Philosophy Fridays: Is Believing God Acted, Without Evidence, Justified?

philosophy

Every now and then, on a Friday, I’ll step into the deep waters of Philosophy, ramble on about some idea and maybe even interact with something I might be reading. Most of the time, a real philosopher could probably read my drivel and offer a corrective—but for now I’ll speak from ignorance. After all, it is Friday; what better way to have fun than with philosophy. In this post I’ll follow up a previous question with answering this question: “Can you be justified in believing God acted in history if you lack evidence or even an argument for the best inference of the evidence?”

Why would we need either arguments or evidence to be justified in believing that God worked in history? People don’t usually function like that.

Currently I believe that I am typing on this keyboard but I don’t believe that it’s really you dreaming of me typing. I don’t have evidence for that belief, nor do I have a good argument: I just believe I’m doing it. This belief could prove to be unsubstantiated (if I’m really plugged into the Matrix) but on what grounds am I currently not justified in holding the belief?

That’s now, but what about three days ago? I truly believe that I bathed. I don’t have a formed picture in my mind of the event. My current stench is evidence to the contrary. Checking the water bill proves nothing. Asking for early rising eyewitness accounts is unhelpful. Am I therefore unjustified in believing that I bathed?

Let’s not belabor the point: we don’t need evidence or an argument to be justified in most of our beliefs. Why would the bar suddenly rise when it comes to God?

Enter the slogan “extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence” which doesn’t make sense on several levels.

First: “extraordinary” is arbitrarily defined. If I bathed only once every three years, but my wife bathed twice a day, wouldn’t me bathing be extraordinary? And at what point is bathing becoming “ordinary”? After bathing every 2 years? Every month?

Second: it’s a moving goal post. After all, some things that at one point might have been extraordinary are now ordinary. Believing in future smartphones in 1982 suddenly becomes a justified belief in 2001 when technology changes?

Third: it forces us to ignore any event. As William Lane Craig said, imagine that I buy a lotto ticket and actually hit the jackpot…am I unjustified in my belief that I actually hit the jackpot because the only bit of evidence I have (ie: the winning ticket) isn’t extraordinary enough? Maybe the winning ticket and the random numbers stated on the screen aren’t enough. Maybe I need to also get struck by lighting. But even getting struck by lightning is less extraordinary than hitting the lotto.

Fourth: what’s extraordinary for God? Imagine God says “I’m going to raise a dead man” then proceeds to do it. Sure the dead don’t normally rise, but how is God doing what he said he would do an extraordinary thing? And if it is the case that he said he would do it back then, can’t I now be justified in believing he acted in history as he said he would?

If James the Baker always tells the truth tells me that yesterday he made me a cake am I not justified in believing him? He’s never made me a cake before. There seems to be no good reason for a cake. And there’s not even evidence that he made me the cake. But I know James and he’s a truth teller and baking is within his sphere of ability. Can’t my belief be justified simply on account of who James is and what he does?

If we substitute James for a necessary maximal being who is The Good, doesn’t that in itself justify beliefs of (at least) God’s activity in history (without saying anything more about what he said)?

So, to the opening post, am I justified in believing God acted in history even if I lack evidence or an argument? Of course I am. That doesn’t mean there isn’t evidence. It just means that I don’t need it to believe it.

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Philosophy Fridays: Considering God in History?

philosophy

Every now and then, on a Friday, I’ll step into the deep waters of Philosophy, ramble away on some idea and maybe even interact with it. Most of the time, a real philosopher could probably read my drivel and speak into it offering a corrective—but for now I’ll speak from ignorance. After all, it’s Friday; what better way to have fun than with philosophy. In this post I’ll answer the question “Should we consider God’s actions in historical discussions?” in under 700 words. Heh.

History, by its nature, is un-testable. We can’t put it under a microscope. Whenever we in the present study anything in the past we’re necessarily a step removed.

History, as it occurs, reports. In other words, anyone in the future depends on the report of what occurred in the past. That’s not to say that a person reports event-X but it is to say that if event-X occurs, it necessarily affects the future. Imagine being at the edge of a pond. You didn’t hear the splash, nor did you see the fish, but you see the ripple.

We can’t limit conclusions to only what is scientifically observable. If so, we couldn’t even offer natural explanations for common historical motivators: like fear, love, or courage.

Imagine someone studies my today. Sure, I’m not God, but I am a Mind who acts in history. They’d find a bag (near the front door) that has a container (bits of food), keys (they jangle and open things), a parked vehicle (warm to the touch), and a badge with a picture.

