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, July 30, 2010

Two kinds of infinite

Is there something infinite?
Do you need an infinite to 'start everything off'? Does there need to be an infinite at the foundation of reality?

If the answer to these questions is 'yes', then is there anything that we can conclude about the nature of this infinite? Can we conclude, for example, that it must be a God? Or can it be something like the universe?

Thinking about the infinite, I want to make the case that there are actually two kinds of infinite, that are very different, that could have started everything off. God would be one kind of infinite and an infinitely old multiverse would be an example of the other kind.

The two kinds can be illustrated by a thought experiment. Imagine a chair. Now imagine an infinite number of chairs.

You can't, of course, really imagine an infinite number of chairs. But the idea makes sense on some level.

Anyway, if you could really imagine it, then have you imagined an infinite? Of course, yes, you've imagined an infinite; an infinite number of chairs.

Now, have you imagined something completely infinite?

No. Because although there are an infinite number of chairs, chairs are finite objects.

So there you have a concept that is partly finite and partly infinite. That is, an infinite quantity of a finite thing; chairs.

Can you imagine something completely infinite in every way? Without any finite aspects, unlike with the infinite number of chairs?

Well, just like really imagining an infinite number of chairs, no, you can't. But the idea of a completely infinite thing makes sense.

A completely infinite object would have to contain everything that an infinite should contain, which is, well, 'everything'. But, the thing is, it can't contain everything in a way that splits the infinite into pieces. Then there wouldn't be one completely infinite thing, but two, or three, or an infinite number of infinites, and how can there be more than one of something that contains everything there is? So you can only have one 'completely infinite' infinite and that cannot have divisions and differences within itself. So it has to be an indivisible unity, or continuum. Paradoxically, this means it has to contain everything, somehow, in a way that doesn't allow for differences or divisions. Try to imagine that!

So a completely infinite object has to contain everything in a singular, indivisible continuum, one that doesn't have any distinctions and yet somehow contains everything anyway (so it isn't some content-less 'grey blob').

(Note: presumably, we ourselves don't need to BE the infinite as long as you make an exception: if something within the continuum is caused to manifest real, actual distinctions/differences, then it will stand 'apart' from the infinite while also existing inside it.)

So those, apparently, are the two kinds of infinite you can have.

Now, what, if anything, can we conclude from this?

If the universe, or multiverse, is infinitely old, then the world comes from the first kind of infinite discussed.

If God exists, then the world comes from the second kind of infinite discussed (and somehow the indivisible continuum is a person!)

Okay. Now, do we have any reason to prefer one of these infinites as an explanation of the world to the other?

There isn't any knockdown argument favouring one, as far as I know. But I do think it's a bit neater if the world comes from something completely infinite, i.e. the second kind, rather than something where the infinite and the finite are combined. Because if the universe/multiverse has finite aspects, like a finite number of dimensions, or a finite number of superstring membranes, or suchlike, which it must have, it isn't a 'completely infinite' infinite, and that isn't as, sort of, 'simple' as an idea.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Objective morality

Atheists and Christians often argue about what makes morality 'objective', and whether you need God for morality to be 'objective'. But what does 'objective' in 'objective morality' mean, exactly? And why is a world without God unable to express whatever it means?

Instead of answering this directly, I'd prefer to imagine a situation that makes morality pack the most 'punch' out of any situation I can imagine.

This is the situation: suppose that humans are made to be perfectly loving towards each other and relate to one another in an 'ideal' way. So it's impossible to really live out your nature without relating to others in an 'ideal' way. That way, even though doing evil can make people happy, no one can really be themselves - who they really are - without relating to others in an 'ideal' way.

This situation would seem to make morality pack quite a punch. So maybe morality is more' objective' if this situation is the case than if it's not. Also, clearly, it's easier to believe this if you're a religious person plus you believe that things have somehow 'gone off the rails' for humanity so that, somehow, no one lives out their true nature in a complete way (at least in this life).

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Friday, July 16, 2010


Is there one face or are there two faces in this picture? Two people can see something different and yet they are looking at the same thing.

Sometimes looking at different perspectives on the world can feel like you're looking at this picture, especially regarding different explanations for people's behaviour (as outlined below).

Social sciences point out that in any population of people some are really nice, some people are quite selfish, and most people are in the middle - they are nice if people are nice to them and mean if people are mean to them.

An explanation of this from an evolutionary point-of-view is as follows: if everyone in the group is very selfish then the group will self-destruct. So the best evolutionary 'strategy' is for people to be 'reciprocally nice', or 'conditionally nice'. That way, the group won't self-destruct, but people can secure their own self-interest and thus have a greater chance of effective reproduction. Naturally, evolution has selected for this. And, of course, extreme niceness is explained as either a random 'there has to be a bell curve and naturally people at the nice end', or there's some kind of evolutionary strategy going on there, as well.

Looking at the same evidence, there is also another, completely different explanation (albeit a bit more mysterious because of the 'free will' factor):

Suppose we have free will, and everyone can pick their moral character: really nice, really bad, or in between. On one hand, it makes rational sense for people to be selfish because then they can always pursue their interests. But on the other hand, we don't like being treated in that way, and so we feel bad about it because we feel we should 'Do unto others'. These are the considerations, and based on them, some people freely choose to value extreme niceness, extreme badness, or something in between.

As it so happens, the in between personality, 'conditional niceness', is the perfect compromise between securing our self-interest and 'Doing unto others' a fair bit. So, naturally, it's the most popular 'choice' when we pick and choose our characters. So in every population, through free will, you get a bell curve with some people at either extreme and most people somewhere in the middle, like with the first explanation, above.

