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

Monday, October 25, 2010

Looking at the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites, Part 1

Skeptics often object to God's character in the Old Testament, and one event that is often mentioned is God's order that the Israelites conquer Canaan.

As a thought experiment, I thought I would make a list of conditions and see whether people think that the conquest of Canaan would have been OK for God to order if all the conditions I'm about to mention were perfectly fulfilled. This list heavily borrows from an article by someone called Glenn Miller who runs 'A Christian Thinktank', available here.

I admit that it requires turning the dial on the benefit of the doubt given to God up to 11, but it arguably makes sense as Glenn Miller points out. In a later article I might argue for how the Bible can support this interpretation, but first I want to see whether people agree that these conditions would make it OK for God to order the invasion if they were perfectly satisfied. Glenn Miller does a much better job at that than I would anyway.

1. God ordering the Israelites to conquer Canaan is not an act of favouritism towards the Israelites, or 'dis-favouritism' towards the Canaanites. That is, the conquest was supported by God according to an impartial set of criteria that need not refer to any specific group or persons.
2.1 If it's possible for a cultural group to 'earn', somehow, getting forced out of their homeland because of morally bad practices (both as a judgement and as a way of reforming that culture). There are morally bad practices that can do this.
2.2 The Canaanites had extraordinarily bad moral practices. So basically the Biblical portrait isn't a caricature but somehow real. E.g. child sacrifice, sex slavery, if they were a 'war culture' that periodically destroyed neighbouring cultures as well as suffering a lot of internal fights, etc.
2.3 The Canaanite culture threatened neighbouring cultures so much that stopping their raiding and attacks on other groups would have had a huge protective benefit for the area.
3.1 If the Canaanites were given a lot of warnings from God before the Israelites came that their practices were not OK and that they needed to change their behaviour or there would be serious consequences.
3.2.1 If God was willing to cancel the invasion of Canaan if the Canaanites had changed their behaviour based on clear warnings, and...
3.2.2 The warnings were clear, and...
3.2.3 God gave them plenty of time to change.
4.1 If when the invasion happened the Israelites had to offer peace first before attacking a city and it is only on the condition that a city rejected peace that it was attacked.
4.2 If the city accepted peace, then 'tolerable' conditions were placed upon its inhabitants.
4.3 'Tolerable' conditions include a conquered city's inhabitants acknowledging the authority of Israel, paying annual tribute, and being able to be called on to perform works of public service in times of need (e.g. repairing city walls) (see Gill's commentary here).
4.4 Deuteronomy 20:10-16 does not contradict point 4 because God was willing to apply point 4 to the central Canaanite cities and did not do so only because God knew that they would reject any negotiation with the Israelites under the terms above. So God wanted to apply point 4 to them, but God's awareness of how the Canaanites would react made that pointless (see Clarke's commentary here).
5.1 If a city was attacked, almost all of the people who were killed were combatants/soldiers who had chosen to stay and fight...
5.2 Because the Israelites were not to pursue people who ran away and...
5.3 Civilians/non-combatants could easily run away, resettle in another area, and escape the Israelite conquest because of their somewhat nomadic style of civilization and...
5.4 Had plenty of time to resettle in another area and knew for a long time that it would be a sensible thing to do, because they had known for a long time that the Israelites were coming and were given plenty of warnings about their great power and intentions to conquer the land...
5.5 Partly because the Israelite conquest of Canaan was quite slow and gradual, and...
5.6 Civilians/non-combatants did run away. So civilians, or non-combatants, were rarely subjected to violence because they could easily flee and did so.
5.7 Although it's not highlighted in the Biblical verses, this is something that went on all the time 'behind the scenes'.
6.1 If God's purpose was not to kill Canaanites but to drive them out of that area, to push their culture and society out of that area and...
6.2 In fact this is what happened - not genocide but relocation, as reflected in the overall balance of Biblical verses on the conquest and descriptions of what actually happened written after the event in other parts of the Bible, i.e. the Canaanites are still around for a long time afterwards.

