Sunday, February 14, 2021

Is there a legal ought?

I was thinking about oughts this morning. In the past, I have said that there are three kinds of oughts--the rational ought, the pragmatic ought, and the moral ought. The moral ought comes from the fact that we have moral obligations. Moral obligations are kinds of imperatives. They prescribe behavior.

So, I was thinking this morning about how in any authoritative heirarchy, there are prescriptions for behavior involved. The biggest one is legal prescriptions. So, should we consider a legal requirement to be a legal ought? Is this a fourth kind of "ought"?

Or should the ought in this case be lumped in with the moral ought? After all, in the Christian point of view, we have a moral obligation to obey the civil law. "Obey the law" is a moral ought.

Or does it really matter? Is it all just semantics?

Friday, February 12, 2021

Hilbert's Hotel and girlfriend/boyfriend pairs

Here's something I was thinking about while I was in a conversation about Hilbert's Hotel. In Bill Craig's book, Time and Eternity, he makes this point:

"Now infinite set theory is strictly logically consistent, granted its axioms and rules, but that does nothing to prove that such a system can exist in the real world. This fact is especially evident when it comes to mathematical operations such as subtraction and division, which transfinite arithmetic must prohibit in order to maintain logical consistency. While we can slap the hand of the mathematician who attempts such operations with infinite numbers, we cannot in reality prevent people from checking out of Hilbert's Hotel with all the attendent absurdities." p. 224

Let me explain one of those absurdities. Imagine in one scenario the hotel is full, and all the guests in the odd numbered rooms check out. You'd still be left with an infinite number of guests in the hotel. But now imagine that instead, all the guests in the rooms number 4, 5, 6, . . . check out. Now, you're left with three guests. In both cases, an infinite set of guests checked out, but in one case you're left with an infinite set of guests, and in the other, you're left with three guests. So, infinity minus infinity can leave you with infinity, or infinity minus infinity can leave you with three. It appears to matters which infinite set of guests checks out. Or so you'd think.

Remember the nature of countable infinities. They are all the same size. The set of all odd numbers can be put into one to one correspondence with the set of all even and odd numbers together.

So let's imagine this scenario.

Monday: Hilberts Hotel is full.

Tuesday morning: Everybody in rooms 4 and up check out. So an infinite set of peopel check out leaving three guests.

Tuesday evening: All the even numbered room from 4 up get filled, leaving all the odd numbered rooms from 5 up empty.

Wednesday morning: Everybody renews for another night.

Wednesday evening: All the people who checked out on Tuesday morning check back into the odd numbered rooms from 5 up.

Thursday morning: All the people who checked in Wednesday evening check back out, leaving rooms 1-3, and all the even numbers from 4 up occupied.

Here's the absurdity. The exact same people who checked out of a fully occupied hotel on Tuesday morning checked out of a fully occupied hotel on Thursday morning. Yet when they checked out on Tuesday, it left the hotel with only three guests, and when they checked out on Thursday, it left the hotel with an infinite set of guests.

So apparently it does not depend on which group of people checked out since it was the same group both times. What matters is which rooms they checked out of. But why should that matter?

Here's another scenario I came up with. Imagine you've got an infinite set of men and an infinite set of women, and that you pair them up in a one to one correspondence so that each couple forms a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. Now, imagine that every other woman dies, leaving every other man single. You've still got an infinite set of couples with an infinite set of men and women. But now you've also got an infinite set of single men.

These men don't have to be alone, though. All you have to do is have all the surviving women break up with their current boyfriends. Since there are an infinite set of women, you can then put them into one to one correspondence with all the men, and now there can be one woman for every man and one man for every woman. Nobody has to be single.

The odd thing about this scenario is the fact that all that happened was that each woman broke up with one man and started going out with a different man. No woman had to go out with two men. She just had to change partners. But what difference does it make whether Lisa is dating Jack or Ned? Apparently, it makes all the differnce in the world if we're dealing with infinite sets. I don't know about you, but that strikes me as being straight up kooky dukes.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Two objections to fine tuning that seem to be at odds with each other

I was just thinking about fine-tuning, and it occured to me that there are two common objections to fine-tuning that seem to be in conflict. Maybe they're not. It just now occurred to me, so this post is off the cuff.

