Saturday, May 21, 2016

Eternal justification

A debate that sometimes crops up in Reformed circles is whether the elect are justified from eternity. That's not a yes or no question. Because justification involves a relation between a divine act and the resultant state, any answer is equivocal unless we distinguish both sides of the transaction.

In one respect, justification is a divine act. If God subsists outside of time, then justification is timeless or eternal in that regard.

Conversely, justification is the result of a divine act. When that takes effect is a separate question. A timeless divine act can be effected in time, at different times. 

So in another respect, justification is the state of being justified. Although God is timeless, humans are timebound. The elect are justified in time, and that's contingent on faith in Christ. God doesn't decree justification in isolation; rather, he decrees justifying faith in tandem with the decreed result.

Redefining death

"A subjective definition of 'death' would unleash great evil" by Wesley J. Smith.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Christ died for sinners

In 5-point Calvinism, is limited atonement and/or limited election in tension with the universal offer of the gospel? 

i) God doesn't directly offer the gospel to every individual, or directly command every individual to believe the gospel. 

In that respect, the offer of the gospel parallels special revelation. In might be more efficient if God privately revealed himself to every individual, but instead, God resorts to a public revelation. A mass medium. 

One reason, perhaps, is that humans are social creatures, so having Scripture as a common reference point is a unifying principle.

Be that as it may, the offer of the gospel is like a recipe. If you follow the instructions, this will be the result. A recipe doesn't order anyone in particular to use that recipe. 

ii) In nature, there's a principle of redundancy. For instance, a maple tree produces far more seeds (or maple copters) than will every take root and become trees in their own right. But the redundancy is purposeful. If enough maple trees produce enough airborne seeds, that greatly raises the odds that some of them will take root and produce trees in their own right.

Likewise, many animals produce multiple offspring, only a few of which survive to maturity. But in order to at least achieve a replacement rate, it's necessary to produce offspring in excess of the replacement rate, to offset the loss of the offspring that are eaten by predators before they reach sexual maturity and repeat the reproductive cycle. By the same token, multiple sperm raise the odds that one will fertilize the ovum. 

Humans imitate this principle. For instance, absent vaccination, some people will contract a serious communicable disease and some won't. Since we don't know which is which, we resort to mass vaccination to ensure, as best we can, that everyone who would be susceptible is covered. We vaccinate everyone, not because everyone needs it, but to make reasonably certain that we get the ones who do need it. It isn't necessary for everyone, but it's necessary to include more people in order to cover the subset that really need it. 

Likewise, the military might resort to more extensive bombing strikes to raise the odds of hitting the targets. Or resort to bombs with higher yield to achieve the same end. It gives you a margin of error. 

By analogy, the universal offer of the gospel will be heard by elect and reprobate alike. That's the nature of a mass medium of communication. That doesn't mean it's intended for all. Rather, that's a way of reaching the intended subset. Given that humans are social creatures, unless God privately discloses the gospel to the elect, the only alternative is a general message. 

iii) Let's consider a more subtle illustration. Suppose one country invades another country. Some of the natives form an underground resistance movement. They are planning a counterattack to oust the occupation force. But it will take a while for them to get all their ducks in a row. 

When they are ready to launch the counterattack, they have sympathizers in the news media do a public service announcement. This will seem to be a perfectly innocuous message. But will contain some code phrases that members of the resistance movement will recognize. That will be the signal to come out of hiding and strike back.

The enemy will hear the same announcement, but it won't detect the coded message embedded in the announcement. The enemy isn't privy to the code phrases. 

The message has to be broadcast nationwide to reach all the far-flung resistance cells. Everyone will hear the same message, but everyone won't register the ulterior significance of the message. 

iv) Perhaps a 4-point Calvinist would say this is parallel to the relationship between unlimited atonement and limited election. Christ dies for everyone to cover the elect. 

Whether you think that makes sense depends on your view of what the atonement targets. Does it cover sin? Sins? Or sinners? Does the death of Christ make atonement for some abstraction we call sin? Does it make atonement for sins, as distinct from the agents who committed them? Or does it make atonement for elect sinners? For their guilt?

I don't deny that Scripture sometimes speaks of making atonement for "sin" or "sins", but I think that's shorthand for sinners. I doubt Scripture intends to treat sin as an aggregate substance in abstraction from the particular agents who commit particular sins. Sin is personal. 

If Christ died for elect sinners, then it isn't necessary for the scope of the atonement to exceed the elect in order to cover the elect. If, moreover, Christ dies for the damned, then the atonement doesn't entail the salvation of anyone in particular. That greatly weakens the link between atonement and salvation. 