P concludes: the badge owner enjoys eating scraps of food from a container that it stores near doors; he enjoyed the music of the keys; and turns on the vehicle for warmth or to heat up small scraps of food currently stored in the container.

R posits: the badge owner works at an office and it uses the car keys to drive the vehicle to and from work; the badge gives access into work; the container holds the remaining scraps of a meal; and the individual has forgotten to take those things out of his bag.

J concludes that: the badge is worn to ward off evil spirits; the keys and the vehicle have absolutely no bearing; the container holds the remaining scraps of a propitiatory sacrifice.

You can’t decide which account is right with 100% precision so you must come up with an argument for what makes the most sense of the evidence:

One: Does the offered account explain the data? J ignores some data.

Two: Does the offered account powerfully support the data? P brings up some information that is not supportable by any data (the enjoyment of music). Likewise J (ie: evil spirits; ignores the keys and vehicle).

Three: Is the offered account plausible?  A largely empty container to store scraps of food while owning a vehicle seems implausible.

Four: How made up is the explanation? It’s hard to decide which one is more made up than the other. I we separated this discovery by several thousand years R would be guilty of reading current experience back onto the evidence.

Five: Do any facts come up that disproves any of these offered accounts? So far, nothing.

Six: Which account best explains the most aspects of the evidence? Or which explanation covers the most data? So if you look at J, the explanatory scope is narrow: it covers only a few bits of the evidence. P needs evidential support for the enjoyment of music. R’s explanatory scope is also broad.

True intellectuals should be able to weigh any proposed account, even ones including God, according to all six criterions without denying it simply because of a naturalistic bias or personal preference. The only way to deny it is to say that (1) it is impossible for God to exist or (2) it is impossible for God’s activity to work in this or that way. Both are outside of man’s ken.

If a proffered historical explanation which includes God powerfully handles the widest range of data then decrying it is historiographically naïve and ultimately mere pseudo-intellectual silliness.

Should we consider God’s actions in historical discussions? Yes.

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Philosophy Fridays: The God-Man?

philosophy

Every now and then, on a Friday, I’ll step into the deep waters of Philosophy, ramble away on some idea and maybe even interact with it. Most of the time, a real philosopher could probably read my drivel and speak into it offering a corrective—but for now I’ll speak from ignorance. After all, it’s Friday; what better way to have fun than with philosophy. In this post I’ll answer the question “Is Jesus’ divinity incompatible with his humanity?” in under 700 words. Heh.

To get there, we probably have to figure out what is the stuff that is perceived to be incompatible. People come up with stupid ideas of what is essential (like erring) but that wouldn’t do. You have to get to the stuff without which you wouldn’t have either a human or a God.

First, what attributes are essential for a being to be the ultimate God? Well, he would have to be a necessary being, eternal (without a beginning or ending), have self-existence (not contingent on other beings), be all powerful, all knowing, not restricted by space, completely free, and I’d also say all-good.

A human on the other hand is a weird bag. You can surely say they’re contingent, but that’s on the basis of being creature. No single human is essentially necessary and, since they have a starting point, they are not eternal (even if they can live on into eternity). But how does that differentiate them from any other creature like a dog or an angel? Really doesn’t. So we need to come up with a definition of a human that ties up their physical creaturleiness and their differentiation from physical creatures. Well, unlike all other animals, humans can reason, judge, and decide. So maybe we can define humans as rational animals.

Jesus would then be something that is both divine and a rational animal. But how does that work?

Well, maybe he is 2/3rds human and 1/3rd God so that he’s a rational animal with God’s soul/mind. But that’s problematic since it implies that God was only 2/3rds committed to saving the human race: he came to save the rational animal part but not the soul/mind.

Or maybe Jesus was really a composite of two beings: one who is God and the other who is Jesus. But then that’s problematic because it has Jesus incapable of doing the things God needed done and it has God not doing the things God said he would do. More so, in both cases, the Bible seems to insist that Christ is fully God (the fullness of the Godhead) and fully man (bodily).

What if we suggest that God became human but what he did first was (1) set aside his divine attributes or (2) muted his divine attributes?  But that’s a serious problem. If (2) that means that God’s essential attributes can be dimmed and God still remains God; if (1) that means God can set aside essential attributes and still remain God: both meaning that those attributes weren’t essential to God being God. But beyond that, how is it possible for God to set aside or mute the divine attribute of eternity, aseity, or necessity?  That would make zero sense.

So maybe something else is going on. What if God already has some of the essential attributes of humans as an essential part of his divine attributes? If that was the case, then God taking on a human nature wouldn’t result in setting aside anything but adding something he didn’t have before, and wasn’t essential to Him. Maybe “rationality” is already an essential attribute of God so all he’s doing is taking on that animal-aspect so that he remains fully God, fully human, but on account that he already had what is essential to humans within him. Jesus Christ would then be one person with two natures that operate as one because the human rationality is originally God’s rationality.

