Thursday, December 21, 2006

Interpretive authority among Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses

Check out these two quotes:

The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been intrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. [emphasis is my own]

All who want to understand the Bible should appreciate that the "greatly diversified wisdom of God" can become known only through Jehovah's channel of communication, the faithful and discreet slave. [emphasis is my own]
Remarkably similar, aren't they? You can tell by the uses of the word "Tradition" and "Church" that the first is Catholic, and by the use of the words "Jehovah" and "faithful and discreet slave" that the second comes from Jehovah's Witnesses. The first is published in the Catholic Catechism, 85. The second is from the Watchtower magazine, dated October 1, 1994, page 8.

Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses both criticize the rest of us for the same reason. The problem with the rest of us is that we have no authoritative interpreter of the Bible. We're left to interpret the Bible ourselves. The result has been a massive number of schisms and denominations. Catholics and Johovah's Witnesses both maintain unity because they have a centralized source of authority for teaching and revealing truths.

Of course they are right. Jehovah's Witnesses have done a great job of maintaining unity because of the way they are organized. Catholics haven't done quite as good of a job as Jehovah's Witnesses have done, but there is more unity within Catholicism than there is within Protestanism. I've never heard a Catholic say this, but I've heard several Jehovah's Witnesses say that their unity is one evidence showing that they are the true church or the true followers of Christ or something along those lines.

I've never found that particularly compelling because anybody could make the same claim merely by redefining "us" and "them." For example, I could gather around me five other people who believe exactly as I do about almost everything. Surely there are five such people out there. And since all six of us were in perfect unity, we could say, "Well since we are in perfect unity regarding our interpretation of the scriptures, and since they (referring to everybody else) all disagree with each other, that proves that we have the truth, and they don't." That argument is pretty much exactly what I've heard many Jehovah's Witnesses argue, except that in their case "we" refers to Jehovah's Witnesses, and "they" refers to everybody else.

I've never heard a Catholic put it quite like that, but they do point out that we (Catholics) are united because of the Church's authority, whereas they (everybody else) are divided because of a lack of authority. They point this out to show the need for the kind of authority they claim their Church has.

There is one interesting difference between Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses. Catholics claim their Church is the only infallible interpreter of the scriptures, but that other people, through study and proper hermaneutics, can understand the Bible. Jehovah's Witnesses, on the other hand, do not claim to have an infallible interpretation, but they say other people cannot understand the Bible without the help of the faithful and discreet slave class. Nevertheless, in both cases, they have an authoritative interpreter of scripture, and whether you try to understand the scriptures on your own or not, your interpretation must be checked against the authority.

It seems to me there's a real problem with that. It's a practical problem. If you've got two competing organizations both claiming to be the sole authoritative interpreter of the scriptures on earth, how do you go about determining which one (if either) is correct? I mean let's assume for the sake of argument that there is such a thing as a sole authoritative interpreter of the scriptures on earth, and let's suppose it's one of these two organizations. How would you go about proving which one it was?

Well first of all, the whole idea that there is a sole authoritative interpreter comes from the Bible. One proof text Jehovah's Witnesses use is Matthew 24:45-47. One proof text Catholics use is 1 Timothy 3:15. If it's true that there's this authoritative organization, how can I tell which one it is? Catholics and Johovah's witnesses don't agree on what these passages refer to. I can't just take the Catholic's word for it, because the Jehovah's Witnesses might be right. I can't take the Jehovah's Witnesses' word for it because the Catholics might be right. The only way I can really tell which one is right is if I'm able to understand these passages on my own, which is precisely what both deny I can do. Catholics, as I said above, believe I can understand them on my own, but my interpretation must be checked against their's. That is, if mine differs from theirs, then mine is wrong. So I could never conclude that theirs is wrong and therefore falsify their claim to authority.

Even Mormons have their own version of this. A mormon friend of mine, several years ago sent me a list of 17 marks of the true church. He said if a church is in line with all 17 of these points, that's the correct church. I found that totally useless, because the only way I could know that these 17 points were really signs of the true church is if I took the Mormons' word for it. After all, they arrived at the 17 points by interpreting the Bible.

It's circular reasoning, basically. X is the sole authoritative interpreter of the Bible. How do you know? Because the Bible says so. How do you know that's what the Bible means? Because X says that's what it means, and X is the sole authoritative interpreter of the Bible.

I used to debate on the Jehovah's Witness forum on beliefnet. There was one particularly intelligent chap there named Adam who defended Jehovah's Witnesses better than most. I pressed him on this issue once. I asked him how he would ever know if the Watchtower Society printed some false information about the meaning of Scripture. If a person cannot get the correct meaing of the scriptures without the help of the Watchtower publications, how could he ever know if those publications were wrong about anything? It's not as if he could read the Bible for himself, come up with a contrary opinion, and then say the Watchtower was wrong. If he came up with a contrary opinion, his theology would demand that he was wrong, not the Watchtower magazine. So how could a person ever know that the Jehovah's Witness organization really has the authority is claims to have? If they are right about the authority they claim to have, then you can never know it. The same is true with the authority of the Catholic Church.

Gosh, you could even take it a step further. Who gets to interpret the interpreter? I mean suppose you've got a few people sitting around reading a Watchtower magazine, and each gets a different idea about what the author is trying to say? My point is that you can't escape interpretation. Interpretation is just the process by which you derive meaning from words. You can't get anybody's meaning--whether the Bible or the interpreter--without interpreting what they are saying. Having authoritative interpreters, then, is just redundant. It puts another step in the process and only postpones the problem. You could put a dozen authoritative sources between the Bible and the reader, and you'd still have the same problem.

As a protestant, I'm glad I can live with a certain amount of uncertainty. I can live with the fact that I could be wrong about a lot of things. Pointing out the endless number of different interpretations doesn't cause me a lot of anxiety. It used to before I had really studied the Bible in any kind of depth. When I first began, I thought the enterprise was hopeless because so many other people had done the same thing and yet all disagreed. But through studying, I've formed opinions that I'm fairly confident about, other's I'm not so confident about, and I've suspended judgment on a few things, too.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Two kinds of love

two kinds of love
There are actually more than two kinds of love, but I just want to talk about two kinds in this post.

First, there is the kind of love a parent has for a child. This love is other-centered. When a parent loves a child, that means they care about the well-being of that child, and they are committed to whatever is truly good for the child.

Second, there is the kind of love a person has for a particular food. This love is self-centered. When a person loves a food, they don't care about the well-being of the food. They only love the food for what it can do for them. It is a self-centered love.

Romantic love is some combination of the above two. In our own relationships, we all hope that there is more of the first kind than of the second kind. But we also recognize there must be some of the second kind or else we would never marry. It is hard sometimes to tell whether the person you're involved with loves you more like a child or more like food. Sometimes, though, I think we should turn our gaze inward and reflect on the nature of our own love, not just for people we might be romantically involved with, but for all of the people we call friends.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Lies, jokes, and Santa Clause

I was thinking about something today on my way to Mt. Pleasant. It's an hour and a half drive, so it gives me lots of time to think. Truth is correspondence with reality. When what you say corresponds with reality, then you've said the truth. But what about when you say something that does not correspond with reality? What's that called?

Usually, we'd call that a lie. A lie is when we say something that isn't true. We can't say that without qualification, though. I was thinking today about different things we say that aren't true, but that aren't exactly lies either.

One example is when we're mistaken. If we believe something is true, and it isn't, then we're not exactly lying when we say what we believe. Telling a lie, then, must mean that we knowingly say something that isn't true.

Fiction is another example. The whole genre is based on telling stories that aren't true. But we don't consider that lying even though the story teller knows that what he's saying isn't true.

Jokes are another example. Of course a joke can be taken too far. I used to be really bad about carrying on jokes for a week at a time--having people believe something that isn't true. I used to be involved with a girl who didn't appreciate that sort of thing, and we had to come up with a rule to distinguish between a joke and a lie. We decided that if a joke goes on for more than five minutes without revealing that it had been a joke, then it's a lie. I've had similar agreements with other people who aren't into practical jokes.

The one that really got me to thinking today was Santa Clause. When parents tell their kids that Santa Clause comes down their chimney and leaves presents under the tree and eats their cookies, they are saying something that isn't true. They knowingly say something that isn't true, but it's not fiction, and it's not a joke. Is it a lie? What do you think? If it's not a lie, what would you call it?

Friday, September 15, 2006

House of Yahweh revisited

Well, September 12 has come and gone. Has anybody heard of any nuclear wars breaking out? According to the House of Yahweh, that was supposed to happen by September 12. Any House of Yahweh people out there? Any comments?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

How different moral theories lead to the same conclusion about homosexuality

I went for a walk in the miserable heat to get a Dr. Pepper at the gas station, and on the way I got to thinking about something. A lot of people out there say that there's nothing wrong with homosexuality. Their claim is a statement about morality. It expresses a moral point of view. But not everybody who makes the claim makes it from within the same moral theory. As I was walking, I speculated on how people who hold to different moral theories might arrive at the same moral conclusion about homosexuality. They all arrive at the same conclusion, but they get there for different reasons.

