention one example of this I was just thinking about today. There are two philosophical arguments for why time had to have had a beginning. There are more than two, of course, but there's just two I want to talk about right now. One of them is the argument from the impossibility of an actual infinite. The other is from the Grim Reaper Paradox.

In response to the argument from the impossibility of an actual infinite, people will sometimes point out that a line of any finite length can be divided infinitely, or they point out that a line of any finite length is made up of an infinite number of points.

In response to the Grim Reaper Paradox, people will point out that once you reach the Planck time, you cannot divide time any further, so you cannot fit an infinite number of Grim Reapers into a finite interval of time.

These objections are at odds with each other. If Planck time was all that prevented us from carrying out a thought experiment involving Grim Reapers, then surely Planck length would just as well prevent us from carrying out a thought experiment involving the division of some length. But if Planck length is irrelevant to the thought experiment involving the division of some finite length, then Planck time is irrelevant to the thought experiment involving Grim Reapers.

So one of these objections fails no matter how you look at it. That means at least one of these arguments for the beginning of time survives the objections.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Arguments from incoherence

There's a whole family of arguments against God's existence that try to show that there is an incoherence in the omni attributes of God. They all take basically the same form. They ask if God could do something and argue that if he can, then it violates one of his other attributes, or if he can't, then it violates his omnipotence. So either way, a God with all these omni's can't exist.

Here's a few examples:

If God exists, then he is both all powerful and perfectly good.
If God is capable of doing evil, then he is not perfectly good.
If God is not capable of doing evil, then he is not all powerful.
Therefore, God does not exist.

If God exists, then he is all powerful.
If God can create a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it, then he is not all powerful.
If God cannot create a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it, then he is not all powerful.
Therefore, God does not exist.

If God exists, then he is all knowing and all powerful.
If God can change his mind, then he is not all knowing.
If God cannot change his mind, then he is not all powerful.
Therefore, God does not exist.

If God exists, then he knows everything and can do everything.
If God can create information that he doesn’t know, then he is not all knowing.
If God cannot create information that he doesn’t know, then he is not all powerful.
Therefore, God does not exist.

I decided to write on these today because that last one has come up twice just in the last two days in my on line discussions which makes me wonder if there's a meme floating around out there, or some popular atheist out there said something that's gone viral or something. Anyway, I thought I'd address it.

All of these types of arguments are trivially easy to answer. The usual way of answering them is by pointing out that they all assume an incorrect definition of omnipotence, then correcting the definition. Sometimes this results in an argument over what the real meaning of omnipotence is. But it doesn't matter. All of these arguments fail no matter what definition of omnipotence you use. Here are the competing definitions of God's omnipotence:

1. God can do all things logically possible.
2. God can do anything whatsoever, including violate the laws of logic.

If (1) is true, then all the arguments fail because each of these arguments is asking whether God could actualize a logical contradictory state of affairs. A state of affairs in which God is omniscient but doesn't know everything is a contradiction, so God can't create information that an all knowing God doesn't know. A state of affairs in which God can do anything but can't lift a rock is a contradiction, so God can't create a rock that an all powerful God can't lift. If omnipotence doesn't include the ability to do logically impossible things, then God's inability to do these things doesn't count against his omnipotence.

If (2) is true, then all the arguments fail because because they remove any basis for saying there's anything God can't do. God could create a rock he can't lift and still be able to lift it. He could be all powerful even if he's not all powerful. He could create information he doesn't know and still know it. He could be all knowing even if he's not all knowing. He can be perfectly good even if he's evil. He can change his mind even if he doesn't change his mind. There is no state of affairs he couldn't actualize and still be omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good.

So regardless of how you define omnipotence, these kinds of arguments from incoherence always fail.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

It's always more reasonable to affirm the obvious than to deny the obvious

I have this epistemological thumb rule that I live with pretty consistently, and I think you do, too. The thumb rule is this: We should always affirm the obvious unless we have good reason to deny it. Put another way, we should assume the world is just as it appears to be unless we have good reason to think otherwise. And, in fact, I think that's what we almost always do even if we don't think about this thumb rule explicitly.

Obviousness is a function of intuition. Sometimes you hear people say that something is intuitively obvious. That just means it seems to be so, it appears to be so, it's hard to deny, it seems absurd to deny, it seems reasonable to affirm, it's self-evident, etc. Intuition, in this context, isn't a hunch or a feeling that something is true. Rather, it's a rational insight that occurs through reflection. In other words, you just think about something, and it automatically appears true to you. For example, the way I know that two plus two is four isn't through experimenting with it in the physical world; rather, I know it by thinking about it. I can just reflect on it and "see" that it's true.

