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!

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

A facinating contradiction

How many of us have had moments where we wish we could have a burning bush experience with God? A lot of people like to do questionnaires, and a question that often pops up on them is something like, "If you could ask God anything..." Many of us would like very much to get some kind of direct communication from God. That desire drives all kinds of books, studies, and seminars about how to hear the voice of God. Wouldn't that be nice? If God had something to say, wouldn't we really want to know what it is?

But I have noticed a facinating contradiction. Most people are Biblically illiterate. Think about that for a second. The churches are full of people who seem totally convinced that the Bible is the word of God. It is God-breathed. They go to church and hold on to their Bibles and praise the Lord and everything. And these people yearn to hear directly from God. Yet they don't read the Bible, much less do they study it. What is the explanation?

If we really believe the Bible is God-breathed, how can we resist wanting to know what it says? Shouldn't that drive us to read it? And not only to read it, but shouldn't it drive us to try with everything we have to study it so that we can understand it?

And that's another thing. Most people in America have at least a high school education. A big chunk of us have college educations. That means we had to study, we had to write papers, and we had to exert a great deal of mental energy to learn things like algebra, history, chemistry, etc. We go through that because we think it's important. But few of us ever exert half that much energy in studying the Bible. Sunday schools rarely go beyond a 3rd grade level even in adult classes. I don't think I've ever been in a Sunday school class where the teacher required the class to read a chapter in the Bible and be prepared to discuss it the next week. In fact, people seem to have an aversion to any kind of requirements at all. Oh, there are a few who'll get together in a special small group to do some deeper study on hearing the voice of God or something, and they'll covenant to do their little readings. But they never study the Bible with any intensity.

A close friend of mine recently told me how she thought very highly of her pastor. She said she always feels blessed when she attends church. I don't remember her exact words. But this person has never read the Bible. A pastor's job isn't to make us feel good. It's to encourage us in the faith, to build us up in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. I know people who have gone to her church for years and remain Biblically illiterate. How effective could that pastor be if he is totally unable to motivate anybody to grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ?

Jonathan Edwards did not make people feel good. He certainly didn't make people feel good with "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Rather, he made them feel conviction. Conviction can be quite uncomfortable, but it is exactly what people need to feel, because conviction leads to repentence and salvation. Jonathan Edwards was quite effective in motivating people to live holier lives and to take their faith seriously. I just don't see a lot of that these days.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Plantinga's ontological argument, part 2

Now I need to give you a couple of definitions. Plantinga uses these two definitions:

Maximal excellence: Having omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection.
Maximal greatness: Having maximal excellence in all possible worlds.

I think we can formulate his argument without using "maximal excellence." I'll just plug in the definition in its place, and I think that makes it more clear.

1. There is a possible world in which maximal greatness is instantiated.
2. Maximal greatness consists in having omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection in all possible worlds.
3. Therefore, a being with omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection exists in all possible worlds.

4. If something exists in all possible worlds, then it also exists in the actual world.
5. A being with omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection exists in all possible worlds. (from 3)
6. Therefore, a being with omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection exists in the actual world.

Now lemme try to explain the concept. Let's represent all possible worlds with just five possible worlds. Now granted, there's more possible worlds than you can imagine, but let's just say there's five for the sake of illustration. Whether we are atheist or theist, we must grant that it's at least possible in the broadly logical sense for a being to exist who is all powerful, all knowing, and morally perfect. Some people may object that such a being can exist in the actual world because it contradicts the existence of evil or is otherwise incoherent, but surely they'd at least grant that in some possible world, such a being could exist. So there is at least one possible world in which omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection are instantiated. Maybe there are two. Who knows? If so, then maximal excellence is instantiated in at least one possible world. That is, it's at least possible that an all knowing, all powerful, and morally perfect being could exists under some possible state of affairs.