As it so happens, this personality - the 'conditionally nice' - is also the most evolutionarily effective. But, actually, it comes through a process involving free will, rather than genetics.

So if you have free will + selfishness makes sense + we feel a moral obligation, then you can explain what we see, and if you use the idea of evolutionary strategies, then you can explain the data as well. So which is right?

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Friday, July 09, 2010

The prodigal son story and 'divine hiddenness'

Why can't we make the decision to be or not be a Christian after talking with God face to face, instead of the way we make that decision now, where God may as well not exist if you don't think about Him/Her/It?

I think a helpful answer to this can come from the 'Prodigal Son' story. This isn't a philosophical answer; it's making an appeal to psychology and a story rather than philosophy.

The Christian view seems to be that if God made everyone accept/reject Him 'face to face', in a completely upfront way, that fewer people would end up with God than through the 'distant approach'.

Does this seem psychologically plausible/realistic?

I think it is psychologically realistic if we're all in a 'Prodigal Son' situation. Here is the story below from Luke 15:

To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.

“A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.

“When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’

“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’

“But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.

If the prodigal son hadn't been allowed to experience life separated from his family, then he would never have ultimately accepted home life and the authority of his father (representing God). It's because he got to experience life separated from his family, and the hardships that caused, and not very good benefits, that caused the son to come back.

So a world where we can reject God from a distance allows us to experience being the prodigal son, and a world where we reject or accept God face to face doesn't (because in a world where God is visible everywhere you can't try things out on your own).

And we are in the situation described in the above story. I think that hell is actually living forever without God, and being able to do your own thing for an eternity (which God accurately warns us will become as painful as fire - see here). And, secondly, God has no way of giving a real and lasting happiness to someone apart from that person being forgiven for everything wrong they've done and them accepting that forgiveness, through 'the cross'

So if the right thing to do in the 'Prodigal Son' story was for the father to do the equivalent of divine hiddenness (with the guy's father letting him run off and do his own thing), and our situation is a replica of the 'prodigal son situation', then divine hiddenness should also be the better option for God to use in this world.

[Edit] Here are some additional notes from a discussion over this post at Revelife which helps to clarify some things.

Someone wrote that everyone knew that the father existed in the story, but nonbelievers don't have a pre-existing relationship with God to reject in this world, making it a bad analogy. I wrote:

Probably the standard Christian answer to this is that, and I admit there's no reason to believe this if you're not a Christian, that the Holy Spirit subconsciously/unconsciously communicates to people who hear the gospel that heaven/hell is like the Prodigal Son situation, and if that person wants to make the choice of the son in that story, then - regardless of their beliefs and whether they think Christianity makes zero sense - God supernaturally makes that person have faith. Some verses on this are:

John 6:44: "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day."

1 Tim 2:4: "who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth."

Someone wrote that the prodigal son knew how bad life was without his family, but God can't communicate the full gravity of hell to us when someone presents the gospel. I wrote:

I think we already have experience of what hell is in this life, based on my understanding of hell. People experience a bit of hell when they achieve a lot of pleasure but feel empty inside because they aren't doing anything really fulfilling, or when someone has run out of things to do and is mind numbingly bored. Because I think that hell is being able to go off and do our own thing forever "shut out from the presence of the Lord and the majesty of His power" 2 Thes 1:9.

But it's nonetheless the case that we don't experience the full magnitude of this sort of state of being unless we go to hell.

I believe that God is somehow able to communicate the full magnitude of its horribleness in some way to everyone who hears the gospel, but that maybe people don't believe God, or something happens to frustrate God's plan to save someone that isn't reflective of someone's works.

Someone pointed out that you could still be a 'prodigal son' if God was obviously everywhere. So this explanation doesn't work. I wrote:

The alternative to a 'prodigal son' situation is for God to be present everywhere in the world in a very 'in your face' way. On reflection, I think I agree with you that that would still allow people to not care about God and what God wants, and act out the prodigal son story.

Thinking about it, how it would work is that God would rule His own city and people could appeal to him for protection and stuff, and everyone would know with 100% certainty that God exists and the Bible is true, but God could designate areas of the world where people could go off and do their own thing. So you might have a division of the world into areas that embrace God and 'no God zones'. Based on these cursory thoughts, this is how it might have to be.

If so, then that's all well and good for the people living in the 'God protected' areas, but is that plan giving the people in the 'no God zones' the best possible chance at salvation? If those people have to reject God face to face to get away from God, then I believe it would be harder for God to win them back than compared with this world where people reject God from a distance. If you reject God from a distance God can win you back more easily, given enough time, surely, than doing it face to face.

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Friday, July 02, 2010

An odd aspect to free will

If we have free will, then we have something that has several unusual attributes.

One feature of free will is that it separates the possibility of something from the probability of it.

We normally think that if something is possible then there's a probability we could give to it happening. For instance, if there's a chance that something will happen at every moment, then eventually it will happen over an infinite length of time. So given an eternity a computer randomly putting letters together will assemble the complete works of Shakespeare, by accident (maybe after 10 to the power of a googolplex years, but eventually...)

Let's apply this thinking to free will and see what happens. Suppose that God made everyone live forever, in comfort and safety, on a planet like Earth.

If we have free will, and have the resources to build a lot of things, then it should be possible for all of us to decide to build a mountain out of books in every year of that eternity.

But does everyone have to build a mountain out of books in an eternity? If we have free will, then you'd have to say no. Because if we have free will, then in each year in that eternity we must be able to reject that idea. So maybe a lot of people won't ever build the book mountain, regardless of how much time passes.

Just because it's possible for everyone to make a book mountain doesn't mean everyone will eventually do so over an eternity given true free will. So with free will a possibility can always exist with zero probability of it happening, given the determination never to do it.

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