Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Fear not Ecclesiastes

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/evangelicalpulpit/2018/01/fear-not-ecclesiastes/#

Billy Graham

A few random thoughts about Billy Graham. I'll begin with a theological criticism, then say some positive things:

i) Decisional evangelism has a fundamentally flawed understanding of conversion. Decisional evangelism basically eliminates saving faith. To make a decision is an act of the will. That pertains to the field of action. Responding to the altar call is an act of the will.

That's not the same thing as faith. Faith requires assent, conviction, an intellectual reorientation. We have a different view of God, assuming we even believed in God. We have a different view of ourselves, especially in relation to God. 

An act of the will is not an act of faith in the sense of assent or conviction. There's no essential change of heart and mind. It's just about something you do. 

Saving faith has a volitional component in the sense of commitment. But that can't be a substitute for believing and trusting in Jesus. Reciting a formulaic prayer (the sinner's prayer), like a magic incantation, or performing a ritual, like the alter call, isn't saving faith. It gives people false assurance.

ii) Graham was a great preacher. He had a fine speaking voice, and he was a natural, commanding public speaker. Intense and singleminded. He also had a nice Southern lilt. 

iii) That said, the South has produced many great preachers. I'm sure many Southern preachers are his equal or superior orators. 

In addition to natural ability, he was saintly. And that lent an aura of holiness and authority to his preaching. 

iv) He illustrates how much God can do with a man of modest intellectual endowment, who's totally devoted to God. Graham wasn't a great scholar, philosopher, theologian, or apologist. But you don't have to be great to do great things. Conversely, many very talented people waste their talent on what's trivial and ephemeral.

v) Graham threw his considerable influence behind the inerrancy of Scripture, at a time when evangelical institutions were drifting. As I recall, he wrote the preface to Harold Lindsell's The Battle for the Bible. I expect that endorsement all by itself gave the book an audience.

vi) Graham supported the prolife movement. That wasn't a given for a Baptist of his generation. Prior to Roe v. Wade, many evangelical denominations were soft on abortion. Walter Martin, ten years Graham's junior, is an example of a Christian leader to came of age when the evangelical movement was soft on abortion, and he was never able to make the transition to a harder line position. 

vii) Graham publicly opposed the candidacy and reelection of Barack Obama. 

viii) As a young evangelist, Graham had a famous falling out with a fellow evangelist turned apostate Charles Templeton:

"I believe in the Genesis account of creation simply because it's in the Bible. I've discovered something in my ministry: when I take the Bible   literally, when I proclaim it as God's Word, I have power. When I stand before the people and say, 'God says,' or 'The Bible says, 'the Holy Spirit uses me. There are results. People respond. Wiser men than you or I have been arguing questions like this for centuries. I don't have the time or the intellect to examine all sides of each theological dispute, so I've decided, once and for all, to stop questioning and to accept the Bible as God's Word." 

"But Billy," I protested, "you can't do that. You don't dare stop thinking. Do it and you begin to die. It's intellectual suicide."


Templeton was oblivious to the irony of his statement. Atheism is intellectual suicide. Naturalistic evolution is intellectual suicide. If that's the case, then reason is the byproduct of blind evolution. 

And anyway, if there is no afterlife, if everything we cherish is the result of blind evolutionary conditioning, then what's so bad about intellectual suicide? There's no face behind the mask. The mask is it. 

Graham was not a great thinker, but his instincts were right. 

Heretical miracles

1. I'm old enough to remember Fulton Sheen. As a kid I occasionally saw his TV show. Years ago I read his autobiography.

2. In his heyday he was the public face of American Catholicism. Undoubtedly the most influential Catholic propagandist. 

Sheen was a natural storyteller. And I'm impressed by how he could speak without notes. 

3. I think he was probably a sincere Catholic rather than a charlatan. However, he always struck me as rather vain. He spoke with a very artificial accent and loved to dress up in showy vestments. 

He was a social climber who cultivated the rich, famous, and powerful. He liked to move in those circles. He hogged the limelight. 

One of his biographers (Thomas Reeves) argues that Sheen was guilty of resume inflation by fabricated a second doctorate. If so, that's consistent with his ambitious streak. 

From humble origins as a farm boy, he parlayed his intellectual and theatrical talents to become a major religious celebrity. That made other ambitious, egotistical prelates like Cardinal Spellman jealous.  

4. An irony of Sheen's career is that the church he tirelessly promoted no longer exists. He was raised and educated in the shadow of Trent and the antimodernist papacy. But in practice, that's dead. It died in his lifetime. It's gone the way of the Shaker cult. Sheen's Catholicism is a museum piece. Indeed, as bishop, he was unable to make the transition to the new post-Vatican II world order. 