The first objection is that if the universe were fine-tuned for life, we should expect to see more of it in the universe. But the reality of the matter is that the vast majority of the universe is hostile to life.

The second objection is that the universe is only fined-tuned for life as we know it. There may be other kinds of life we haven't thought of, like silicon based life instead of carbon based life.

If the second objection is sound, it would lead you to believe that there are a wide range of conditions under which there could be life. But the first objection tells you that there isn't. So they can't both be sound objections.

Saturday, February 06, 2021

My opinion on two controversies within Christianity

There are two controversies I've been mulling over for a long time now, and I thought I'd stick my neck out and express an opinion. I could be persuaded otherwise, so feel free to weigh in in the comment section.

The two issues are evolution and the Licona/McGrew disagreement on the genre of the gospels and harmonization vs. literary devices.


A little autobiography first

First, let me talk about evolution. I grew up believing in evolution. It's what I was taught in school, and nobody (including my dad and my grandmother who raised me) ever told me any different. I read Genesis at an early age and believed for a time that the earth was young and that God created Adam and Eve directly. When I got into middle school and learned about evolution, I remember goign home and writing a fictional story that attempted to reconcile the two views. In my story, Adam and Eve were part of a tribe of humans, but at some point, God made first contact with humankind through Adam and Eve. He separated them from the rest of humanity. I don't remember if I had the rest of humanity die off or what because I never finished the story.

I assumed evolution was true right up until my late 20's or early 30's. I was never even exposed to an alternative view until I got interested in apologetics. There were a handful of Christian apologists I followed who subscribed to intelligent design and seemed to deny evolution. Greg Koukl was one of them. I remember it made me very uncomfortable because I respected these people, but I thought their rejection of evolution was kooky. It was a bit of a scandal in my mind.

The first thing I actually read on intelligent design was Lee Strobel's book, The Case For A Creator. I didn't know what to think at the time. When I was in high school, I took physical science in the 9th grade, which was a precursor to chemistry and physics. Then in the 10th grade, I took geology and astronomy (one semester each). I took Chemistry I in the 11th grade and physics in the 12th grade. So I had no education in biology other than the 7th grade. So I didn't really have the background education to be able to tell whether the arguments for intelligent design were good arguments or not. They seemed reasonable, but that's about it.

In my internet discussions, I noticed quickly that just about everybody who was critical of intelligent design (which was practially everybody) didn't bother to understand it. I was constantly correcting misconceptions, even though I wasn't completely sold on ID myself.

For a while, I put the whole thing on the back burner because the amount of reading I'd have to do to bring myself up to speed on biology so that I could have an informed opinion was overwhelming. But eventually, I decided to give it a go. The first book I read was Vital Dust by Christian DeDuve, which was a mistake. That book was way over my head, and it left me discouraged, and I quit again.

But I did continue to be exposed to ID because of the circles I was running around in and the people I read. As my understanding of ID developed, I began to get the impression that ID was not necessarliy inconsistent with evolution. ID wasn't a very specific point of view. It only said that all the life we see around us couldn't have come to be completely on its own. An intelligent designer had to have been involved. But that is extremely vague since it doesn't postulate any sort of mechanism for how biological diversity came about. It was consistent both with theistic evolution and with special creation.

At some point, I decided to take another crack at tackling the subject. A friend let me borrow a copy of National Geographic that had a long article arguing for evolution. I figured it would be a good thing for me to read since it was aimed at a popular audience. I thought I would read it with an open mind, and try to do so carefully, and to blog on it with my impressions. Some of you reading this may recall those blog entries. After posting them, somebody came along and criticized some of the stuff I said, and it embarrassed me because it exposed just how little I knew and understood. So I deleted those posts.

The first thing I read that really got through to me and made me feel like I was starting to understand things was Signature In the Cell by Stephen Meyer. Since then I've read a lot of other stuff, and I've watched a bunch of YouTube videos on genetics and evolution and related things, and I think I have a much better understanding of biology than I had before. Just ten or fifteen years ago, I couldn't even explain how DNA and chromosomes were related. I remember being confused about that.