Legendary emperors

Christ mythicists like Richard Carrier deny the historicity of Jesus. In addition, Bart Ehrman denies the reliability of testimonial evidence. Let's briefly touch on some elementary problems with that stance:

1. It's a double-edged sword. If you deny that even firsthand sources are generally reliable, then secondhand sources will be even more unreliable. Yet critics of the Bible rely on secondhand sources to impugn the historicity of Scripture. 

i) For instance, they say Daniel mispredicted the death of Antiochus Epiphanes (c. 215-164 BC). That, however, depends on how much stock you put in extrabiblical sources, viz. Appian (2C AD), Diodorus Siculus (1C BC), Polybius (1 BC), 1 Maccabees (c. 90 BC), 2 Maccabees (c. 78-63 BC).  

Most of these weren't even by contemporaries of Antiochus IV. None of them were eyewitnesses. Given Ehrman's historical skepticism, why use sources like that as benchmarks to judge the historical accuracy of Daniel? 

That's even assuming the oracle in question refers to Antiochus IV rather than a future Antichrist. 

ii) Or take Qurinius (c. 51 BC–c. 21 AD). Critics say Luke's reference to his "census" is a historical blunder.  

Now, there are literary notices regarding Quirinius in Dio Cassius (c. 164–235 AD), Florus (2C AD), Josephus (c.37–c. 100 AD), Suetonius (c. 71–c. 135 AD), and Tacitus (c. 56–c. 120 AD). 

None of these writers were contemporaries of Quirinius. Not even younger contemporaries. All of them were writing generations after the fact. Given Ehrman's historical skepticism, why uses sources like that as a benchmark to judge the historical accuracy of Luke? 

2. Consider a more radical stance. You have omens, portents, prodigies, miracles, and apotheosis attributed to Roman emperors like Julius Caesar, Augustus, Vespasian, and Trajan. Ancient accounts of Roman emperors can check numerous boxes in the mythotypes of Lord Raglan and Joseph Campbell. Given the legendary embellishment of Roman emperors by Greco-Roman historians, if we apply mythicist principles in their case, we ought to conclude that Julius Caesar, Augustus, Vespasian, and Trajan never existed! These are fictional characters who exhibit the same mythical traits as Romulus, Remus, Perseus, Theseus, Hercules, Achilles, Aeneas, &c. 

Jason Stellman’s New Postmodern Doctrine of God

Bryan Cross and his one-time mini-me
wannabe, Jason Stellman
Normally, I don’t read Jason Stellman. I predicted he would be a disaster back in 2008. Jason is a Westminster Seminary of California grad who first became enamored with the Called to Communion apologetic, then converted to Roman Catholicism, left his wife and children, and now he has a podcast entitled “Drunk Ex-Pastor”. In fact, I said then:
In truth, I don't see any of these folks as "settled" in Rome. Life is too unsettled, and Rome just simply has too many discrepancies for a genuinely tender conscience to come to grips with it. Maybe some of these converts will be happy being Roman Catholics for a while; many others have ended up merely visiting Rome as a weigh station on the road to something else, however.

Loveless, Narcissistic Sex Addicts

Insider account of the homosexual subculture:

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Drilling down to the bottom of atheist ethics

Pet cemetery

Here, two noted creationists argue that the naledi fossils are human:

I don't have an a priori objection to that identification. I do, though, have two reservations:

i) One argument for the human identification is that the remains are situated in a very cramped location. You have to crawl there. 

However, is it possible that the floor of the cave is higher than it used to be, due to cumulative debris building up over the intervening time? In other words, was there originally more space between the ceiling and the floor?

From what I've read, the cave is located in a river valley. What about the possibility of flooding? Would that deposit debris in the back of the cave?

I don't know the elevation of the cave. And, of course, the topography may have changed over time.

ii) The tacit assumption is that the agents who buried the remains were the same kind of creature as what was buried. However, humans sometimes bury animals. Not only do you have modern pet cemeteries, but there was the ancient Near Eastern custom of equid burial. Cf. K. Way, Donkeys in the Biblical World: Ceremony and Symbol (Eisenbraus, 2011), chap. 3. Likewise, you have Egyptian animal mummies, viz. cats, jackals, crocodiles, bulls. baboons. 

What if naledi was an ape that held special associations for humans? They buried it for the same reasons that some people bury pets or some ancient people buried or mummified animals? 

Point is: you can't just assume that naledis were buried by naledis. 

Can we know when God answers prayer?