If that was the case, it would mean that humans are humans on account of being made according to the mold, as it were. God becoming human and remaining God is amazing but not incompatible (double negative?): it makes sense.

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Philosophy Fridays Quotable: Alvin Plantinga, Evolution, and Open-Mindedness

philosophy

Consider The Grand Evolutionary Myth (GEM). According to this story, organic life somehow arose from nonliving matter by way of purely natural means and by virtue of the workings of the fundamental regularities of physics and chemistry. Once life began, all the vast profusion of contemporary flora and fauna arose from those early ancestors by way of common descent. The enormous contemporary variety of life arose through such processes as natural selection operating on such sources of genetic variability as random genetic mutation, genetic drift and the like. I call this story a myth not because I do not believe it (although I do not believe it) but because it plays a certain kind of quasi-religious role in contemporary culture: it is a shared way of understanding ourselves at the deep level of religion, a deep interpretation of ourselves to ourselves, a way of telling us why we are here, where we come from, and where we are going.

Now it is certainly possible—epistemically possible, anyway, —that GEM is true; God could have done things in this way. Certain parts of this story, however, are to say the least epistemically shaky. For example, we hardly have so much as decent hints as to how life could have arisen from inorganic matter just by way of the regularities known to physics and chemistry. (Darwin found this question deeply troubling; at present the problem is vastly more difficult than it was in Darwin’s day, now that some of the stunning complexity of even the simplest forms of life has been revealed.) No doubt God could have done things that way if he had chosen to; but at present it looks as if he didn’t choose to.

So suppose we separate off this thesis about the origin of life. Suppose we use the term ‘evolution’ to denote the much weaker claim that all contemporary forms of life are genealogically related. According to this claim, you and the flowers in your garden share common ancestors, though we may have to go back quite a ways to find them. (So perhaps herbicide is a sort of fratricide.) Many contemporary experts and spokespersons—Francisco Ayala, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Gould, William Provine, and Philip Spieth, for example—unite in declaring that evolution is no mere theory, but established fact. According to them, this story is not just a virtual certainty, but a real certainty. This is as solid and firmly established, they say, as that the earth is round and revolves around the sun. (All of those I mentioned explicitly make the comparison with that astronomical fact.) Not only is it declared to be wholly certain; if you venture to suggest that it isn’t absolutely certain, if you raise doubts or call it into question, or are less than certain about it, you are likely to be howled down; you will probably be declared an ignorant fundamentalist obscurantist or worse. In fact, this isn’t merely probable ; you have already been so-called: in a recent review in the New York Times , Richard Dawkins, an Oxford biologist of impeccable credentials, claims that “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet someone who claims nor to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” (Dawkins indulgently adds that “You are probably not stupid, insane or wicked, and ignorance is not a crime . . .”)

Now what is the source of these strident declarations of certainty, these animadversions on the character or sanity of those who think otherwise? Given the spotty character of the evidence—a fossil record displaying sudden appearance and subsequent stasis and few if any genuine examples of macroevolution—these claims of certainty seem at best wildly excessive. From a Christian perspective, evolution isn’t remotely as certain as all that. Take as evidence what the Christian knows as a Christian together with the scientific evidence—the fossil evidence, the experimental evidence, and the like: it is at best absurd exaggeration to say that, relative to that evidence, evolution is as certain as that the earth is round. The theist knows that God created the heavens and the earth and all that they contain; she knows, therefore, that in one way or another God has created all the vast diversity of contemporary plant and animal life. But of course she isn’t thereby committed to any particular way in which God did this. He could have done it by broadly evolutionary means; but on the other hand he could have done it in some totally different way. For example, he could have done it by directly creating certain kinds of creatures—human beings, or bacteria, or for that matter sparrows and houseflies—as many Christians over the centuries have thought. Alternatively, he could have done it the way Augustine suggests: by implanting, seeds, potentialities of various kinds in the world, so that the various kinds of creatures would later arise, although not by way of genealogical interrelatedness. Both of these suggestions are incompatible with the evolutionary story. And given theism and the evidence it is absurd to say that evolution (understood as above) is a rockribbed certainty, so that only a fool or a knave could reject it.

