Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Infinitude of a Perfectly Good God's Reward

One of the lynchpins of my bottom-up apologetic argument in defense of the Christian faith is the possibility that God, if He is perfectly good, might be able to deliver a reward of ostensibly infinite value.  To some, this sounds like pie-in-the-sky speculation, or mere wishful thinking.  Perhaps it sounds like I’m a religion salesman, and I am just puffing my wares.  “Infinite rewards await you!  Act now, before it’s too late!”

I can sympathize with those reactions, to some extent.  I would only guard against some misconceptions about what I am actually claiming.  My argument does not actually rest on the infinitude of a good God’s reward as a matter of actual fact.  Instead, my argument operates simply by accounting for the possibility that a good God’s reward might be infinitely good or valuable.

What’s the difference?  For one, if a premise of an argument rests on a matter of actual fact, then the argument can be undercut if it can be shown that no evidence exists to directly support the truth of the supposed matter of fact.  In this case, one can easily point out that we cannot directly observe the reward in question.

Furthermore, a premise affirming as a matter of actual fact the infinitude of God’s reward would beg multiple questions which are actually being answered in the conclusion of the argument.  For example, God’s reward could only be infinite as a matter of actual fact if God’s existence and goodness were also taken as granted as a matter of actual fact.  But if you are familiar with my actual argument, these matters are taken to be just as uncertain as the reward itself.

These points might seem obvious to some.  I have bothered making them in order to be quite clear about the goal posts, as it were.  Since my argument only actually depends on the possibility of an infinite reward, then defeating my argument requires a demonstration of the total impossibility of such an infinite reward.

Ron Garret has taken considerable efforts to probe and understand my argument, and always with exemplary respect.  He has presented a challenge to my argument on these grounds, to which I responded very briefly in my original post.  Ron recently recapitulated his argument in greater detail.  I am pleased to expand on the rebuttal that I offered against his argument.

1. Any condition impairing one’s ability to perceive and enjoy goodness might be specific to our current fallen nature, and absent in our eternal form.

Ron presents the right kind of argument here.  He argues that an infinite reward is impossible, because, in his words, “an infinite reward is fundamentally incompatible with human nature.”  Ron “can hardly imagine a worse fate than to be immortal.”

There is an important sense in which I quite agree with Ron’s statement here.  I absolutely agree that “an infinite reward is fundamentally incompatible with human nature.”  Human beings are, in the core of our nature: ignorant, proud, lazy, fearful, and restless.

Human ignorance sometimes prevents us from being able to enjoy goodness when we fail to perceive that goodness is before us.  When the odd man out declares a joke to be stupid, the rest of us know quite well what is actually going on: he didn’t get the punchline.  He thinks the joke is bad, but only because he failed to grasp the incongruity below the surface.  Pride prevents us from being able to enjoy goodness that we did not produce ourselves.  We want to be superior to the other, and thus we have to deprecate the fruit of the other, else his value would threaten our own.  Laziness prevents us from being able to enjoy goodness which requires effort to be enjoyed.  Mastery of any skill brings great joy, but most of us never really taste it outside of very contrived circumstances, precisely because achieving mastery is hard.  Fearfulness prevents us from enjoying good things for which we have no guaranty.  We see other people enjoying some things, yet we do not pursue them because we lack faith in the process of realization of the good thing.  Maybe we will fail to get it.  Maybe we will get it, but it won’t turn out to be as good as we hoped.

But there is something beyond even all of that, which is also part of human nature, and which also prevents us from being able to enjoy good things.  Human beings are restless.  Whenever we are in the process of authentic enjoyment of any objectively good thing, without fail we become aware of the many good things that we aren’t enjoying.  A person who loves movies can spend all his leisure time at the theatre, and go on day after day in the same habit.  But eventually, he becomes aware that he really should spend more time outside.  He should expand his social circle.  He should read more.  He should learn to cook, or to play guitar.  He should travel.  All of these things are good, in and of themselves, but our enjoyment of all of them is marred for the simple reason that we can’t enjoy them all.  And why is that?  It is because we are mortal.

This last point is important.  Ron, himself acknowledges this obvious fact when he says “Being mortal is woven deep into the fabric of our being.”  Yet, here we are, talking about how we might fare in eternity.  You see that we have already thrown off this major aspect of human nature, as we now know it to be.  We readily allow that human nature could possibly be changed so that we could be immortal.  Why, then, should we be so rigid concerning all those other aspects of human nature, which absolutely would impede our ability to enjoy goodness for all eternity?

Our restlessness can be cured by immortality.  We will be able to spend as long as we like at the theatre, because the time we spend there will not take away from the time we can spend hiking, or calling on friends, or reading, or cooking or making music.  We will be able to do it all, and so we needn’t worry about missing out on anything.

