Thursday, January 08, 2015

Do we have a priori knowledge?

By the law excluded middle, an item of knowledge is either inferred from prior items of knowledge or it is not inferred from prior items of knowledge.  Items of knowledge that are inferred are called a posteriori, and items of knowledge that are not inferred are called a priori.  The only way to escape this dichotomy is to deny that there's any such thing as knowledge at all.

The denial of a priori knowledge leads to absurdity.  If you deny that it's possible to know something without inferring it from something else, then you would have to say that for everything you know, there is a prior item of knowledge from which you inferred it.

For example, let's say you know that Socrates is mortal.  Perhaps you inferred that item of knowledge from these two items of knowledge:

1.  All men are mortal.
2.  Socrates is a man.

But if each item of knowledge you possess must be inferred from something prior, then there must be further items of knowledge from which you infer 1 and 2.  Otherwise, you couldn't know that Socrates is mortal.  And then there must be further items of knowledge from which you infer those as well.

If you continue to think this through, you'll quickly see that it leads to an infinite regress.  If all of our items of knowledge must be inferred from prior items of knowledge, then the only way it's possible to know anything is if there is a beginningless line of reasoning from prior premises that leads up to your present state of knowledge.

But that is impossible for three reasons.  First, none of us know an infinite number of things.  Second, because nobody has been around long enough to make an infinite number of inferences.  Third, because if there were no beginning, there would be no way to even get started making inferences.  You couldn't very well start at the beginning because there's no beginning to get started from!

So it is impossible that all of our knowledge is a posteriori.  If we know anything at all, then at least some of our knowledge must be a priori.  That means that unless there are some things we know immediately without inferring them from anything else, then knowledge is impossible.

Some people may be willing to bite the bullet and say, "Well, okay, then nobody really knows anything at all, including me."  This view is called global skepticism.  It is a self-refuting point of view for a couple of reasons.

First, it's self-refuting because if nobody knows anything, then we wouldn't know it.  A person who claims not to know anything is stating something he doesn't know to be true.

Second, it's self-refuting because if nobody knows anything, then nobody knows that any of the premises that lead to the conclusion are true, nor that the conclusion follows from those premises.

Besides that, there are plenty of things we obviously know.  We each know that we exist.  We know that two contradictory statements can't both be true at the same time and in the same sense.  I know that I have a sister named Jennifer and a brother named James.  There are all kinds of things we know.  So there must be a priori knowledge.

Is it a sin to be gay?

A lot of Christians make a distinction between having same sex attractions and acting on them.  They will say that it is a sin to have a gay relationship, but it is not a sin to simply be gay.  Some of them say that a gay person who wants to be a Christian has two moral options--they can either stay celibate, or they can go through one of those sexual orientation change programs.  Either way, they can consistently be Christians.

I'm not so sure, though.  On the one hand, it does seem to me that God judges not only our actions, but the thoughts, intentions, and motives behind our actions as well.  In Genesis 6:5, it says that "every intent of the thoughts of [man's] heart was only evil continually."  In Jeremiah 4:14, it says, "Wash your heart from evil, O Jerusalem, that you may be saved.  How long will your wicked thoughts lodge within you?"  So apparently, there is such a thing as a moral thought crime.  Intentions and thoughts can be wicked and evil, not just actions.  Proverbs 24:9 says that even "the devising of folly is sin," not just the doing of folly.  It is a sin to covet (Exodus 20:17) and to lust (Matthew 5:28), both of which are thought crimes.  And there are many passages that say God looks not only at our actions, but at our hearts (e.g. 1 Samuel 16:17, Jeremiah 11:20, 1 Chronicles 28:9,  Proverbs 17:3, 21:2, Luke 16:15, etc.).  Jesus said that our good or evil deeds come from good or evil treasure stored in our hearts (Luke 6:43-45).  So it would seem if homosexual acts are sinful, then the thoughts, motives, and desires behind them are sinful as well.

But on the other hand, Hebrews 4:15 says that Jesus "has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin."  If one can be tempted to sin without committing any sin, that would seem to suggest that it is not a sin to have a desire you don't give into even if the desire is for something that would be sinful if you gave into it.  In that case, one could desire to have sex with one's neighbor's wife and not be guilty of any sin, and one could desire to have a relationship with somebody of the same sex and not be guilty of any sin as long as one didn't act on the desire.

On the third hand, there are two senses in which one might be tempted.  Maybe what Hebrews 4:15 means is that attempts were made to persuade Jesus to sin, not that Jesus actually felt any compulsion or inclination to sin.  Maybe Jesus didn't feel at all tempted by the opportunities given to him.

Of course some people might object that since they can't change their desires, they can't be held accountable for them.  But isn't the whole point of the gospel that we are dead in sins, unable to repent, and that it is only by the grace of God that we can be saved?  The New Testament seems to presuppose that we are all doomed because of the sinful state we are in that we cannot change.  It's only by the drawing of the Father that we can come to Christ (John 6:44).  It is only by God taking our our hearts of stones and giving us hearts of flesh that we are able to obey his commands (Ezekiel 36:26-27).  Otherwise, we are guilty of sin even though we can't do otherwise.  We are completely helpless and at the mercy of God.  That's why God gets all the glory in our salvation (Ephesians 1:5-6, 12, 14).  That's why there is no room for boasting on our parts (Romans 3:21-28, 1 Corinthians 1:29-30).

They have these programs that are supposed to help you change your sexual orientation, and apparently there are a lot of people who claim they are no longer gay.  I am skeptical of the claim that people can change their orientation through any kind of therapy, though.  I suspect these claims of changed orientation are due either to some people actually being bi-sexual and sometimes having a preference for one gender while at other times having a preference for the other gender, kind of like how sometimes you'd rather have pizza, and sometimes you'd rather have a hamburger, or the claims of changed orientation may be due to people kidding themselves and living in denial.  That wouldn't surprise me because of the tremendous pressure these people are under to be straight.  In Pentecostal churches where people believe that if you don't speak in tongues, then you don't have the Holy Spirit in you, it seems that almost everybody speaks in tongues, when the rest of us know it's all fake.  They're just behaving according to what they think is expected of them.  I've actually read testimonies from people who claimed to have changed their orientation, and even gotten married to an opposite sex person, and they will sometimes admit that the gay feelings are still there sometimes.  Well, if that's the case, then their orientation hasn't actually change!  After all, what is being gay except a desire for the same sex?  I suspect these people are just bi-sexual or in serious denial.

Even if we grant all the claimed success stories, they still describe the minority of gay people.  Most people seem incapable of changing their sexual orientation even though a lot of them would like to.  Wouldn't it be better for gay people to just admit that they are dead in sin just like everybody else and throw themselves at the mercy of God?  Not one of us can get rid of all of our sinful desires, so why kid ourselves?  We can try, but we can't stop having sinful desires.  Our only hope is the grace of God through faith in Christ.  We're all in the same boat.  It's just that our vices differ from person to person.

If we are going to have programs that are supposed to change people's sexual orientation, then why not also have equally rigorous programs that change people's other sinful desires?  Do you ever hear of people going through programs and saying, "I've been cured of lust!" or "I've been cured of greed!"?  No, our sinful desires never go away.  We overcome them because God gives us a greater desire to do what is right so that we no longer give in to them, even though we still fail from time to time.  Even if we could refrain from behaving sinfully all the time, we'd still be at the mercy of God for the sinful motives, thoughts, and desires we have.  And thank goodness for a perfect savior who bore our sins on the cross and saved us completely!