Theology: January 2008 Archives

God the Decider

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I've been reading through the second edition of D.A. Carson's How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil. Last night I came across a passage that I had to read a little differently now than when he first wrote it in his first edition of 1990. Carson was responding to the view that predestination-language in the Bible is basically referring to God knowing ahead of time what people outside his control will do, which takes its start from Romans 8:29's "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son". Consider his criticism:

This way of wording things, of course, makes the human being the pivotal "decider"; God's decision is not predestination in any meaningful sense, but a kind of ratification-in-advance. Moreover, too little attention is paid to the fact that this text does not speak of foreknowing that such and such will take place, but that God foreknows the person. Many have shown that in Semitic thought "to know" a person can have overtones of intimacy: if a husband "knows" his wife, for instance, he has sexual intercourse with her. For God to "foreknow" certain people, especially in the context of Romans 8:28-30, means (as most serious commentators point out) that God has a personal relationship with the individual in advance. Those whom God foreknows in this sense, he predestines "to be conformed to the likeness of his Son". Besides, it is a strange method that takes a doubtful definition of one occurrence of "foreknowledge" and pits it against the many references in which it is clearly stated that God has chosen his people (e.g., Deut. 4:37-39; 7:6-9; Ps. 4:3; Matt 24:22, 31; Luke 18:7; John 15:16; Acts 13:48; Gal. 4:27, 31; Eph. 1:4-6; 2 Tim. 2:10; 1 Pet. 1:2).
This is part of Carson's longer argument that theological discussions of free will shouldn't first assume a particular meaning of a controversial term (in philosophy, there is no consensus on what counts as freedom) and then read the biblical text in terms of such an account of freedom, particularly if the text itself assumes a different concept of freedom. Three things came to mind as I read this paragraph.

1. Given that this use of "foreknow" is based on the Semitic concept Carson explains (which I think is highly likely if not almost certain), there is an alternative interpretation of this passage as merely corporate. God choose a people and then lets individuals decide if they want to be in it. A lot of Wesleyans and Arminians hold such a view about other passages involving predestination. I find it thoroughly implausible for other reasons, but given its availability and commonness, it's a little strange that this individualist interpretation at odds with the Semitic language persists.

2. This view makes the predestination-language pretty dumb. Why should Paul bother to add it in? If all God is doing is seeing that someone will do something and then agreeing that they will indeed do the thing that he sees them doing in the future, what's the point of saying that he predestines people? If predestining is simply foreknowing, then it's redundant, in fact tautologous. It basically means, "For whom he foreknew that they would do it, he agreed that they would do it." That's not very informative unless you're inclined to think God engages in self-deception. I'm not too fond of interpretations of Paul that make him out to be an idiot.

3. The first sentence struck me as extremely funny given a certain political moment of a couple years ago. Carson doesn't use the exact term "the decider", but by implication he's saying that God is the ultimate decider, and the view he's responding to makes humans the decider. This is pretty much the exact sense of the term the president was using when people made fun of him for calling himself the decider. So a very intelligent professor from Canada with a Ph.D. from a top U.K. institution, one who I note is very particular about his language, can write in a way that pretty much got universally made fun of as dumb Southerner hick language when the president of the United States used it. (Carson does acknowledge something funny about using the term this way by putting it in scare quotes, but the president was speaking extemporaneously, and Carson was not only writing in a prepared way, but it passed through the editorial review process and then did so again when he revised the book five or six years later.)

Andrew Fulford has some thoughtful reflections on how far Jesus' impeccability extended during his earthly ministry. Clearly an orthodox view of the Incarnation requires Jesus not sinning, but could he have had false beliefs as he was growing and learning? Andrew argues no. Andrew thinks any sense in which Jesus might have made an error would make the Incarnation contradictory. (He says parodoxical, but the Incarnation is paradoxical no matter you say about this issue; I assume he means outright contradictory.)