In the same way, we can imagine the possibility that a good God’s reward will entail the removal of all these obstacles to our eternal enjoyment of good things.  A good God can replace our ignorance with His revelation.  We will not then fail to perceive the goodness of anything, as we do now.  If a good God was able to replace our pride with humility, then we should find it just as natural to bask in the glory of other people’s achievements just as readily as we do in our own.  Transforming laziness into diligence would enable the pursuit of a greater variety of goodness, especially within the context of eternity.  And replacing fearfulness with faithfulness, we would never forego the pursuit of any good thing based on a presupposed expectation of failure.

You see, Ron’s argument for the impossibility of the infinitude of God’s reward depends on the fixity of our nature.  But as far as I can see, there is no reason to assume fixity concerning those aspects of our nature that impede our ability to perceive, pursue, and enjoy goodness.  It is generally and easily understood that certain aspects of our nature would have to be changed in order to enter God’s perfect kingdom.  Obviously, we would need to be made immortal, and that is no small facet of what we now view as fundamental to our very nature.  Christians also agree that our unrighteousness will have to be completely cured.  It is certainly possible that God might be able to do all these things, and thus it remains possible that God could deliver an infinitely valuable reward.

All this was entailed in the point included in my original rebuttal of Ron’s “problem of boredom”.  There I put it simply as “any condition impairing one’s ability to perceive and enjoy goodness might be specific to our current fallen nature, and absent in our eternal form.”

2. Since personal experience attests to the renewal of interest after a sabbatical, then rotation between several activities might maintain positive levels of interest and enjoyment through eternity.

Ron also alludes to the “bigness” of infinity as a problem for the infinitude of God’s reward.  Because the total amount of time to be devoted to the complete set of all heavenly activities is infinite, then the time to be devoted to any individual heavenly activity should also be infinite.  That is one of the properties of infinity: infinity divided by any real number still returns infinity.

If there were only two activities in which we could engage ourselves in heaven, and we divided our time between them evenly, then we would still be spending an infinite amount of time on each activity.  And this would remain true whether the “complete set of heavenly activities” included two, three, or one million unique activities.  However many activities there are to be enjoyed, so long as that number is finite (and more on that later), then the time to be devoted to each activity will be infinite.

Now, Ron must again appeal to human nature as it currently is: insofar as human beings experience declining pleasure from any activity after a certain point, we should reasonably expect that any heavenly activity will eventually become stale, dull, boring.  But once again, no reason has yet been provided for why Ron expects our nature to remain fixed in this arbitrary way.  Remember that the decline of our enjoyment of a good thing has to do with our mortality, ignorance, pride, laziness, and fearfulness.  And all of these could simply be defects, which are easily rectified in a willing patient.

Nevertheless, I grant that Ron’s appeal to the bigness of infinity has a certain intuitive force, even beyond our irrational assumption of the fixity of human nature.  In order to illustrate the force of the objection, let’s imagine that the “set of all heavenly activities” includes reading books.  Ron, for his part, imagines that reading books would be a good activity which we might expect to enjoy in heaven, and I agree with him (in principle).  In Ron’s picture, however, the child of God undertakes to read all possible books.  Part of the purpose of Ron’s example is to paint a picture of the lengthiness of eternity.  He says, “If you put an upper bound -- any upper bound -- on how long a book you're willing to read (100 million pages, say) you can read every one of those books [from the "Library of Babel"] an infinite number of times.”  And this, for what it’s worth, is a great way to illustrate the lengthiness of eternity.

But Ron goes on to say, “And if you spend even a little time browsing the Library of Babel you will see that reading most of those books is not going to be a lot of fun.”  This is a great way to demonstrate that reading is not good, in and of itself.  There is nothing enjoyable about reading gibberish on this side of eternity, and that is no fault of our own nature, but instead this is a defect of gibberish.  No, the goodness of reading comes from the goodness of that which is read.

So while the “Library of Babel” (which “would contain every possible combination of 1,312,000 characters, including lower case letters, space, comma, and period”) is a good way to demonstrate the bigness of infinity, it is a poor way to characterize the potential activity of heaven.

Nevertheless, we still have some common ground: reading good books is a good activity, and we can reasonably expect the set of activities in heaven to include the reading of good books, or else something which is essentially like it.  And since the set of all good books is only a very small portion of the set of all possible books, then the intuitively forceful problem of the length of eternity becomes all the more powerful.  We have a smaller number of books between which we are dividing the infinite amount of time which we can devote to reading.

So, if the “set of all heavenly activities” is finite in its membership, then it follows that we will spend an infinite amount of time on the activity defined as “reading good books”.  Let’s take a second to consider what this would actually be like.

