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

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Does grammar help us believe in free will?

Does humanity's instinctive grammar indicate that free will is compatible with God's knowledge of everything?

Consider the words "will" and "must". One use of the modal verb "will" is to "express inevitability" (e.g. accidents will happen) and this is quite close to one use of the modal verb "must" which is to "be compelled by physical necessity" or "be logically inferred or supposed" (e.g. one must eat to live).

"Will" and "must" in these senses are very similar but you can't just have "must". Language needs "will", but "will" is different from "must" in an interesting way. "Will" expresses certainty but implicitly something else could have happened. "Must" expresses certainty but implicitly nothing else could have happened.

For example, you can say, "Sally must go for a walk" and you can clearly see how there is no other option for Sally than to go for a walk. But if you say, "Sally will go for a walk, then you know that Sally will go for a walk, but you don't exclude the possibility that Sally could have stayed at home. There was no "must" about Sally going for a walk - she might not have - it was "will".

So, in other words, our grammar splits predictions into two types: certain predictions where, implicitly, something else could have happened other than what was predicted, and certain predictions where nothing else could have happened other than what was predicted.

So I think that God's knowledge could be of the "will" happen variety and not the "must" happen variety. This would mean that God doesn't know that we "must" choose what God predicts, only that we "will". This helps the idea of free will because it means we don't have to do choose what God predicts, although we will. Think about how that would work for a moment. I'm not clear on it myself.

It might mean that a form of backwards causation happens where God, first, lets us define our character and then, second, His knowledge about that is caused by it happening in the future. So your choice to have a certain character at time 100 causes God's knowledge of it at time 0, rather than your choice at time 100 causes God's knowledge of it at time 100. The choice still causes God's knowledge of it, but it doesn't work from past => future.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Defining God

One philosophical definition of God could go like this:

You could say that everything we interact with is finite because you can place a limit on it. So your computer screen is finite because it has a limited width, height, number of atoms in the screen, etc. Same for everything else we interact with, of course. Even our imagination is like this. Everything we imagine is limited in at least one way. For example, when I imagine infinity I imagine an object that goes on forever, but that object looks a certain way and thus expresses a limit in the 'drawing' of it.

But what about an 'unlimited' reality where something like e.g. width/height can't exist because width/height expresses a limit? And so on for size, colour, location, dimensions, time, cause-effect, etc?

God is described as without limits in some places of the Bible, and so maybe that idea has something to do with a philosophical definition of God:

Psalm 90:2: Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

Psalm 147:5: Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit.

1 Timothy 1:17: Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

The Bible, after all, does say that God is 'the invisible God' (Col 1:15) and there's only two ways something can't possibly be represented: it's either a metaphor or about a reality where, for example, you can't represent size because size involves a world that deals in limits (hence you can't draw God with an accurate size!) You can't accurately represent something with no limits when you think about our drawing tools.

The problem with this view is that it doesn't convey God's loving personal nature or hardly anything else about God. It's a very abstract and 'irrelevant' God that is described, but at least it talks about God's infinite nature in a way that our reason can grasp at in some way.

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Friday, November 12, 2010


How does envy 'work'? Where does the emotion come from?

Proverbs 27:4: Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?

James 3:14-16: But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don't cover up the truth with boasting and lying. For jealousy and selfishness are not God's kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind.

1 Corinthians 13:4: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

Envy is a somewhat unusual emotion in that it has no 'good' aspect at all. For instance, when Aristotle was forming his 'doctrine of the mean', he tried to find a 'good' aspect to every emotion (as part of his system where virtue is between two opposite extremes). E.g. anger is good when it protects the vulnerable. Fear is good when it stops us from being complete idiots. Being trusting is good unless we are too trusting and someone takes advantage, and so on. But he could find no 'good' aspect to envy.

To find out what envy is about we need to look at what condition(s) needs to be fulfilled for anyone to experience envy. That is, what is something that needs to happen before you can experience envy?

There may be several answers, but one answer is not being content.

For example, can you think of any situation where someone is really content about XYZ and also feels a lot of envy about XYZ? For example, suppose that someone was really content about how much money they had and frankly did not care about having more money, because it doesn't matter to them at all - they have enough. Can that person feel envious towards someone for having more money than them, given their contentment about money?

