Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Did God design our brains to enjoy sin?

God is responsible for the way our brains are designed, and the design of our brains makes us enjoy some things and not others. Actions that involve doing the wrong thing can be enjoyable, although in the long-term they create suffering. So did God design our brains to find wrongdoing (e.g. pride, envy, hatred) enjoyable?

No. Part of the answer is that the way free will works (it seems) is that we have the power to change our brain structure over a long period of time. Free will gives us the power to make certain things enjoyable and other things not enjoyable to our brains (here is a link to a good article on the science supporting this view, click 'show transcript').

So we have the power to change our brain structure against the way God intended our brains to function. An example of this might be someone who occasionally gives in to anger. They start getting angry more and more as they stop giving people the benefit of the doubt. Then they start assuming the worst about people. This process literally changes their brain structure, so the angry person changes their brain into one that 'thrives' on rage and anger.

But this is not the way God originally intended their brain to work.

OK, so why did God design us so that anyone would ever find it a good idea to change their brain structure in bad ways?

Our desire to do this is actually an unintended byproduct of something good. It's important that everyone has a sense of self-interest. If we had no sense of self-interest, then people would forget to eat, sleep, and would do things like walk off cliffs without any fear of death. Our sense of self-interest keeps us alive and enables us to perform very many sensible, everyday actions.

But there's not just 'good' self-interest, there's also 'bad' self-interest. We have various needs and wants (like food, security, shelter) and messing other people around will sometimes fulfill them better. Bad self-interest is e.g. murdering someone if it will make your life easier, or abusing someone to get them to do what you want.

God can't give us 'good' self-interest without making us aware that our life would be easier if we did 'bad' self-interest sometimes, and thus all sin.

For this reason we all change our brain structure to find 'bad' self-interest enjoyable to some extent - like pride, envy, unjustified anger, and so on. Sometimes, those things will fulfill our needs better than being honest. It wasn't in God's original plan for our brain structure but free will gives us the power to do it.

And God had to give us these needs and wants, because if we had no needs and wants then we would be self-contained 'social islands', which is not a better situation.

But isn't there evidence that personality can be influenced by our genes?

Yes, but there's a reason why God made it like this. To start off, there's an important difference between personality and character. Character is about good and evil, personality is about everyday (non-moral) choices. Personality can never be morally bad (when it's defined as choices not connected to moral issues), although it can be 'inconvenient' in some ways.

If God designs much of our personality, then God is not thereby encouraging or enabling us to sin. I think that God gives us certain personality traits to glorify His plan (like if you are an extrovert God may want you to meet a lot of people and encourage them in some way or something, so God designs you to be an extrovert). So there's really no problem if God has a hand in designing our personalities.

If God designed us to have flaws in our character then there is an issue, because that would make God the author of sin. But I don't think there's evidence for this view in the same way there's evidence that our personality is designed partly by God. Studies will show that personality has a genetic aspect, but it doesn't show that with an evil or good character.

Practically, these ideas can be encouraging - we are becoming more like our true selves when we reject the 'dark side' of our nature (Gen 1:27; Col 1:15). We are not betraying 'natural' desires to do wrong, actually we are becoming more like the kind-hearted people God intended us to be.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Would a loving God never judge or condemn someone?

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres" - 1 Cor 13:4-7

1 Corinthians 13 gives a great definition of love. Surely any loving God would fit this description.

And in this description Paul says that love 'keeps no record of wrongs'. So how can Christians say that there is a perfectly loving God who will judge humanity? Surely no one has anything to worry about. A lot of people think that a loving God will never judge anyone.

But what about 'love always protects'?

Consider someone who commits a murder. 'Love always protects', and so the loving thing to do is to protect everyone in the community from future murders by putting the murderer in prison.

Surely many people throughout history have refrained from doing evil because God has said that evil acts will receive punishment, which has protected vulnerable people. If you believe there's a God who will judge you for hurting someone, then you will definitely not hurt them, even if you won't do so for moral reasons.

What if significantly less evil has occurred throughout history because of God's promise to judge? This can't be proved, but it would be a good reason for God to make and carry out that promise.