If we assume that the reader is lacking those aspects of human nature which impede our ability to perceive and enjoy goodness, then what we must try to imagine is a person who can read and re-read the same good book over and over again, and no matter how many times he has read that book, he will experience some positive measure of pleasure from reading that book one more time.  We needn’t try to imagine that the enjoyment will remain constant: of course novelty, the newness of an experience, is a pleasure in itself, which would only be present in an inverse proportion to the reader’s memory of the book.  But, if it’s a good book, then the novelty of it is not the only good aspect to the book.  The novelty of the experience of reading the good book may wear off or disappear completely, and yet the child of God would be able to perceive and enjoy the goodness of the book, in and of itself, no matter how many times it has been read.

Of course, we also don’t need to try to imagine that the reader is immediately re-reading the same book which he has just finished.  The reader can take a break from reading in order to enjoy the other members of the set of heavenly activities, and can do so for extremely long periods.  So of course it is easy to suppose that even the pleasure of novelty could be recaptured, if the hiatus was long enough.

You see, everything Ron says about eternity remains true when we think about a heavenly reader who reads his favorite book once every hundred years.  In eternity, this reader will spend a non-finite amount of time reading that same book.  And yet I can’t really grasp any hard problem associated with this picture.  It seems very plausible that this reader will be able to experience some measure of legitimate pleasure every time he goes to read this book, no matter how many times he has read it before.  And this was the essence of the point which I raised against Ron’s problem of boredom, when I said, “since personal experience attests to the renewal of interest after a sabbatical, then rotation between several activities might maintain positive levels of interest and enjoyment through eternity.”

That is the nature of appetite.  Just about any legitimately good thing can be spoiled by trying to enjoy them out of their proper measure.  Water is the tastiest thing in the world when you are thirsty, but will make you sick if you just keep drinking more and more of it.  Even so, it is possible that a plethora of activities will be available to us in heaven, and that by rotating between them, we will have the appetite to enjoy each one when we come back around to it.

3. The infinite creativity of a perfectly good God might make it so even novelty, at some level, could persist through eternity.

In the previous section, I said, “Because the total amount of time to be devoted to the complete set of all heavenly activities is infinite, then the time to be devoted any individual heavenly activity should also be infinite.”  But, as I later alluded, this is only true if the “set of all heavenly activities” is finite.  In reality, there is no good reason to suppose that this will even be the case.

Think of all the pleasures that we get to enjoy, here and now.  Every one of our senses can be excited in various pleasurable ways.  Remember that God invented our senses, as well as all of those things which excite them.  He did not invent them from pre-existing materials, nor did He require inspiration from nature to conceive of them, as do human inventors.  God invented nature itself!  God conceived of these things when nothing existed which could have inspired them.

This is true “creativity”.  Human creativity is praiseworthy and wonderful, but God is Holy (set apart; unlike anything else that exists).  His creativity is not just on another level, but on a completely different plane.  For this reason, there is no good reason to suppose that the pleasurable activities available to us right now, are going to be the same or only activities available to us in heaven.  Isaiah 65:17 says that God “will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.”

The limits of human creativity are defined by the number of combinations in which we can package and repackage the pre-existing materials made available to us.  But for God, there is no such limit.  God’s creativity is bounded only by God’s imagination, which is clearly powerful enough to conceive of potentialities far removed from actual reality.  He imagined and created light, when nothing even remotely like light existed.

You see, there is no good reason to suppose that the “set of all heavenly activities” will be finite.  God is able to produce and introduce entirely new kinds of pleasure, which can be packaged into entirely new kinds of activity.  With a potentially infinite number of activities to be enjoyed in heaven, the previous points could be entirely moot.  It may be that we will still be looking forward to an infinite number of undiscovered, unimagined pleasures, even after a hundred trillion years of divine fellowship.

Ron rejects the possibility of infinite reward, but only by taking as granted the fixity of human nature, ignoring the virtues of appetite, and underestimating the creativity of God.  There are no good reasons to take these positions, without which, the problem of boredom dissolves away.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

In Defense of God's Perfect Righteousness

In a previous post, I used Matthew 5:48 to substantiate my claim that "we must be perfectly righteous to enter the Kingdom of Heaven".  Herein I respond to a challenge I have received, that the context of this verse supposedly shows that this only means we must be perfectly loving, rather than perfectly righteous.  I received this challenge in the context of a greater challenge that Christianity does not suppose that God is perfectly righteous.

Matthew 5:48 says, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."  Now, as my contender noted, you "can't take a verse out of its context and make it do tricks."  This is absolutely correct.  Unfortunately, it seems that my contender only bothered to walk his finger back about five verses or so to define its context.

Verses 43-47 read as follows:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

See?  That whole paragraph is about how we should love even our enemies!  Obviously this is the idea that is being summarized and concluded in verse 48, right?  God loves everyone, and we should too.  As God is perfect (in love), we should be perfect (in love).