First, there are people who believe in objective moral values. They believe certain things are either right or wrong regardless of how an individual or culture feels about it. These people say that although there are things that are objectively wrong, homosexuality isn't one of them.

I don't think it's possible for there to be any objective right or wrong unless there's a God. That's why I avoid secular arguments against homosexuality. For example, the teleological argument against homosexuality doesn't seem to work without assuming there's a God. The teleological argument basically says, "Hey, look at his body. Now look at her body. Obviously they were made for each other. They were not made for the same sex." The whole idea of being "made for" implies that somebody had a purpose in it. If there's no somebody with moral authority who has a purpose in it, then all we can say is that our body parts are more useful in some functions than in others, but we can't say that we truly ought, in the moral sense, to limit them to their more useful function. If a person agrees that God is necessary for morality, yet homosexuality is okay, then they seriously need to deal with the teleological argument against homosexuality.

Not everybody thinks God is necessary for objective moral values, though. Louis Pojman is one example. Since I don't see how it's possible to have objective moral values without a God, I'm not sure what to say to people who take this point of view and say there's nothing wrong with homosexuality. I mean if I assumed their theory for the sake argument, I could say, "Yeah, I don't see anything wrong with homosexuality either. But then again, I don't see anything wrong with anything at all." I suppose a lot of these people, instead of beginning with some foundation for morality in general, will begin instead with some generally agreed upon moral premise, such as If it harms, it's wrong, and if it doesn't harm, it's okay. (I'm not going to go into why I disagree with that premise because it's not relevent to the point I'm making.) Once they find some generally agreed upon moral principle, they could show how the principle, when taken to its logical conclusion, leads to their opinion that there's nothing wrong with homosexuality. You could respond either by taking issue with the premise they began with, or you could respond by showing some mistake in their reasoning from the premise to their conclusion.

Second, there are people who subscribe to cultural relativism. The general concensus of a culture determins what's right and wrong. These people say that morality is relative to each culture, and is valid within that culture, and they say that homosexuality is not wrong within our culture.

I think it would be very hard for a cultural relativist argue for the morality of homosexuality from within their moral theory. It's not possible for the majority of people in a culture to have one moral value while their culture as a whole has an opposing moral value. If there were ten people who made up a culture, and nine of them thought X was wrong, it's not possible for that culture as a whole (or generally) to think X is okay. The only way, then, for a cultural relativist to argue for the morality of homosexuality is to show somehow that the general concensus of our culture feels the same way. They'd have to consult polls or something. I don't think it would be enough to show that 51% are on their side either.

Third, there are individual moral subjectivists. They are like the relativists except that instead of basing morality on cultural consensus, they base it on each individual. Each individual decides for himself whether homosexuality is right or wrong.

There's no point in moral subjectivists making statements to other people about the morality of anything. If they say homosexuality is okay, all that means is that they personally approve of it. But who cares what they personally approve of or disapprove of if it has nothing whatsoever to do with me? Under their theory, I don't gain or lose moral obligations because of somebody else's moral values. There's no point in arguing morality with a subjectivist, because that would be just as silly as arguing over whether or not Cheerios taste good. It's a matter of personal preference. Some people are okay with it, and some aren't.

Fourth, there are nihilists. You could argue that anybody who rejects objective moral values is a nihilists because they are all moral non-realists. They don't believe there are any real moral obligations. There are only useful fictions, or personal feelings.

When a nihilist says there's nothing wrong with homosexuality, it can be taken with a grain of salt. After all, in their theory, there's nothing wrong with anything at all. There's nothing wrong with mother stabbing and father raping. Everything is okay in their theory. Even gay bashing is okay. It's not good, but it's not bad either.

There are other moral theories, of course, but it wasn't that long of a walk, so I didn't get into them.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Winning an argument without arguing

I learned a new word today. It's dysphemism. You see, we all know what a euphemism is. It's a word meant to make something sound better than it really is. For example, when people think it's okay to kill the unborn, they're called "pro-choice."

Well a dysphemism is just the opposite. It's a word meant to make something sound worse than it really is. For example when somebody thinks it's wrong to kill the unborn, they're called "anti-choice."

You use euphemisms when referring to your own views, but you use dysphemisms when referring to views you disagree with. That way, you don't have to argue. The connotation of the words does all the work for you. And your opponent can't very well object to your use of a ephemism or a dysphemism without sounding petty--like he's quibbling over words rather than facing the issue. If they don't like your terminology, you can always just say "semantics." You'd be amazed at how powerful that word is. Just say "semantics" and you win. No arguing involved!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The House of Yahweh

I got an interesting newsletter on my door today. It's from the House of Yahweh. The headline reads: "Nuclear War to Start September 12, 2006." They're serious, too. The first sentence reads, "My Dear friends, we must warn the world of nuclear wars that will start no later than September 12, 2006."

I always find these sorts of things interesting. When I lived in Austin and went to UT, I used to ride my bike to school and back, and I'd pass this Baptist church on the way. One day I was riding home from school, and there was a guy on the steps who hollered at me, "Jesus is coming soon!" which didn't seem too odd to me. People have been saying that for 2000 years, and it's quite normal in Austin to see street preachers. What really got my attention, though, was what he said next. Without pausing, he followed it with, "He'll be here in about seven days!" Woah!

I rode the rest of the way home having conversations with him in my mind. Finally, curiosity got the best of me, and I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to find out if he was crazy or why he thought Jesus would be here in seven days and what he'd do if it didn't happen. I got back on my bike and rode over there, but he was gone. After the seven days were over, I wondered about him. What was his reaction? I guess I'll never know.

People have been setting dates and making end-time predictions for a long time, so it's nothing new really. I never take any of these things seriously. But every time it happens, I always think, "But what if???" I mean it's possible, right?

I have the same attitude toward the lottery. I don't actually think I'm going to win, but whenever I buy a lottery ticket, I think, "What if??? After all, it's possible. That's part of the fun of buying a lottery ticket.

I've heard of the House of Yahweh before, but I really know nothing about them. I want to say something to anybody who is a member of this organization/church/whatever. This kind of stuff is bad PR. Take me for example. I know nothing about the House of Yahweh. My first impression of you is this newsletter in which nuclear war is predicted on September 12. You really shouldn't spread these newsletters around like this because people will think you're a kook. If it turns out that nuclear war starts by September 12, I'll be the first to say, "Wow!" But what do you think my impression ought to be if nuclear war does not start? Don't you think I'd be justified in lumping you right in with the rest of the kooks out there making predictions and setting dates? The truth is, I've already done so. Unless you want everybody in the world to think you're a bunch of kooks, you really shouldn't even take the gamble. If you think your message is important and that it will save lives as you claim in this newsletter, then you really ought to leave these wild speculations out of it. It will do nothing but cause you to lose credibility, and then nobody will listen to the rest of your message.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

God's sovereignty and man's responsibility, part 5

Now I want to answer some of Dagood's questions he brought up in the discussion section of his "check your oil" blog. I had brought up Philippians 2:13 where it says, "It is God who is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure," and I said, "God gives us the disposition to work and strive, and then it is we who do it." He asked a series of question in order to flesh out my thought. I'm going to answer these question in light of everything I've written so far.

1. If God gives us the disposition, can we still choose to not do it?

We can, in the natural sense, choose not to do it, but not in the moral sense. That is, if we are disposed to act in a particular way, whether that disposition got there because God put it there or some other way, we cannot dispose ourselves to do otherwise, even though we may have a natural ability to do otherwise (i.e. nothing is physically stopping us from doing otherwise).

2. If God does not give us the disposition, can we still do it?

We can if we have the same disposition for some other reason. But if we have no disposition whatsoever to do something, then we have a moral inability to do it since the will cannot act without a disposition. We may have the natural ability to do it, but not the moral ability.

3. If God gives the disposition, and the person does not do it, is the person responsible?

This question is based on an impossible premise. It's not possible for a person to not do what he has a disposition to do. That is, of course, unless he has a stronger contrary disposition, or he has a natural inability to act on the disposition. If he has a natural inability, then no, he's not responsible. But if he acts on a stronger contrary disposition, then yes, he is responsible.

4. If God does not give the disposition, and the person does not do it, is the person responsible?

Whether the person is responsible depends on his reason for not doing it. If he fails to do it because he has a natural inability, then he's excused. But if he fails to do it because he has a moral inability (i.e. a lack of disposition), then he is responsible.

5. What exactly IS “giving the disposition”?

A disposition is just a mental state in which the will prefers a course of action. For God to "give a disposition," that just means that God brings it about somehow that the person has such a preference or desire. When he hardened Pharaoh's heart, for example, he created in Pharaoh the disposition to not let Israel go.

