Monday, October 5, 2015

God and the Laws of Nature

The laws of nature are what helps keep this universe running the way it should; they keep it running the way it needs to in order for life to happen! So what accounts for these laws? Are they merely descriptive, or prescriptive?

Let us suppose the laws of nature are descriptive. That is, let us suppose that what we call the “laws of nature” are really more like law-like regularities that describe what we observe in the universe, and extrapolate to apply to all corners of it. These descriptions of how the universe operates are always up for revision inasmuch as they reflect our understanding of what goes on. But this raises the question: Why does the universe run according to these descriptions?

Perhaps the answer is that it is one giant cosmic coincidence. And, on atheism, this is exactly what it looks like. What a fantastically fortuitous coincidence that the laws of the universe are what they are! Perhaps, on the other hand, you might be uncomfortable with this mere accident of the laws.

So perhaps the answer is that the laws are not descriptive, but instead prescriptive. That is to say, once we have arrived at a correct description of the laws, we can give a full account of the way the universe must be, given these laws. They really do function more like laws that cannot be disobeyed (And not simply physically—even descriptive views can say this much. Rather, what this is saying is that this is the way the universe ought to be; the laws govern how this universe must have turned out.). But then why think the laws of nature supervene on the universe in this constraining way? It’s not logically necessary that the laws are what they are.

So perhaps, at last, a solution modestly suggested for your review: God is the one who accounts for the laws of nature. This overcomes our uneasy feelings with mere luck, and it gives an account for why the laws actually can be counted on (if the laws are mere descriptions, then at any moment gravity may be upended, or the speed of light may drastically and suddenly change, etc.) while avoiding any unlikely postulations of necessity. The laws of nature: put in place and upheld by God. Perhaps they are even one of the primary ways God upholds the creation in existence!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Hell and the Multiverse

Suppose a multiverse theory is true. Suppose further that a majority of these universes are uninhabited, at least by rational beings. The following is pure speculation, but it is something that occurred to me a few weeks ago in our philosophy group that holds weekly meetings (well, we try to, anyway).

What if Hell (that final place of everlasting punishment) is spatially extended? The general Resurrection at the eschaton to which unbelievers will be raised includes, obviously, their bodies. But then we have extension, and thus we have space. What if Hell is just one of these universes, causally isolated from ours (and any others), where no light reaches them, and they potentially may be isolated from even each other? This may work by imagining each person alone in each causally and physically isolated universe, where Hell becomes a person alone with himself, and without the graces of God—getting what one wants.

Just a thought I take to be interesting: Perhaps some of the multiverse was created for the devil and his angels…

Thursday, October 1, 2015

What is the Point of Apologetics?

What is the point of apologetics, especially philosophical apologetics? I think for too long, many Christians, when first exposed to apologetics, have too lofty of goals. First, they think that the goal ought to be to convert everyone, even the most hardened skeptic. The fact of the matter is, if someone doesn’t want to believe, then no matter what you do, they can always resist. Second, they think the “defensive goal” of apologetics ought to be to answer every objection beyond any shadow of a doubt. Since doubt is at least in part psychological (in large part, really), this too is much too unrealistic.

So what should it be? “Offensively,” the goal should be to remove intellectual stumbling blocks from the paths of those who really want to know. There are such people, and for them, apologetics serves to pave the way to respectably believe in Christianity and the Gospel. Defensively, the goal should be to show that the objections are not so forceful that they render belief in Christianity unjustified or irrational; in short, that Christianity is still intellectually respectable.

Why bring this up? I do so because the consequences of ignoring this are dire (and, by the way, your atheist friend on the Internet is not holding himself to nearly the same standard). First, you will become frustrated, jaded, and eventually prideful if your main goal is to convert the masses. “What are you saying?” you might be thinking. “Shouldn’t we want all to convert?!” Of course I do, and of course we should. However, what I mean is a kind of intellectual rational compulsion. First, even if we achieved this, mere intellectual assent is not the saving truth of the Gospel. Second, God doesn’t intend for us to be compelled in that sense; he desires us to come freely. What happens is that, as people cling to whatever they can to avoid the truths of Christianity, they, and you, may find that there is some rational justification for clinging to x, even if their views are highly implausible. Thus, because their views are implausible, you become frustrated, which in turn leads you to become quite skeptical of the sincerity of anyone you talk to (been there), and finally you realize that really only you are the serious thinker in all your conversations. Hmm, that attitude doesn’t sound godly (preaching to myself here).

The second major consequence is that if you try to extinguish every objection beyond a shadow of a doubt, you’ll be running from one fire to the next for the rest of your life. This kind of intellectual frenzy cannot be kept up and, just like a real firefighter, you will eventually tire, wear out, and become useless. You may even become overwhelmed and succumb to the objections. This is because for someone in this position, certainty is what matters. If one lacks certainty, then the negation of one’s currently held views is true (of course, atheists never take this position for themselves, but whatever). And this is just unreasonable. So the answer isn’t to ignore objections to Christianity. It’s just that you need to take it and measure it against everything else you know and understand about the world and God. The defensive goal should be to address objections to Christianity and show that the faith is at least intellectually respectable.