Lack of contentment seems to be a basic condition for envy.

OK, so what do envious people do? They make life difficult for the person who they envy if they can.

Now, why is it that a lack of contentment would 'spill over' into basically having something against other people? How does A. Lack of contentment in any way cause B. Having something against other people?

The answer could be that acting enviously gives the envious person a practical benefit...

But it doesn't seem that envy is a 'strategy' to get what the other person has. For example, if you envy someone who has a lot more money than you, then you probably don't think you'll be able to get some of their money by making life hard for them.

In almost all cases of envy, someone's envy will not allow someone to get, practically speaking, what they are envious about. It will also not make society more equal because one envious person will not make society more equal on their own (however, if everyone was envious, then maybe society would be more equal, but it would be a rather unhappy, nasty sort of equality).

Actually, I can't figure out what selfish strategy envy is part of. Even if someone is a complete psycho, cares only about themselves, and has no good emotions at all, I simply don't know what selfish benefit they can get from envy, and I haven't even talked about how unhappy it makes the person that envies.

But I find it hard to believe that there isn't some kind of selfish benefit to envy, even one that is almost never realised. Otherwise envy is a very peculiar kind of selfish act - a selfish act that does not benefit the selfish person.

A second possibility is that envy is not a strategy but an automatic process. Envy could simply be a result of the brain accepting two or three facts: 1. I am not content about XYZ and 2. Someone has XYZ and probably 3. I will let myself feel envy. In this view, envy is like thinking that Pluto is no longer a planet after you hear the news, just an automatic reaction that can happen if you are not content and see people with what you desire.

Anyway, we can map the process of envy something like this:

I am not content about something => a selfish strategy or an automatic process => I feel envy and feel like I am 'against' the person who has whatever it is I'm not content about.

This may be one reason why the Bible teaches people to be content. In other words, the Bible doesn't teach us to be content to make us docile and passive, but because a lack of contentment causes people to experience envy and makes it harder for us to love other people.

Hebrews 13:5: Don't love money; be satisfied with what you have. For God has said, "I will never fail you. I will never abandon you."

1 Timothy 6:6-8: Yet true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can't take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content.

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Thursday, November 04, 2010

Heaven and hell, some numbers

There may be Biblical evidence that a lot more people will be with God forever than be separated from God.

First of all, there is the doctrine of the age of accountability (link). This doctrine is that people who die before an age where they can make an informed decision about Jesus automatically go to heaven. This also includes people with a mental disability or some other disability that prevents them from making an informed decision about Jesus (there's 'state' as well as 'age' of accountability).

This could be broadened to include some people who never hear about Jesus or who hear but not in a way that allows them to make an informed decision about Jesus (but if you say this, then there needs to be a reason why God wants us to tell people about Jesus, which is a problem for this view).

If you broadened it in this way, then most people who have ever lived will be in heaven, because until modern medicine the infant mortality rate was about 50% (source) and there have been a lot of people who have never heard the gospel.

Secondly, we must remember that after this age (which ends when Jesus returns) there is an 'age to come', where almost everyone will be Christian:

Isaiah 2:2-4: "In the last days, the mountain of the LORD's house will be the highest of all--the most important place on earth. It will be raised above the other hills, and people from all over the world will stream there to worship. People from many nations will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of Jacob's God. There he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths." For the LORD's teaching will go out from Zion; his word will go out from Jerusalem. The LORD will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes. They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore."

How many people will live in this age to come? Perhaps billions.

Thirdly, the good angels are happy forever and some interpret Revelation to say that 2/3rds of the angels stayed with God (Rev 12:4). Now, if there are billions of angels, then that is a large number of people who will be happy with God forever.

But what about verses like Matthew 7:13-4?:

"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."

Maybe this verse is saying that it's a narrow gate to heaven for people who a) become adults that b) can make an informed decision about the gospel that c) live in the current age. That is, our group, where the decision to accept Jesus is fraught with uncertainties and difficulties not present with the other groups. It could be that our group has the lowest proportion of people in that group going to heaven (compared to people outside the age/state of accountability, people in the age to come, and angels). If this speculation is accurate, then it raises the question of why we are in this group!

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