If you take the time to read the whole sermon on the mount, which spans from chapter 5 through the end of chapter 7, or heck, if you just read chapter 5 instead of merely thumbing back a few verses, you catch on to some important contextual clues.  Verse 43 starts with the words, "You have heard that it was said...", and then in verse 44, "But I tell you...".  This pattern emerges six separate times in chapter 5.  These are all subpoints of the ideas introduced in verses 17-20:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

The main idea in these verses is that no one is getting off the hook requiring the demands of the law.  How good do we have to be?  Do we have to follow the whole law to be saved?  Or is God grading on a curve?  And what does Jesus say to that here?  "...anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven..."  How many laws can we break and still be OK?  Not even one, it seems.

How about just one of the little ones?  Sorry, no.

But what about the scribes and pharisees, who were regarded as the most righteous people in the whole nation (particularly by themselves)?  Surely they are good enough.  But it is not so: "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

What directly follows that verse is the six teachings following the formula "You have heard that it was said...", followed by, "But I tell you..."  From who did Jesus's audience hear "that it was said?"  From the Scribes and Pharisees.  We are still comparing the standard of righteousness recognized by those who judged themselves "good enough" to the actual standard to which we must attain.

The Scribes and Pharisees taught that we mustn't commit murder.  Beyond that, they would have said, everything else is acceptable.  You can relish feelings of malice and anger, you can curse and slander, and God will approve of you and give you the slice of His kingdom which you so obviously deserve, because, hey, at least you haven't killed anyone, right?


If you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, according to Jesus, not only do you have to refrain from killing people, but you have to refrain even from being angry, it seems.  Now, I have often wondered if this means that simply becoming angry shows that we are less than perfectly righteous, or if this verse refers to holding on to those feelings of anger, or maybe only unjustified anger.  But in the end, at least in my case, it doesn't matter.  I don't even come close to meeting the standard, whatever it means.  The result is the same: my only hope is mercy and transformation.

And so it goes down the line.  Is it good enough to just not cheat on my wife?  Afraid not.  Just by looking at another woman lustfully, I am already guilty. 

Can I ditch my wife when I grow tired of her, as long as I do so in a very official manner?  The Scribes and Pharisees gave me the green light on that one.  But Jesus says, "Proceed with caution: Hell fire ahead." 

The Scribes and Pharisees also encourage me to use oaths to bind myself, which is a handy thing to do when my credibility is being called into question.  So long as I perform my oaths, it's all good, right?  Wrong again. 

But at least I can avenge myself when someone wrongs me, yes?  The Scribes and Pharisees even had a catchy slogan for this one, "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth."  Nope.  It seems that we should have to be willing to endure persecution, if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Yeah, but we're not talking about, like, everyone, right?  The Scribes and Pharisees say I just have to love my neighbor.  But I can hold grudges and avenge myself against hostile foreigners, right? 

You know, I'm sensing a pattern here.

According to the Scribes and Pharisees, a person can be "good enough" while relishing feelings of anger and slandering his brothers; he can look at women that aren't his wife, undressing them with his eyes; he can trade up for a younger and more attractive wife when he gets bored of his old wife; he can swear on heaven and earth to win the confidence of his associates; he can be exacting in revenge; and hate people who are different from him because they are different from him.

And frankly, I can understand the appeal of their teaching.  Heck, even I might be good enough, according to that standard.  Maybe, if God squints.  God should take me as I am because, hey, at least I'm not as bad as those filthy, murdering, adulterers, right?

Wrong.  The law that God gave to Moses entailed a lower standard, because it's purpose was not to save.  It was never meant to save anyone.  The law brings only condemnation.  "By the law is the knowledge of sin." (Rom3:20).  And God was able to condemn the whole house of Israel using a standard which is much, much lower than the actual standard which must be met before anyone can enter the kingdom of heaven.

All of these six topics pertained to the law or standard of righteousness, as was specified in verse 20.  The standard preached by the Scribes and Pharisees was sufficient to fulfill the purpose of the law, which, remember, is condemnation.  Justification requires a much, much higher standard.  Not only must we be perfect in love, we must be perfect in all the ways of righteousness, even as God is perfect.

By being just a little bit more exhaustive in our search for context, we confirm that the perfection referenced in verse 48 refers to righteousness, and not merely love.  And yes, this verse is one of many which affirms the perfect righteousness of God. has a wonderful exposition of the righteousness of God, with ample scriptural support.  Don Stewart, with has another collection of relevant scriptures, accompanied by a lighter commentary.

So the Bible talks the talk, but does God really walk the walk?  What about Job?  What about the people who died in the flood?  What about the Egyptians and the Canaanites, who endured the wrath of God?  These are weighty issues, and wherever God has caused or allowed suffering, we can hope that we will find, one way or another, an explanation for why God did these things.  But, like Job, we should take care.  Bringing an accusation of unrighteousness against God is not something to be taken lightly.  If we are honest with ourselves, we find that we don't have all of the information about what God has done, why He did it, and what good it will bring about.  To give it a word, it would be foolish to accuse God of wickedness when we only have part of the story.