I often bring up this point in the context of morality. I believe in objective morality because I think it's more reasonable to affirm the obvious than to deny the obvious, and the existence of morality seems intuitively obvious to me. That is, when I think about morality, and I'm perfectly honest with myself, I cannot bring myself to honestly deny it. Apart from any proof against it, it appears more reasonable to affirm than to deny. So I'm just honest with myself, and I affirm the reality of morality.

Whenever I've stated this principle in discussions with people who disagree with me, they'll always try to show how unreliable our rational intuitions are. They'll point out all the many cases in which our rational intuitions failed us. Newtonian physics is very intuitive, but relativity and quantum mechanics are often counter-intuitive. These are examples of where things appeared to be one way but turned out to be another way. Another example people have given me is the fact that the world appears to be flat when you stand outside and look at it. But we know it's round.

Counter-examples like these are not sufficient to undermine the thumb rule, and there are three reasons. First, the thumb rule explicitly makes room for exceptions. The thumb rule does not make intuition out to be infallible. Rather, it says we should affirm the obvious unless we have good reason to deny it. In the case of quantum mechanics, we do have good reason to deny what initially appeared to be so and to affirm what is counter-intuitive. Of course intuition can be infallible, like in cases where we apprehend necessary truths, but intuition in general is fallible since for many things we intuit, it's possible for them to be false.

Second, the only way we could have discovered that the world was different than it appeared to be is by using the thumb rule. How do we know the earth is round? By making observations and inferences. The same thing is true of relativity and quantum mechanics. Unless we generally affirmed the obvious, we could never have discovered that the earth is round or that objects moving at different speeds move through time at different rates. We discovered these things through observations, calculations, and inferences. It appears, based on these tools, that the earth is round, and quantum theory is true, and so is general and special relativity.

Third, the denial of the thumb rule is self-refuting. The only way we could have known that subatomic particles behave in counter-intuitive ways is by making observations and calculations. That is, we must rely on appearances and how things seem to be. If we did not adhere to the principle that we should affirm the obvious unless we have good reason to think otherwise, we never could have discovered that anything is different than it appeared to be. So any argument against the principle that we should affirm the obvious is necessarily a self-refuting argument since it depends on the very principle that it attempts to refute. That's the problem with trying to come up with counter-examples to show that rational intuition is unreliable. If you deny that the world is pretty much the way it appears to be, you could never come up with an example of where the world is actually different than it appears to be.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

In the past, I've generally defended the claim that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" even against my fellow Christian apologists. Of course the claim can be picked apart, but I agree with the general idea of it. The general idea is that the more unusual or unlikely a claim seems at first to be, the better evidence you're going to require before you'll accept it. If somebody told you they got a flat tire on their way to work, you'd probably just take their word for it. But if somebody told you they ran into Nora Jones on their way to work, and they smooched, their word wouldn't be enough. You'd require stronger evidence. I still agree with that general principle. But I don't agree with how the principle is expressed as "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" because it's sloppy, and it's too easy to pick apart.

I think a better maxim is that any claim requires adequate evidence. Although not as pithy, it's more precise. Of course what's adequate will depend on the claim being made and whatever background beliefs you already have.

The reason I say that is because whether a claims seems extraordinary to you or not depends on everything else you believe. For example, let's say Jim tells Bob, "Hey Bob, I bought a bag of ice at the grocery store today." Well, if Jim and Bob are anything like us, neither will consider that an extraordinary claim. But suppose Bob lived in India three thousand years ago, and he's never seen or even heard of ice. He's never even thought about whether or not water can freeze. Then Jim says, "Hey Bob, I bought a bag of ice from an old woman at the market today." Bob says, "What's ice?" Jim replies, "Ice is solid water. When water gets really cold, it becomes a solid." Well, now Jim has made an extraordinary claim because it goes against everything Bob has ever known about water.

