Friday, December 21, 2012

Can You Choose to Believe in God?

In the previous blog post, we discussed why doxastic voluntarism (DV) is true. This post aims to discuss the pertinent applications for apologetics. The main application for apologetics is for the atheist’s claim that “one cannot choose her beliefs.” This is often said in reply to some version of Pascal’s Wager (or just a layman offering the old “what have you got to lose?” line).

However, as we have seen, there are at least some beliefs over which rational agents have control. Is belief in God one of the ones over which we do have control, or one over which we do not have control? We are not typically offered a reason as to why we should think that belief in God (in a salvific or soteriological way) is the type of belief over which we have no control. 

In fact, biblically, we are given reason to suggest that the power to have faith in the Christian God resides within each individual (Jos. 24:15; Rom. 10:9-10). Of course, the objector can simply say he does not believe in the Bible, and thus he still has no reason to think faith in God is one of those beliefs. However, there is another argument that one must be cognizant of in order to recognize the correct answer to this question.

  1. If one ought to do some act X, then he can do some act X.
  2. If God does exist, then it is the case that one ought to believe in him.
  3. God exists.
  4. Therefore, it is the case that one ought to believe in him.
  5. Therefore, he can believe in him.

A few notes on this argument: First, “God” refers to the Christian God. Second, “believe in him” means not just to believe his existence, but trusting in him for salvation from sin. Third, I am well aware that (3) will not be accepted by any objector. However, the dialectical progression is in response to the idea that “even if God exists and wants me to believe, it is unfair for me to be condemned because I cannot control my response to believe in him,” or some problem of evil that states if God wanted everyone to believe, then everyone would believe (since people cannot control their doxastic states). Thus, (3) is a kind of assumed hypothetical. 

(1) is the ought-implies-can principle (a well-accepted principle, even if not universally so). (2) seems rational enough, especially since objectors will usually rely on this premise to proclaim God’s punishment for unbelief as unjust. To be more explicit: (2) should only be denied in the case that you think God does exist and yet you have no obligation to believe in him.

(4) is an entailed conclusion from (2) and (3). (5) is an entailed conclusion from (1) and (4). Thus, we can see that, under our dialectical scenario, there are some truths that can be controlled voluntarily, and very plausibly the truth of the plan of salvation of the Christian God is one of them.
1 Again, dialectically, we have already assumed DV is true and established, and thus it will do no good to object to the premise on the grounds that one has denied DV.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Can I Choose my Beliefs?

Doxastic voluntarism is the view that claims at least some beliefs can be freely chosen. It claims there are some states of affairs of belief that can be entered into by an act of the will. There are stronger views of doxastic voluntarism that claim every belief is chosen, but we need not explore that here. What follows is a brief argument in favor of the weaker version of doxastic voluntarism (DV).
1.       If DV is false, then I am not rationally responsible for any of my beliefs.
2.       I am rationally responsible for some of my beliefs.
3.       Therefore, DV is true.
Obviously, both premises may be considered controversial by one person or another. (1) relies on the idea that free will and rationality are tied together. This is an intuitive idea. Consider a rational process; consider a piece of logical reasoning. While the process itself is considered rational, the person would not be considered rational for merely repeating the process.[1]
Moreover, (2) assumes that humans do, in fact, possess a free will.[2] I am rationally responsible for at least some of my beliefs. Some were formed through a process of reasoning and not a mere chemical reaction to a particular set of circumstances.
Now it occurs to me that someone may well affirm (1) and deny (2). For this objector, it is simply the case that no one ever is rational in any of his or her beliefs. But if that is true, deleterious consequences for rationality follow. Consider the following argument:
4.       If no one is rationally responsible for any of his beliefs, then every belief he holds is a-rational.
5.       Whatever belief is held a-rationally has no reason to be held.
6.       If every belief has no reason to be held, then one has a defeater for every belief.
7.       No one is rationally responsible for any of his beliefs (denial of [2]).
8.       Therefore, every belief he holds is a-rational.
9.       Therefore, every belief he holds has no reason to be held.
10.   Therefore, he has a defeater for all of his beliefs.
(4) is definitional, and so it should not be denied. (5) may seem controversial, but it too is a definitional consequence (as rationality is just reasoning; if there was a reason to hold the belief as true, it would be rational). (7) is the stipulation under which the entire argument operates. (8-10) are entailed conclusions and so themselves cannot be denied. This leaves only (6).
This might seem to be a confusing premise but in reality it makes perfect sense. This is closely related to Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. The idea is that if it is the case that some person (let’s call him Dave) has no reason to believe any of his beliefs whatsoever, then Dave cannot rationally infer that any of his beliefs are correct. Please note this is not the same as claiming that all of Dave’s beliefs are false. That is an ontological categorization, and this is concerning itself with Dave’s epistemology. If Dave cannot infer that any of his beliefs are correct, he cannot discern which beliefs are correct and which are false. If he has no reason to believe any of his beliefs are true, then, if Dave were able to be rational, he should have a defeater for every belief (since every belief would be just as probably false as true and lack any reason for believing them). But then we see that the following argument holds:
  1. If DV is false, then I have a defeater for all of my beliefs.
  2. If I have a defeater for all of my beliefs, I cannot believe (11).
  3. I can believe (11).
  4. Therefore, I do not have a defeater for all of my beliefs.
  5. Therefore, DV is true.
The next post will deal with practical applications of DV in apologetics and evangelism. This is a necessary primer.