God has caused and allows suffering.  This is a fact of reality, if God, in the Christian sense, exists at all.  We can hope that He will give a satisfactory account of Himself in the end.  In the meantime, what are our options?

We can take the limited information available to us, and use it to bring a railing accusation against God.  Or we can trust that He has done all that He has done for some good reason.  You see, trust is the essence of faith: we rely on the fact of God's goodness, even though it has not yet been proven to us.

Thus, it is not just foolish to accuse God when you have only part of the picture: it is faithless.  We can acknowledge the uncertainty which God has subjected us for the present.  But the mere fact of that uncertainty does not mean we have to set ourselves against Him. 

You will see how essential that trust is when you abandon the delusional idea that you might be "good enough" to earn your way into heaven.  You are not perfectly righteous, and you probably won't be perfectly righteous by the time you leave this earth.  Whatever it is in you that tends towards evil, it will have to be removed.  God can do this without any effort whatsoever, but He won't do it without your consent.  You will have to entrust your whole self to Him, and that's going to take a lot of trust.  If you can't even trust God to make His case for His own righteousness, then how will you trust God with your entire self?  You wouldn't hand your keys over to a mechanic that you didn't trust!  How much more trust is required when you are handing over your whole self?

You must be perfect, as God is perfect, before you can enter the kingdom of heaven.  It would be impossible to get there on our own, but thankfully, we are far from helpless.  All we have to do is repent: to confess our sinfulness, and be willing to be changed: it will be God who effectuates the change.  This is the "good work" which God has begun in us, and which will be performed until the "day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians1:6).  This process is called "sanctification".  The completion of the process of sanctification is called "glorification", and is generally understood to occur after this life is over, when we stand face to face with God.

Remember, not even Job accused God of unrighteousness (see 2:9-10).  Job just had questions: well, so do we.  And God's answer to Job is the same as the answer I'm giving you: we don't yet have the full picture.  In all probability, we won't even be able to understand the full picture until God's self-revelation is complete.  Have faith.  Trust in the Lord.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Breaking Down the "Heart" of Man

I relate very strongly with people who have been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.  I have never sought a formal diagnosis, and I would not attempt to self-diagnose something like that.  But in a lot of ways, speaking with people who have Asperger's feels like being able to use my native tongue after a long stay in a foreign land.  It's not just the introversion or social awkwardness that I relate to.  People with Asperger's have a tendency to "get lost" in a sea of details, unable to see the forest for the trees.  In my own case, I find it difficult to rely on general principles or rules of thumb, because I need everything to be connected in order to make sense of anything.  Loose ends cause me physical stress.

Another thing that I have in common with many that have Asperger's is a difficulty in processing metaphorical language.  I recognize that metaphor makes for good poetry.  But I don't particularly like "good" poetry, either.

This weakness was a barrier to my willingness to take Christianity seriously for a long time.  I felt sure that all of the metaphorical language used in the Bible, and parroted by believers was devoid of any real substance.  "Washed in the blood"?  Blood is what you want washed out, dummy!  And no, the communion elements are not the body and blood of Christ.  I'm pretty sure they were mass produced in a factory somewhere.  This disgusting cracker is more likely to have the blood of some poor factory worker than a zealot who lived 2,000 years ago, if at all.

Granted, I must now confess that at that time, I was merely looking for reasons to find Christianity ridiculous.  But even when I opened my mind to belief, I struggled to find meaning in metaphor.  I envy others' ability to naturally absorb the ideas communicated through metaphor into their understanding.  Although it is harder for me, given time, I usually can break down a metaphor, and get it connected to the network of ideas making up the body of my knowledge.  Some of these connections trigger in me great joy and excitement, and lead me to tearful worship.  Maybe this is a case of God showing His strength through my weakness.  And if anyone else could be led to worship through these things, well, I'd hate to have kept that all to myself.

I may turn this topic into a series, but I wanted to start with something that is still fresh to my mind: the "heart" of man.

"My son, attend to my words; incline thine ear unto my sayings.
Let them not depart from thine eyes; keep them in the midst of thine heart."
(Proverbs 4:20-21)

"Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears,
and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed."
(Isaiah 6:10)

"They have not known nor understood: for he hath shut their eyes,
that they cannot see; and their hearts, that they cannot understand."
(Isaiah 44:18)

In these verses, and there are many more like them, the "heart" is supposed to contain the capacity for knowledge and understanding.  Should we presume that the authors of these verses believed that the organ pumping blood through our veins is responsible for our thought processes?  Obviously not.  Even I know that.  But I have had to explain to one dogged atheist that the word "heart" is often used to refer to the innermost part of a thing, as in "the heart of the forest".

