Category Archives: Faith

The Weakness of Deductive Theistic Proofs

The Christian philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig debated the atheist philosopher Dr. Daniel Dennett some time ago about whether God exists, and by most accounts Dr. Craig won the debate. When all was said and done, Dennett’s conclusion was something like ‘Well, I suppose when you have premises that appear at first to be more plausible than their negations and that logically imply a conclusion that you find to be implausible, you just have to go back and deny one of the premises’. As you can imagine, Dennett took heat for this. On one hand, duh. If you want to deny a validly inferred conclusion the only possible thing you can do is to deny one or more premises. Stating as much at the end of a debate in which you were allegedly going to rebut or undercut your opponent’s position doesn’t really pack a punch. It also seems like it might indicate non-rational motivations on your part. Is it only after you see what your own commitments imply that you are willing to be critical of them? Do you so badly desire that God not exist that you are willing to go back and rework your cosmology and metaphysics to make sure that they cannot be appealed to in a theistic argument? Can somebody say “ad hoc”?

On the other hand, I sympathize with Dennett in a way I didn’t before. One weakness of deductive reasoning is that it does not account for the degree of certainty with which an individual holds the premises of an argument or the intrinsic plausibility one assigns the conclusion of an argument. Perhaps I could agree to two premises because I find them just slightly more plausible than their negations, only to discover that together they imply a conclusion that I find simply unbelievable. It serves as evidence against the probability of both premises being true.

So let’s say you assign the following probabilities:

  • 51% – Everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence.
  • 51% – The universe began to exist.
  • 95% – The universe does not have a cause of its existence.

In a certain context, if you think about it, you find the causal principle to be reasonable. Probably more likely to be true than not. And similarly with the past-finitude of the universe; it’s more likely the case that the universe had an absolute beginning a finite time ago than that it has existed from eternity. And when you are not holding those things in mind, in some other context, you are very confident that the universe does not have a cause of its existence. (Let’s just say for now that you have your reasons.) What do you do when someone points out that if both of those first items are true, then the last item is false? If everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence and the universe began to exist, then the universe has a cause of its existence. But you’re pretty sure that the universe does not have a cause! And you were only barely agreeing to the other propositions. Now you feel cornered.

It is this concern that used to motivate another Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, to argue against the utility of theistic proofs. He called it the problem of “dwindling probabilities”. Think of it this way: What are the odds of the result of a coin toss being heads? 50%? But what are the odds of the results of two coin tosses both being heads? To find the answer you have to multiply the probabilities that each of the tosses will be heads. So that would be .5 (for 50%) x .5, which equals .25, or 25%. As one builds a theistic proof, one tries to provide supporting arguments and evidences of each premise. However a reader or listener will not be convinced with 100% certainty of the truth of each premise. Now the likelihood of all the premises being true dwindles just like the likelihood of all of the coin tosses resulting in heads dwindles. While there are some things to say in reply to this, and while I believe Plantinga has abandoned this line of reasoning, the concerns here are important. Logical deduction cannot account for degrees of certainty or the intrinsic plausibility of a conclusion.

One alternative to using the logical structure that Dr. Craig uses when formulating what he calls the “Kalam Cosmological Argument” for God’s existence, which is called “modus ponens”, is to formulate the argument using a logical structure that has a way to account for probabilities. And one guy has attempted to do exactly that.

You can read it here.

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Filed under Theology

Sex, Worship, and Embodiment

We are embodied beings.

We interact with the world through various organs. We use our hands and eyes and ears and voices and other faculties to experience and contribute to the world. And that includes our relationships. I look into my wife’s beautiful blue eyes and she looks into mine and this act facilitates intimacy. Our hands touch one another’s, not merely as an act symbolizing mutual possession, but also as a means of enjoying and cultivating it. Holding hands is part of the relationship. It mediates and enhances intimacy.

A critical climax of a marital union is only achievable by means of our physical bodies. In intercourse the organs of one person coordinate with the organs of another for a biological purpose for which an individual human body is insufficient. Unlike the intrapersonal organic cooperation that occurs during systemic nervous, cardiovascular, and respiratory processes, human reproduction requires that two human beings with different organ sets become a united whole. Only by this kind of union is this new whole, this new function, possible.

To work on discovering and describing the empirical facts about sex is a beneficial project. But to then argue that there isn’t some profound purpose driving it or that the intimacy shared by those who unite in sexual intercourse isn’t real is a mistake. Our bodies mediate our interaction with the world. Our bodies mediate our intimacy with one another. Organic union is the highest act of intimacy.