5. There's a YouTube presentation in which he plugs Our Lady of Lourdes. He mentions some personal anecdotes which, if he's to be believed, indicate supernatural intercession. That raises an interesting question about how to assess reported Catholic miracles. 

i) In one anecdote, he says a bunch of atheists on a trip to the Pyrenees all died when their bus plunged off a bridge. In principle, there ought to be newspaper accounts which verify or falsify that claim. 

ii) Some Catholic miracles present a bit of a theological conundrum in the sense that if they happen, they might indicate the agency of Mary in answering prayer–which validates Catholic dogma. But the conundrum is that many Protestants can also recount personal anecdotes of miracles, answered prayer, and special providence, so there's a sense in which all these claims culminate in a stalemate. 

iii) In the video I referenced, Sheen appeals to these providential incidents to bolster some appalling theology. Assuming he's telling the truth, it reminds me of Deut 13:1-5, where "heretical miracles" function as a test of fidelity. 

iv) But I also have nagging reservations about Sheen's credibility. To begin with, there's the temptation of a natural storyteller to spin tall tales. A good storyteller has the power to manipulate an audience. Have the audience eating out of his hand. If you're someone like Sheen, who seems to have an appetite for popular adulation, it's hard to resist the temptation to exploit that ability in order to foster a personality cult centered on yourself.

That's in addition to Sheen's M.O. as a status seeker and name-dropper, who went out of his way to cultivate celebrity converts and hobnob with cultural elites. So I'm not convinced that Sheen is trustworthy when he tells these self-aggrandizing stories.

That doesn't necessarily mean he was a pure con artist. People can be complex and pulled in different directions. But there's already a Hollywood quality to the swanky piety that Sheen was enamored with. At the end of the day I'm undecided about Sheen's ultimate motives. 

Life from life

An interesting principle in Gen 1 is that it takes life to make life. Unlike dead, impotent idols, the "living God" creates the world. And he makes living creatures who reproduce. So it takes one living thing to make another living thing. Life is transmitted from one living thing to another. Procreation is an act of sharing and transferring life from a being that's already alive. Regeneration involves the same principle on a spiritual plane.

This principle is illustrated in the creation of Adam (Gen 2:7), where the Angel of the Lord breathes into the inanimate body of Adam, thereby making it alive. 

Procreation is like a candlelight service, where one burning candle lights another candle until the sanctuary is flooded with candlelight. That's how the human race spread from a single breeding pair. 

"Doublets"

5 Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Hear this dream that I have dreamed: 7 Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.”...9 Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” (Gen 37:5-7,9).

5 And one night they both dreamed—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison—each his own dream, and each dream with its own interpretation (Gen 40:5).

After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, 2 and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows, attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. 3 And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. 4 And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke. 5 And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. 6 And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. 7 And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream (Gen 41:1-7).

i) Traditionally, liberal scholars regard "doublets" as evidence for independent traditions which redactors edited into a single narrative. However, many of the "doublets" are clearly integral to the narrative. So that's a bad explanation. 

ii) More recently, scholars like Robert Alter regard "doublets" as literary devices. That suggests fictional conventions. 

iii) There is, however, a realistic explanation. The reason Joseph and Pharaoh both receive two related dreams is to confirm the message. Two different ways to say the same thing. It's similar to Peter's threefold vision, which is reiterated to lend certainty to the disclosure:

9 The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven (Acts 10:9-16).

Emphatic repetition underscores the revelatory, authoritative nature of the dream or vision. It's not a fluke or coincidence. Rather, there's a pattern. 

iii) The dreams of the baker and cupbearer aren't doubled. They have one dream apiece. Two dreamers. That's a "doublet" of sorts, but it has a different function. To begin with, their coordinated dreams indicate special providence. God sent and synchronized their dreams. In addition, the two dreams forecast divergent fates for the two dreamers. And the survivor belatedly brings Joseph to Pharaoh's attention. 

Blasphemous warrior cultures

Commenting on Gen 6:1-8:

Precisely the same three types of offenses committed by King Lamech are attributed to these figures: (1) Abuse of marriage. They collected in their royal harems "all that they chose" (v2). (2)…They filled the earth with violence (cf. vv5,11). (3) Blasphemous assumption of the name of deity. M. Kline, Genesis: A New Commentary (Hendrickson 2016), 31. 

That's a striking comparison. If the parallel holds, that suggests the Nephilim in Gen 6 are human rather than demonic. They don't spawn demigods. And that would be consistent with the human identity of Nimrod, who's described in terms evocative of that account (Gen 10:8ff.).

However, Kline's comparison needs to be fleshed out a bit. He does that somewhat in his comments on Lamech, in Gen 4:17-24 (p27).