The end.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

God's sovereignty and man's responsibility, part 4

If God is sovereign over all events, including human action, then somehow or other, God is the ultimate cause for the motives that cause people to act, whether doing good or doing evil. Granted, God does use secondary means to accomplish his will, but I'm talking about utlimate causes. You can trace all these secondary causes back to God. Does that make God the author of sin? Is God responsible for sin? Is God evil?

Remember that the will is the proper object of command since the will is the faculty of choice. What makes a person worthy of praise is that they act on a good motive (i.e. make a good choice). What makes them worthy of blame is that they act on a bad motive (i.e. make a bad choice).

Now let's go back to that post I mentioned a while back on "Debunking Calvinism." The author said that if God causes John to kill Bill (whether by decreeing or implanting the desire), then John is blameless. God killed Bill.

But as we can see from my arguments, two agents were involved since two wills acted from two desires. God is ultimately responsible for Bill being killed, but God was not the one who actually killed Bill. John killed Bill. Since two different persons with two different wills were involved in Bill's death, we have to assess them individually to determine whether we should praise or blame them. We have to look at the individual motives that caused them to act.

The reason is because whether a person is morally justified in their action or not depends on the motive they acted on. That's why we always want to know what somebody's intention was. We ask, "Why did you do that?" And when we have inadvertently caused somebody else harm, we justify ourselves by saying, "I had a good reason for doing that," or "That's not what I meant to do; it was an accident. I meant to do something else." If they intended good, then we praise them, and if they intended bad, then we blame them. When looking at God and John, we are looking at two different actions. God's willful action was to decree or implant a desire in John. John's action was to kill Bill.

In the story of Joseph in the Bible, we find that God had a different intention than Joseph's brothers did in selling him into slavery. God meant it for good, but Joseph's brothers meant it for evil. God's intention was to save lives. Joseph's brothers intended to take out their jealousy on Joseph and rid him from their midst. Likewise, God's intention for having Judas betray Jesus was to save people, but Judas' intention was to make money.

So, to answer the question of whether God is the author of sin, he is in one sense, but not in another. He is not the author of sin in the sense of being the doer of a bad thing. God never acts on bad motives. God always acts on good intentions to bring about good results. However, God is the author of sin in the sense of bringing it about that others sin. This, however, does not make God wicked since God does it for good and praiseworthy ends. God is responsible for sin, not in the sense of committing it, but in the sense of disposing the world in such a way that others commit sin.

Part 5

to be continued...

Thursday, June 01, 2006

God's sovereignty and man's responsibility, part 3

In case you didn't read that, let me explain the difference between a natural ability/inability and a moral ability/inability. If I have a natural ability to do something, that means I'm physically able to do it. If I have a natural inability, that means I'm physically unable. For example, if I have no legs, I have a natural inability to walk.

A moral inability consists in lacking the desire or inclination to do something. Since the will always acts on a motive, it cannot act without a motive. I have a moral inability to walk if I lack any inclination whatsoever to walk.

Okie dokie, with that out of the way, let's move on. We've seen (or assumed or taken my word for it) that we can be morally responsible even if we are unable to do otherwise provided the inability is a moral inability, and not a natural inability. Whereas we would excuse somebody for not walking since he had no legs, we wouldn't excuse somebody for not walking just because they had no desire to walk. The lack of desire amounts to a moral inability and doesn't excuse disobedience. As long as we have a natural ability, we are responsible even without a moral ability.

The proper object of command is the will, since it's the will that either obeys or disobeys. It's the actions of the will, then, that determine whether a person is worthy of praise or blame. A person is morally praiseworthy if they act on good motives and blameworthy if they act on bad motives. As we've seen, though, the motives themselves are not under the control of the will. They are caused by something else.

Since a person is morally responsible for acting on a bad motive even though the motive is caused by something other than the will, then it doesn't matter what the cause is. We cannot be praised or blamed for events that occur outside the will, so the causes of our motives cannot be the basis upon which we are excused or held responsible. Remember, the will is the object of command, not those things that lie outside of the will, including the causes for our motives. What makes us responsible, regardless of how the motive got there, is that our will is engaged in acting on the motive.

Whether the cause of our motives is our DNA, our environment, another person, or God, they all amount to the same thing--a motive that we did not choose. Since we can be held responsible for acting on motives that we did not choose, God's sovereignty is compatible with human responsibility. God may, either by causing or allowing, by direct or indirect means, create in us a motive to do wrong. But that does not excuse us, since we still act willfully.

God intended for Joseph's brothers to sell him into slavery, he intended Pharaoh to refuse to let Israel go, he intended Judas to betray Jesus, and he intended the Romans to crucify Jesus. If God's intention brought these events about, then ultimately God was the cause for the motives these people acted on in doing these things. Yet they were morally responsible.

Part 4

to be continued...

Thursday, May 25, 2006

God's sovereignty and man's responsibility, part 2

All of our choices are determined by the reasons we have for making them--our desires, dispositions, inclinations, motives, etc. But what about the desires themselves? Are they under the control of the will? Do we choose them? It seems not, because that would get us into an infinite regress. If all of our choices are determined by desires, and we choose our desires, then our choices for desires are determined by previous desires. But if we choose those desires, then those desires have desires that come before them. Back and back it goes. To make any choice at all, we'd have to make an infinite number of previous choices to lead up to it. But that's not possible. So if we are able to make choices at all, then they must ultimately originate in some desire that we did not choose.

Ultimately, then, the desires that determine our choices are not under the control of the will. That raises another question. If our choices are ultimately determined by things that are not under the control of the will, then how can we be morally responsible?

Last year, a guy I knew made an argument against morality from determinism. He argued that ultimately all of our choices are determined by things not under the control of the will--our genes, our environment, our upbringing, etc. Since our will is not free but determined, he argued, we cannot be morally responsible.

His argument depended on the notion that "ought" implies "can." If I have a moral obligation to do something, then I must be able to do it. If I'm not able to do it, then I cannot have an obligation to do it. Since I'm not able to choose the desires that determine my choices, then I'm not able to choose other than what I choose. I can only choose otherwise if I am enclined to choose otherwise. But it is a contradiction to suppose that I could be enclined to choose what I am not enclined to choose.

This intuition that "ought" implies "can" seems to be universally recognized. I find that curious in light of people who don't believe in morality. Even people who think morality is an illusion, a convention, or non-existent seem to know beyond doubt that inability is a legitimate moral justification for failure to comply. That's one reason I think morality is not only universal, but also universally known. Even the strictest empiricists subscribe to the notion that "ought" implies "can," though they can give no empirical proof for it. Anyway, that's another subject.

In my response, I argued that not only is compatibalism consistent with moral responsibility, but that it is necessary for moral responsibility. Libertarian free will, which he seemed to suppose was necessary for moral responsibility, turns out to be inconsistent with moral responsibility. I gave my arguments in nine posts, so I don't really want to repeat them all hear. You can do one of three things. You can either assume I'm right for the sake of argument, take my word for it, or go read those posts. They are on parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine of "An argument against morality from determinism."

Part 3

to be continued...

Thursday, May 18, 2006

God's sovereignty and man's responsibility, part 1

There are people who deny that God is sovereign and there are people who deny that man has any moral responsibility, but let's let those be assumptions for the sake of this discussion. You don't have to believe in either to ponder the question of whether the idea of a sovereign God is consistent with the idea of people having moral responsibility.

Let's start with compatibalism. Compatibalism is the view that we always act according to the strongest motive we have. Let's say you're a diabetic sitting in front of a chocolate cake. In a situation like that, you've got two competing desires. You've got a desire to eat the cake because you know it will taste good. But you've also got a desire to not eat the cake because you know it will make you sick. The thing that determines what your choice will be, whether to eat the cake or not, is which desire is the stongest.

Whenever somebody does something, you can always ask, "Did you mean to do that?" All intentional acts are done for a reason. That's what it means for them to be intentional. If they're not intentional, then they're accidents. You didn't mean to do them.

This is true in even the most seemingly neutral choices. For example, suppose you've got two glasses in front of you, both with the same drink. It may seem that there is nothing which would cause you to prefer one over the other. Yet you will eventually choose one over the other. Does it makes sense to even ask why? Well it's impossible to choose either without some sort of inclination to move. The mind, at some point, must get itself fixed on one or the other and then choose it.

It's impossible to move without being enclined to move. So some kind of inclination, preference, predisposition, motive, desire, or whatever is necessary for any intentional act. Acts that lack any mental predisposition include things like reflexes (e.g. when somebody hits you on the knee) or muscle spasms, shakes, twitches, or any kind of involuntary physical movement. It's involuntary because it's not done out of a mental disposition, and so it's not a choice.

The will is the faculty of choice. Any act of the will is a choice. That's why we say that some actions, like twitching, are not under the control of the will, and are therefore not choices. They are done involuntarily. If choosing is acting on a motive, then any act of the will is determined by the motive it acts on.