But that still doesn't get me to a place where I feel comfortable.  Obviously, these verses were not talking about the cardiovascular pump, but now my aversion to metaphor points out to me that we have simply moved this seat of understanding from one part of my body to another part of my body: the center-most region, or my center of gravity.  And obviously that also is not what the authors meant when they talked about the "heart" of man.

The words "center" and "inner" describe a spatial relationship existing between a whole and a part.  It seems clear that the relationship being described here is not really spatial in nature.  So in what sense is the "heart" of man "central" or "inner" to the whole picture of him?  As I thought about this, I tried to find examples of centrality which did not entail a spatial relationship, or which used spatial relationships to represent some other kind of relationship.

I thought of a brainstorm.  A brainstorm begins with a central idea, and then branches out with related concepts.  And now we're getting somewhere.

What is the central idea of you?  Faith?  Love of family?  Narcissism?  Friendship?  Laziness?  These concepts or qualities would be near the center of the network of ideas that make up Jimmy Weiss.  How about you?  Leave it in the comments!

Even these things are really only near the center of our selves.  Taken together, we might consider these things the "core" of who we are.  But what would we actually find at the very center of a brainstorm about you?

Your name.

Now, the concept of a "name" is another mysterious thing, at least, it is mysterious to me.  In the Gospel of John chapter 17, Jesus says "I have manifested your name unto the men which you gave me out of the world..."  And then later he repeats, "And I have declared unto them your name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."  Jesus claims in his prayer that he had taught the "name" of the Father.  And yet I can find no where in any of the gospels where the subject of God's name even comes up.

So what is a "name"?  We think of a name as a kind of word, whose definition is the person to whom it belongs.  And this is important, because remember John's Gospel begins by referring to Jesus as the Word, who was both with God and was God in the beginning.  And what is the knowledge that this Word brought into the world?  The knowledge of God, which is eternal life (17:3).

Thus we find that Jesus Christ, who was born of a virgin, who lived a perfect life, who taught with authority and fulfilled the law, who bore the penalty of the whole world's sin, died, and was raised bodily from the grave for our reconciliation; even this same Jesus, in all that he was and said and did; he IS the knowledge of God, made into a form which is communicable to men.  Jesus is the name of God!

So a name is a word, and a word is so much more than a string of symbols scrawled on a page; more than an utterance of the lips.  So much more than that, since within this central idea, the heart, of who one is, apparently lies also the capacity for understanding.

Jimmy Weiss is my name, but my identity is so much more than that.  I have narcissistic tendencies, and that means that I want to be known, want to be recognized, want to be praised.  These desires have always been within me.  But I wish I could kill them, because there is something I have come to desire so much more: to be understood.  Because within the deepest pocket of the core of who I am is the knowledge of God.  I have eternal life, and I desperately want to share that with anyone who will listen.

And this is so far from my narcissistic desire to be approved of, because in the rotten core of that desire is to be more known, more liked, more highly praised than you or anyone else.  I bring this ugliness into the light, begging your mercy, because this desire to be understood is attached to a desire to understand you in the same way: to get at your gooey, vulnerable center, where your knowledge of God waits to be discovered.

Within the bonds of brotherly love, giving mercy to each other, we can confess our weaknesses.  Because God is strong where we are weak, this kind of fellowship is a window for revelation of God's power to stream into our lives.

As a socially awkward person, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this blog.  I hate that it is so hard for me just to smile and say "Good morning" to the lovely folks at church.  But I love to write, and I have so much more to share.

As a final thought, let me recall to your mind Revelation 2:17, in which God promises "To him that overcomes will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knows saving he that receives it."  We get to look forward to a day when we will at last know who we were always meant to be.  God will finally reveal to each of us our true identity.  On that day, we will, for the first time, introduce ourselves to the brethren.  And I can't wait to know you.

Further reading on the seat of reason:
Christians, the Brain, and Person: Conceptual Confusion, Unintelligibility, and Implications
by Callie Joubert  on June 11, 2014

Materialism subverts itself
by Edward Feser on January 11, 2019

Responding to Ron Garret's Distinction of Science and Religion

The question “Why?” can be answered in terms of causation or purpose.  The question “Why do I exist?” can be taken to mean “What caused me to exist?” or “For what purpose do I exist?”

Ron Garret is to be commended for seeking a respectable reason to explain the wide divergence of beliefs held by good-willed, intelligent thinkers.  At one point in our extended conversation, I responded defensively to an innocuous statement which Ron had made, because I assumed he was looking for an unrespectable reason to explain our divergence, as some other atheists have in the past.  It is very comfortable for certain people on either side of any issue to cast their adversaries as unintelligent or dishonest people.  Of course, that will sometimes be the case.  But if your goal is to actually learn something when talking to someone, it is best to at least start out giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Easier said than done, sometimes.  I am glad that Ron has been so quick to forgive.