Now when I drive my body to the building that my community assembles in on Sunday morning and place my body in proximity to theirs and open my mouth and begin singing, there is another kind of union that takes place and facilitates another kind of intimacy. My voice cooperates with the voices of other humans in order to achieve a musical purpose for which an individual human voice is insufficient: harmony. To this is added the music generated by the humans playing various instruments. This mixture constitutes a new sound that is not possible for me to produce on my own and therefore in corporate worship we do not merely symbolize our unity, we embody it. The act of musical union mediates and enhances our intimacy with one another.

But it goes further than this, because musical union in worship has an object. We come together, not merely to sing, but specifically to sing to our Creator. Our music has the property of being about something—or rather, of being directed to Somebody. Our union in corporate worship then not only facilitates our intimacy with one another, but also our relationship to God.

As I mature throughout my life I become more deeply emotionally moved during worship. It is not all that rare that I will tear up. I do not pretend that there are not physical facts about my relationship to God. Discovering and describing these facts might very well be a fruitful enterprise. However to argue on the basis of the existence of these physical facts to atheism is ridiculous. To say that because thus and such occur in my brain when I sing or when I pray, therefore the object of my song or my prayer is not real is just as big of a mistake as saying that because thus and such occur in my brain when I see or hold hands with or unite with my wife, she is therefore not real.

We are embodied beings, after all.

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Filed under Faith, Marriage, Science

The World is a Text

The “correspondence theory of truth” is something like that a sentence is true if and only if it corresponds to the features of reality that it purports to describe. In other words, if you utter a sentence like “it is raining outside,” and it really is raining outside, then your sentence is true. Aristotle put it this way in his Metaphysics:

To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.

So on the other side then, if it really is raining outside and you were to say “it is not raining outside,” then your sentence would be false, according to this theory.

Intuitive, right? The problem is that sentences are strings of symbols that are read or heard and their meanings interpreted, while reality is apprehended in some other way. In our case I can relate to rain drops by putting my body beneath them and getting wet by them. How can a state of affairs that includes things like rain drops correspond in any way to a string of symbols to which someone assigned a meaning?

The only way there can be a correspondence between a sentence and a state of affairs is if, like the sentence, the state of affairs is also meaningful. And the only way a state of affairs can be meaningful is if it is imbued with meaning the same way that a sentence is.

I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.

—Friedrich Nietzsche

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Filed under Faith, Mind

Thanksgiving

When I was registering for classes at Biola, despite all the financial aid I was awarded (including loans) and the help my parents were giving me, I was about $1,000 short. This may or may not seem like a lot to you, but to me it meant that I could not go to college. I didn’t have a credit card; I didn’t have a job. It might as well have been $1,000,000. I was stuck in line with no way to pay.

The wife of my youth pastor and friend happened to work at Biola, and she happened upon me in line and asked how I was doing. I was almost in tears. Without skipping a beat she showed me how to redo my paperwork so that I got more money from Financial Aid based on the fact that I would be living on campus—something I had overlooked. It covered my expenses to the penny.

The next year I was well over $1,000 short. A friend’s dad found out about it through the grapevine and cut me a check for the exact amount.

The semester after that I couldn’t afford to buy all my books. The ones I needed showed up in a bag at the door to my dorm room.

The stories go on. I was awarded an unexpected scholarship one semester that made the difference in my ability to stay or go. I got a job one semester that gave me an advance that kept me in school, and other things happened too.

This isn’t an apologetic or evangelical post. This is a post of Thanksgiving. I believe in God and I believe He intervenes and I believe He provided for me to go to college and find my wife, and best friend and business partner there. I believe He taught me life lessons at Biola and, eventually, gave me a heart for the mind.

And I am thankful to Him for it.

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Filed under Blogs Proper, Faith, Family

Necessity, Chance, or Design?

Bracketing agent-causation, there are only three types of things that govern the universe: constants, quantities, and laws.

By “constants” I just mean phenomena that are universal in nature and unchanging in value. For example the speed of light in a vacuum, the Gravitational Constant, the elementary charge, etc. We can include the rate of entropy in this category if you want (and if you think it is stable).

By “quantities” I mostly just mean the amount of matter and dark matter that exist, and the amount of energy that exists (and the amount of dark energy, if any exists). Theoretically those quantities should remain constant, but if they have changed (or can), then just take their initial values. We can include the amount of entropy in this category if you want, or rather the initial amount of entropy (or zero if there was none).

By “laws” I mean things like gravity (or, more accurately, Relativity), electromagnetism, etc. Keep in mind that most of the laws listed in that link are laws describing the behavior of high-order phenomena like buoyancy and thermodynamics and others that operate on matter at a high level of description like planetary bodies, chemicals, etc. Theoretically all of these logically supervene on lower-level phenomena like the nuclear forces, that operate on matter at a low level of description like subatomic particles. Ultimately it’s probably all governed by just a few fundamental interactions (and maybe even just one), operating on just a few fundamental particles like quarks or maybe strings.