That's compatibalism.

Part 2

to be continued...

Thursday, May 11, 2006

My conversion to Calvinism

I'm writing this as a preface to a post I want to make where I'll reconcile God's sovereignty with man's responsibility. This is all just autobiography, and you can skip it if you aren't interested.

I didn't grow up in a church, and I was never really taught theology when I was a kid. I formed a lot of my ideas from reading the Bible by myself and just thinking. But I did hear theological phrases and such from people at school sometimes. One I remember hearing a lot was "God is in control."

When I heard that, an idea formed in my mind that was, as it turns out, not what the other person had in mind when they said it. The other person meant that God actually intervenes in everything that happens. I took it to mean that God could intervene anytime he felt like it. I thought that for the most part, God had a hands-off approach to the world, and he only intervened in the rare case of miracles or such.

I remember using an analogy to explain what I thought was meant by "God is in control." After all, I wasn't about to dispute with my better whether it was true or not. I accepted that it was true, but then explained how it could be true under my understanding. I compared it to a person driving a car. As long as the person has his hands on the steering wheel, he's in control of the direction of the car even if he doesn't happen to be turning the wheel or manipulating it at all. He could manipuate it any time he wants, but he's still in control even if he doesn't happen to be manipulating it at the moment. I figured God had the same kind of control over creation. He could intervene anytime he wanted, but that didn't mean he was intervening on a continual basis.

I don't remember hearing much about God's sovereignty until I was an adult. When I heard that phrase, "God is sovereign," an idea formed in my head that also turned out not to be what people meant. Here, I don't think I can be faulted too much. People still mean different things by saying God is sovereign. I took it to mean God is the highest authority in the universe. There's nobody above him, and he makes the rules that apply to everybody. It had nothing to do with God's intervention in the universe except in regard to judging, rewarding, and punishing.

It turns out that that's not exactly what a lot of people mean by saying God is sovereign. Although what I thought may be included in what they think, it doesn't exhaust what they think. When people say God is sovereign, they often mean the same thing my friend from high school meant when she said that "God is in control." God isn't just sovereign in his authority, but he is sovereign over all events, meaning he is in control of them.

I remember being 23 or 24 the first time I heard that there was a distinction in God's will. A girl I used to know told me that God has an active will and a permissive will. His active will included those things he actually does. His permissive will includes those things he allows to happen. Of course I bought into this distinction right away, because it cohered nicely with what I understood it to mean that "God is in control."

It was around this time, also, that I first heard of this problem of reconciling God's sovereignty with man's responsibility. With the understanding I already had in place, I couldn't figure out why it caused anybody problems at all. I figured God's sovereignty, even over human action, only implied that God could intervene if he wanted to, but human activity normally fell under God's permissive will. People don't act because God somehow causes them to act. Rather, God allows them to act freely. So God is sovereign in the fact that he is in control of people and can stop them or manipulate them any time he wants, but people are still morally responsible because God doesn't ordinarily manipulate people.

I was agnostic for a while in my early 20's, but it's also around that time that I start seriously studying the Bible. It's also about that time that I first discovered the internet. Through the internet, I ran into people of a vast variety of religious beliefs that I probably could never have done otherwise. I had my first exposure to Calvinism at that time.

I didn't fully understand Calvinism that early, but there were a few things people said that I was sympathetic to. Not that I agreed with them, but it was understandable to me how they could come to their conclusions. Through reading the Bible, I found much that seemed to be consistent with Calvinism. I always put it on the back burner, though. I figured these were isolated verses here and there, and the whole of scripture was against how the Calvinists understood them. My exposure to Calvinists was sparse enough for me to pretty much ignore them.

Two things happened, though, that made me decide I needed to educate myself on the whole question of Calvinism. First, I kept running into Calvinists more and more, and I became aware that there was serious debate on the matter going on. Second, I saw a book called The King James Only Controvery at the Christian bookstore by James White. I had run into a guy a few years earlier who thought the King James version was the only valid translation. At the time, I thought he was an anomoly, but when I saw the title of this book, I decided to get it and read it.

Through that book, I became aware of this guy named James White. It turns out that James White is the head of an apologetics ministry called Alpha and Omega, and the web site address was in the back of the book. I did some reading on the internet about White and discovered he was writing a book (or had written a book) called The Potter's Freedom, in which he defended Calvinism against Norman Geisler's book, Chosen But Free.

I went into White's chat room and interacted with the people there, almost all of whom where Calvinists. I didn't debate much with them, though, because I didn't feel myself too educated on the subject. After a lot of time being in there, though, I started wishing I knew more so I could debate with them. Eventually, I decided I could postpone my education no longer. I had to learn about the whole Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate.

I had heard enough about Calvinism and Arminianism to know that I had some disagreements with both. The Calvinists, however, didn't seem to recognize people who didn't fall into one camp or the other. Anybody who didn't fall into one camp or the other was just called "inconsistent." Since I was closer to being an Arminian than a Calvinist, I wondered if I would eventually fall into the Arminian camp once I read up on the arguments.

I decided a good place to start would be to read the books by Geisler and White. To my surprise, Geisler started his book by arguing for the sovereignty of God over all events--even human decisions. Although I had stumbled across plenty of verses that seemed to support this view (e.g. Proverbs 16:9 and 20:24), I had never heard it argued so pursuasively before. It was so pursuasive, in fact, that it caused me to change my mind right away. I wasn't at all impressed with the rest of the book, though. First, he seemed to contradict everything he had written in the first chapter. Second, his arguments just weren't that great.

Since I was so unimpressed with Geisler's book, I didn't really read White's book with anticipation about how he was going to refute Geisler. Instead, I read White's book with anticipation about how I was going to refute White. I thought maybe I'd write a critique of it.

As I read the first few chapters of White's book, I didn't think I'd have much problem critiquing his book. But then I got to chapter seven--"Jesus teaches 'Extreme Calvinism.'" In that chapter, White made what seemed to me to be an airtight case for Calvinism from John 6.

I didn't convert to Calvinism right away, though. First, I wanted to read other interpretations of John 6 and see what kind of responses there were to White's arguments. White had said at various other times that he had never seen a consistent interpretation of John 6 that got around the points he made. I wanted to know if it was true.

After reading around, I found that what White said was true. There have been numerous attempts at refuting White's arguments from John 6, and there have been all kinds of interpretations of it, but none of them come close to upsetting the case White makes for Calvinism. His case still seems to be solid to me.

Still, my conversion to Calvinism did not come easy. As I continued to read and learn about Calvinism, I discovered that it required a Copernican revolution in my worldview and in my understanding of the Bible. There were still places in the Bible that I had always understood in a way contrary to Calvinism, and it took a long time to iron them all out.

At a certain point, though, I came to realize that overall, the Bible supported Calvinism far more strongly than it supported the contrary. I decided I was a Calvinist before I got it all ironed out. In fact, I probably still don't have it completely ironed out.

There was another problem with Calvinism, though. The problem wasn't only Biblical, it was philosophical as well. In fact, the philosophical problem seemed worse than the Biblical problem. I became convinced that the Bible taught Calvinism, but Calvinism seemed to have some serious philosophical problems.

Since I'm sure non-Christians are reading this, I'll tell you that, yes, I did consider the fact that if the Bible definitely teaches Calvinism, and if Calvinism is philosophically bankrupt, it would follow that the Bible can't be the inspired word of God. I also considered that if the Bible supported both Calvinism and non-Calvinism, then the Bible is contradictory and can't be the word of God. But I'm not going to get sidetracked on those lines of thoughts now.

Anyway, the philosophical problems only increased the more I learned about Calvinism. One book in particular caused me a great deal of consternation. John Piper wrote a book called The Justification of God in which he gave a very thorough exegesis of Romans 9. From Romans 9, Piper argued for double predestination. You see some Calvinists are willing to say that God predestined people to eternal glory, but not that he predestined people to eternal damnation. Rather, God simply allows, passively, people to fall into damnation. Piper argued from Romans 9 that God creates some people for the purpose of damning them. I found that (and still find that) incredibly disturbing. Yet his case was pursuasive.

Before going into the philosophical problems with Calvinism (which is the subject of this series), I want to mention one other problem I had with Calvinism. The problem I had with it was my general impression of Calvinists themselves. There was a guy in my Monday night Bible study who was a Calvinist--a pushy one, too. He was always getting me to read his Calvinist books. Two of them that stick out in my mind were by Martin Luther and Arthur Pink. I remember thinking they were both just really nasty. James White seemed pretty rough around the edges, too. My general impression of Calvinists was that they were just some rude and nasty people.

Of course I recognized that it was fallacious to fault Calvinism just because a lot of Calvinists seemed nasty to me. I'm human, though, and I can't help that it caused me to be suspicious of Calvinism.

