Philosophy TV posted several reflections on issues related to Christmas during Christmas week last year. Jason Brennan’s contribution presents the Christmas story (i.e. the gospel) as a bad story about an immoral divinity.
There are several people who hang around here who resist skeptical theism, that is the view that we should consider our conceptual resources and factual knowledge insufficient to render a judgment about whether God could be justified in allowing the evils apparent in the world.
I suspect most of these people accept the book of Job as divine revelation. Yet it seems to me that the point of the book of Job (or at least one of its main points) is something very close to what skeptical theists want to assert, namely that we aren’t in the sort of position to make judgments about why God must have done or allowed various things that happen.
I’m curious, therefore, how those who resist skeptical theism see the book of Job if it does not in fact make that point.
Paul Copan’s “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?” presents what struck me, on my first exposure to it, as a relatively novel (to me, anyway) thesis defending God as presented in the Hebrew scriptures from the charge of genocide. He claims that the commands to wipe out Canaan and not leave anyone standing, including women, children, and even livestock are hyperbole and that such expressions were commonly used to indicate a severe attack but did not literally mean that no one at all would survive.
I think I’ve hit on one of the things that’s been lurking in the background in my resistance to the idea of an age of accountability. Now this post will largely be assuming some things many here will not grant, e.g. exclusivism about who gets saved, Christian particularism about how they get saved, perhaps Protestant soteriology, and traditional or classical models of divine knowledge (as opposed to open theism). One reason I assume these is because I think they’re all true, but it’s more important for this post that most people who hold to the age of accountability as I’m about to explicate it do in fact assume all these things. Perhaps denying any of them, or at least certain ways of denying them, will get around the problems I’m about to raise. I think it might still take some work to do so, however.
The following two claims seem plausible enough to me:
1. God is not morally obligated to create the best possible world.
2. There are no supererogatory acts.
Supererogatory acts are those acts that go above and beyond what duty or obligation requires. But if God isn’t obligated to create the best possible world, and is merely obligated to produce a good enough world, then isn’t it better if God creates a world that’s better than the minimally good enough world? It seems like a supererogatory act for God to create at all, since it will never be the best act of creation. So there does seem to be a problem if you accept both these claims. But, though I would not submit to martydrom for either claim, there do seem to me to be good arguments for both, and yet they seem inconsistent.
1. I think it’s plausible that adding one more intrinsically good thing to a world will make the world better, and its always possible to add one more intrinsically good thing. This means there is no best possible world, and thus it is impossible even for an omnipotent being to create the best possible world. Unless God is obligated to do the impossible, it seems that claim 1 is true.
2. Consequence-based ethical theories have usually required maximizing the best consequences, but a lot of people have rejected such an approach, because it implies that it’s wrong to go see a movie because that money could better be spent helping starving people get some food (for one example). So we now have satisficing theories approaches that say that all we’re obligated to do is seek good enough consequences. A similar approach occurs in non-consequentialist ethics, where perfect duties are duties everyone has but imperfect duties are acts that someone or other ought to do but no one particular person is required to do them.
We’ve been listening to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles on CD. I read them when I was about ten years old, and I never got around to re-reading them, so some of it is almost as if I’m experiencing them for the first time. When I got to the following scene from the Silver Chair, it struck me as a strange argument, sort of like Pascal’s Wager, but something rubbed me the wrong way about it. The main characters were in the Green Witch’s underground domain and had fallen under her influence, which was causing them to lose their belief in the above-ground world. Puddleglum the marsh-wiggle then gives the following speech:
Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.
What rubbed me the wrong way was that it sounded as if he didn’t care whether the world was real. He was going to believe in it anyway, because it’s more pleasant to believe in it. How can the upper world be so much better than the underground world that its mere finite value of being better would be worth believing in a lie if it’s not true?
When I raised this issue with a friend, he said, “But it’s Pascal’s Wager!” I said, “No, it’s not!” He insisted that the upper world is Aslan’s world, which I’d been thinking of as the place at the end of the world that they went to in the previous book, and the upper world was just Narnia, which is the analogue of Earth. But we were interrupted and never managed to finish the conversation.
I realized later, when teaching Pascal’s Wager, what Lewis must have been up to, and it’s actually a neat trick. If he was seeing Narnia as a placeholder for the eternal reward of Pascal’s Wager and the underworld as a placeholder for this life, then you have an interesting argument that isn’t quite Pascal’s Wager. Pascal’s Wager concedes for the sake of argument that life in this world is more pleasant if you don’t believe in God but then argues that the chance of eternal reward in heaven compensates for that in terms of rational decision theory. You shouldn’t even need 50% likelihood of God’s existence for the wager to be worth it given that the reward is infinite and the cost merely finite if you bet wrong. But Lewis’ Wager is different in exactly one way: it doesn’t make the concession. It takes the finite value of life in this world to be better if you believe in God than if you don’t. So life is finitely better if you believe in God, and the afterlife is infinitely better if it turns out there is one. Therefore, it’s a no-brainer. You might as well believe in God. If it turns out you lose the bet (i.e. God doesn’t exist), you still end up finitely better off, and if you win (i.e. God does exist) then you get an infinitely better result.