[1] As an example, consider a computer. People may, anthropomorphically, refer to a computer as “thinking” or “reasoning,” but people recognize computers do not, in fact, reason as humans do (this is why experts in the field are desperately searching for AI).

[2] Of course, someone may rightly point out that (2) does not require, on its own, the idea that free will is central to rationality. That is, someone can affirm (2) but deny (1).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Gratuitous Objection

People often have a presumption of naturalism when it comes to debates over God and Christianity. That is to say, in a discussion over whether or not God exists, it is often assumed naturalism is true unless or until God is shown to exist. This assumption is faulty, and this article will show why.

First, one must understand exactly why the presumption of naturalism is held (from a naturalist’s perspective). The idea is that naturalism just describes the physical world and how it works. In that case, supernaturalism is just naturalism plus God. In this way, supernaturalism (and its positing of God) is shown to be gratuitous (or unnecessary).

Second, one must understand the problem with this presumption. Claiming naturalism is just descriptive of the way the world works assumes that naturalism can account for everything. This requires an argument, not a presumption. Certainly, if naturalism is true, then supernaturalism becomes wholly unnecessary (and even false!). But it simply will not do to offer a position that is not argued for on a definitional basis. There must be a reason to claim naturalism.

Next, the presumption of naturalism assumes that it makes sense to say naturalism explains how it is that the world works. “Now wait a minute,” an objector may interject, “that’s part of the definition!” This is not quite true. Naturalism describes the physical world, but it does not account for why it is that the physical world acts the way it does. Why do the physical laws act the way they do? Metaphysical naturalism can speculate (these laws are brute facts, or they are logically necessary, or some other such thing), but again, without argument, why suppose this explanation is adequate? In any case, without argument, it cannot be shown that God as an explanation is gratuitous.

In fact, it is precisely because of this idea of the ultimate explanation of the physical universe and how/why it works the way it does that one cannot simply presume his position is correct without argument. What if it is the case that naturalism cannot plausibly account for the metaphysics of the universe, but God can? We cannot know from merely presuming our respective positions to be correct. That, on the contrary, takes sophisticated argument.

Naturalism cannot be presumed without argument any more than God can be presumed without argument.[1] If that is the case, it cannot be shown that God is gratuitous without argument. If the explanation of the universe is not some kind of God, then we cannot take it for granted that we do know that explanation. Anyone in that epistemic situation must be open to all of the options--even if that includes believing in God, after all.

[1] In fact, it may be argued that a flip-flop in presumption may be assumed, where the believer in God enjoys a kind of internal justification or warrant for her belief in God. This would be a significant advantage over naturalism, but is tangential to this discussion. See William Alston, Perceiving God.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Trouble for Open Theists

One of my criticisms of Open Theism is that it makes God a less-than-omniscient being. Now process theologians may have no problem with that, but their cousins the Open Theists may. Typically, they do not want to say God lacks this perfection. Usually, the idea is that God is omniscient because he knows all the truths there are to know (because the future conditionals are unknowable; they lack a truth value).