“But wait!” you might protest. “Don’t you have a double standard—one for the Christian (hold on to belief at all costs), and one for the atheist (believe at all costs)?” Not precisely. First, I think belief in God is properly basic, and so it is the atheist who is not quite “functioning properly,” so to speak. But beyond this, I am not advocating a kind of “believe-at-all-costs” Christianity. I am arguing that defensive apologetics should show that it is intellectually respectable. Surely that involves at least some plausibility, not just bare rationality or intelligibility. On the other hand, I am saying atheists should believe in that case as well—that Christianity is at least intellectually respectable. This way, there is actually one standard for both when it comes to Christianity. With respect to atheism, my claim is that one could be intellectually respectable and be an atheist, but also that if they want to come to Christianity the standard is not certainty, or anything near this. I just want to see people come to Christ, and for current Christians to stay there!

Monday, September 21, 2015

What is Lying?

Here’s a simple question: what is lying?

“Ah, well, that’s easy,” you might think. “Lying is telling an untruth.”

But this brief definition doesn’t quite get at the heart of the matter. For we might think it includes some things as lying which ought not to be so regarded, such as telling a fictional story, or making a joke, or even playing certain kinds of games.[1] Further, it may exclude some things from qualifying which we want to say are lies. For example, if the teacher asks the class, “Did one of you draw that picture of me on the whiteboard?” and no one responds, no student told an untruth. However, supposing at least one of them is responsible and/or knows who did it, their silence most of us would count as lying to the teacher about their involvement. So, it appears this definition is both too broad (including things we don’t want) and too narrow (excluding things we do).

So, suppose you reconsider and reply: “Lying is deceiving others.”

This at least accounts for lying by omission, as in the case of the teacher. But this runs into a problem we’ve seen before: it includes things we do not really want to say are actual lies. For example, consider your favorite football team. They often come to the line of scrimmage attempting to disguise their defense, or on offense make a fake move before unleashing their real play, and so on. Are these all lies, all moral violations, and hence evil? It would seem not.

So, suppose you think for another moment and suggest this: “Lying is an attempt to have another person x believe P, when not-P is true, and x should have a reasonable expectation (or else a “right”) to receive the truth about P.”

Now this has some merit. In order to defeat a proposed definition, one will typically want to show it is either too broad or too narrow. Does this definition survive? Let’s test it against some of our examples: First, if we’re telling a fictional story, we get the right answer that we’re not lying, since x does not have a reasonable expectation that he will receive the truth about P.[2] Making a joke is also excluded, as are games. There is, of course, the worry jokes or stories are taken too far—but we tend to agree it’s not in virtue of these being jokes and stories that they are lies. It also includes lying by omission.

It also provides what many of us take to be the “right” answer in some classic ethical quandaries. Consider the family hiding Jews in WWII Germany and the Nazis come by. They ask, “Are there any Jews here?” If you answer “no,” then you are lying and thereby violate a moral norm. If you answer “yes,” however, you are not protecting the innocent (at least not very effectively, anyway). While there are answers that vigorously defend the “yes” position, we typically want to say protection of the Jews by saying “no” is morally justified. But it also seems bizarre to claim lying is ever morally right or permissible. In fact, it’s a violation of the ninth commandment (Exodus 20:16)! But on this view, answering “no” is not lying. The Nazi does not have a reasonable expectation for the family to tell him the truth about the Jews, given that he intends to persecute, torture, experiment on, and ultimately kill them.

There is one worry here, and it’s about rationality. Suppose the Nazi thinks, “They know, or should know, that telling me an untruth about the presence of Jews will result in their incarceration or death, and the risk that I will check their home anyway is decent. Thus, the rational thing for them to do is to tell me the truth.” Here, it seems the Nazi has a reasonable expectation after all (is it really unreasonable, given the thought process?). But this is why I added “the right” portion above. Given that it’s a moral atrocity, if such people are hiding Jews, it’s because they have moral sensitivities (most likely); if that is the case, does he have the right to expect such people to move against these sensibilities and answer him, revealing the presence of the Jews? It seems not. The one committing a moral crime is not necessarily owed—or does not have the right to reasonably expect—the truth in a particular situation in which he is involved directly with moral evil.

And now we can apply this in the biblical narrative. In an ethics/moral philosophy course, we were once asked how many of us thought Rahab’s lie to cover for the pair of Jewish spies was justified, and how many thought it was not. The prof noticed my hand not going up for either, and I communicated I didn’t think it was a lie at all. We moved on for the sake of discussion, but I think it’s the right answer. It was not truth-telling, but as the enemies of God they did not satisfy what I am calling the reasonable expectation condition, and so should not have expected to hear the truth. Again, it must be noted that this condition deals with the rights one has to the truth in a given situation involving direct moral issues. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether or not telling people they look good when they don’t qualifies. J

[1] Here I am thinking of the game “Two Truths and a Lie,” where the winner is the one who convinces the others of the truth of the story when it is in fact false.

[2] Note also that if one protests that we could tell x “What I am about to tell you is absolutely true,” that it would be a lie. But this comports perfectly well with the definition given: in those circumstances, all being equal, x does have a reasonable expectation to be given the truth.