In this case, I am still trying to understand Ron’s distinction between what he supposes to be the scientific mindset and the religious mindset.  It may be that I am misrepresenting him here.  As I understand it, it seems to still entail a little bit of a caricature of the religious person.  Not so much of a caricature that I would cast doubt on Ron’s good will, but enough to warrant some discussion.

Ron begins with the observation that explanations come in both “causal” and “teleological” flavors.  It seems that Ron sees the "Scientific" mindset as primarily concerned with causation, and the "Religious" mindset as primarily concerned with teleology, or purpose.  Now, that’s a bit of a restatement of Ron’s position, so he will have to correct me if that is wrong.

As far as I understand him, neither mindset is supposed to ignore their secondary questions.  Religious people can explore causation, and Scientists (capitalized to distinguish philosophical from professional scientists) can explore questions of teleology.  I don’t think Ron meant to imply otherwise.

One point that I disagree with is that, as Ron says, teleology has to be accepted as an axiom.  Ron is correct to note that teleology is not a given: purpose is only possible where intelligence exists.  Thus, if the First and Ultimate cause either (A) does not exist, or (B) is not intelligent, then there can be no purpose except those we determine ourselves.

It follows that the possibility of purpose is not axiomatic, because the possibility of purpose depends on the possibility of intelligence.  Since we are intelligent (remember, “we can know things”), then intelligence is clearly possible.  Thus, purpose is possible.

I wonder if the reason Ron perceives an inordinate preoccupation with teleology among the faithful, is because he is accustomed to making so little of it?  Given evolutionary presuppositions, the "appearance of design" in nature must be viewed as a sort of optical illusion.  Might it be the case that naturalists so often must resist the allusion to intelligence, that any suggestion of design or purpose comes to appear almost offensive?

In fact, teleological presuppositions are, in the context of this discussion, proximal to the more general "worldview" which all must bring to scientific study.  We all have to interpret the evidence through the lens of our worldview.  Thus, it is not the case that the "Scientists" search out causal explanations free of any teleological presuppositions.  Instead, they have brought the presupposition of non-teleology to their search of causal explanations.  In reality, those who practice science and think scientifically include those who hold both kinds of teleological presuppositions, and neither brand of scientist should be considered prima facie superior in their ability to practice science.

There may be more to be said on this.  And I'm not quite sure that I have understood the important points that Ron is trying to make here.  For my own part, I have been surprised to find that Ron's basic assumption that "experiment is the ultimate arbiter of truth" is more or less prevalent among scientific academia.  To me, this assumption is, by itself, sufficient to explain the divergence of the religious minded and those opposed.

Truth absolutely could include facts which are not testable or verifiable by human beings.  Whatever can be tested, absolutely should be tested.  But to say that nothing is true which cannot be tested is plainly self defeating.  For that truth, itself, has not been verified through experimentation!  This assumption conceals an unjustified endorsement of naturalism as a default belief, and thus would be sufficient to explain the overwhelmingly naturalistic bent of explanations arrived at by so many modern scientists.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Responding to Ron Garret’s Challenges to My Basic Axioms

In response to my first entry in this open conversation, Ron Garrett offered many kind words, along with his respectful criticism concerning my representation of the basic axioms which I believe comprise the pre-requisites for the intelligibility of the universe.  On this point, I do believe we have sufficient common ground to understand one another.

In my original post, I stated three basic axioms which need to be accepted in order for us to have confidence in our ability to know things.  For clarification, those three points are (1) the laws of logic are true, (2) our minds and senses are generally reliable, and (3) the laws of nature are uniform.  I said I believed we were agreed on all of these points but one.  I knew that Ron disagreed with me concerning the axiomatic status of uniformity, but the way I made that statement caused some confusion.  First, Ron actually has material reservations concerning more than just the uniformity of nature.  I did not intend to misrepresent Ron: we had not discussed the laws of logic in any detail as of yet, and only briefly touched on some common ground related specifically to the law of non-contradiction.  Secondly, since I listed the laws of logic as subpoints of my point #1 shortly after my statement that “Ron and I  are agreed on all but one of these preconditions…”, it seemed like I was saying that Ron disagreed with one of the laws of logic, rather than one of the more general preconditions for intelligibility.

To clarify, Ron and I have previously discussed uniformity in nature.  While we both accept that uniformity is true, I believe uniformity is properly held as an axiom, upon which the practice of science depends, while Ron believes that uniformity is a conclusion of science, which depends only on the assumption that “experiment is the ultimate arbiter of truth.”

In point of fact, Ron expresses certain reservations regarding the laws of logic in his response to my first post.  However, his objections appear to concern the application of the laws, rather than the laws themselves.