So if this is what was going on and you can read the Bible as saying this, then is God in the clear?

The persuasiveness of this sort of defense of God depends a lot on how one judges God. Does one give God a defense or justification as long as that defense hangs together as a coherent idea that could hypothetically be true? Or not make that assumption?

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Is belief in God natural?

Suppose I created a robot to pick up rocks and for some reason gave it consciousness. In that circumstance, it would be OK for that robot to feel an obligation to pick up rocks and have beliefs reflecting that desire, because that's what it's been programmed to do and think. In the same way, if God has programmed humans to believe in a 'divine reality', then it would be intellectually acceptable for humans to believe in a divine reality under that circumstance. We'd just be fulfilling our 'programming', which would make religious belief perfectly fine regardless of other considerations.

But what if such a God doesn't exist? If there's only a 1% chance of such a God existing, then this viewpoint should sound silly.

Yet, it's not silly to affirm this point of view if there's a 90% chance of such a God existing.

So then what are the chances that there is a God who wires religious belief in this way? If it's 90%, then we can easily affirm the point-of-view described above. If it's 50% or a bit less, then maybe we can believe that it applies to us but in a way that leaves room for a fair amount of doubt.

If there's no evidence for or against God, then the principle of parsimony (if you can cut something out of an explanation without losing anything, cut it out) reduces the chance of God existing. But the chance that God exists does not thereby become nothing, because the debate about God is also part of a broader debate: is the realm of subjective experiences (mind) one of reality's accidents? Or something that has a place at the very foundation of reality? The latter idea will always be somewhat appealing to people in some form or other, even if it has no other evidence for it.

Also, a lot of believers would say that looking at the beauty of the natural world and the physical laws of the universe (the 'fine-tuning' argument), arguments from the big bang, other apologetics, etc., gives some evidence for a God. If so, then there would be a higher chance of a 'hard wiring' God existing.

What's the lowest chance that a 'hard wiring' God exists for believers to take the scenario above as seriously applying to humanity? In one study people found a 'reasonable doubt' that someone is guilty of a crime to exist at about a 25+% chance of innocence, given the evidence. I suppose that indicates you can get reasonable people believing in something with a 25+% likelihood that it's true. So if you bring this idea into the discussion, then there needs to be a 25+% chance of such a God existing for believers to take the scenario above seriously on purely rational grounds.

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Friday, October 08, 2010

Unknowable unknowables

There's a quote from former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, from 2002, which gives an interesting insight into the subject of knowledge, although it was criticised at the time as an odd sounding statement:

"There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns; there are things we do not know we don’t know."

Donald highlights here three categories of knowing:

1. 'Known known'. Basically, what we know. For example: we know that Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008.
2. 'Known unknown'. Stuff that we're aware we don't know. For example: we don't know how to build practically useful quantum computers and on what specific date some things happened in history.
3. 'Unknown unknown'. Stuff that we have no idea that we don't know. For example: suppose that tomorrow a long lost relative is going to give you one million dollars. It's not like, "I don't know when I'll get the million dollars," getting a million dollars isn't even on your radar. This category is completely 'out of left field' stuff.

The interesting thing about Donald's quote and the philosophy it refers to is that most of the time we usually think in terms of 'known knowns' and 'known unknowns'. We don't usually think in terms of 'unknown unknowns' because it takes away all our confidence about our predictions. For example, how can you make a prediction about what will happen in 2011 if you allow for the possibility that the world will end in December? You just can't factor 'unknown unknowns' into your predictions. After all, what, exactly, is the thing you don't know you don't know? And yet 'unknown unknowns' affect the world...

The Bible talks about another category of knowledge, which you could call the 'unknowable' category: something that we cannot even think of or conceive:

Psalm 139:1-6: "For the choir director: A psalm of David. O LORD, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I'm far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, LORD. You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand!"

Romans 11:33: "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!"

By adding an 'unknowable' category you get this:

1. 'Known unknowable'.
2. 'Unknown unknowable'.
3. 'Unknowable unknowable'.