Anyway, one of the major philosophical problems with Calvinism in my mind was how to reconcile God's sovereignty with human responsibility. The first time I ever heard the problem expressed in light of Calvinism was when I read a book called Decision-Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen and J. Robin Maxon. It turned out, though, that Calvinists were not the only ones who had a strong view of God's sovereignty (Geisler being one example). Being much influenced by William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, I believed libertarian free will was necessary for moral accountability. Besides, libertarian free will had a strong appeal to common sense for me.

You might wonder how I reconciled that with my Calvinism. Well, I think my view was a lot like the view of Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason. Basically, I did not think we had free will in regards to accepting or rejecting the gospel. The Bible seemed clear on that. But I figured we had free will in every other aspect of life. At the time, that seemed consistent with Calvinism to me.

It wasn't, though, and I think Koukl recognizes this. God's sovereignty must cover all moral choices, not just the choice to accept or reject the gospel. Koukl has often said on his radio show that the hardest theological problem for him is how to reconcile the fact we have moral obligations with the fact that we have an inability to obey. We are dead in sins, unable to please God apart from his intervention, necessarily sinful. You see, we have this strong intuition that "ought" implies "can." That is, we can't have a moral obligation to do something if we are unable to do it. How is it, then, that we DO have a moral obligation if we also have an inability to meet those obligations?

Dennis (the guy in my Bible study), let me borrow The Freedom of the Will by Jonathan Edwards. This book caused another Copernican revolution in my way of thinking. It completely resolved every philosophical problem I had with Calvinism. It raised problems I didn't have before, and solved those, too. Though it didn't cure me of my discomfort with double predestination, it did satisfy me intellectually. Of course I had to read it a couple of times to understand it, and there are some sections I've read several times to understand them.

The major shift in my thinking was from believing in libertarian free will to believing in compatibalism. Also, from thinking libertarian free will was necessary for morality and compatibalism was inconsistent with it to thinking libertarian free will was inconsistent with morality and compatibalism was necessary for it. That was probably the most interesting thing I got out of the book.

Most importantly, Edward's book solved the problem of how to reconcile God's sovereignty with human responsibility. I wish I could convince all my readers to read his book--especially Steve and Dagoods. I wish I could convince Greg Koukl to read it, too. Edwards covers a lot of area that I can't cover without writing a book of my own, and he argues better than I could hope to do it.

to be continued: God's sovereignty and man's responsibility, part 1

Friday, May 05, 2006

How did the disciples die?

Dagoods gives me things to write about. Today, I'm going to address a question he asked me a while back that I never answered. He read my blog on when arguments go awry. I had said something about how skeptics often misunderstand the "die for a lie" argument. Dagoods said at the end of our discussion that he doesn't respond to the "die for a lie" argument. Instead, he just asks the Christian to show how the disciples died. He asked me, "How did the disciples die, when, and was it martyrdom?"

This is a good question. You see, if they died of natural causes, then the "die for a lie" argument is faulty. So to make the "die for a lie" argument work, I've got to show that the disciples actually did die for their beliefs. If they died for their beliefs, that will demonstrate that they actually believed them with conviction.

I wrote about the historical arguments for the martyrdoms of James, Peter, and one other person I can't remember. Now I can't find where I wrote it, so I'm just going to have to go on memory. It's been a long time since I was emersed in all these historical arguments.

I suspect Dagoods would not raise the question if he were not skeptical of the accounts of Eusebius or even of some of the early Church fathers. To avoid all that, I wanted to narrow the topic to James (the brother of Jesus) and Peter. I think there is early and compelling evidence that both of them were martyred.

James was the head of the Jerusalem church, and a well-known public figure. Josephus writes about his martyrdom in the Antiquities XX.9.1:
Convening the judges of the Sanhedrin, he [Ananus, the high priest] brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law, and condemned them to be stoned to death.
Now, of course, if you're really bent on being skeptical, you can find loop holes. Maybe it's Christian interpolation. Maybe James committed some unknown crime having nothing to do with being a Christian. But assuming we can say (as most do) that James really was martyred, I can answer Dagood's question. James died by being stoned in Jerusalem in 62 CE, and it was a martyrdom.

There are three lines of evidence that show that Peter was martyred. First, we have John 21:18-19 where Jesus predicts how Peter will die. Basically, he predicted that Peter would die by crucifixion. It doesn't matter who wrote John's gospel. If we assume it was written by John before Peter died, then that would show Peter died by crucifixion. If he didn't, then John's gospel would prove that Jesus was a false prophet (or that the gospel was bad), and it either would've been edited out, or the gospel wouldn't have carried much authority. But if we assume it was written by John after Peter died, or written by somebody else after Peter died, then the person who wrote it likely knew how Peter died. He put this prediction on Jesus' lips in order to make it look like Jesus made an accurate prophecy, just as Mark and Matthew have Jesus predicting the destruction of Jerusalem, which supposedly dates Mark and Matthew after 70 CE. So either way you look at it, Peter was mostly likely crucified.

The second line of evidence is 2 Peter 1:13-14 where Peter says, "I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me." Again, we can use the same argument. It doesn't matter whether Peter actually wrote it or not. If he did, the letter would have been discredited unless Peter died soon afterwards. If he didn't, then it was likely written because the author already knew how Peter died. In both John and 2 Peter, it says that Jesus predicted his death. Only John says how, though. Nevetheless, if Peter were to die of natural causes, there would've been nothing significant about his dying, and thus no particular reason for Jesus to predict it. Nobody would think it particularly impressive, for example, if I predicted Elizabeth Taylor is going to die soon. She's pretty old. 2 Peter adds plausibility to the prediction of "how" in John. Peter was likely martyred.

Third, we have a letter by Clement of Rome to the Corinthians in 96 CE, and he says, "Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labors; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, he departed to the place of glory due to him." Peter was a public figure, and unless he mysteriously disappeared, the manner of his death was most likely public information among the major Christian congregations. So there is no reason to doubt what Clement is saying, especially in light of John and 2 Peter.

I probably can't prove Paul's martyrdom to somebody who is bent on being skeptical about it, but it seems quite obvious that Paul was at least willing to die for his beliefs. In Galatians 1:13-14 and Philippians 3:4-8, Paul writes about how he gave up being a Pharisee advancing in Judaism beyond many of his own age to be a follower of Jesus, and how he suffered the loss of all things happily because of it. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-26 and 6:3-10, he writes about beatings, imprisonment, being flogged, and being exposed to death again and again. He writes about being in danger from rivers, bandits, his own countrymen, Gentiles, and even false brothers. A person bent on skepticism, of course, could always say, "That's just a lie!"

These all seem like good reasons to think James, Peter, and Paul actually believed that Jesus was the Christ. The question, of course, is why did they believe it?

Friday, April 28, 2006

The difference between moral objectivism and moral absolutism

Don't you think it's about time I start making posts again? I injured my wrist last Saturday, which has prevented me from making any bows. That has given me some time to do some reading, and reading always makes me think.

Today, I was reading a blog that Dagoods has become a member of called "Debunking Christianity." On that blog, there was a link to an entry about "Debunking Calvinism." The author, John Loftus, basically brought up the whole problem of reconciling God's sovereignty with human responsibility. He argued that if God causes John to kill Bill, then God killed Bill, not John, and God is responsible, not John. I am very axious to write a blog entry on this subject (I have wanted to for some time) because it seems like this subject comes up in almost every discussion I get into with Dagoods. We always seem to get stuck on it. I never go into detail in comment sections, so I thought I ought to spell out my arguments in a blog.

But not this blog. You see, I was thinking about this while ago, and I decided to put a pizza in the oven (I discovered Amy's pizza at the grocery store last week, and it's delicious!!!--best store bought frozen pizza I've ever had!!!) and then go to the bathroom. While walking around, my mind continued to wander. I don't know how it got there, but it got to the whole issue of moral absolutism verses moral objectivism. Usually, the two terms are used interchangeably, but Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason makes a distinction that I have found to be very helpful.

The difference, basically, is that moral absolutists don't recognize moral dilemmas, and moral objectivists do. A moral absolutist thinks that any moral imperative (like "don't lie") must be obeyed no matter what in any situation. A moral objectivist recognizes that there are situations in which two moral imperatives both apply, and one must choose the greater of two goods or the lesser of two evils (it has gotten to where every time I think of "the lesser of two evils" I think of that movie, Master and Commander).

The classic example is harboring Jews during the holocaust. Should you lie to protect them? A moral objectivist would say yes, because on the one hand, sure, it's wrong to lie. But on the other hand, we also have a moral obligation to protect innocent people, not to give them over to their doom. It's better to lie to protect them than to turn them over to their doom by telling the truth.

It's interesting how moral absolutists respond to a situation like that. They don't characterize it as choosing the lesser of two evils or the greater of two goods. Instead, they simply redefine their terms. Whereas a moral objectist might call something "justified lying," a moral absolutist wouldn't call it lying at all. They simply redefine the word "lie."