A being is maximally great if it has maximal excellence in all possible worlds, and not just one or two. Now imagine those five possible worlds. Let's say that in one of those possible worlds, there is a being who is maximally great. All we're saying is that it's possible under some possible state of affairs that such a being could exist. Now think about this for a second. If there is at least one possible world in which maximal greatness is instantiated, and maximal greatness consists of having maximal excellence in all possible worlds, then maximal excellence must be instantiated in all possible worlds. That means it's impossible for a maximally excellent being not to exist. Some being who is maximally excellent exists necessarily. And since it is maximally excellent in all possible worlds, it is also maximally great in all possible worlds.

Plantinga's argument isn't without its shortcomings, though. The major shortcoming is the whole premise that there is a maximally great being in some possible worlds. One could completely turn Plantinga's argument on its head by beginning with a different premise. Suppose we say there is one possible world in which maximal excellence is not instantiated. That seems at least possible, doesn't it? There's nothing logically incoherent about it that jumps out at us anymore than there's anything logically incoherent about a maximally great being that we can immediately see. But if there is at least one possible world in which maximal exellence is not instantiated, then it's impossible for maximal greatness to be instantiated in any possible world. There may be maximal excellence in some other possible world, but there can't be maximal greatness in any possible world.

This is really the interesting thing about Plantinga's argument to me. On the face of it, there doesn't seem to be anything incoherent about the existence of a maximally great being, but there also doesn't seem to be anything incoherent about the nonexistence of a maximally great being. Yet, a maximally great being is either necessary or it is impossible. There's no middle of the road. If a maximally great being is possible (if it exists in at least one possible world), then it is necessary, because it would exist in all possible worlds. But if it is possible that a maximally excellent being does not exist (if there is at least one possible world in which maximal excellence is not instantiated), then it's impossible for there to be a maximally great being. There may still be a maximally excellent being, but not a maximally great being.

So far, I haven't found one ontological argument that's convincing to me, but Plantinga's is the best I've found so far.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Plantinga's ontological argument, part 1

Before explaining this argument, lemme explain possible world semantics first. Possible world semantics is just a tool for talking about and thinking about possibility and necessity. Possibility and necessity are taken in the broadly logical sense. That means when we say, "X is necessary," that means it's impossible for X to be otherwise. If we say, "X is possible," that means there is nothing logically impossible about X.

For example, married bachelors are impossible because it entails a contradiction. On the other hand, it's possible that the Battle of Little Bighorn never happened. Now it isn't actual that it never happened. It's just that it could have been otherwise. There's nothing logically incoherent about it not happening.

Instead of talking about necessity and possibility, we can talk about possible worlds. A world is a maximal state of affairs. Take the actual world for example. The actual world is the sum total of reality. If you took every true proposition about reality, they would describe the actual world. Let's say we hypothetically change one thing. Instead of wearing a white shirt today, I might have worn a blue shirt. Instead of saying, "It's possible that I could've worn a blue shirt," we can say, "There is a possible world in which I'm wearing a blue shirt." For every little possibility that exists, there exists a possible world in which that thing is true. So possible world semantics is just semantics. It's just a way of talking about possibility.

As you can imagine, there's practically an endless number of possible worlds. For everything that might be or could have been, there's a corresponding possible world.

If there is some proposition that isn't true in any possible world, then that means it's impossible for it to be true. For example, "There's a married bachelor walking down the street," isn't true in any possible world since it's logically impossible for there to be any married bachelors.

If something is true in all possible worlds, then that means it's necessary. It's impossible for it not to be true. All tautologies, for exampmle, are necessary. "Circles are round," is true in all possible worlds. (Equivocation isn't allowed, so you can't just start redefining words.) The laws of logic are also true in all possible worlds. "Truth exists" is true in all possible worlds, because the denial of it is logically impossible since it's self-refuting.

If something is true in some possible worlds but not others, that means it's possible. A think needs to be true in at least one possible world in order to be possible.

Let that soak in for a minute and I'll explain Plantinga's argument later. If what I said isn't clear, then just search for "possible world semantics" on the internet and read up on it.

See Part 2.