Now, there are undoubtably claims that most of us would consider extraordinary, but what does it mean for evidence to be extraordinary? Let's consider another scenario. Jim and Bob are just average guys who both work at Taco Bell. One day Jim says, "Hey Bob, I stopped at 7-11 on my way to work today and ran into Kate Beckinsale. And the craziest thing happened. Kate kissed me!" Well, Bob will probably think that's an extraordinary claim, and he'll naturally want more than Jim's word on it. So let's say Jim recorded a video with his iphone. The video first shows Jim whispering, "I just saw Kate Bekinsale." Then he turns the camera around and walks through until Kate shows up in the screen. It's her alright. As soon as she sees Jim she walks up to him. Jim faces the camera toward himself and Kate Beckinsale, and sure enough, she kisses him. Well, there's nothing in the world extraordinary about an iphone video. Everybody knows iphones are capable of recording videos in a 7-11.

So here we have an example of an extraordinary claim where the evidence is adequate but not really extraordinary. I say all this to say that the maxim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence is too imprecise. I think the gist of it is true, but it's too easy to pick apart to be very useful, and a more useful maxim to go by is "Any claim requires adequate evidence." And what's adequate will depend on what the other person believes. If you already believe water can freeze, you'll require less evidence that Bob has ice than if you do not already believe water can freeze.

The same thing applies to Christianity. A person who believes the supernatural exists will have an easier time being persuaded that Christianity is true than a person who does not already believe the supernatural exists. A person who believes in God will have an easier time believing Jesus rose from the dead than a person who does not believe in God. So whether the arguments for Christianity will seem persuasive to you (i.e. whether the evidence will be adequate) depends on what you already believe about the world.

All of our beliefs are interconnected. Whenever you're presented with evidence for something you didn't previously believe, your ability to accept the truth of what is being shown to you will depend on how easy it is to accomodate that belief into the rest of your beliefs. It's almost never the case that you can change your mind about one thing without having to change your mind about a few other things. That's because beliefs are interrelated. For example, let's say I'm a naturalist, and I don't think anything but the physical world exists. And I don't believe resurrections are possible because that's not how the physical world works. But then somebody shows me evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. Well, it's doubtful that I could accept that Jesus rose from the dead without also having to change my belief about the natural world. So I would not only have to change my belief about whether dead people can come back to life, but I would also have to change my belief about the physical world being all that exists.

The fewer adjustments you have to make, the easier it is to accommodate a new point of view within your noetic structure (i.e. the sum total of all of your beliefs). The more adjustments you have to make, the harder it is to accommodate a new point of view.

It also depends on the strength of your other beliefs. The stronger they are, the less they'll budge, and the weaker they are, the more they'll budge.

So evaluating evidence is not a purely objective thing. There's a subjective element. This is even true in science where people do everything they can to remove the subjectivity from it. To do that, though, scientists have to begin with certain presuppositions--the validity of logic, the reality of the external world, the reliability of sensory perceptions, the assumption that the future will resemble the past, etc. As long as everybody agrees with these presuppositions, science can proceed, but a person who doubts any of these presuppositions isn't going to find scientific evidence for some view as compelling as somebody who does not doubt these presuppositions. So science only gets objectivity by stipulating a set of presuppositions.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Is consciousness an illusion?

I remember the first time I heard that Daniel Dennett said consciousness is an illusion. It was in the context of a criticism of Daniel Dennett, but I thought surely the person must be misrepresenting what Dennett was saying. Surely Dennett wasn't saying something as absurd as they were making out (and I don't remember who it was). I listened to a brief YouTube video where Dennett explained his view, and the most charitable spin I could put on it was that he wasn't denying that we experience consciousness; it's just that this impression we have that we are a unified self that has all of these conscious states is an illusion. In reality, our brain just produces a bundle of thoughts, emotions, perceptions, etc., then it tricks us into thinking there's a self behind it all who is experiencing it all. But then last year or the year before, I read a book by John Searle called The Mystery of Consciousness, and it confirmed that, holy cow, Dennett really was denying what we ordinarily think of as consciousness, i.e. first person subjective experience. There's an appendix at the end of the book that contains an exchange between Dennett and Searle.

Ordinarily, I think people take consciousness to be the having of first person subjective experience. So if anybody experiences thought, sensation, perception, desire, emotion, etc., then that person is conscious.

Of course there is a more colloquial way of defining it. Colloquially, it just means "awake" as opposed to "asleep," even though when people are asleep, they have dreams in which they have first person subjective experiences.