This line of defense by the Open Theist will seem to many to be dubious. However, there may be some merit to their line of thinking. Consider issues surrounding God’s omnipotence. There are several paradoxes or problems with omnipotence presented. For example, God’s actions and man’s free will. A man cannot be forced to freely do something. The standard line of defense is to claim this is a logical impossibility, and so God cannot be faulted for not being able to achieve this (it is not, strictly speaking, a thing to be achieved). Therefore, God is still omnipotent, for there is no non-logical limit to his power.

Is the same defense not open to the Open Theist? Can she not say that God is still omniscient here, because there is no non-logical limit to his knowledge? At first blush, this seems very promising. But upon further examination, it seems that it all depends on the idea that God’s foreknowledge and future conditionals (or relevantly-free counterfactuals) are incompatible, in a completely logical sense. This will take quite some work to show.

I would argue that if it is even possible for God to have knowledge of future contingents, then any being worthy of the title “God” must necessarily have that knowledge. Essentially, if it is even possible the Open Theist is wrong, then his lack of foreknowledge would be a non-logical limit on his knowledge. Any such conception of God would be inferior in Perfect Being Theology.

There are plenty of good reasons to reject the idea that future contingents and God’s foreknowledge cannot go together (in a logical sense). See William Lane Craig’s The Only Wise God for more on that. Dialectically, Open Theists claim that a traditional understanding of God’s omniscience is faulty because he logically cannot know certain propositions taken for granted under the traditional model. The response is that if it is even possible God does know them, then the Open Theist is wrong. It is therefore up to the Open Theist to overcome the objections made by Craig and construct a positive case for this. If they cannot, it looks for all the world as though they have constructed an inferior god.

Templates and Comments

Hello all! The blog needed a new look (I say this after several people have sent me e-mails concerning the glare of the white text on a black background!), so I am trying this out. This may not be permanent. In any case, please let me know what you think!

Next, as to the comments issue, I am re-opening unmoderated comments for the first two days after a post is uploaded to the blog. However, I am requiring a word verification. Please do not abuse this and remember to act charitably! God bless.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Question on Hermeneutics

Why is it so hard for believers to understand Scripture? If it's the Holy Spirit that helps believers interpret the Bible (1 Cor. 2:10), then why do we have so many interpretations? That is the focus of this question, sent to me by someone on Facebook.

Hey Randy, I have a question after learning about more hermeunetics and scripture (something some of my cellgroup members are curious about too) that I hope you can help me with!
It's rather simple, why did God make it so hard to understand the scriptures? It seems that to do so we need to take cultural contexts, original language etc.etc. into account when interpreting a particular text. .. which is rather hard for the average person to do (esp when it involves knowing greek or aramaic)

I definitely understand what you’re saying here. There are a number of reasons this is so, both logical and practical. First, God spoke to a particular people in a particular cultural context. This means that unless God forces all cultures to be the same thereafter, people are naturally going to have to overcome that barrier. Second, there is the issue of free will. God could, presumably, just have all saved people get all doctrine easily and correctly the first time through the Spirit. However, just like we don’t become fully conformed to the image of Christ while here on earth, so we also do not gain all the knowledge we can alone, or on this earth. 

This problem is essentially the problem of why God allows us to live life on our own, with its attendant challenges. The answer is the same in both cases: God wants someone to freely love him; God wants someone to freely grow and come into the knowledge of him. Most importantly, the Bible reveals we are to do this through the Spirit and not our own power. This preserves free will while accounting for the fact that there are many saved people who differ on many doctrines. 

Finally, on the doctrines essential to salvation (that is, doctrines that if one denies he is not saved), the Bible indicates Christians will be in unity (John 17). Hermeneutics is a wonderful area of study and as you grow in it you will be grateful for the things you know. You’ll find yourself taking certain interpretive principles and background knowledge for granted that others do not know. I’m glad to hear you’re doing well with that!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

In Essentials, Unity; In Non-Essentials, Liberty

The titular phrase is often invoked by Christians attempting to communicate that there are some battles over which we should not part company. Sometimes, however, the saying is attacked. Usually the idea is that all of biblical doctrine is important, so that there really are no non-essentials. Recently, I read a brief statement criticizing the saying, and I responded via e-mail. It is edited for identity purposes (for now), but is content-wise what I wrote.

