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

Friday, June 25, 2010

Optical illusions, free will, and omniscience

Here is a link to a picture of the 'leaning tower illusion'. The two towers are really identical, but the brain expects that the second tower will lean more because of the way the brain processes perspective. Because of this expectation, we actually do see the second tower lean more.

It's arguable that we're making a similar kind of mistake when we think that free will is contradicted by God's foreknowledge of how we will choose - we're being misled by the tools we use to predict the future.

How do we predict the future? We can categorise any of our predictions into one of three categories:

1. Pure chance. We can't figure out a pattern. E.g. a coin flip.
2. Probability. You're trying to predict something that's somewhat chaotic but you can still see a pattern. E.g. what teams have the greatest chance of winning a championship.
3. Determinism. Because nothing else is possible. E.g. whether gravity will pull a rock to the ground.

These are the only three categories we know about when it comes to prediction.

For us to know the future with certainty means using category 3 thinking, which is determinism. The way it works is that you narrow down all possibilities so there's only one possibility left, and that's how you know.

So when we think about God predicting our choices we imagine God using category 3, and narrowing down (to one) all possibilities for how we will choose, because it's the only way of predicting something that we know. And it's true, such a thing would take away free will.

But why must God's foreknowledge use category 3? Couldn't God have some other way of knowing stuff, because He's an all powerful God? One that doesn't narrow possibilities down to one?

One idea of how God's foreknowledge isn't in category 3 is that when God predicts our choices He has an 'intuitive' understanding of how people will choose, that's right, but which is never explained 'intellectually'. So God may not know 'because of reason A, B, and C, Sally must go for a walk', only 'in this situation, Sally will go for a walk'. Because God doesn't account for Sally's choice any further, God can know that Sally might have acted differently, because God hasn't explained Sally's choice completely. This is an attempt at a 'non category 3' type of prediction.

So it's fair to say we could be tricked into thinking that God's foreknowledge takes away free will because of how we predict the future. But our techniques for knowing the future aren't necessarily God's techniques.

Another interesting thought on this is that the 3 categories don't apply to free will itself, assuming free will totally contradicts determinism. So it wouldn't be surprising if there's a fourth category of predicting, because (incompatibilist) free will requires another category (of something) to 'work'. This opens up the idea of a fourth category of predicting, as well.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

'I'm not perfect' versus 'I am a sinner'

Everyone will admit that they're not perfect. And this seems to be the same thing as saying you're a sinner (i.e. that you have flaws). But if someone said to you, 'I am a sinner', that would sound like a much more serious and humble statement than 'I'm not perfect'. So what is an explanation for this?

I think the difference is that saying you're not perfect is saying you have flaws, but it doesn't mean that you're actually failing to fulfill your moral obligations towards others. Whereas saying 'I am a sinner' indicates not only that you are not perfect, but also that you're failing to fulfill all your moral obligations.

The difference could be analogised to two different styles of grading. You usually don't have to get a 'high distinction' (A+) to perform decently on an assignment. You can usually do OK with just a 'pass'. Although it may not be as impressive, you're still getting your degree. So, on one view, you can have flaws and still be doing everything you should be doing as a person.

On the other hand, saying 'I am a sinner' implies more of a view where you're not even getting a pass. You're just not meeting all of your moral obligations towards others.

In terms of how each view can go astray, the 'I am a sinner' view can be misinterpreted so that someone thinks of themselves as a pathetic failure (which is bad because the Bible encourages humility and the acceptance of forgiveness, not a complete lack of self-esteem). Whereas the 'I'm not perfect but everything is basically OK' view can lead someone to be unaware of obligations that apply to them (because there are more moral obligations applying to them than they think, e.g. 'don't steal' if they are a thief).

Here is a parable that seems to refer to the two views:

Luke 18:9-14: "Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Two ways we can say God isn't good

Job 1:22: "In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing."

Job 33:9-12: "You [Job] said, 'I am pure; I am without sin; I am innocent; I have no guilt. God is picking a quarrel with me, and he considers me his enemy. He puts my feet in the stocks and watches my every move.' But you are wrong, and I will show you why. For God is greater than any human being."

There are two ways we can say that God isn't good.

The first way is obvious. We can say the Christian God exists, but that He isn't perfectly good despite what the Bible says. That is, the Bible inaccurately describes God.

The second way of saying that God isn't good can be a lot more subtle. I'll illustrate it using an example.

Suppose that a parent loses their spouse and child in a horrific accident one day. It also happens to be the case that the parents had stopped going to church a few months ago because they had just been too tired to go along, what with everything else that had been happening in their lives (or for some other reason).

Suppose that the surviving parent says 'I completely affirm that God is good. The reason why my spouse and child died is because God decided to punish us for not going to church more often.'

The second way of saying God isn't good can be quite subtle. It happens when someone affirms and sincerely believes that God is good, but when they try to explain suffering in their lives they say something about God that implies He isn't really good.

If we affirm that God is good, then we should not try to explain why God has allowed something to happen in our lives that subtly (or more bluntly) says that God isn't good. Because it just can't be true, and so it will mislead people who believe it. The surviving spouse is right to say that God is perfectly good, but something would be very amiss with God if their terrible tragedy was a punishment for not going to church more often.

Sometimes we can explain why God allowed something in a really great way. Sometimes, after enough time has elapsed, we can look at our life and understand really well why God didn't answer a specific prayer, or frustrated a persistent desire.

But if we can't explain our suffering very well, it's a lot better just to stick to our principles, affirm that God is good, and say 'I don't know why God allowed this to happen', rather than come up with a poor explanation.

There are general truths we can fall back on if we don't know the specific reason why God allowed something to happen. Characters in the Bible that we know God was helping and watching over often went through very long periods where God might have seemed distant and uncaring (like the account of Joseph in Genesis). Plus, humanity's unnatural separation from its Creator ensures some degree of suffering (like a fish out of water). Also, God will honour people's free will, allowing them to do evil to others, or damage their own lives.

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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Points to remember about the Old Testament laws

A lot of critics of Christianity argue that there are bizarre Old Testament laws that show that the Christian God is not really good. Without going into any specific explanations of any Old Testament laws (here is a good site for that), here are a couple of general points about all of them.

Something to remember is that Jesus specifically says that the Old Testament laws involved a compromise between what God wanted ideally, and what the ancient Israelites were prepared to accept. Matt 19:8-9: 'Jesus replied, "Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended. And I tell you this, whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery--unless his wife has been unfaithful."'

Ancient near east culture was so incredibly different to us that they would have considered 'standard' the OT laws we find bizarre. We can find similar attitudes in laws in other ancient near east cultures of the period, and so it was probably what the Israelites were prepared to accept (link). Also, the OT laws are a lot nicer than other laws from that period.

We have to remember what principles the OT law is grounded in. A few great verses are: 'Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD' (Lev 19:18). And two interpretations from the New Testament, 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', and Matt 22:35-40: 'One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."'

So if the rabbis of the Old Testament period thought that was what the law was really about, then there must be something in their understanding compared to ours that modern critics are missing, that enables them to think that. So while the basic principle of 'Do unto others' has remained unchanged throughout the millennia, the social, cultural, historical (etc) context has made it so that ancient rabbis see something in the law that, today, we seem to miss.

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