This judgement is not hell (which is a separate issue). It's a proportionate 'payback' for whatever evils someone has done (Rev 20:12-15). Hell is not the result of a specific wrong act that we do so much as a consequence of choosing not to be with God forever, which means separation from God who is the source of true happiness (a happiness that will never get tedious).

This judgement does not apply in the same way to Christians (Rom 8:1), because Jesus took our moral failures onto Himself on the cross. "We know that the person we used to be was crucified with him to put an end to sin in our bodies" (Rom 6:6), which is fully manifested after we die. But we still have to give an account to Jesus about our life (2 Cor 5:10).

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How is God free if He cannot sin?

James 1:13: "When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone"

How can God have free will, and be all-powerful, if He cannot do evil?

I think the answer is that there are actually two kinds of 'cannot':

Cannot 1: 'I cannot throw a rock into space from my backyard'.
Cannot 2: 'I could never rob a bank and kill people. That's evil'.

Cannot 1 is physical impossibility, cannot 2 is the inability to be tempted by something - usually evil. When the Bible says God cannot do evil it's referring to 'cannot 2' rather than 'cannot 1':

Cannot 2 is fine for free will, otherwise no one could make a statement like the one above associated with 'cannot 2'.

So God is 'physically' able to do evil, it's just that He can never, ever find it worth doing. Evil is inaccessible to God because He can't be tempted to do it.

How so? I think it has something to do with the way God can never 'forget' the truth, or be tempted to forget the truth. When we do the wrong thing we often have a period where we 'umm' and 'ahh' about doing wrong in our mind, and then if we do the wrong thing we somehow 'forget' what we should do. We come up with an excuse that doesn't make sense to someone else. Because God is always truthful, He can't be tempted to do that. Hence God is never tempted to do evil.

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Thursday, April 08, 2010

Is morality relative?

Is morality relative? Many people have argued that it is. Consider how there have been cultures throughout history that have approved of horrible practices.

But there is an argument that moral differences between cultures are not that deep - even though they seem to be at first.

Imagine that you had to explain to someone how they could do the right thing in every circumstance. One classic answer would be that you should follow the 'Golden Rule'. As Jesus says in Matt 7:12: "Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets." This is a pretty good, short summary of how to be a good person.

One interesting aspect of the Golden Rule is that it's considered an important moral principle in so many (all?) cultures, in one form or another. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Islam, and of course Christianity (as well as numerous other religions and cultures) all endorsed the Golden Rule (source).

So if there's such widespread agreement on the Golden Rule between cultures, then it sounds like moral disagreements between cultures can't go that deep. They have to pay attention to something like the Golden Rule (whatever they call it).

You could also say that it's hard to imagine any culture rejecting this principle while continuing to talk in moral terms (although you might find the occasional evildoer who rejects it). Why? Because when you think about it, rejecting the Golden Rule seems like rejecting the concept of 'morality' altogether. Let's say you have someone who doesn't care at all about treating others the way they'd like to be treated. Have they come up with an alternative moral system? Or have they discarded morality? It feels like the latter.

If so, then the Golden Rule is really fundamental to any kind of morality, and therefore every culture shares a fundamental moral principle (even if it doesn't look like it on the surface). Perhaps cultural 'moral differences' are more like differences in application and not fundamental principles.

It should also be noted that this isn't a minor thing that cultures have in common - you can do quite a lot with the Golden Rule. The Bible points out that if we wrong someone we'd rather that they not take revenge on us, because revenge is painful (Lev 19:18). The Bible argues that 'Doing unto others' implies you can't hold grudges, which is taking the principle quite a long way.

So if it's like this then how can you get horrible cultural practices? There are two things to keep in mind here. First of all, people can have dangerous false beliefs and that might lead to evil cultural practices. For example, human sacrifice won't really appease the gods. Secondly, what we think is right can be influenced by our self-interest - surely self-interest can affect the views of groups and even cultures as well. For example, if slavery had a big economic benefit for a society then you would probably find people there rationalise it a lot more than if it had no benefit. Same thing with a patriarchy supporting a patriarchal culture.

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