Philosophers usually assume that a prayer is effective if and only if God brings about the thing requested because of the prayer, so that had the prayer not been offered, the thing in question would not have occurred. So if you pray to God for rain tomorrow and it does rain tomorrow, this all by itself is not enough to say that your prayer for rain was effective—it must also be the case that God actually brought about the rain at least in part because of your prayer. If it would have rained anyway, without your prayer for rain, then it doesn't seem that your prayer for rain was effective. So an effective prayer would be a prayer that made a difference by influencing God to act. (For more on this question, see Flint 1998, chapter 10, and Davison 2009.)

I agree with this except for the last sentence. An effective prayer must make a difference,in the counterfactual sense of what would otherwise occur absent prayer, but not in the sense of influencing God.

Which sets the stage of the main issue:

Would it ever be possible to know or reasonably believe that God has answered a particular petitionary prayer? Different authors disagree about this question. Some theists think that for all we know, for any particular event that happens, God may have had independent reasons for bringing it about, so we cannot know whether or not God has brought it about because of a prayer (as opposed to bringing it about for some other reason—for more on this argument, see Basinger 2004 and Davison 2009). This line of thought is especially interesting in light of the recent popularity of so-called skeptical theism, which responds to the problem of evil by claiming that we can never know exactly how particular events are connected with each other and with good or bad consequences, some of which may be beyond our understanding (see McBrayer 2010, Other Internet Resources). Others argue that as long as people are justified in believing, in general terms, that God sometimes answers prayers, then it is possible to believe reasonably that one's petitionary prayer has been answered when one knows that the thing requested has come to pass (see Murray and Meyers 1994, Murray 2004).

i) Certainly there are cases in which it might be ambiguous whether or not the outcome is in answer to prayer. Instances in which it might have happened anyway, absent prayer. 

ii) That said, it's a false dichotomy to say that if God had an independent reasons for bringing it about, the outcome wasn't in answer to prayer. A given event can serve more than one purpose in the plan of God. Events have both short-term and long-term consequences. In Calvinism, everything is coordinated, so something can be an answer to prayer, but have an additional purpose further down the line. And it could still be contingent on prayer, even if it has intended effects that go beyond what the supplicant had in mind.

iii) Whether an outcome is identifiably an answer to prayer also depends on the specificity of the prayer, and/or the improbability that this would happen anyway, apart from prayer. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

One fewer god

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
– Stephen Roberts

I've commented on this atheist trope before, but I'll take another whack at it. You still have atheists who compare belief in Christian theism to Greek and Nordic mythology, Hindu polytheism, ancient Near Eastern mythology, &c. 

1. At best, pagan gods are humanoid beings with superhuman powers. And some pagan gods are theriomorphic gods, or hybrid gods (i.e. half human/half beast) or deified natural forces. 

However, standard theistic proofs aren't even applicable to gods like that. If some version of the ontological argument is sound, it only applies to a necessary being. But pagan gods aren't necessary beings.

If some version of the cosmological argument is sound, it only applies to an ex nihilo Creator of the universe (or multiverse). But pagan gods aren't creators in that absolute sense.

Likewise, the cosmological argument from contingency presumes that God is not contingent. Yet the pagan gods are contingent. Even if the argument is sound, it doesn't apply to pagan gods.

If some version of the teleological argument is sound, it requires a God with vast knowledge and magisterial control over the variables. But pagan gods lack those attributes. 

Likewise, you have theistic arguments based on God as the necessary support for abstract objects (e.g. numbers, possible worlds). But pagan gods can't fill that role–even in principle.

Pagan gods aren't ultimate beings, but derivative beings. Finite beings. 

Not only is there no evidence for the existence of pagan gods, but there's evidence that humanoid, physical beings can't have the superhuman powers which pagan mythology ascribes to their gods. Rather, we'd expect them to be subject to the same natural limitations of any physical being. 

2. In classical theism, God cannot be affected by the world. God subsists outside of space and time. In Calvinism, God knows the future because God planned the future. 

Pagan gods are not analogous to classical theism or Reformed theism. They are fundamentally different kinds of beings. By the same token, the spirits of heathen animism aren't analogous to Christian theism. So the reason to reject their existence can't be the same as reasons to reject the deity of classical theism or Reformed theism.

3. Christians affirm the God of OT Judaism. Christians reject the God of Islamic theism because Muhummad was demonstrably a false prophet; because the veracity of Islam is dependant on the veracity of the Judeo-Christian tradition–and yet that standard of comparison invalidates Islam. 

Are miracles antecedently improbable?