I'll leave it there as far as autobiography is concerned and just tell you what my position is and why I hold it. I believe in evolution. I believe in common descent and that probably all life on earth is related.

Why I believe in evolution

One of the strongest arguments against this view I've heard is the mathemetical improbability of getting a functional protein through purely natural processes. Paul Scott Pruett, who has the Pensees blog I have linked to on the right over there, made a post about it one time. But I also saw a video on YouTube that included Richard Dawkins in conversation with some other people about the mathematical obstacles to evolution, so it wasn't something cooked up by Christian apologists. It was a real problem.

The math is hard to dispute, but I do have serious reservations about the reasoning. In the reasoning, we try to calculate the probability of getting just one functional protein given a generous set of probablistic resources. It turns out to be highly improbable even given billions of years and trillions and trillions of chances. There are a handful of objections one might raise, but the biggest one in mind is the fact that any protein can be functional provided it's in an environment where it has a job to do. By specifying a specific protein, the argument makes it seem more improbable than it really is. Of course any specific protein is goiing to be wildly improbable, but the probablity that a bunch of random proteins would emerge in which they interact with each other in particular ways isn't nearly as improbable.

But life may still be extremely rare in the universe. That is what I suspect. It's how I answer the Fermi Paradox.

Whether we could have gotten a wide variety of life on earth without God intervening at various points to insert new genetic information or something like that, I don't know. I suspect it could have. But whether we would've gotten the particular life we have now, especially human life, without divine intervention, I seriously doubt. But it isn't for scientific reasons that I doubt it. It's for theological reasons. I think God had a sovereign plan, and I think humans are created in the image of God. So God must've had a purpose in things turning out the specific way that they did, and he must've intervened in some way to bring it about. This could've been anything as subtle as tweaking the environment in such a way that natural selection would make the selections that God wanted it to make. I don't know.

The argument in Signature In the Cell is that the only source of information we know of is intelligent minds, and since DNA contains a great deal of information, the most reasonable conclusion is that the source of the information in DNA is an intelligent mind. I think that's a reasonable argument, but it's also a little question-begging. If the issue under dispute is whether nature alone could've produced information in DNA, then to merely assert that information only comes from intelligent minds is to beg the question.

I just realized I accused Meyers of circular reasoning while saying his conclusion is reasonable. I don't mean to say circular reasoning is reasonable. Let me explain. What I mean is that it's reasonable to think a particular instance of information originated with a mind if minds are the only thing you know of capable of producing information. But if you are disputing with somebody over whether or not nature is capable of producing information, then to merely assert that minds are the only things that can produce information is to beg the question. I hope that's clear.

Anywho, while a lot of information can be cited in defense of evolution, let me explain briefly what most convinces me of common descent (and therefore, evolution). This is a little difficult to explain, so bear with me. All humans have the same set of genes. These genes code for proteins. Proteins are composed of strings of different kinds of amino acids in specific sequences. Those specific sequences cause the proteins to fold into specific shapes capable of performing specific jobs. So if you change the order of the amino acids or have longer or shorter strands, then you get a different shape. To use an analogy, you might get a nut, or a bolt, or a bracket, or a spring.

But within those strands of amino acids, it is possible to have slight variations. Some amino acids can be replaced by other amino acids without affecting the shape or function the protein at all. Others cause minor differences. That's why you have short people, tall people, white people, black people, and all kinds of variation between members of our species.

Given these differences, it's possible to look at the same genes in different people, and determine how they are related to each other. It works just like textual criticism. You can break texts up into families and groups (e.g. the Bysantine Text type and the Alexandrian text type) based on their similarites and differences. You could, conceivably, create a family tree just by looking at variations between people's genes.

Well, it turns out that we share a lot of our genes (and proteins) with other species. And just as you can apply textual criticism to arrange individual humans in a family tree, so also can you apply textual criticism to arrange members of different species into a family tree. I explained this in a bit more detail when I reviewed The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins. To me, this is compelling evidence for common descent, and therefore for evolution.

My position can probably best be described as theistic evolution. I think evolution happened, but I also think God was involved somehow. I don't make any claims about how God was involved except for speculations.