I'm getting this argument about absolutism from an article I read a while back by a popular Christian writer. I can't remember who it was, but I remember basically what he said. Usually, we define a lying as, "Saying something that isn't true knowingly." But this author defined lying as "Saying something that isn't true without justification." You see, he agreed with the moral objectivist that you should not tell the truth about the Jews you're protecting, but he did not consider that lying because it was justified. To him, it's only lying if it isn't justified.

I think this is just a word game, and an inappropriate one, too. It's inappropriate because words are defined by their use. When people talk about lying, they mean "Knowingly saying something that isn't true." They don't mean, "Saying something that isn't true without justification."

The absolutist could, of course, counter that it doesn't matter what English speaking people think of as "lying." What matters is what God says, or what the Bible says, and what it means. But I have yet to hear a lexical argument for defining the corresponding Greek and Hebrews words for "lying" as "Saying things that aren't true without justification."

But let's think about that for a minute. Suppose that is what lying means. If so, then to say, "It's wrong to lie," is a tautology. All morals derive from the principle of justification. To say that something is wrong is to say that you are not morally justified in doing it. To say it's not wrong or that it's right is to say that you are morally justified in doing it. That's why whenever people do something questionable, we always want to know what their reasons are. Sometimes we find their reasons justifiable, and sometimes we don't. If lying means, "Saying something that isn't true without justification," then saying, "It's wrong to lie," basically amounts to saying, "You are not justified in saying something that isn't true without justification." That's a tautology. By definition nobody is justified in doing anything that is not justified. That's why I find the absolutist's redefinition tactic to be flawed.

I was going to say more about pacifism, but my pizza is ready. That gives me good justification for stopping here.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

What I've learned from movies

I've seen enough movies to notice a pattern.

Person A: "I have something to tell you!"

Person B: "I have something to tell you, too!"

Person A: "Well you go first!"

Person B says something disappointing to Person A that causes Person A not to say what he was going to say.

Or the scenario might look more like this:

Person A: "I have something to tell you!"

Person B: "Okay, but first let me tell you something!"

Then the same thing happens. The whole time we're sitting there thinking, "If only Person A had been allowed to go first! This whole thing could've been resolved! Augh! You idiots!"

So I've decided that if you've got something to say somebody, you should just say it. Or if they tell you they have something to say to you, then you should just listen. Otherwise, you could postpone the resolution to your drama for another hour or more.

Friday, March 17, 2006

How to make a bamboo backed ipe longbow

I haven't been motivated by anything but laziness lately, which I why I haven't added anything, but I just finished doing another build along and thought y'all might not like to have a look see, but I'd post it anyway.

Here is the build along.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The biases and motives of moral realists and non-realists

I was thinking of an example of how our biases affect how we attribute motives to others. Here are two opposing sides.

There are some people who say there are objective moral values. There are other people who say there are not objective moral values. It is interesting to notice how each side attributes motives to the other side.

[Since I brought it up, lemme make a detour here. It’s an informal logical fallacy to try to refute a position by pointing out sinister motives in the people who hold that position. That’s a form of the ad hominem fallacy, and it’s a fallacy because it suffers from irrelevance. Our motives for holding a belief have nothing to do with whether or not those beliefs are true.]

Moral non-realists will often say the reason people hold to objective standards of good and evil is because they have a sinister desire to control everybody. They figure since morals are relative, people shouldn’t impose their own personal values on other people. (Never mind the inconsistency in this position; it’s not my point.) They figure if people are trying to impose their values on everybody else, then they just have an unhealthy need to suppress, control, and manipulate other people.

Moral realists will often say the reason people deny morality is because they want to justify their own actions. Rather than submitting to objective standards of good and evil they know are true, they pretend they aren’t real. It allows them to indulge in their guilty pleasures without the guilt. A guilty pleasure without the guilt is just pleasure. (Never mind the inconsistency in this position, too; it's not my point either.) Moral realists figure since everybody knows deep down inside that there’s a difference between right and wrong, there must be some sinister motive for being in denial.

As I write the above, I must admit that my own bias is in full swing. I have heard both of the above accusations, and I find myself agreeing with the moral realists and disagreeing with the moral non-realists. And, surprise, I’m a moral realist!

What advantage is there in worrying about somebody's motives anyway? Shouldn't we be more concerned about whether or not their position is true than in whatever motivates them to embrace it? I guess that depends. If we're trying to discover the truth of the issue, then their motives are irrelevent. But if we're trying to reason with them, and reason has nothing to do with why they hold their position, then perhaps there is some advantage to exploring what their motives might be. By getting a person to be honest with themselves about their motives, maybe they will be more open to reason. It does no good, of course, to try to convince a person that they have motives when they really don't. Attributing motives falsely to people is a good way to discredit yourself with them. It also puts them on the defensive, and people never listen once they're on the defensive.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

How our biases skew our conclusions about the motives of other people

Earlier tonight I read Dagoods' most recent blog entry where he said he thinks Christians avoid learning about their opposition because they are afraid. Now I don't deny that this is the case for a lot of Christians, but the lack of balance in his post got me to thinking about something. We all seem to more readily attribute sinister motives in those who are against us than in those who are for us. Seems only natural, doesn't it?

Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People made the same point. I don't have the book with me, but he argued in one of the first few chapters that people rarely ever blame themselves for anything. They always find some way to justify their actions. C.S. Lewis made the same observation in one of the first few chapters of Mere Christianity. He said we are so aware of the moral law that we can't bare to face the fact that we've broken it. Consequently, we always put our bad behavior down to circumstances out of our control. We let ourselves off the hook somehow. But we put our good behavior down to ourselves.

We are far more likely to blame others than to blame ourselves. We have no shortage of good excuses for our own actions. But when other people behave badly (especially when they behave badly toward us), we are not so generous. We don't extend the benefit of the doubt as readily to others as we extend the justification to ourselves.

One of the examples Dagoods brought up was that Christians often misrepresent their opposition. This was an example of what he called "lack of honest inquiry." So basically he's accusing Christians of intellectual dishonesty when they misrepresent their opposition and then make strawman arguments. Isn't it interesting that his one explanation for these misrepresentations is "lack of honest inquiry"? He doesn't even raise the possibility that some Christians could honestly have misunderstandings about their opposition. To here Dagoods tell it, you'd think this was a problem unique to Christians. Christians are deceitful scum to dishonestly misrepresent non-believers, but of course non-believers never do that.

Let's pretend that we are observing a debate between a theist and an atheist on the existence of God. Both debaters have published a number of books and articles, and we have read them all. We have studied them thoroughly, and we are equally informed on both of their views. Now let's say that while we're observing this debate we notice that both of them misrepresent the other's position. What is our gut reaction to this?

That seems to depend on whose side we're on, doesn't it? We assume our guy made an honest mistake and maybe just doesn't really understand the other guy. But we assume the other guy is intentionally misrepresenting our guy. He's being intellectually dishonest. This is one case of how our bias can influence our conclusions about the motives of others.

We can't do away with our biases, but by being aware of them, we can make a more conscious effort to be fair. We shouldn't attribute motives to people without proper justification. We should be just as harsh with ourselves when we've done wrong as we are with others when they've done wrong. And if we're going to justify our own bad behavior, then we ought to be open to possible justifications for other people's bad behavior. Easier said than done, but if truth matters, then it's worth the effort, because truth requires consistency.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

How our presuppositions skew our interpretation of our experiences

Presuppositions are those background beliefs we all have that we don't really think about. Beliefs like, "My senses give me true information about the world," and "The future will resemble the past," are background beliefs that just about everybody has but that most people don't think about consciously. They just sort of automatically apply those beliefs to their experiences.

Sometimes our presuppositions are wrong. But whether they're right or wrong, they do have a big influence on how we filter information that comes our way. I was thinking about this last night and I came up with a real life example to explain what I mean.

Between the ages of 2 and 6, I lived in Abilene Texas. Out in west Texas, there aren't a whole lot of trees, but there is a whole lot of sky. With all that sky, lightening storms are pretty amazing.

Let me back up a little. I remember watching on TV where this guy had a model of the earth and the sun. He was explaining night and day. On his little model, half the earth was covered in a black shell. He rotated the shell around the earth to explain night and day.

Now the shell obviously just represented the night sky, but you have to understand how something like that would look to a five year old kid. (I'm guessing I was about 5 at the time). I thought the model literally represented the way things are. I thought there really was half a shell around the earth that rotates around the earth. The light was all around, but the shell blocked it out on half the earth.

This belief became a given to me. It acted like a presupposition. So one night I was sitting in the drive way looking at the lightening spreading out across the sky. It was pretty amazing. As I watched it, I tried to understand it, and I remember my thinking. I was looking at the black sky thinking, "That's the black shell around half the earth." Whenever I'd see the lightening, I'd also hear the thunder, and I started to draw some conclusions. I figured what was going on was that this shell was under some pressure because of the storm. Every now and then it would crack because of the pressure. The cracks would let in the light from the other side, and that's what lightening was. It would also make a loud sound when the shell cracked, and that was the thunder.