Bayesian probability theory distinguishes between prior and posterity probability. From what I've read, prior probability is based on our background knowledge regarding what's possible or likely in general, while posterior probability takes into account specific information about the event under consideration. The way it's divvied up, an event may have low prior probability, but that initial presumption can sometimes be overcome by countervailing evidence. 

As a rule, I just don't find this a helpful framework. Let's take two illustrations:

Consider a parking lot at a shopping mall or parking garage at an airport. Say there are a thousand cars. One of them is mine. I'm walking back to the parking lot or parking garage. 

You could say the prior probability of me picking out any car in particular is one in a thousand. As a matter of pure math, that's true.

But it's a rather ridiculous way to cast the issue. Unless I see an irresistibly appealing sports car that I decide to hot-wire on the spur of the moment, it's 100% certain that I will drive my car home, and 100% certain that I won't drive any of the other 999 cars home.

So why would we even set up the calculations as if there's a heavy presumption against my driving my own car home, a presumption which–fortunately–can be overcome by additional information? Why frame the issue in such an abstract way that that's a low prior probability of me driving a car with that particular license plate? The mathematical odds just aren't relevant. I'm not picking a car at random. 

Why divvy it up as if we have to begin in a state of relative ignorance, when in fact we have all the information? Why set it up as a balancing act? 

Let's take another example: what are the odds that lightning will strike any particular tree? Well, we could start by comparing the number of lightning strikes during a given timespan to the number of trees in a given radius. And from that standpoint, the odds are remote that it will strike any particular tree.

Suppose, though, I go for a daily walk along a trail. I always pass by the same stately tree. Today I walk past that tree. Then I'm overtaken by a thunderstorm. I see a lightning strike behind me on the trail, and I hear something explode. But I don't see what was hit.

As I walk back, I see the familiar tree split in two, with scorch marks. I conclude that it was struck by lightning. Although it's antecedently improbable that lightning would single out this tree, the abstract chances of that happening have no bearing on my well-founded belief that this tree was struck by lightning. Why would I even take prior probability into account? 

I'm not saying this is never germane. It may be antecedently improbable that the brakes will fail on a recently serviced, high-end sports car, causing the driver to die. The very implausibility of mechanical failure may make the homicide detective suspicious, so he sniffs around until he finds out the wife of the decedent was having an affair with dashing automechanic to serviced the car a day before. The circumstantial evidence is very incriminating. Means, motive, and opportunity.

My problem, though, is when the case for miracles is always shoehorned into a framework where miracles are assigned a very low prior probability. A standing presumption against miracles. It's then up to the Christian apologist to surmount the daunting odds. It's like winning when the deck is stacked against you. Impressive if you can, but why should we frame the issue that way in the first place? It's gratuitously prejudicial. 

God in mathematics

A pair of interviews with Vern Poythress:

"God In Mathematics"

"Can Math Capture Markets?"

Sunday, May 15, 2016

How Do We Know God Exists?

Gender and neurology

Suppose in some cases gender dysphoria has a neurological basis. Would that justify making special accommodations for the transgendered? No.

i) To begin with, due to neuoplasticity, you can't always tell which comes first. Although the brain affects behavior, behavior can affect the brain. To take a comparison:

Does playing the violin affect the brain? Most violinists would probably say “yes” in a subjective way, but there is striking objective evidence, too. Perhaps most interesting are the findings that the brain is actually modified physically by studying the violin in ways that make it easier to learn more. The cerebral cortex, the site of higher thinking in the brain, is not a static structure. Its organization changes over time, giving the brain an astonishing ability to adapt to new needs. 
Broca’s area is a small part of the cortex which handles many tasks of spoken language and musical abilities. The amount of gray matter (neurons) in Broca’s area is larger in musicians than in nonmusicians. In fact, the volume of gray matter in this brain region increases as the number of years of playing increases. In most people, the amount of gray matter in Broca’s area decreases with age, but in musicians, this does not happen.

Are they violinists because they have musical brains, or musical brains because they are violinists? Apparently the latter.

So even if some people with gender dysphoria had abnormal brains, that, in itself, wouldn't tell you if that's the cause or the effect of transgenderism. Does it originate in the brain? Or does the mind and attendant behavior condition the brain in that direction? 

ii) Assuming gender dysphoria is real, it's not like accommodating people in wheelchairs. For generations, people with transgender feelings have been using restrooms and locker rooms that match their biological sex. They are perfectly able to do that. Indeed, they've been doing that all along. It hardly justifies unisex restrooms, locker rooms, sports teams, speech codes, &c. 

iii) To take a comparison, suppose some phobias may have a neurological basis–which may well be the case. That doesn't mean we should upend society to create special accommodations for people who suffer from phobias. They are entitled to our understanding. But social existence requires a large measure of stability. 