The subject of the origin of life is distinct from evolution. We know more about evolution than we do about the origin of life. The difficulty scientists have had in coming up with a chemical pathway from simple organic compounds to single celled organisms leads me to believe that whatever happened, it must've been a rare and improbable sort of thing. It's hard to say how improbable, but I suspect it was so extremely improbable the life is rare in the universe. I subscribe to what some people call the "rare earth hypothesis," which is an answer to the Fermi Paradox. It may be that the origin of life was so improbable that we are the only example of life in the universe. It could still have happened by chance, but it would seem more likely that it happened by design. I think God did create life on earth. Whether it could have happened on its own, I don't know. It is primarily for theological reasons, not scientific reasons, that I think it happened by the hand of God. But the scientific and mathematical reasons add some weight to it.


I won't go into as much detail here. I'll just say that I mostly side with Licona. Licona argues that the gospels fall under the genre of ancient biography. Prior to the 1970's, there was a lot of disagreement and speculation over the genre of the gospels. But then Richard Burridge published a book called What Are the Gospels?, and this seems to have changed everything. Now, most scholars have come around to believing the gospels are ancient (or Greco-Roman) biographies. And that is the view I now hold, too.

Licona thinks it is a mistake to try to harmonize the gospels because the differences in the gospels are better attributed to the authors using the conventions of ancient biographies. I think there are undoubtedly differences in the gospels, and that these differences can be attributed to certain techniques, like simplifying stories or spotlighting and things like that. We actually do those sorts of things in our daily lives. For example, when you play phone tag with somebody before finally getting in touch with them, and you talk about it later on, you don't go into the details of how you called them, and they called you, etc. You might on one occasion say, "I called Jim and told him. . .," and you might on another occasion say, "Jim called me, and I told him. . ." When Jesus healed Jairus' daughter, either Jairus came to Jesus himself, or he did not. So if you take the gospels at face value, there's a contradiction. But this is clearly just an example of simplifying a story.

Lydia McGrew critizes Licona on the basis that she thinks all these differences can be harmonized. You don't need to resort to "literary device" when a harmonization is easy to come by. I think Lydia makes some good points in her critism of Licona. In general, harmonization is also something we do in our day to day lives. If you're reading something, and a person seems to contradict themselves, the automatic reaction is to assume you have some misunderstanding, and you attempt to make sense of both statements by harmonizing them. And there are situations in the gospels in which it seems like a difference is better harmonized than chalked up to literary device.

So I agree and disagree with both of them. I think Licona is right that the gospels are ancient biographies, and that the authors used literary devices that account for a lot of the differences. But I agree with McGrew that Licona sometimes misidentifies differences as being the result of literary devices when they should be harmonized instead. I think Lydia goes to far in arguing as if every difference can be harmonized and none of the difference are the result of literary devices.

Ironically, I don't think McGrew is an innerrantist, but Licona is. Licona has gotten a lot of criticism on the basis that his views undermine inerrancy. I think these criticism are ill-conceived, but understandable. I consider myself an inerrantist, but you have to understand inerrancy in light of genre. For example, I don't think Job is an historical account. I think it's fiction. Or more precisely, it's wisdom literature. But identifying the genre as fiction or wisdom literature is not the same thing as saying it contains mistakes. It's only a mistake if it intends to record history but fails to do so. You have to apply inerrancy in light of genre. If the gospels are ancient biographies, and if it is part of the convention of ancient biography to use literary devices, then the presence of literary devices should not undermine inerrancy.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

The difficulties of believing in hell

I think part of the difficulty some people have about hell is that they imagine it in the Bugs Bunny or Dante's Inferno sense--a literal fiery pit in which you are burned alive but never die. You're just tortured for eternity.

I don't believe that's true. In 1 Peter, he is trying to comfort Christians who are suffering persecution, and he refers to their persecution as a "fiery ordeal," (1 Peter 4:12) but he isn't talking about them literally being in flames. Fire is just a metaphor for suffering.

Likewise, Jesus uses the word, "Gehenna," which was a literal place on the outskirts of Jerusalem where people burned their trash. So he was clearly just creating a word picture.

