Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Why is God's Nature the Way it is?

In my ethics class the other day, we ended up discussing the nature of the moral law. Inevitably, we came across the Euthyphro dilemma. Briefly, it can be summarized as such: does God command what is good because he wills it to be so? Or does God command it to be good because it is, in fact, good? If God commands what is good because he wills it to be so, then it is the case that morality is really arbitrary and not objective at all. If he commands what is good because it is good, then God is not the standard of objective morality. The way to resolve the dilemma, as many readers already know, is to postulate a third horn for the dilemma; namely, it is postulated that the good just is God’s nature.[1]

However, one astute student asked the professor about God’s nature. He said, “If God’s nature were to be different, would there be different moral laws and commands?” The professor’s response was something like, “Well, I suppose there would be, but because of God’s nature being what it is, these other types of different moral laws do not obtain.” In my opinion, however, the question cannot even get off the ground. For we must ask: what is the explanation of God’s nature? Why is it the way that it is? It is either because it is necessarily the way it is, or it is due to some external cause. God, being God, cannot have an external cause. So, the only other option is that the nature of God is necessary. Now, necessity holds across all possible worlds in which it is instantiated. As it turns out, God is instantiated in all possible worlds (that is, there is our God, in all possible worlds). Hence, the antecedent of the question (“if God’s nature were to be different…”) is impossible.[2]

So the “kicked-up” Euthyphro dilemma, where one wants to know why God’s nature is the way it is, and if morality really could be any different than it is, is itself a non-starter. Objective morality is the way it is because it depends for its existence on an all-good, all-loving source of good—that is, God.

[1] Some may complain that this solution appears to be just the second horn; God commands what is good, his nature is good, God commands his nature. But even if we grant this, the force of the dilemma is so diluted as to be a non sequitur.

[2] Some counterfactuals with impossible antecedents can effectively be discussed, such as “if God were not to exist, then it would be the case that objective moral values would not exist.” However, this is not one of them. The reason is that because of the dependency relationship for existence; whatever derives its existence from God can be meaningfully discussed in the case of God’s absence. However, in discussing this counterfactual, we’re actually discussing the opposed categories of “good” and “evil,” which are arguably not interchangeable, on pain of incoherence.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

What does it mean to "begin to exist"?

What does it mean to "begin to exist"? Do we have a counterexample to our proposed definition? To be sure, the definition of "begin to exist" is not mine; it is from William Lane Craig. What follows is a brief question concerning the definition and my answer.

First, here is the definition:

“x” begins to exist if and only if x exists at some time “t” and there is no time “t*” prior to t at which x exists and no state of affairs in the actual world in which x exists timelessly.

Ex: Suppose I created a chair by putting all the pieces together.  It would be rightly said that the chair has begun to exist.  However, what if I were to take that chair and disassemble it?  It seems to me that the chair would now no longer exist.  But then, I go ahead and put the chair back together again.  Now the chair exists again.  Such a case would seem to undermine Dr. Craig's definition of "begins to exist".  For there was a prior time t* that x (the chair) existed.  Yet clearly it's the same chair.

It seems to me we only have 4 options
a) Either we say the chair never stopped existing even when it was disassembled (It was still a chair, just a disassembled chair).
b) It's a different chair now when we put it back together (maybe we scratched it in the process).
c) The chair isn't beginning to exist the second time, it's just "resuming" to exist.
d) This definition of "begins to exist" is faulty.

To be fair, these types of problems plague all metaphysicists, though they do have application to what it means to "begins to exist." I vote for option (c). Something can only begin a particular action (where particular is very specific) once. Certainly no one should think that "begins" and "starts again" are identical concepts (if I begin to write this response at 4:25pm, leave off and return the next day, it doesn't follow that I'm beginning my response [even if I erased everything and started over], it follows that I am continuing it, or starting again). It seems more obvious to me that something can only begin once than it does that there is something faulty about the analysis of "begins to exist"; it seems more obvious that something can only begin once than it does that the chair somehow has a new mode or measure of existence distinct from the first example. If the chair truly is the same chair, and if it is truly "beginning to exist" in some way distinct from the first time, yet also identical in the sense of beginning to exist, then it must be the case that the chair has some new mode or measure of existence that makes it distinct from the first beginning. Surely any such description will be less obvious than the idea that something can only "begin to exist" once.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

What happens if I think I believe in evolution?