That the Nephilim were polygamous or promiscuous is not explicit, although that's a typical M.O. of ancient pagan rulers (e.g. Gilgamesh). 

The violence motif is something they share in common with Lamech. The theme of blasphemy is more oblique.

On the one hand, Kline is alluding to the fact that God mandated sevenfold retribution for anyone who assaulted Cain, whereas Lamech insolently abrogates that standard and multiplies it exponentially (seventy-seven times) in reference to  his own sacrosanct person. There is a kind of deific hubris in that action. 

By itself, "sons of God" (or sons of gods) may not be blasphemous, but in the pagan-flavored context of Gen 6:1-8, it may well suggest heathen rulers who adopt an idolatrous royal mythology of divine pedigree (kings as demigods).  There are intriguing parallels with the thought-world of the Gilgamesh Epic and the Sumerian King List, reflecting the degenerate attitude of the Nephilim and the warrior culture they inaugurate. 

Kline defends his thesis in more detail in an early article, although his argument hasn't commanded widespread scholarly assent:

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The right to bear arms: resources

http://benrcrenshaw.com/gun-bibliography-resources/

Game, set, match

Moreland on Licona and McGrew

JP doesn't have FB, so he asked me to post this for him. Definitely worth considering.

"I have just read Lydia McGrew's stunning, refreshing, rigorous, and powerful new book Hidden in Plain View. McGrew--who, along with her husband, Tim, is a professor of philosophy at Western Michigan University, and a deeply committed Christian--resurrects and further develops an argument for the historicity of the Gospels and Acts that has long been neglected. It is a must-read. However, just as or, perhaps, more importantly is her work in providing a first-rate, rigorous, thorough and amiable presentation and critique of an approach to NT historicity--especially in the Gospels and Acts--that sees various literary devices in the text that, whether intentionally or not, tends to undermine the historicity of the Gospels and Acts and eschews sophisticated harmonization attempts based on certain historical and legal forms of reasoning. Her specific target is Mike Licona. Licona is a friend of mine, but with scholarly objectivity, I believe his written views undermine NT historicity and, more importantly, are based on bad arguments and are academically inferior to an alternative approach. McGrew is the only first-rate scholar who has argued these points, quite successfully in my view, and I happily endorse her presentations available with this note. I urge you to read and view her arguments and pass all of this along to as many people as you can, including other websites." JP Moreland

Are there fictionalizing literary devices in the Gospels? Analytic philosopher Lydia McGrew presents convincing arguments against New Testament scholar Michael Licona. http://bit.ly/2oehP0o

Dr. Lydia McGrew has a great discussion of six bad habits of NT scholars and how to avoid them. http://bit.ly/2Fa707z

Dream act

Here's my side of an exchange I had with Darrell Bock on his recently article:


Darrell,

A chronic problem with your political articles is that you never engage the other side of the argument. You just assume that you're right. You just assume that people should see how reasonable your position is. 

Your articles are unconvincing to someone who doesn't already agree with you, because you make no attempt at rational persuasion. There's no indication that you've bothered to study the other side of the argument on gun rights. For instance:


If you wish to change minds, you need to show an awareness of the best arguments on the other side, and address their arguments.

Darrell,

You're politically naive. You personally may not believe in confiscation, but gun control advocates in general are pursuing an incremental strategy. They won't announce outright that they wish to disarm private citizens and confine gun possession to gov't agencies, but that's the goal. Hillary was praising the Australian model, which was a confiscation model. 

You imagine there's difference-splitting middle ground, but that's not the end-game for gun-control advocates. They won't stop there. We've had outright gun bans in big cities in blue states. 

It's like the debate over gay marriage. Proponents pursued an incremental strategy. They framed it in terms of "marriage equality". They said, "how does gay marriage have any effect on you?"

From their viewpoint, that was the noble lie. But once they got SCOTUS to invent a Constitutional right to gay marriage, they began driving Christians out of business.

That's the way it works in the real world, Darrell. They lie about their true intentions to make irreversible gains, then build on those gains.

Darrell, it's a familiar wedge tactic. 

BTW, what's wrong with citizens owning "assault rifles"? Why is it okay for police to use assault rifles to defend themselves, but not okay for civilians to use assault rilles to defend themselves? Why is it okay for police to use assault rifles to protect the public, but it's not okay for the public to use assault rifles to protect themselves? 

If you ban assault rifles, that creates a lucrative black market for banned weapons. The criminal class will still have access to assault weapons. And the criminal class will have private citizens outgunned, since you've prevented private citizens from having comparable weaponry.

i) Darrell, those are defensive as well as offensive weapons. Why do you think the police use them? To kill masses of people? 

ii) You and I are both old enough to remember a time when we didn't have mass shootings in school. Yet that was a time when there were high school gun clubs on campus. Boys brought guns to school. It's not access to guns that's the source of the problem, but a cultural change.

iii) It's kind of definitional that if you successfully eliminate guns, that will cut down on mass shootings. In reality, that just creates a black market for banned weapons, so the criminal class still has access.