I'm a little worried about what Jesus' growth and learning involved if he never made any errors whatsoever. In particular, what could his language acquisition have been like? The normal, I would say correct, path to language development involves learning certain rules that one eventually has to unlearn in order to master the next stage of language-learning. Children regularly make certain errors. At least they count as errors when you compare it to fluent use of the language by an adult. These errors actually might count as correct use of the stage of language understanding that the child has. If we think of it that way, then maybe Andrew's thesis turns out ok. If such errors aren't really errors, then Jesus could have learned the languages he spoke (which probably included Aramaic, Greek, and Latin) with all the standard errors children make, without them counting as the kind of error Andrew is worried about.

[cross-posted at Prosblogion]

I've often heard the charge that theists have a harder time responding to the problem of evil if they hold to a deontological ethical view. Deontology recognizes duties that can't easily be overridden by consequences the way consequentialism allows. Consequentialists say the right thing to do is to do whatever leads to the best consequences. If God does this, then God can do things that lead to bad consequences as long as the good consequences that also happen are better enough to outweigh the bad. So it's easier to deal with the problem of evil if all it takes to justify God's allowance of evil is that it leads to a slightly better outcome overall, even if it's worse with respect to the evil itself. Deontologists, on the other hand, might just say that the duty not to harm or not even to allow harm can't so easily be outweighed by the overall good. Some things are just wrong, and God shouldn't therefore do them. Allowing very great evils seems to be a pretty good candidate for that category of action. It's thus harder to respond to the problem of evil with a deontological view than it is with a consequentialist view.

I used to be a little disturbed at this problem, wondering whether a "higher goods" type of defense that I favor requires a consequentialist view, a view I'm not otherwise attracted to. But it's occurred to me recently that the problem assumes a kind of deontology that I don't agree with. It assumes the absolutism of Immanuel Kant's deontology, not a more moderated kind of deontology such as that of W.D. Ross, which I favor. On Ross's view, we have prima facie duties, none of which are absolute the way duties for Kant are. Duties can often conflict for Ross, and when they conflict only one will turn out to be an actual duty, whichever one is morally more important. In a case of lying to save a life, the life is more important than the normal duty not to lie, but in a case of lying to protect your reputation it's still going to be wrong to lie, even if the consequences are better from lying. So this is not consequentialism, but it's not absolutism either.

Now apply this to the problem of evil. There will be potential cases when God would not do something wrong, because even though the consequences are better it would be wrong to do it. But it leaves open that some goods are so important that God might allow pretty serious harm in order to achieve them. This means that the moderate deontologist can have consequence-based responses to the problem of evil that an absolutist deontologist can't have. This may have been all I was worried about losing by adopting a deontological ethical view, even if consequentialists might have yet more to say to defend a divinity from being immoral for allowing evil.

In a discussion of atheism and ethics at Puritas, I noticed among the comments two very similar arguments about different subjects that commit the same fallacy. We had it drilled into us in William Alston's epistemology class, so I'm trained to notice it whenever it appears, but I notice a tone-deafness to this kind of distinction among people of certain types of views.

The fallacy consists of confusing metaphysics and epistemology. For non-philosophers, metaphysics is philosophy issues about reality, and epistemology is philosophical examination of knowledge. Here are some examples of arguments that confuse the two.

1. According to reliabilism in epistemology, you can know something (roughly) just by having a reliable belief-forming process that reliably leads to true beliefs.
2. But you can't know that the belief-forming process is reliable, because maybe it makes mistakes along the way, and you'd be in the dark about such mistakes.
3. Therefore, reliabilism must be false.

The metaphysical account of knowledge is statement 1. It explains what must be true for something to be knowledge. Statement 2 comes along and asks a further question about how you might know that it's knowledge. But that's a separate question. What makes it knowledge and how you know it's knowledge are separate questions. The first is metaphysics, and the second is epistemology.

Andrew's post offered an argument about how we might know moral truths. He argued against the likelihood that we would know about morality if atheism is true. Whatever else you might say about this argument, it's simply a change in subject to object by presenting problems with Divine Command Theory, which is a view about what makes moral truths true. Whatever problems Divine Command Theory faces and whatever problems Andrew's epistemological view might have, they aren't the same view. They aren't even about the same subject.