Suppose one considers a subset of his own beliefs: 1. God exists. 2. The Bible precludes theistic evolution. Now let’s further suppose that he holds (1) with a strength of .9 probability (that is, he is quite sure, if not 100% certain, that God exists) and holds (2) at .7 (that is, he is reasonably sure of its truth, though less so than [1]). Now this gentleman comes to believe, through arguments and evidence (whether good arguments and evidence are involved will be irrelevant in this case), this claim: 3. Evolution is true.

These truths are actually in tension; if (3) is true, then it is not the case that both (1) and (2) are true, provided a further claim: 4. The Bible is not mistaken with respect to (2). Now beliefs (1-4) form a contradictory set. If all four statements are correct, then whatever accounts for evolution is not theistic; but if nontheistic evolution is true, then God had nothing whatsoever to do with the origin of life (otherwise, it just would be a particular form of theistic evolution). In that case, arguably, God does not exist. So, the man in question should jettison (1), correct? Not at all.

Suppose the man holds (3) at .8, and he holds (4) at .9. In that case, he believes most strongly that God exists and that the Bible is not mistaken in its teachings concerning evolution and creation. But notice what the man holds to be the least plausible: the claim that the Bible precludes theistic evolution. In this particular case, he ought to give up his particular interpretation of the passage, and thus hold (1, 3, and 4). Or perhaps he, upon re-evaluation, comes to doubt (3) itself, so that evolution is the belief dropped.

My point is that even if evolution comes to be believed by the Christian, he need not jettison his belief in God. This is not merely pragmatic: there are very good reasons to hold that God exists (arguments for his existence, for example). It wouldn’t do to suggest that “evolution is true” is a defeater for the kalam cosmological argument, or moral arguments for God’s existence. Nor would evolution’s truth count against the strength with which the man held the other beliefs (that is, the ones that are compatible). Instead, other considerations ought to be brought to bear (such as the individual reasons for holding each of the other beliefs). We may discover, in fact, that we hold all of the other beliefs higher than we do evolution’s truth, so that evolution, while initially quite plausible, is nonetheless the belief discarded.

Too many Christians hold a “reverse confirmation bias,” where virtually any claim made by a skeptic counts as evidence against Christianity if those claims are even remotely plausible. It is actually irrational to hold Christianity to a standard that demands proof beyond all possibility of doubt. We must examine claims made by the skeptic to see if they really are incompatible with Christianity. If they are not incompatible, then we must ask ourselves what, if anything, we must give up if the claim is true? If it is incompatible (or incompatible with some other truth we hold within Christianity), we must ask ourselves about what reasons we have to hold the truths in tension, and then jettison the one we have the least reason to believe. I, for one, believe I have far more reason to believe that “God exists” than I do that “naturalistic evolution is true,” and thus, even if I find evolution highly probable (which I do not), I would not disbelieve that God exists. At worst, I would assume theistic evolution, and at best, I would simply discredit evolution, no matter how plausible it seemed, because all of my other beliefs held in tension were more plausible.

Now, one concern is epistemic circularity: suppose I believe “God exists,” for independent reasons, but I only believe “the Bible is not mistaken,” because I believe God exists. In that case, since “the Bible is not mistaken” involves another belief under consideration, should I not count that against the claim that “the Bible is not mistaken”? Not at all, especially since I have independent reasons to affirm “God exists.” Since I have good grounds for thinking God exists, and hence (via argument) good grounds to think the Bible is not mistaken, then so much the worse for either my interpretation of the Bible or for evolution.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Christ and Sin Revisited

I originally wrote about this back in 2011, however, I felt it was worth revisiting from a more formal, logical perspective. Could it be the case that Christ could have chosen to sin, had he so desired, in his human incarnation? I do not think so, but a couple of syllogisms should be explained first.

11.    God cannot sin.
22.  Jesus is God.
33.    Therefore, Jesus cannot sin.
44.    If one is a man, then he can sin.
55.    Jesus is a man.
66.    Therefore, Jesus can sin.

Obviously, (3) and (6) are contradictory, but both arguments are logically valid. This means that at least one of the premises in one of the arguments must be rejected (since both conclusions cannot be true at the same time and in the same sense). The first thing we must understand for proper Christology is that Jesus Christ is a divine person; He is the Second Person of the Trinity. He was not two persons (one divine and one human), nor was he a divine-human hybrid (as though he were half-God, half-man). He was one divine person with two natures, a divine nature and a human nature.