I sometimes wonder about people who are confused about what consciousness is. My inclination is to think that everybody knows what consciousness is because everybody is immediately aware of their own conscious states. So maybe the difficulty they're having is not in knowing what consciousness is but in articulating a definition for it. It would be hard to explain consciousness to a computer, for example, because computers aren't conscious. You'd have to be conscious to know what the other person was talking about. Explaining consciousness to something that wasn't conscious would be kind of like explaining colour to a blind person (except that at least the blind person would be capable of understanding in the first place). You have to experience it to understand it.

Other times I wonder, "What if there really are philosophical zombies???" I used to think about that all the time when I was a little kid. I didn't think of it in terms of "philosophical zombies" because I had never heard the term, but I did wonder if I was the only one who had a mind. I guess you could say I was toying with solipsism. This idea first occurred to me when I was seven or eight years old, and it persisted all the way through high school. I'm not saying I actually believed I was the only one who was conscious. I just toyed with the idea, wondering about it. Because if all we are is physical stuff, then it seems like we'd behave exactly the same even if our physical stuff did not give rise to minds. It would explain why people seem to struggle with the question of what consciousness is when it seemed perfectly obvious to me.

I also used to wonder if maybe everybody WAS conscious, but they were using a different language. It sounded like English to me, and it had meaning in English, and their behavior did seem to correlate with what the words meant in English, but I imagined that in their minds, it all meant something completely different, and it was just a coincidence that their behavior also corresponded with whatever that foreign meaning was. So maybe I could sit there and have a conversation with my brother, but to him the conversation was about something completely different than it was to me.

Let me come back to what I said a minute ago--that if all we are is physical stuff, it seems like we'd behave exactly the same even if our physical stuff did not give rise to minds. After reading how Searle treated Dennett, it made me think that what Dennett was doing is taking materialism (the view that all we are is physical stuff) to its logical conclusion. There's a method of arguing called reductio ad absurdum. That's where you assume a point of view for the sake of argument. Then you deduce conclusions from it. If the conclusions turn out to be absurd, then that casts doubt on the premises that lead to that conclusion. It's an effective way of arguing because if you can show somebody that their point of view logically entails absurdities, then you can get them to doubt their point of view.

But some people are immune to reductio ad absurdum arguments. Instead of conceding your point, they'll just embrace the absurdity. I was talking to a relative one time (whose identity I'll conceal), and he said something that implied that he was a hard empiricist. He said you couldn't know that anything exists unless you can experience it with your five senses. So I asked him if he thought his wife had a mind, and I explained that a mind consists of first person experience which you can't, even in principle, observe in a third person way. He can observe her behavior, but he can't observe her mind, so how does he know that there's any mind behind her behavior at all? I told him that his epistemology logically leads to solipsism since his own mind is the only mind he can be aware of. Instead of conceding my point, he basically said, "Okay, solipsism it is." Now that's just stubborn.

I suspect that may be what's going on with Daniel Dennett. Consciousness is a hard problem for materialism. In fact, philosophers call it THE hard problem. It's a hard problem for idealists and dualists, too, but not in the same way. I think Dennett recognizes that consciousness, as ordinarily conceived, does not fit into a materialist worldview, so instead of getting rid of his materialism, he's attempted to solve the hard problem of consciousness by getting rid of consciousness. He's embraced the absurdity that reductive materialism leads to.

His view is absurd because the fact that we are conscious is one of those few things we can know with absolute certainty. We know it because we have immediate access to that information. Whereas most things we know are known by inferring them from something else--that is, we know them indirectly--we know about our own conscious states immediately upon reflection. We don't infer this information from anything prior. We know it directly and infallibly.

And that includes metacognition. Not only do I know that I'm thinking, but I even know that I'm thinking about my own thoughts. I can't reflect on my own thoughts and not know that they're happening. They cannot be an illusion because that presupposes that they don't actually exist. But as long as I'm at least thinking that they exist, then my thoughts do exist. If I'm having an illusion of anything at all, including my own consciousness, then there has to be some first person subjective experience going on. That's true by the very meaning of "illusion." Illusion is a kind of perception, so illusion itself is a first person subjective experience.

Unless I've got some horribly massive misunderstanding about what Dennett is saying, his point of view is not only false, it's necessarily false. It's not even possible for it to be true. It's completely absurd. I know with certainty that it's false.

But I am still open to the idea that I've just got a misunderstanding of what his view is. In all fairness I haven't actually read any of his books. I've seen him talk on YouTube, I've talked to some of his devotees on the internet, and I've read his exchange with John Searle, but that's about it.