The first law of logic, which Ron criticizes, is the law of identity, which states that something is what it is, and whatever exists must have a specific nature.  Ron’s objection is in the difficulty of properly and consistently defining the identity of anything.  He proposes composition and arrangement as a common sense way of identifying things.  By this scheme of identification, “my lamp” is identified by its present arrangement of these particular parts, right down to the molecules, atoms, and sub-atomic “particles”.  And then he points out that the particles of every material thing are constantly changing places, and thus “my lamp” today is really a totally different lamp than “my lamp” yesterday.  Thus arises the problem of “continuity of identity”.

My response to this is simply that composition is a poor way to “identify” things.  At one point in our prolonged discussion, I made passing mention to “teleologically discreet bodies”.  I originally formulated this phrase in response to the problem of continuity of identity, as it was presented in Dr. William Lane Craig’s “Time and the Metaphysics of Relativity”.  The phrase refers to the identification of things by their purpose.  Thus, “my lamp” is the thing which I can use to control the lighting in my room.  “My lamp” is thus defined by its purpose, which remains constant throughout its existence.  Even when “my lamp” breaks and no longer gives light, its identity remains intact.  Just because something has been ruined for its original purpose, does not change the fact that its purpose is what it is.

Now, the use of teleology to identify things may create problems that I am not aware of.  It is open to criticism.  However, this shows how the law of identity is not suspended when we fail to be consistent in the way we identify things.  When we are inconsistent, the problem lies in our use of language, not in the law of logic.

On a more fundamental level, Ron’s affirmation of the problem of continuity of identity actually reveals Ron’s basic acceptance of the law of identity itself: for to say that a change in composition must change the identity of a thing, is to say that the thing really did have a specific identity, and that is what has changed.  It was comprised of this set of particles (each of which, we should note, are assumed to be themselves and not the others), and now is comprised of that set of particles – but we can only suppose that those particles are not these particles if each particle is itself and not the other.  It was what it was, and now it is what it is.  Let’s not over-complicate that.

Ron’s objection to my formulation of the law of non-contradiction may be related to his objection to the law of identity.  There are, in fact, other ways express this law.  One could say that “two mutually exclusive statements cannot both be true, in the same way and at the same time.”  This removes any problems associated with a thing having its distinct identity.  At any rate, Ron accepts non-contradiction in some form or another, which is good enough for me.

The third law of logic is the law of excluded middle, and states that a statement is either true or false, with no third option.  Ron appeals to subjectivity (statements of opinion) and tense as cases which contradict the law of excluded middle.  These objections, again, simply entail a burden on our use of language, rather than being problems with the law itself.

The burden entails a responsibility to use words in a way that they have meaning.  President Donald Trump either is, or he is not, a scoundrel.  One or the other must be true, if anything particular is meant by the word “scoundrel”.  If Ron is using the word to mean nothing in particular, then that is Ron’s failure, and not the failure of the law of excluded middle.

Subjectivity does not violate the law of excluded middle, because to the extent any statement is subjective, then the truth or falsehood of the statement must be taken to be relative to the speaker’s subjective experience.

The same can be said of tense.  A statement which is true at one time and false at another time does not violate the law of excluded middle.  The truth or falsehood of a statement is judged relative to the intended temporal framework within which the statement was made.

Can misunderstandings arise on these terms?  Sure.  That is all part of the fun of language.  Effort is often required to ensure that all mean the same thing, even when all are using the same words.

In the conclusion of my original post, I summed up the importance of these basic axioms as “We can know things.”  Despite Ron’s criticism of the way that I formulate basic axioms, we seem to be in agreement on this important point.  Such seems to the virtue of what Ron dubs as “Ron’s Law of Reality”, or RLR:

“The most reliable information you can possibly have about reality is your own subjective experiences.”

Frankly, I agree with Ron’s assertion that this is indeed self-evident.  As he makes clear, this statement is reducible to a tautology.  And, as C.S. Lewis once said in Miracles, calling something a tautology is “another way of saying that they are completely and certainly known.”

Now, RLR is very similar to what I said in my original post, that our minds and senses are generally reliable.  The difference may be purely semantic, but it is still notable.  Subjective experience may be, according to RLR, the “most reliable information you can possibly have”, but that falls short of saying that it is actually reliable.  If we are to have any confidence in our ability to know things, we must be willing to take that affirmative position, “Yes, our minds and senses are reliable.”

Hopefully, this clears up some of the confusion between us.  At the end of this point, I believe we are still standing on common ground.  It may seem insignificant, but in today’s contentious and adversarial culture, there is something very important about recognizing common ground wherever we find it.  In the case of Ron and I, we have found a good deal of common ground at a much higher level.  And yet, if the only thing we can agree on is the fact that “we can know things”, even that is worth celebrating.