So, let us examine (1). God cannot sin. This seems true enough, but if we are to challenge it, we must say that if God can sin, this implies, amongst other things, that he has moral duties to someone or something, which is biblically and theologically false. God’s nature is the foundation for moral values, so that he cannot deny himself logically. So that stays. What about (2)? Orthodox views state that Jesus is God, but what does this mean? This is what is called the “is of identity.” Jesus’ identity was God; he was a divine person. So, obviously, the conclusion, Jesus cannot sin, follows logically and inescapably.

But what about the other syllogism? Well, we must ask ourselves, is the “is” in (4) and (5) of identity? I think it will be clear that “is” in (4) is of identity; if one is a human person, then he can sin. However, in (5), the “is” is called the “is of predication”; it is an attribute of something. An example is to say that since Mr. Leporacci’s child was born, he is a father. But Mr. Leporacci was not a father when he was seven years old. Therefore, being a father is not Mr. Leporacci’s personal identity; being a father is predicated of Mr. Leporacci now that his son is born. Similarly, Jesus is a divine person, and he was not a human before the Incarnation; he took on flesh, which necessarily implies there was a point he did not have it. So being human is not the personal identity of Christ, it is his predicative nature (fully what it means to be human, of course!).

In that case, however, we can explain the second syllogism as follows:
4*. If one is a human person, then he can sin.
5*. Jesus has a human nature.
6. Therefore, Jesus can sin.

However, now the conclusion (the “therefore” statement) doesn’t follow from the new premises. Thus, Jesus cannot sin.

What about temptation? Is it really impossible to be tempted if you cannot possibly fulfill it? Not at all. Suppose it’s your birthday, and your spouse (or mom, for you unmarried people) makes you a great cake. You and your family eat half of this cake, and the rest is placed in the refrigerator, with the instructions not to touch it until the next day. You go to bed, and wake up halfway through the night, craving more cake! You are extremely tempted to get up and eat some, but you persevere. When you wake up, you go to the fridge to see that the cake is all gone! It turns out that, shortly after you went to sleep, your devious spouse/family ate all the rest before you even woke to be tempted. You were truly tempted, but it wasn’t possible to act on that temptation. This shows that it is at least possible for genuine temptation to occur even when it is not possible to be fulfilled, and that means temptation and ability are not identical.

Returning to the idea of (4-6), perhaps it can be salvaged after all. Perhaps, instead of Jesus’ merely being a human in the predicative sense, he was essentially a human. So, we can create a valid syllogism by stating:

4*. If one is a human person, then he can sin.
5’. Jesus is a human person.
6. Therefore, Jesus can sin.

Now, one can see that (5’) is clearly different from (5*), and both are in turn different from (5). (5’) contradicts orthodox Christology, and beyond that, it seems plainly false. Biblically, the Word became flesh, which means, roughly, that Jesus became a man. If that is the case, then his being a man is a contingent fact about him. Contingent facts about persons are not essential to their particular personhood; those would be necessary facts (like Jesus’ being divine). So (5’) should be regarded as false. But there may be another way to salvage the argument.

4’. For any one who is a person, if one has a human nature, then he can sin.
5.*. Jesus has a human nature.
6. Therefore, Jesus can sin.
(4’) can really only be affirmed on either an inductive basis or a fallacious basis. The latter basis is simply to assume what one is trying to prove; one would assume that Jesus’ human nature means that he can sin, and so formulate the premise that leads to that same conclusion. The former basis would be to take a kind of survey of all of those with a human nature, so that one sees that every instantiation of human nature has the ability to sin, so Jesus does too.

There are a few problems with this. First, one does not take an inductive survey to dictate metaphysical possibility. There could always be an exception (namely, the one we are discussing, and to assume its impossibility is to beg the question). Second, it assumes that Jesus human nature does not differ in any way (when all sides should agree that it differs in at least one major respect: the sin nature [here “nature” is used in two different senses]). Finally, it does not take into account that sin is something a person does, not a nature (William Lane Craig pointed out this thought). In short, it seems impossible that the divine person Jesus Christ sinned (in the metaphysical sense).