Hello Mr. X,

I believe we ought to confront error lovingly within the realm of believers. I hope you feel the same way. Concerning your most recent . . . [post], you have a quoted passage from I.M. Haldeman concerning “non-essentials.” I believe it trades on an ambiguity in order to perpetuate a mistake in critical thinking.

First, some preliminary discussion on parts of the quote. “He is the great economist and never . . . does anything that is unnecessary.” Really? A consequence of this thinking is that God’s creation is therefore necessary. Not only that, but we are lead to the troubling conclusion that each individual God did in fact create is not only “helpful” but necessary as well. I see no reason God could not have chosen to create something else than that which He did create (or even to refrain from creating human persons at all). But since this is the premise on which the rest of the quote hinges, we can see his conclusions do not follow.

More than that, however, I think his conclusions are false. Whenever someone says something like “all doctrines are essential” in response to the oft-quoted “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty,” the first question that must be asked is this: essential for what? The people who quote the phrase tend to mean something very much like, essential for the Gospel and non-essential for the Gospel; the entire phrase means “One must believe X in order to be saved,” and “if one denies X, he is not saved.” 

I suspect you will want to know if that is indeed what people mean when they say this. In any case, I can tell you that I certainly mean it. John Hammett writes of believers, “He [God] brings believers together, building them into one holy temple (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21). Their common possession of the Spirit produces the mortar of fellowship that binds them into a community.” (Hammett, “Human Nature,” A Theology for the Church, Daniel L. Akin, ed. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007, 399). For Hammett, then, what the concept of unity in the church is intertwined with is the bond of the Spirit, which is what occurs between all believers. John 17 bears this out.

Now let’s explore the ramifications of this use of “essential.” If every doctrine is essential to salvation in the above relevant sense, then anyone who disagrees with me on any doctrine ought to be regarded by me to be unsaved. This hardline stance can only be avoided if we amend the definition of “essential” to mean something like “really important” or “of great holiness [God’s truth, after all] and value.” But using the same term to convey two different meanings is the fallacy of equivocation. Most of these men would agree to your use and application of this second definition. However, it is a mistake to criticize the teaching on that basis.

It occurs to me you could simply bite the bullet and declare that, yes, everyone who disagrees with you about a doctrine taught in the Bible is unsaved. I suspect you will not take this route. Rather, I suspect you will simply attempt to explain that these people don’t think doctrine is important enough. Let’s suppose that’s true for a moment. How would that invalidate the principle, again? Please consider what I have said. 

God Bless,

Randy Everist

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Equivocation and Christian Scriptures

I happened to be perusing the Internet recently (a very poor idea, I know) and came across the following meant-to-be-ridiculed scenario. "We are to fear God. We are to love God. There is no fear in love." The idea is that the Bible is demanding a contradictory state of affairs, or something impossible to fulfill. This article shall demonstrate this is not a problem.

The Bible does indeed command us to fear God, in many places (Ecc. 12:13 and 1 Peter 2:17). It also tells us we are to love God (Matt. 22:37). Moreover, the biblical record does say "perfect love casts out fear" in 1 John 4:18. However, this supposed contradiction is demonstrably fallacious, on two counts.

First, there is the issue of the semantic range fallacy. This fallacy states that some word takes on each and every meaning of its possible usages each time it is used. A deviant of this fallacy applies here, where nearly the opposite takes place: it assumes a univocal usage for the word. That is, every time the word appears, it is assumed to be infused with the same meaning in every case. This is demonstrably fallacious. So what the objector would need here would be a reason to think "fear"is in the exact same sense in all uses.

Second, there is the issue of equivocation. That fallacy is making an argument whose terms appear to carry the same meaning, but in reality do not (and hence are different terms after all). This can be seen from the context of each verse. Fearing God, in the context of the injunction for believers to do so, very clearly means something like being in awe, admiration, and subjugation. Fear, in the more common and modern context (as well as the context of there being no fear in love) clearly means terror in judgment (v. 17). But Christians do not have to worry about the terror of judgment; because Christ died for our sins, we may go to that judgment with boldness. A simple reading of the chapter would clear that up.

Now it occurs to me the saying was probably not meant as an argument, but rather as a joke of sorts. But people that tend to make these jokes typically do so out of a place of truth. That is, they probably believe the Bible is a silly book, hopelessly mired in contradiction. This article has shown that at least this so-called contradiction is easily resolved.