Fire also shows up in the book of Revelation as the "lake of fire," but Revelation is apocalyptic literature which uses a lot of imagery and symbols, not literal descriptions of things.

So I think all "hell" means is God's judgment.

Judgment is justified because of sin. When you do wrong, you deserve to be punished. There's no injustice in this. Parents punish their children when they do wrong. The government punishes criminals when they break the law. So God has the right to punish people who sin.

Part of the problem seems to be the mistaken notion that God is only punishming people for their failure to believe something they had no reason to believe in the first place. But that isn't the case. Belief in Jesus is what saves us from God's judgment. So if you don't believe, then you are judged for your sins, not for your lack of belief. Jesus put it like this, "Unless you believe that I am he, you will die in your sins" (John 8:24).

The final problem with hell is just that it's permanent. It doesn't seem like there's anything we could possibly do in a short lifespan that would justify eternal punishment. I admit that this is a difficulty for me. I am not totally comfortable with it. It bothers me.

There are a few things that ameliorate my discomfort, though. One of them is the fact that the duration of our sin has nothing to do with the duration of the punishment we deserve. Burglarizing a house may take ten minutes, but murdering somebody could happen in a couple of seconds. But that doesn't mean burglars should get longer sentences than murderers.

Second, we may not fully grasp the holiness of God in this mortal life. Because of that, we may not fully grasp the severity of our sins. We object to hell because of our lack of perspective in God's holiness and our sinfulness. It may be that when we see "face to face" as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 13:12, we will gain a perspective that allows eternal punishment to make more sense to us.

Third, although the length of the punishment may be the same for everybody, the severity of the punishment is not the same for everybody. And this is evident in a number of passages in the New Testament (e.g. Luke 12:47-48, Matthew 11:22). The punishment will fit the crime.

Fourth, it's possible that those who are exiled in eternal punishment will never stop sinning, so they will always accumulate a longer sentence.

One last thing I want to say. A lot of people believe in annihilationism, which is the idea that at some point, those who do not receive eternal life will cease to exist. I think this is possible, but I don't actually think it's true. I wish it were true because it would be preferable to eternal punishment, but I just haven't been persuaded. But it's at least a possibility.

Monday, February 01, 2021

Dealing with moral ambiguity as a Christian

Moral decision making is sometimes difficult because there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, and we have to go to the trouble of figuring out what they are, which isn't always easy. Given the difficulty of moral decision making, it's inevitable that we are all going to make mistakes sometimes.

I was thinking about this just now because of an exchange I had with Paul in the comment section of my Divorce and Remarriage post. I made the comment that I thought people were justified in getting a divorce in cases of abuse. But then I got to thinking, "What counts as abuse?" or "How bad does the abuse have to be before you're justified in getting a divorce?" If I'm right that abuse justifies getting a divorce, this doesn't answer those questions. Abuse comes in degrees. On one extreme, it might be a situation in which your spouse puts you in the hospital with broken bones and a concussion. On the other extreme, they might just insult you a little or call you a pejorative name. Between those two extremes are every shade of gray, and it may be impossible to know exactly where to draw the line.

So what is a Christian to do? Well, in my opinion the thing to do is make a judgment call. Ask you friends for their opinion. Solomon said, "Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed" (Proverbs 15:22). So seek council from people you trust. And take Solomon's advice to seek wisdom and pursue it. This is a life long pursuit.

But what if, in spite of all this, you still suffer from uncertainty? Well, again, make the best judgment call you can with the information and wisdom you have. In cases like these, a Christian does not need to anguish and fret over having made the wrong decision. Your salvation does not depend on your being morally perfect. We are saved by the grace of God. So if, in spite of all your efforts, you make the wrong choice, it isn't game over for you. You should wrestle with difficult moral questions if you have a desire to live a moral life. But you shouldn't dispair if you aren't certain of your every decision because you are saved by the grace of God, not by your ability to live a morally perfect life.

As people who are trusting entirely on Jesus for our salvation, we can relax a little. We don't have to lose sleep over every difficult choice we made. If you are following Christ, however imperfectly, you are forgiven. You have a clean slate with God.