Another night, I was looking at the stars and thinking about the shell. I figured that shell must be really old since it's been rotating around the earth forever. Since it's so old, it's a bit tattered and has some holes in it. The light comes in through the holes, and that's the stars.

See how that one presupposition influenced my interpretation of my observations? That's the way presuppositions are. So we ought to try to be more conscious of them. Bad presuppositions will result in us drawing the wrong conclusions about reality and prevent us from drawing the right conclusions.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Being worth dating

A couple of posts back, I talked about how most Christian date/don't date articles always focus on finding rather than being somebody worth dating. Well, I just wanted to give credit where credit is due. I finished reading How to Get a Date Worth Keeping today and Cloud had a whole chaper on being somebody worth dating. There's some good stuff in this book, but for the most part, I was unimpressed.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Competing dating philosophies

I apologize to you who aren't interested in all this relationship stuff. It's not usually like me to write about this kind of thing. I'm certainly no expert. But I'm reading this book, you see, and it makes me think of stuff.

This book advances a philosophy about dating that is completely opposite of mine. Now when I was in middle school/high school, I remember having this revelation that everybody was taking the whole boyfriend/girlfriend thing too seriously. It was a big revelation to me that maybe people ought to have these relationships merely for the fun of it. Then when you break up, there's no hard feelings.

As I got older, I began to change my mind. Now up until today, I have a different philosophy about dating. This is the way I look at it. Whenever two people start dating, one of two things are going to happen. Either it's going to come to an end at some point, or they're going to end up married. Very rarely do two people date each other for the rest of their lives. It makes absolutely no sense to date somebody if you know it's going to come to an end. First, you're just wasting each other's time. You could be moving on and possibly meeting somebody else you could marry some day. Second, somebody could get hurt that way. If you keep seeing the same person knowing you're never going to marry them, one or both of you are going to end up hurt. The longer you're together, the worse it's going to be.

So my current philosophy is that you should only date somebody if it's possible you could marry them some day. And dating is, in part, for the purpose of exploring that possibility.

But Dr. Henry Cloud disagrees with me. He has a whole chapter called "Dating is not about Marriage." Here's how he looks at it. He thinks that even if you date somebody you know you're never going to marry, there is still some advantage. The advantage is that you learn something about yourself and about other people. He thinks you should date just for the fun of it and for the learning experience. It teaches you people skills, it gives you practice, and it helps you figure out what kind of things you really like and don't like in other people, and it allows you to have a good time.

In some of his anecdotes, he's dialoguing with somebody who has as different philosophy. His method of debunking their philosophy is always the same. He asks them, "How is that working for you?" or "How long has it been since you've had a date?" And the poor ole bloke confesses that they haven't had any luck.

But is that a good argument? I haven't even tried Cloud's method, but I am enclined to think his method will work. But just because it works, does that make it right? The problem I see with Cloud's view is that he basically advocates using people. I think it's unfair to them.

There are some practical advantages to Cloud's method, too. I've always thought dating was paradoxical. On the one hand, you're supposed to have fun, but on the other hand, it's like going to a job interview. How can you have fun in a situation like that? Cloud's method avoids that paradox. Since dating isn't about marriage, there's no pressure. You're free to have a good time and be yourself. Forget about hurting anybody of course!

Monday, February 20, 2006

Dating books and stuff

A friend of mine has been raving about this book called How to Get a Date Worth Keeping. I have never reading one of these Christian date/don't-date books, but I'm going to read this one. The reason I don't read them is because every time I hear about one of them, I immediately disagree with what I hear. So I'm just skeptical of the whole genre.

But that's not why I bring it up. I have read a lot of articles on Christian dating/not-dating. There's one thing that just about all of them have in common, and I suspect this book does, too. The focus is the same in all of them. The focus is on you finding somebody worth having. The focus is never on you being somebody worth having.

Think about that for a minute. Not everybody is worth having, are they? Of course not. So what if everybody read the same book? Well, then you'd have a bunch of people not worth having reading the book. And they'd be out looking for people who are worth having. But if everybody is reading the book and following its advice, then those people who are not worth having are never going to find anybody. They'll be weeded out.

That brings me to something written on the cover of this book. It says, "Be Dating in Six Months or Your Money Back." The author, Henry Cloud, must be counting on the fact that not everybody is going to read this book. If everybody read and followed this book, then it would be impossible for everybody to be dating in six months. In fact, it would guarantee that a whole lot of people would never be dating at all.

I'm not bragging or anything, but I want to be honest about something. Usually when I read stuff like this--like what kind of person you would be looking for, and how to weed out the losers--I always look at myself. I always want to know if I'm worth keeping or if I'm the sort of person others ought to weed out.

Suppose we discover that we are not worth keeping. And let's be honest. No need to say, "Oh don't say that about yourself!" Let's be honest and admit that a lot of us are not worth keeping. If that weren't true, then we wouldn't need to weed anybody out, because everybody would be worth keeping. So some of us are not worth keeping. What should we do? Should we try to get people to keep us anyway? Should we even be reading books about How to Get a Date Worth Keeping?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Do unitarian universalists really thrive on differences?

I was reading the web page for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Tyler tonight and it said, "We're not like other churches in Tyler," and then gave a list of how they are different. One of the distinguishing characteristics was this:
We respect differences:
in fact, we thrive on them: whether its a belief in one God, many Gods, no Gods, God within us all, "the Force," or “the Sacred.” It is our diversity of opinions and beliefs, and our acceptance of our differences that make us a Fellowship of equals.
UU's often distinguish themselves from ordinary Christians in this manner. Whereas Christians are narrow and intolerant, UU's are supposedly open and accepting.

In reality, though, UU's and Christians are both accepting of diversity within limits. The only difference between them is in where those boundaries are. For example, in my church, you're free to say Jesus will return before, during, or after the tribulation, but people won't like it if you start saying Jesus is not God. At the UU Fellowship of Tyler, you're free to say there's a God or there isn't a God, but trying telling people Jesus is the only way to salvation and see how accepting they are of differences.

UU's are masters of euphemism. They use it to the point of misrepresenting themselves.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

How is God limited?

People are often disturbed by the notion that God is limited by anything. By saying God is all knowing or all powerful, they take it that God must know absolutely everything and he must be able to do absolutely anything. Otherwise, he isn't all knowing or all powerful.

This all powerful one comes up all the time, but I never hear the all knowing one come up that much. For the all powerful attribute, people conjure up scenarios of God creating a rock too heavy for him to lift and things like that. In response, we'll clarify that being all knowing means God can do all things logically possible. But then the other person might get bent out of shape about God being limited by logic.

But why don't people say the same sorts of things about God's knowledge? Instead of asking if God can create a rock too heavy for him to lift, why not ask something similar in regard to God's knowledge? For example, Does God know the earth is flat? If you say no, well then there's one thing God doesn't know. But then we would respond, "But being all knowing only means that God knows everything that's true." In a situation like that, a person might well be just as disturbed as before when God was limited by logic. Now, it seems that God is limited to only knowing things that are true.

Now I want to repeat a point I made on a previous blog entry. Let's assume God is not limited by logic. Now what? It seems to me all room for objection goes away. Can God create a rock too heavy for him to lift? Yes and no. Well which is it? Both.. Well if he can, then he isn't all powerful, because there's something he can't lift. But if he can't, then he isn't all powerful, because there's something he can't create. If God is not limited by logic, then God can be all powerful even if he is not all powerful.

Monday, February 06, 2006

How to make a bow

I made my first bow in May of 2004. I remember reading a whole lot of information about it before I got started. It was not all clear to me. Some tutorials would cover things that other tutorials would leave out. I couldn't find any one tutorial that was idiot-proof, and idiot-proof was exactly what I needed. I had no prior experience working with wood at all. I needed details and illustrations.

The first bow I made was a red oak board bow. It seemed like a good place to start because I could get red oak for pretty cheap at Home Depot and Lowes, and it came in the ideal dimensions, which cut out a lot of work. I learned far more from making bows than I did from reading about making bows.

Still, I have wanted for a long time to make the sort of tutorial I wish I could've had when I started making bows. Well, I have finally finished it. Here it is. Go have a look-see, then go make a bow, then come back here and tell me about it. I would like to know how helpful this tutorial was.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Who are apologetics for?

People say the strangest things. I was just thinking about something I have heard more than once from more than one person. It's an objection people have to apologetics. They'll say something like, "God doesn't need apologetics."

Silly people! Apologetics are not for God. They are for us. Apologetics deals with epistemological issues that we face. Christianity may be entirely true, and God may be all knowing, but that says nothing about the state of our knowledge. How do we know any of it is true? We certainly aren't all-knowing.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

My English class

A few posts back, I talked about how I was sure I was going to hate my English class. The impression I got was that we were going to spend the whole semester interpreting hopelessly ambiguous literature and that the goal was to pour as much esoteric meaning into it as possible. I was quite annoyed with it.