But cutting down on mass shootings doesn't necessary cut down on mass killings. Take suicide bombers in Israel. Or vehicular jihad. Or all the people Tim McVeigh killed and maimed using fertilizer. Or knife attacks in China. Or the Sarin gas attack in Tokyo. 

Some killers plan months in advance.

Regarding Dreamers:

The parents gambled on breaking the law and getting away with it. Well, when you take a risk, sometimes you lose the bet.

Suppose a father or mother illegally obtains a property. That's where they begin to raise their kids. 

The rightful owner then gets a court order to have them evicted. It's a pity that the kids are caught in the middle, but we can't have a situation in which adults are allowed to game the system, then dare us to enforce the law because they use their own kids as human shields. 

There are illegal immigrants who cynically use the anchor baby principle, then dare authorities to deport them. But we're under no obligation to turn our country into a haven for looters. Illegal immigration is very costly to citizens who play by the rules.

The fact that they broke the law isn't my primary concern. Rather, I'm making the point that when you obtain a good by breaking the law, that's a calculated risk. You act as if that should be a risk-free endeavor, and it's somehow unfair or unjust for people to suffer the consequences if their gamble doesn't pay off.

It's like betting a horses. I take the risk of losing my bet. Should I be protected from not losing my money if I put money on a race horse and another horse wins?

Yes, children are not the guilty ones. But children often suffer the consequences of choices made by parents. Are you saying we should create a system in which kids are always insulated from the risky or foolish choices of their parents? 

Responsible wage-earners pick up the tab for cheaters. How is that fair?

Darrell, who is the "we" who invited them in? Was there a plebiscite in which the American electorate invited them in?

One of the problems with your position, Darrell, is that there's no logical cutoff on your principle. When illegal aliens know that if they just wait it it out long enough, their status will be normalized, that creates an insatiable chain of illegal immigration. 

Anchor babies are a wedge tactic. That's the point. They can always point to their kids, then people like you will always buckle. So your position reduces to an open borders policy. There's never a last time for amnesty, since the principle is unlimited. 

If a breadwinner supports his family through a criminal enterprise, and he's convicted, then his kids suffer. Does that mean we should never convict breadwinners?

Hedge maze

I'm going to comment on some related statements by A. J. Ayer. He was a prominent English atheist, not as famous as Russell, but also not as flippant. I'd note in passing that Russell and Ayer were both gifted children as well as emotionally neglected children. Both men were womanizers. As Paul Vitz has documented (Faith of the Fatherless), emotional neglect is a pathway to atheism. 

Nevertheless the vast majority of those who believe that the universe serves a purpose do so because they take this as conferring a meaning on life. How far down in the scale of organisms are they prepared to go is not always clear. The hymnodist Mrs. Alexander boldly strikes out with 'All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.' 

Even if life had a meaning in the sense that we have just been discussing, it would not be known to the persons who had faith in it, nor would they have any inkling of the part that their own lives played in the overall plan. It might, therefore, seem surprising that the question was so important to them. Why should it matter to them that they followed a course which was not of their own choosing as a means to an end of which they were ignorant? Why should they derive any satisfaction from the belief that they were puppets in the hands of a superior agent? I believe the answer is that most people are excited by the feeling that they are involved in a larger enterprise, even if they have no responsibility for its direction. A. J. Ayer, The Meaning of Life and Other Essays (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1990), 120,122.

i) One obvious answer is that God is infinitely wiser than we are, so he can devise far better plans for our lives than we can if left to our own devices. 

ii) To take a comparison, suppose a military unit is sent on a mission of pivotal strategic value. If successful, it will be a turning-point in the war effort. But their superiors don't inform team regarding the strategic value of the mission. They don't know that in advance. It's only after the war, with the benefit of hindsight, that they come to appreciate the critical significance of their role. Why does Ayer seem to assume that creatures need to know ahead of time what part their lives play in the overall plan? Why can't that be something they discover as they go along? Why can't that be retrospective rather than prospective? 

iii) Consider a father who builds a jungle gym in the backyard for his young sons. Or maybe a tree house. His kids didn't choose that playground equipment. Their father created that recreational opportunity for them. He gives their lives structure. Something fun to do. Something they couldn't imagine or construct on their own. Should they not derive satisfaction in the jungle gym or tree house because they didn't choose that course of action? 

iv) When a creative writer invents characters, he doesn't create them in a vacuum, with nothing to do. He also creates a setting and a plot. Should God make rational creatures without giving them any direction in life? Just blunder along without any sense of purpose? Thrown them into existence with no guidance, like feral children, to fend for themselves? 