It struck me as noteworthy that the same confusion arose in the same conversation about a completely different issue. Andrew was pointing to divine revelation as one source of knowledge about morality, which led to some objections I often see against Protestant views of scripture. One complaint about Protestant views of scripture is that without tradition as an authoritative source you can't have an independent verification of scripture as infallible. On one level is the same sort of argument I discussed above. Someone claims scripture to be infallible. An objector comes along and acts as if our inability to prove that it's infallible undermines its infallibility. It can do no such thing. It may raise questions about how someone can claim to know of its infallibility, but not knowing its infallibility (and certainly not showing its infallibility) is irrelevant to whether it is infallible. The objection confuses our epistemic status about the revelation with a feature of the revelation itself.

Radical Life Extension

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Ilya Somin takes on Daniel Callahan on an issue we don't hear about all that much: radical life extension. Callahan argues against any technology that could extend the human lifespan to double its length. His reason? It's not tragic that people die, at least if they've lived a relatively long life. Somin seems to take this approach as indicative of social conservatism. There are so many things wrong with this that I'm not sure where to begin. I'll start somewhere though, and I hope I'll get to it all.

1. If this is supposed to be an argument against life-extending technology, it fails hopelessly. Suppose it isn't tragic if someone dies at age 86. Does that make it wrong to extend the person's life to 145, say? I don't see how that follows.

2. The fact that dying at age 86 is relatively better than dying at age 2 does not mean dying at age 86 is not tragic.

3. Similarly, the fact that we can alleviate our existential agony at confronting death at 86 by saying "oh, it's all right; she lived a good life" also does not mean dying at age 86 is not tragic. It's simply a sign that we seek to find coping mechanisms by comparing lives that are relatively not as bad as others. That doesn't make death ok, and it doesn't mean death isn't tragic even with a relatively long life. It certainly doesn't mean a longer life wouldn't be better.

4. There is good reason to think all death is unfortunate. Why wouldn't it be better to extend our lives indefinitely? Even if an 86-year life is better than a 23-year life, it doesn't mean 86 years is the best there can be. There are people (I know a number of them) who claim that they wouldn't want to live too long a life, but that's at least partly because we're used to shorter lives and partly because this existence in a fallen world involves a lot of grief. There come points in life when we wish for more but don't have it. That doesn't make a 200-year life bad, though. It just means a 200-year life might well have lots of bad things in it, just as a 100-year life can, and just as a 50-year life can. The fact that there will likely be twice as much bad might drive people from wanting the possibility, but there will just as likely be twice as much good. I suspect the real desire not to see a 200-year life as good is that we've become too used to not wanting what we can't have.

5. I don't know if Callahan is a Christian, but most social conservatives in the U.S. are. If Somin thinks this is typical of social conservatives, I'd be extremely surprised if he's correct. Christians tend to think of eternal life as intrinsically good. It's true that longer life in this life isn't the goal for Christians, but the extended life itself is intrinsically good according to Christians, even if the more important goals are spiritual, including eternal life in the new heavens and new earth. So I have a hard time thinking Callahan's view should be typical of social conservatives.

6. What's worse for Callahan's view according to Christianity is that the current limit on life is actually a penalty. Death is intrinsically bad, and Christians can't deny that even if they seek to see extra years as not intrinsically good. It is at the very least a consequence of sin, and most Christians would see it as a penalty for sin. Even if animals would have died had humanity not sinned, human death is the result of sin according to Christianity. The only sense in which death can be an instrumental good is that it is a release from the fallenness of this world, but even that is only true of someone who will receive eternal life after this world.

This just leaves me bewildered that this view could be seen as representative of social conservatism, even aside from the reasoning that I've questioned. I'm not going to advocate putting lots of effort into extending our lives in order to put off something I consider every human being to deserve. It may be important to treat out bodies well because we're made in the image of God and represent him, and it may be good to see the intrinsic goodness of life as God has created it, but that doesn't mean it's good to put in a lot of effort to stave off what God has declared to be the end of every human being in this life. Christians do have reasons to try to resist expending a lot of resources on this sort of thing. But I don't think Callahan's opposition is well-grounded, and I hope it doesn't become the approach associated with social conservatism. It sounds to me more like resisting change for the sake of resisting change rather than having any real grounding for such opposition.

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