So get this though. It turns out that the values of these constants, quantities, and laws could have been anything. There is nothing about the gravitational constant that makes it logically necessary. It could have been a totally different value altogether. It seems somewhat arbitrary that it is dialed to the value that it is. There is no explanation for it. And the same goes for the amounts of the stuff in the universe, and the laws governing it all—why is energy equal to mass times the square of the speed of light? It could have been the cube of the speed of light, and the speed of light could have been different, or the phenomena could have behaved according to different rules relative to different phenomena altogether.

The possibilities are, logically, infinite.

But it gets weirder. If the values of any one of these things had been different by even a hair’s breadth, the universe wouldn’t have been life-permitting. Planetary bodies couldn’t have formed, space couldn’t have expanded or would have expanded too quickly, etc. The logically possible scenarios according to which the universe could have existed such that it could not have been able to sustain life are infinite, while the life-permitting scenarios are extremely few.

To conceptualize the situation, I like to picture a number line for each value that requires fine-tuning—so there is a number line for the Gravitational Constant, and the value for the GC could have been anything on that infinitely long line, but it needs to fall within an infinitesimal range to play its role in a life-permitting universe, the boundaries for which are marked in red on the line. Then I picture another number line below that with Planck’s Constant, with the markings, and so on. There are a quite a few of these number lines (some lists are longer than others), but even if there were only one, the possibility is equivalent to one in infinity.

Then I like to imagine a lottery, the results from which determine the values for each thing. The lottery is run once to determine each value, and there are an infinite number of possible outcomes each time. This helps me wrap my mind around how improbable a life-permitting universe is. And it doesn’t even touch on the fact that a life-permitting universe alone doesn’t necessarily yield life. You have to somehow get life into it (a topic for another post), and then you need a planet within the universe that can support the life (the specific requirements of which I’ll leave for another post as well).

And yet, here we are.

It’s obvious to me that cosmic fine-tuning cannot be due to necessity, and I explained why earlier. But by now it should be almost as obvious that it is not likely to have occurred by chance either. Like literally, mathematically, it is unlikely. So the question you have to ask yourself at this point is:

How plausible is it that this fine-tuning is due to Design?

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Filed under Faith, Mind, Philosophy, Science

The Hermeneutical Paradox, or On Being a “Geologist”

I help write curriculum for our church. I play a very tiny role in it. Yesterday the curriculum team leader described our role as being like that of a miner who tries by various methods to find the gems amid the gravel. We get very little space in our lesson plans with which to draw the attention of the end users of our material to the most important elements of a passage. So it has to be efficient. It is very difficult to boil down, say, whole chapters in the book of Exodus into a dozen discussion questions.

To understand some isolated chapters in Exodus requires an understanding of the whole book, which requires an understanding, I’d argue, of the whole of scripture. But an understanding of the whole of scripture should emerge from an understanding of each of its parts (call this the “Hermeneutical Paradox”—also known in the literature as the “Hermeneutical Spiral”).

So our job is to try to gain as developed an understanding of the passage and of scripture as a whole as we can (a lifelong process to be sure), and to try to sift through the “gravel” and find the “gems” of insight in the passage in focus and draw the users’ attention to them through the use of discussion questions.

But here’s the thing. I more naturally perform the role of geologist, as opposed to miner. I am interested in the gravel. I am mesmerized by the strata. The gold is interesting too, but I want it all. So I’d rather be in the field of geology, as it were, than mining. I’d rather indulge my fascination with the breadth and depth of scripture and be rewarded for it than be constrained to pick out just the gems and work only with them.

This is true of my posture toward life as a whole, too—not just toward scripture. I like talking about why some things “are” and some “aren’t”, what causation is exactly, whether humans have minds or just brains, whether free will exists, whether God exists, how species originated, what makes coffee good, what goodness is, whether beauty is objective, etc. etc. I am struck with wonder when I look at just about anything. Wonder and awe. This life and its quirks are simply amazing.

It’s probably good for me to learn to do what I’m learning to do. But someday I will get to go back to school and study philosophy and then get a job as a teacher and get to learn from, share with, teach, and be challenged by this world’s other “geologists”.

Gold-diggers look elsewhere.

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Filed under Faith, Paradox, Theology

Alvin

So there’s this philosopher. He’s really pivotal. He has made significant contributions to several major areas in philosophy. He’s my favorite philosopher’s favorite philosopher. JL Mackie, who went to his grave a staunch atheist, credited this philosopher with solving the logical problem of evil, and he is now widely credited as having done so, and such is regularly cited as a concrete example of progress in philosophy. And he was on the evening news this one time because his A/C unit froze.

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Filed under Faith, Philosophy