What does he even mean by saying they have no inkling about their place in the great scheme of things? The Bible describes the origin, fall, redemption, and destiny of man. Indeed, that's the great narrative arc of Scripture.  

Sure, Ayer doesn't believe in God, but he needs to adopt a Christian viewpoint for the sake of argument to critique it. Yet he's made no effort to get inside that viewpoint. 

But now, it may be objected, suppose that the world is designed by a superior being. In that case the purpose of our existence will be the purpose that it realizes for him; and the meaning of life will be found in our conscious adaptation to his purpose…Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that everything happens as it does because a superior being has intended it should. As far as we are concerned, the course of events still remains entirely arbitrary. True, it can now be said to fulfill a purpose; but the purpose is not ours…It merely happens to be the case that the deity has the purpose that he has and not some other purpose, or no purpose at all. E. Klemke & S. Cahn, The Meaning of Life: A Reader (Oxford, 3rd. ed., 2008), 200.

Why does Ayer assume that God can have no good reason for intending one thing rather than another? Why assume the choice must be arbitrary rather than judicious? 

Nor does this unwarrantable assumption provide us even with a rule of life. For even those who believe most firmly that the world was designed by a superior being are not in a position to tell us what his purpose can have been. 

Scripture does provide a rule of life. Scripture contains many instructions about how to live. Scripture contains a roadmap about where to go, how to get there, and what to avoid. So what is Ayer talking about? Yeah, he doesn't believe in the Bible, but he makes no effort to refute Christianity on its own terms. It's like he never really thought about it. 

They may indeed claim that it has been mysteriously revealed to them, but how can it be proved that the revelation is genuine?

i) What makes  him think there's something mysterious about the process of divine revelation?

ii) There are various lines of evidence that Scripture is what it purports to be, viz. argument from prophecy, argument from miracles, archeological corroboration, answered prayer. 

Either his purpose is sovereign or it is not. If it is sovereign, that is, if everything that happens is necessarily in accordance with it, then this is true also of our behavior. Consequently, there is no point in our deciding to conform to it, for the simple reason that we cannot do otherwise. However we behave, we shall fulfill the purpose of this deity; and if we were to behave differently we should still be fulfilling it; for if it were possible for us not to fulfill it it would not be sovereign in the requisite sense. 

That confounds sovereignty with fatalism. However, predestination and providence employ multiple means to achieve the end. Opening doors, closing doors, incentives and disincentives. It's not whatever will be will be, for sovereignty coordinates ends and means. There's one particular pathway to the goal–like a hedge maze. 

But suppose that it is not sovereign…In that case, there is no reason why we should try to conform to it unless we independently judge it to be good. But that means the significance of our behavior depends  finally upon our own judgments of value; and the concurrence of a deity then becomes superfluous. 

That may be a valid critique of freewill theism. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Does prayer stop bullets?

Tyson is a "public intellectual". Like Carl Sagan, Jerry Coyne, and Richard Dawkins, he's become a vocal spokesman for "scientific" atheism.

There's a problem when people try to act cleverer than they are. His tweet is meant to be witty, but it's really stupid.

i) To begin with, we can't pray for things we can't anticipate. We can't pray to God to stop things we didn't see coming. School shootings at any particular location are very rare and highly unpredictable. It's too late to pray to God to stop something after the fact, when the outcome is known. To pray is not an act of prophecy. It doesn't see the future.

ii) The theology of prayer was never predicated on God answering every prayer.

iii) How does Tyson know that prayer is insufficient to stop bullets from killing students? To take a comparison, suppose Tyson said time-travel is insufficient to stop bullets from killing students? But if a time-traveler succeeded in changing the timeline to avert a catastrophe, then that erases the original timeline. The very success of his temporal incursion covers his tracks.

By the same token, if there are occasions when prayer prevents a massacre, there will be no record of what didn't happen. A nonevent leaves no trace evidence. If prayer changes the future, in a counterfactual sense, then that's consistent with the future that actually eventuates. Efficacious prayer and naturalism are empirically equivalent at that level.

There are, however, situations in which there's evidence for the efficacy of prayer. But atheists don't move in circles where that happens, since their social circle generally consists of people who don't pray, so they've excluded themselves from the evidence.

Teens with guns

I going to make a couple of loosely related observations about schoolyard snipers. Many advocates of "sensible gun control" seem to think we need to keep guns out of the hands of teenagers, or at the very least, military grade weapons. 