But I don't want to leave you with a bad impression of my English teacher. The class is turning out not to be nearly as bad as my first impression led me to believe. I'm still not into this sort of thing, but it isn't near the fiasco I imagined it would be.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

The divine command theory

I'm not a big fan of the divine command theory, but I don't think it is as problematic is some people suppose.

The divine command theory is a theory of morality that says the moral law is based on God's commands. The major problem with it is that it falls victim to Euthyphro's dilemma. Is something good because God's commands it, or does God command it because it's good?

If God commands it because it's good, then goodness comes before the command. If goodness comes before the command, then the good cannot be based on the command. So divine command theorists can't take this horn of the dilemma.

If something is good simply because God commands it, that makes the moral law seem arbitrary. If God's commands aren't based on anything prior, then he could've commanded anything at all. The only reason we have the moral law as it is is because God artibrarily commanded it to be so.

That strikes most people as counter-intuitive. It's not hard to think of counter-intuitive results that follow from this horn of the dilemma. God could've commanded mother killing and father raping, and they would've been good. He could've forbidden kindness, generosity, and loyalty, and they would've been bad. But our intuition balks as such suggestions!

Why? This is the weakness I see in this sort of argument. If God has forbidden us to kill our mothers and rape our fathers, and if he has commanded us to be loyal, generous, and kind, then of course our intuition will balk at the suggestion that things be otherwise. We balk because things are not otherwise. We live in a universe where things are the way God has made them. We have moral intuitions that are consistent with God's commands. So naturally the suggestion that things be otherwise are going to be counter-intuitive. If things were otherwise, then we would likely not balk so much.

So the fact that the suggestion of killing our mothers is counter-intuitive is not a good argument against the divine command theory.

But what of the fact that God's commands are arbitrary? Now I don't grant that they are arbitrary, but let's assume they are. What difference does that make? Are they any less binding just because they happen to be arbitrary? If God is the ruler of the universe, then we're obligated to obey him whether his commands are arbitrary or not.

I suppose the fear is that if they are arbitrary, they are subject to change. We don't want them to change, and we don't want a fickle God. But can't they be arbitrary and consistent at the same time? Isn't it possible for God to make arbitrary moral laws and stick to them? If so, then why worry about God being fickle?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Does God have free will?

Sometimes I listen to James White's webcast, "The Dividing Line." Several times, I have heard him say the same thing. He'll say that he believes in free will, but that God is the only one who has it. I guess I need to call his show sometime and ask him what he means by "free will."

There are a lot of different definitions out there, and I sometimes think we could settle our differences if we could just define our terms clearly. Let me show you what I mean.

Martin Luther wrote this book called The Bondage of the Will in response to Erasmus who had written something about free will. Luther's whole point was that the will is in bondage to sin. He uses the Bible to prove his point. If the bondage of the will to sin is the opposite of having free will, then what does free will mean to Luther? Well, to Luther, free will would have to mean freedom from our bondage to sin. If we had free will, that would mean that we could live and move about free from any irresistable compulsion to commit sins.

If we go with Luther's definition of "free will," then God does have free will. But God isn't the only one who has it. Everybody who has died and gone to be with God also has free will since, as Paul says, "he who has died is freed from sin" (Romans 6:7). I suspect that many of the angels also have free will according to this definition.

But that isn't what most people mean by "free will," and I don't think it's what Erasmus meant. Unfortunately, most people are unclear about what they mean by "free will." If asked, most of them would say simply, "The ability to choose." That's an inadequate definition, because the act of willing is the same thing as the act of choosing, whether the will is free or bound. The will is the faculty of choice, whether the will is free or not.

In philosophy, there are two kinds of free will. There's libertarian free will, and there's compatibalist free will. I'm convinced that only philosophers hold to libertarian free will, because when pressed, people who claim to believe in free will inevitably back away from the libertarian definition.

Libertarian freedom means that there are no antecedent causes or conditions which determine the acts of the will. When the will acts freely, it acts independently from any antecedent conditions. That means no desire, motivation, inclination or anything compells the will to act. Now granted these things can have an influence on the will, but they don't determine the will.

Some people seem to have this understanding of free will. I often hear people say that free will is destroyed by the threat of hell. If we are being threatened with something so gastly as hell, then our decision to accept Christ was not a free will decision. The reason is because the threat of hell creates a motive in us so strong that the will is unable to resist it. The motive determines the act of the will.

I'm resisting the urge to give a refutation of libertarian freedom. Oh, it's so hard! Just go read Jonathan Edward's book on The Freedom of the Will.

Anyway, if God has libertarian freedom, then it is just as easy for God to do evil as it is for God to do good. But in Titus 1:2, Paul tells us that God cannot lie. What does he mean by "cannot"? Does he just mean does not, or does he really mean cannot? He also says that God cannot deny himself (2 Timothy 2:13). There is nothing physically or logically impossible about saying something that isn't true. If God cannot lie, then God does not have libertarian free will.

Here's another argument. If God could do evil, then God is not necessarily good. God only happens to be good. If God is necessarily good, then God cannot have libertarian freedom.

And I think it's quite plain that God is necessarily good. If God is the standard of goodness, then he can't be anything but good. I remember in grade school reading about how there was some king who wanted to have a standard of measurement. To decide a standard length for a foot, they measured the king's foot. Now how long do you think the king's foot was? Well, it was exactly one foot, because it was the standard by which everything else was then measured.

Compatibalist freedom is the view that we excercise the greatest freedom when we act out of full intention. In other words, we act freely when we do what we want or what we are motivated to do. Now, of course, we often have conflicting desires, but the strongest desire always wins out. Compatibalism is sometimes called soft determinism, because compatibalists believe the acts of the will are determined by the strongest motivation.

This is the view I hold. Any act that is not based on some intention is an unintentional act. It's just an accident. It's a spontaneous knee jerk reaction we have no control over. I think any act that can rightly be called a "choice" must be based on some inclination, desire, or motive. I think this is the common sense understanding of "freedom," and I think it's what most people mean by "free will" when they aren't trying to be philosophical about it.

By the compatibalist definition of free will, everybody has free will. Some people have less of it than others, of course. People with nervous ticks, muscle spasms, etc., don't excercise free will when having spasms or ticks, but every intentional act is a free will act. God acts out of perfect freedom when he does good, because it's his nature to always do good. We act out of perfect freedom when we sin, because it's in our nature to sin.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Hot chocolate

Lemme ask you a question. Let's say you really like hot chocolate. It makes you feel all warm inside quite unlike anything else can do. And let's suppose there's this little shop where you go to get hot chocolate whenever you can. But every time you go in there, something bad happens. One day, you'll go in there and burn your tongue. Another day, you'll spill it on yourself and burn your leg or stain your clothes. Another day, you'll burn your hand on a cup. Each time you go in there, you make up your mind to be extra careful this time, but no matter how careful you are, something bad still happens.

Wouldn't you eventually wise up? Wouldn't you eventually come to realize that the next time you go in there, the same thing is going to happen? Wouldn't you stop going in there just to prevent it?

And it doesn't matter whose fault it is either. Whether it's your fault for being clumsy, the hot chocolate's fault for being hot, or somebody else's fault for whatever reason, you still get burned every single time. It seems to me, you ought to stop going in there. It's not worth it.

Friday, January 13, 2006

An annoying contradiction

This is my last semester of school. Please pray that I don't get sick, miss a test, and don't graduate.

Anyway, I went to my English class yesterday morning for the first time. I can tell already that I'm not going to like this class. It turns out that the whole class is about interpreting hopelessly ambiguous literature. We read a really short story by Hemmingway. It was something about white elephant hills, I believe. I find this sort of thing annoying.

Here's why I find it annoying. Usually in this kind of literature, there's a point. There's a message the author wants to get across. Whether fiction, poetry, or philosophy, these people have a point of view they hope to communicate to their readers. It isn't just meaningless entertainment.

But the grand contradiction is that these people intentionally write ambiguously. They conceal their point of view, obscure their message, and leave as much room for speculation and misinterpretation as possible. What sense does that make? I remember complaining to a friend once that Nietzsche was like that, and he defended Nietzsche by saying something like, "Oh, you just have to appreciate aesthetic writing." Well I don't understand aesthetic writing. That's one of the things that annoys me about postmodern philosophers, too. They are intentionally ambiguous. What's the purpose of writing philosophy unless you intend to convey a point of view to your audience?

It seems to me that if you have a point of view you want to get across, you should articulate it as clearly as possible to give it the greatest chance of being understood. I don't understand why people write literature with a message they obscure intentionally. And my English teacher said one of the goals of the class is to teach us to communicate clearly. Isn't that ironic? She's going to teach us to communicate clearly by having us read literature that is intentionally unclear!