One interesting result of Puddleglum’s Wager is that it easily avoids the problem Mike Almeida raises against Pascal’s Wager. Mike’s problem (which I’m not taking a stand on at this point) relies on its being better in this life not to believe.
[cross-posted at Parableman]
I heard late last night about William P. Alston’s death earlier in the day, strangely not through any departmental channels but through a friend who never met him. He was one of the professors I’ve most respected in my entire academic career. He wrote his dissertation with Wilfred Sellars Charles Hartshorne on the work of Alfred North Whitehead but spent most of his career on philosophy of language, philosophy of religion, and epistemology. Along with Alvin Goldman and Alvin Plantinga, he helped spearhead the externalist/reliabilist revolution in epistemology, a tradition that I think took things in the right direction. He also was one of the most important figures in the revival of philosophy of religion in the last four decades from a point where it had become looked upon as a joke to a point where some of the most important philosophers today are Christians or other theists. Alston himself was not a Christian when he began his philosophical career, a path shared with several other notable Christian philosophers (Norman Kretzmann and Peter van Inwagen come to mind).
It was always encouraging to me to think about how successful he was in philosophy given his personality and philosophical temperament, which I think are similar to mine in a number of ways that I’m not like most of my philosophical colleagues. He wasn’t a system-builder. He wrote about what he had something to say about but wasn’t trying to put together a comprehensive philosophical view on every issue he could have something to say about.
Most of his work didn’t involve coming up with brilliant views on cutting-edge issues that no one had ever thought of before (although I think there are a few occasions of that in his work, especially in his most recent work in epistemology). He tended to favor traditional views, sometimes so traditional that the majority in philosophy had left the view so far behind that they considered it a joke until people like him came along to disabuse them of such notions by defending the views in novel ways. His defense of the Theory of Appearing is a good example of this.
Some of the most important philosophical figures are noteworthy for one or both of those reasons (system-building and novel views). Alston, however, filled a role of simply doing good philosophy, often in small but important details. He might see a fallacious argument that was nonetheless popular and apply an important distinction, perhaps one known to the medievals but often ignored by contemporary philosophers, to show why the argument fails. He found elements of competing views that might be compatible and explained why a moderating position might be better than either original view. He applied new arguments in epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, or metaphysics to some problem in philosophy of religion to show why a new trend in a completely different area makes Christian belief more favorable (e.g. his application of functionalism, a recent view in materialist philosophy of mind, to explain how language about God can be literally true even if not used in exactly the same sense as the same terms are used for us).
I’ve been thinking for a little while about two related arguments for compatibilism based on Christian theology. In this post, I’ll look at the implications of the traditional approach to the Incarnation, and in a second post I’ll look at what the kind of robust view of inspiration that I favor will require. I’m cross-posting this at my personal blog.
It seems to me that with the traditional understanding of the Incarnation, something like compatibilism must be true of Jesus’ freedom. The traditional view of the Incarnation is that Jesus is fully God and fully human, and his divine nature prevents him from doing anything sinful, but at least in his earthly life he had all the human ability to do so, being fully tempted in every way. This means that we need some sense in which it’s possible that Jesus do something wrong and some sense in which it’s not. The best way I know of that anyone has captured this is to say that it was possible for Jesus to do wrong in relation to his human nature but not possible in relation to his divine nature.
But what does that mean? If it means that two natures constrain him, and one allows it while the other doesn’t, then it just implies that it’s not possible for him to have sinned. His human nature would have allowed it, but the divine nature prevented it. This seems just like the situation for someone with no legs: it’s possible for them to walk with respect to their brain but not possible for them to walk with respect to their legs. So it’s simply just not possible for them to walk, unless it’s ever proper to ignore the obstacle sufficient for preventing that possibility, and it pretty much never is unless you’re talking about attaching new legs or something like that. But there’s no such analogous possibility with Jesus, as if he could lose his divine nature. So this doesn’t well capture the intuition that there’s some sense in which Jesus could have sinned, in order to explain the statements about his having been genuinely tempted. This complaint strikes me as much like the complaint that libertarians on free will offer against compatibilism.
[Cross-posted at Parableman] Open theists distinguish between two different varieties of their view. There are actually a number of ways to divide up open theism into varieties, but one particular division that open theists make among themselves is between the following two positions:
1. There is no such thing as a future to be known, and that’s why God doesn’t know the future exhaustively. It’s not a limitation on God that he doesn’t know everything that will happen. There’s nothing to be known, so God can’t know it. So God is omniscient in knowing all the facts about the future. There just aren’t very much such facts yet.
2. God could know the future, but it would prevent our freedom, so God chooses to limit his knowledge, knowing that knowledge about what we would choose to do would make us unfree. God doesn’t know all he could know metaphysically, but he does know all he could know given his choice not to know future free choices.
I’m not really sure these are distinct views.