1. Some people think the solution, or at least one solution, is to have police officers permanently stationed in public schools. In that regard I'd simply point out that many many teenage boys can easily subdue and disarm a policewoman. I don't mean if her gun is drawn. I mean in the more casual atmosphere of a high school, where police officers wouldn't maintain the same physical distance or be on guard in the same way if they were walking the beat and interacting with strangers (which they usually do in pairs). They see these students everyday. 

A boy who had designs on shooting his classmates wouldn't have to smuggle a gun through metal detectors. There'd already be police firearms on site. The policewoman would be the armory. So long as he had the ability to overpower her and take her gun away, that's all he needs. 

2. Teenagers regularly enlist in the military. You can volunteer at 18, or join at 17 with parental permission. I don't have these statistics at my fingertips, but just since the advent of the all-voluntary military, we've probably had hundreds of thousands of teenagers (junior NCOs) with access to military grade weaponry. And that's not counting teenage draftees during WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. I'm guessing we've had millions of teenagers with access to military grade weaponry over the decades. How many of them have perpetrated domestic mass shootings? Surely the percentage is infinitesimal. Likewise, you can go straight from high school to police academy, which gives cadets access to police firearms. 

What A Major New Commentary Says About Isaiah 9

H.G.M. Williamson's commentary on Isaiah 6-12 came out recently. I just wrote a post on Facebook about Williamson's material on Isaiah 9:1-7.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Clinging to nihilism

I'm going to quote and comment on some statements in David Benatar's The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life's Biggest Questions (Oxford 2016). 

Debates about the existence of God are interminable, and I cannot hope to settle them here (39). 

Of course, there are those who remain resolute in their belief in either resurrection or the immortality of the soul. In this sense, at least, the issue is unresolved. However, merely because a view has (even vast numbers) of adherents does not mean that it is a reasonable position worth taking seriously. Thus, while I cannot pretend that my comments constitute a full refutation of their view, I do not intend to engage any further with the beliefs that we are immortal in in either of these senses (144).

I'm struck by Benetar's intellectual impatience. That would be understandable if he had something better in the offing, but Benatar has such an acidic outlook on life that he deems it an unmitigated tragedy that anyone even exists! Given that frame of reference, wouldn't just about anything be a huge improvement over his dyseptic, despairing antinatalism? Why not invest more effort into investigating the evidence for Christian theism? Does he have something better to do with his time? Why does he cling to nihilism for dear life? 

However, human nature tends to abhor a meaning vacuum...Arguably, the most ancient and also the most pervasive of the coping mechanisms is theism and associated doctrines. Many theists believe that even if our lives seem meaningless from a cosmic perspective, they are not in fact so. This, they say, is because we are not an accident of purposeless evolution, but rather the creation of a God who endows our lives with meaning. According to this view, we serve not merely a cosmic purpose, but a divine one.

This is a seductively comforting thought. For that reason alone, we should be suspicious of it, given how easy it is for humans to believe what they would like to believe.

A related objection notes that not merely any divine purpose would give us the kind of meaning we seek (36-37).

i) While it's true that not just any divine purpose would give us the kind of meaning we seek, that would only undercut the theistic "coping mechanism" if, in fact, the actual divine purposes are of that unenviable kind. So how is that hypothetical observation germane unless there's some reason to think that would be the case? 

ii) There is, moreover, a difference between a meaning vacuum and the kind of meaning we seek. Existence would still be meaningful rather than vacuous even if it's not the kind of meaning that some people seek. Need it be equally meaningful for everyone to be meaningful for anyone? 

iii) How many Christians believe our life seems to be meaningless from a cosmic perspective? Is that really their viewpoint and experience–or Benatar's? 

Many people have raised the objection that theism cannot do the meaning-endowing work it is purported to do here. For example, it has been suggested that serving God's purposes does not suffice, as this makes people "puppets in the hands of a superior agent" or mere instruments to the goals of God. 

The theist could say say, there is no problem in being a means to any end set for us by such a God; better to be a means to a supreme being's beneficent purpose than neither to be an end of cosmic significance nor to have any (cosmic) purpose at all. 

The problem with such a response is that, insofar as it provides any reassurance about life's cosmos meaning, it does so by providing a hand-waving account of what that meaning is. The account is as mysterious as the ways in which the Lord is often said to move. We are told that serving the purposes of a beneficent deity provides (cosmic) meaning to our lives, but to be told that is not to be told what those purposes are. "Serving God's purposes" is a placeholder for details that need to be provided.