To take another comparison: most people are right-handed. As a result, many things are designed with a right-handed bias. I'm sure that's annoying for south paws (my father was a south paw), but if you can't always design things neutrally, it's sensible to make the majority the default setting. 

BTW, that's an opportunity for enterprising businessmen to take advantage of that neglected market niche by designing things for south paws. Let the private sector solve the problem. 

iii) Assuming gender dysphoria exists, and assuming it has a neurological basis, it would be a neurological disorder. The question is how to deal with people who suffer from neurological disorders. It depends. People with cognitive impairment may require extra assistance, supervision, or protection. 

However, someone like Bruce Jenner, to take a prominent example, is clearly capable of functioning quite successfully in normal society when he wants to. 

Why pray?

Eleonore Stump argues that in some cases, God waits for us to ask for something before granting it in order to avoid spoiling or overwhelming us. We could be spoiled by God if God answered all of our prayers automatically, and we could be overwhelmed by God if God provided everything good for us without waiting for us to ask first (Stump 1979). In a similar vein, Michael Murray and Kurt Meyers argue that by making the provision of certain things dependent on petitionary prayer, God helps us to avoid idolatry, which is a sense of complete self-sufficiency that fails to recognize God as the source of all good things. They also say that requiring petitionary prayer in some cases helps us to learn about God's will as we recognize the patterns in prayers answered (and not answered: see Murray and Meyers 1994 and section 5 below).

A number of people have tried to conduct statistical studies to determine whether or not petitionary prayer is effective. These studies try to measure the differences between groups of people, one of which is the subject of petitionary prayers, and the other of which is not. But these studies seem to be flawed from the outset (see Brümmer 2008). First of all, there is no way to control the groups so that any group of people is the subject of no petitionary prayers, since it is impossible to prevent people from praying for any particular person. Second, God is assumed to be a free person, not a natural force that acts automatically in all similar cases, so we cannot assume that God will simply ignore those people for whom petitionary prayers have not been offered. 

How often can God answer prayer?

Some freewill theists contend that Calvinism renders prayer otiose. I've discussed that before. It confuses predestination with que sera sera fatalism.

More interesting is whether the objection can be turned around. If freewill theism is true, how often can God answer prayer?

According to one plank of the freewill defense, in order to make rational, responsible choices, our choices must have predictable consequences. The foreseeable outcome of a given choice figures in our deliberations. And that in turn requires a world with a high degree of uniformity. If God were to intervene on a regular basis, it would destabilize the natural order. Because our choices would not have predictable consequences, that would rob us of significant freedom. 

Given that framework, does it not pose a severe restriction on God vis-a-vis petitionary prayer? God is not at liberty to frequently answer our prayers, for that would destabilize the uniformity of nature, which is a necessary backdrop for exercising our libertarian freedom. Hence, God could only answer prayer on rare occasion. 

That raises the question of how often Christians pray. According to one survey, 68% of Christians pray more than once a day while 16% pray once a day, and 12% pray a few times a week.

Suppose we confine the issue to petitionary prayer. Suppose devout Christians pray 3 times a week. This could be for their own needs or the needs of others. That amounts to about 156 petitionary prayers a year. Suppose a Christian prays for 60 years. That totals 9360 petitionary prayers. 

Obviously, the figure is variable from one Christian to the next. Some may pray more often. Some may live longer. 

But given the constraints of freewill theism, it would seem that God can only answer an infinitesimal fraction of those prayers. Not only is there the direct effect of divine intervention in case of each answered prayer, but an answered prayer is an event, and most events have a ripple effect or even a snowball effect. A cause produces an effect. And the effect may, in turn, cause another effect. To take a comparison, if a couple has 4 kids, and each of their kids has 4 kids, and so on, the end-result is exponential. Like wave interference, the repercussions of answering one prayer must die down before answering another lest they cancel each other out. 

(In Calvinism you don't have the same problem because God is in a position to control and coordinate the variables. God wrote the whole plot.) 

And, of course, that's vastly multiplied by hundreds of millions of Christians each praying 3 times a week (or whatever). If God answered prayer on anything like a regular basis, the number of divine interventions–not to mention the domino effect–would be staggering. 

If freewill theism is true, then it seems that petitionary prayer is almost always futile. God dare not intercede except on rare occasion. Most of the time we pray in vain–if freewill theism is true.