A 'known unknowable' is a question or an issue that we know we can't ever figure out, no matter what. A famous 'known unknowable' comes from Matthew 24:36:

"However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows."

So we know that Jesus is coming back but we can never figure out exactly when it will happen.

In the secular world, the Continuum Hypothesis in mathematics may be a 'known unknowable' and, in the philosophy of mind, some secular philosophers have suggested that 'qualia' is as well (e.g. Colin McGinn).

An 'unknown unknowable' would include knowledge that God has that the Bible doesn't talk about and which is 'unknowable' to us. The Bible might not mention it because it's not relevant.

When Paul writes: "How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!" he must surely be including some things that we're not aware of that are completely beyond us.

In secular terms, this might include mathematics and scientific puzzles we have yet to discover and which we will be disappointed to find out are 'unknowable'.

An 'unknowable unknowable' would be a piece of knowledge that is not only incomprehensible to us, but we also cannot understand what sort of knowledge we're missing out on - and yet it is real knowledge. So, if we can ever identify what 'unknowable' piece of knowledge we don't have, then it is not 'unknowable unknowable' knowledge.

An example of this in the secular world might be what sort of mathematical truths you could find out if you somehow had a computer with infinite processing power that could answer all questions involving the infinite. Because that is impossible, the kinds of things we would find out in that situation are 'unknowable' as well as the answers themselves.

When it comes to God, there might be some things that God knows that are not only unknowable to us, but the sheer concept or idea of that particular bit of knowledge is also unknowable. So it's not like God can patiently explain to us all the things that are unknowable to us, actually God can't even articulate to us some of these unknowable things, even with God's presumably great ability to explain things.

If God's knowledge encompasses all of these categories, and the Bible says it does, then we can be encouraged because of that. We can be confident that God does know what's going on in our lives more than we do (for example, we don't need to worry about whether God is aware of a current problem we have). If these categories exist, then we can also be confident that there are some truths about God, or that God knows, which may not be able to be articulated to us, but which are nonetheless truths.

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Friday, October 01, 2010

A God with emotions makes sense

Is it really a massive assumption to say that God can feel emotions?

It's true that God didn't evolve and has none of the physical components of emotion, like the release of certain chemicals in a brain, etc. That's true. But think about what emotions involve in terms of reason...

Can you feel anger without perceiving that someone has failed to meet an obligation? I don't think that you can. Can you do something on the basis of, "I will treat others the way I want to be treated," without feeling empathy? No - if you incorporate that value into your actions, then that = feeling empathy. Can you feel envy without perceiving a lack in your life? No, you have to perceive a lack in some area of your life to feel envy, etc.

So acting on certain kinds of practical reasons, or reasons to do with action = feeling certain emotions.

When you think about it logically, one would have to conclude that any kind of practical reason could probably be matched to an emotion. This would include emotions that humans have no experience of if you assume that there are practical reasons that humans never relate to but which other species do (uniquely alien or animal emotions).

So a basic emotion, a chemical emotion, like anger is actually an act of practical rationality or exercise of practical reason. In the case of anger: someone not meeting a perceived obligation.

And rationality is something that is very broad and goes way beyond evolution. Rationality is something not even restricted to the physical universe! It is something we could share with robots, aliens, and even creatures outside our universe.

So, at the end of the day, that's why I think that a God who feels emotions makes sense if you interpret emotion as rationality to do with action. Because a God who acts is a God with some understanding of emotion, of what it basically is, even if God's version of emotion is very different to ours.

And, of course, any creator God is a God of action, because God has proved He/She/It acts. Of course, a creator God has created the universe.

Going beyond this issue, a vague 'God who acts', who feels something like emotion, is different from a loving God who cares deeply about His creations, like the Christian God. But I don't see why God having no love is seen automatically to make much more sense than God having love. We probably feel that the existence of a loving God needs more of an explanation than a God of pitiless indifference. But if you, on the other hand, assume that finite reason cannot understand an infinite God, then how do we know an (infinite) God of love needs more of an explanation than an (infinite) God without love? If we can't use finite reason to understand what's going on when it comes to God?

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