When the details are provided, however, the results are unsatisfactory. If, for example, we are told that our purpose is to love God and serve him, we might reasonably ask why a being as great as God is said to be would possibly want or need the love and service of humans at all–let alone so badly that he would create them to serve that purpose. If loving and serving God is our purpose, the act of creating us sounds like that of a supremely narcissistic rather than a supremely beneficent being. This alleged purpose is thus unconvincing (37-38).

i) I don't know how Benatar (or Ayer) is using "puppets". What's the precise point of objection? 

ii) It's not a question of what God needs. If God is the supreme good and source of all finite goods, then loving and serving God is equivalent to loving goodness and acting accordingly. 

iii) Perhaps Benatar thinks that to say our purpose is to serve God or serve his purposes implies that humans are only a means to an end: God uses us to achieve his goals. We are pawns on a cosmic chessboard. Pawns are expendable. You sacrifice a pawn to checkmate your opponent. Something like that.

If so, this assumes that humans are simply instrumental to the realization of God's purposes rather than the object of God's purposes. If, however, God's purpose is that humans , or at least a subset of humanity, enjoys eternal felicity, then we don't exist primarily to facilitate God's objective; rather, we are the intended beneficiaries of his designs. 

iv) Likewise, we don't have to know God's purpose for our lives to benefit from his purpose for our lives, assuming that's a beneficent plan. To take a comparison, consider a father who takes his young son on a camping trip. The purpose is to have a shared experience. His young son may not be privy to the details of the excursion. And his father can contrive enjoyable pursuits for his young son which his son lacks the imagination and ability to contrive on his own. His son needn't be told ahead of time what fun plans his father has in store for him to find their time together meaningful. Indeed, an element of surprise might make it more enjoyable. His father's goal isn't separate from their time together; rather, that is the goal.

By the same token, Christians discover God's purpose for their lives by…living. It's not something they need to know in advance. They find out by experience. That's how it works. These aren't separable things. 

Another possible suggestion is that our purpose on earth is to prepare us for the afterlife. That does not explain what the purpose of the afterlife is. If it is eternal bliss, it might be thought not to require any further end. However, if religious doctrine is to be believed, then for a great many people, the afterlife is not a final good but rather a final bad–hardly the sort of meaning people yearn for (38-39).

i) Must it be eternal bliss for everyone to be eternal bliss for anyone?

ii) A bad end is meaningful if that's their just desert. 

Even in the best-case scenario, it is hard to understand why God would create a being in order to prepare it for an afterlife, given that no afterlife would be needed or desired if the being had not been created in the first place. It is much like a parent creating a child for the purpose of that child's having a satisfying retirement. Satisfying retirements are worth aiming at if one already exists, but they hardly provide grounds for creating people who will have such a retirement. The sort of meaning that the afterlife provides cannot explain why God would have created us at all (39). 

But that's a reflection of Benatar's thankless, venomous antinatalism. In a "best-case scenario," God makes rational beings out of sheer generosity, to experience happiness. Benetar acts as though, since a nonentity can't desire happiness, that it's better never to exist than to be happy.  

As all this illustrates, it is not easy to specify a divine ordained meaning that convincingly and non-circularly explains the cosmic meaning of human life in a way that affirms rather than demeans humanity (39). 

The blind irony of an antinatalist who frowns on "demeaning humanity". 

Upton Sinclair famously remarked that it "is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it". It is similarly difficult to get somebody to understand something when the meaning of his life depends on his not understanding it (39).

What's the value of understanding that life is worthless? What's the point of promoting that outlook? 

Imagine you were to visit a country in which the evidence of repression is pervasive: There is no freedom of the press or expression; vast numbers of people live in squalor and suffer severe malnutrition; those attempting to flee the country are imprisoned; torture and executions are rampant; and fear is widespread…When you muster the courage to express skepticism, citing various disturbing facts, you are treated to elaborate rationalizations that things are not as they seem. 

It would be wonderful if North Korea were led by an omnibenevolent, infallible, and incorruptible ruler, but if it had such a leader, North Korea would look very different from the way it does look. The fact that many people in North Korea would disagree with us can be explained either by their vested interests in the regime, by their having been indoctrinated, or by their fear of speaking out.

Not all of earth is as bad as North Korea, but North Korea is part of "God's earth"; so are Afghanistan, Burma, China, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, and Zimbabwe, to name but a few appalling places for many to live…My point is that they all occur within the jurisdiction of a purportedly omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God (41-42).

i) That's just rehashing the problem of evil. It makes no effort to engage Christian theodicies.

ii) Moreover, the comparison is tendentiously one-sided, as if life on earth is unmitigated evil with no compensatory goods. 

iii) Why does Benatar cling to nihilism? He clutches nihilism to his breast. Don't you dare take my misery away from me! I live to be miserable! That's my purpose in life!  

Consider, first, the denial of our mortality. One form this takes is belief in physical resurrection at some future time. If this belief were true it would make death a kind of suspended animation rather than annihilation. Assuming that the resurrected person would either not die a second time…this promises a kind of immortality.

Perhaps more common is the belief in an immortal soul. The comfort sought here is that though our bodies may die, we shall continue in some–preferably blissful–disembodied state despite our corporeal death and decay. 

Such beliefs are instances of wishful thinking. We have no evidence that we shall ever be physical resurrected or that we shall endure as disembodied souls after our physical deaths. Religious texts may speak of these phenomena, but even when they are not waxing poetic and metaphorical, they do not constitute evidence. Indeed, it is much more reasonable to believe that death is annihilation of the self (142-43).

If there's evidence that the texts are true, then that's evidence for the truth of what they say.

Are we really to believe that decomposed, cremated, atomically incinerated and ingested bodies are to be reconstituted and reanimated? The challenges in understanding the mechanics of this dwarf even the other notable problems, such as the logistics of physically accommodating all the resurrected (143).

I don't see any difficulty in principle. A body is a specific organization of matter. God can recreate a particular body by reproducing that particular pattern of atoms and molecules. A body is a concrete exemplification of an abstract pattern. God has the power to replicate a specific configuration of atoms and molecules. 

These practical problems do not confront the belief in an immortal soul, but that belief faces no shortage of other problems. We have plenty of evidence that our consciousness is a product of our brains. When we are given general anesthesia–administrated to our physical bodies and affecting our physical brains–we lose consciousness. When our brains are deprived of oxygenate or when we suffer a sufficiently powerful blow to the head, we similarly lose consciousness. It seems unlikely that consciousness, so vulnerable even during life, could then survive the death and decay of our brains (143-44). 

i) Of course, those are cliche-ridden objections to dualism. But it's not as if dualists are speechless in the face of stock objections. On the one hand, based on the receiver view of William James and the filter view of Aldous Huxley, physicalism and substance dualism are empirically equivalent.

On the other hand, there's positive evidence (e.g. veridical near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, terminal lucidity, apparitions of the death) that the mind can function independent of the body, so that tips the scales in favor of dualism. 

ii) So long as the mind is coupled with the brain, that coupling will affect transmission–in both directions We'd expect that given interactionist dualism. 

Is immortality a road to nowhere?

An unending life would be one that lacked any meaningful shape or pattern. It would resemble an infinitely long river that meandered eternally without ever reaching the sea. There would be no arch-shaped structure of birth, growth, maturity, decline and death. Although phases of the life might have their own internal structure, it would be as a whole (not that it could ever be grasped that way) completely shapeless. It would be a life that was going nowhere specific, and in which the people, projects, and aspirations that were important at one stage would be insignificant and forgotten at another. Geoffrey Scarre, Death (Routledge 2014).

i) To play along with his metaphor, boating down an infinitely long river means we'd never see the same scene twice. The scene would constantly change. And that would indeed be maddening.

But why suppose unending life must be analogous to that? Why can't eternal life combine variety with repeatable experiences? 

ii) Scarre fails to distinguish between temporal ends and teleological ends, yet something that's endless can still be patterned. The Mandelbrot set is infinite, yet highly structured. 

Finnegans Wake has a circular plot. It has no real beginning or ending. In principle, you can open the book at any point and start reading. You can break into the circle anywhere. Once inside the plot, repeated reading will deepen your understanding of the plot. Things you initially miss you will appreciate after going around a few more times. Of course, that could still become tedious, but we're just toying with metaphors. 

Take the common experience of leaving home and returning home. That's repetitious and circular, yet it doesn't mean you're going nowhere. Moreover, leaving home enriches the experience of returning home. 

Furthermore, if we lived forever we would need to be equipped with vastly more powerful memories than we have now to be able to recall our own distant pasts. McMahan might contend that it would not be important to be able to remember our origins or ancient history so long as we could remember our more recent past (say, the last century or so). But if we retained anything like our present psychology, we would feel ourselves deeply alienated from our own pasts if we had to consult the history books to learn about our former deeds. (Also think what an unsatisfactory sense of self one would have if one could no longer remember one's childhood or one's parents.) We care about what will happen to us in the future, and what happened to us in the past, because we see our past and our future as parts of one and the same life, chapters in the same narrative. No coherent, graspable narrative, however, could link together our existence over endless ages. Fischer has suggested that while an infinitely long life would not have "narrative structure, strictly conceived", the "literary analogue for such a life is not the novel, but perhaps a collection of short stories…with the same character appearing as the protagonist" 

That objection seems to be based on immortality in the sense of never dying, rather than a Christian model, where there's distinct phases: life before you die, the intermediate state, and the final state. His objection involves an undifferentiated continuum. But on a Christian model, I don't think it would require a vastly more powerful memory to recall your life before you died. 

And do we actually need a vastly more powerful memory to recollect what happens to us if we just keep on living? That's never been put to the test. Memory is already highly selective.