So why that insistence on certainty and the refusal to tolerate any dissent? The answer can be seen, I think, when we realize that what you properly think about these claims of certainty depends in part on how you think about theism. If you reject theism in favor of naturalism, this evolutionary story is the only visible answer to the question, “Where did all this enormous variety of flora and fauna come from? How did it get here?” Even if the fossil record is at best spotty and at worst disconfirming, even if there are anomalies of other sorts, this story is the only answer on offer (from a naturalistic perspective) to these questions; so objections will not be brooked.

A Christian, therefore, has a certain freedom denied her naturalist counterpart: she can follow the evidence where it leads.

On Christian Scholarship, Alvin Plantinga

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Prayer Mondays: Advent

prayer

Barring my faulty memory (and if I’m not lazy) I want to post prayers on Monday from all over Church History and then throughout the modern day, and then my own. This one is for Advent.

O Emmanuel,
Rex et legifer noster,
expectatio gentium,
et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos,
Domine, Deus noster.

O Emmanuel,
the one awaited by the gentiles,
and their Savior:
come to save us,
Lord our God.

Philosophy Fridays: ANA Culture In Hindsight

The Late 20th and Early 21st Century Ancient North American (ANA) Peoples had interesting set of beliefs though all with some unifying factors. Each area of belief was fraught with disagreement yet a strong cohesive unity which indicated their shared identity. This being so, no generation in human history has proven as united as this one and thus easily able to be examined.

Science

ANA Land

The ANA View Of The Cosmos

Regarding their scientific advancements of the ANA, their opinions varied but it seemed that they were grounded more on pragmatics and beliefs rather than empirical data. For instance, although they would teach in their classrooms that the Earth revolved around the Sun, they continued to believe otherwise.  They would refer to “Sunrise” and “Sunset” without a quibble reflecting the true mindset of the culture as a whole.

ANA believed in a tiered cosmology where sky was “up” and where rain “Fell” down—obviously not a clue of the forces of gravity or the three dimensional nature of the world.  But more interesting (and disturbing) is how the culture would speak about location. They would drive “down” to Georgia or tell others to come “up” to their house thus indicating that they believed the world was both flat and vertically held and were completely confused about the actual location of the sky (which for some reason, they thought was “blue”). Was it Up There or Out There—no opinion was solidified.

As to what they believed was below the vertical world, we don’t know but based on some segments of the society saying “It smells like hell down here” and “keep it on the down low” and the like, we can only assume that there was a belief in either hell or an abyss.

Religion

The Rising Divine Market

Their religious ideals seem to be varied enough to fight for though they had a unifying set of rituals which indicates some sort of meta-belief system that they all adhered to.  Some would rise in the morning to pray or to read their holy book but almost all of them rose to listen or read the prophetic utterances  of the “Forecaster” who would dictate to them how they were to dress and when the Sun would “rise” and “set”; and even when rain would “fall”. Without nary of a thought of how this information was acquired, they would structure their day to day activity around such prophetic utterances of the “Forecaster” even in light of repeated failure.

Indeed, they would couple this activity of listening to the “predictions” with baptisms of the body (by sprinkling, not often by immersion which was a practice normally practiced by Mothers during the evening) and of the face. Some of the peoples, obviously offering their bodies as a sweet smelling aroma, would cap this process off by anointing themselves with various perfumes and fragrances.

Apparently the well off in the society worshipped a sort of heavenly shopping district (here depicted as a rising city) because they would start the day by reviewing how this Market would act, and then spend the day worrying about it falling or rising. Idols were attached to these processes (the Bull depicting the ascending City and the Bear depicting the descent).The Idols of the Divine Market

Apparently, these beliefs trickled throughout the culture as they would refer to their leaders or slave-masters as “being on top” indicating a divine connection to The Market.

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Shock and Awe: Observing Fear

In a Philosophy Friday I addressed the question “Did Jesus Fear” where I pointed out that it depends on what we mean by fear. Fear, I noted, isn’t wrong in itself and might actually be necessary for basic living. But I wanted to make a textual observation that I really didn’t have room for in that post (and plus, it detracts from the primary philosophical considerations).

The textual observation is in regards to Hebrews 5:7

In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. (NASB)

Personally I think piety (even knowing the definition) is a strange word to use but the NASB has a habit of doing that. The NIV does a better job of getting the idea across by translating it as reverent submission.

The Greek term there (eulabeias) is later translated by the NASB in Heb 12:28 as awe.

What’s interesting is when you look at the KJV family. The KJV translates Heb 5:7 as “because he feared” while Heb 12:28 as “godly fear”. This clues us English readers about the problem with translating words only with their literal meaning.

What does the word eulabeia actually mean? Maybe it is only the good fear like reverence?

Well, that collides with its usage when we see the word being used to mean actually fearing (Acts 23:10) something like moved in Heb 11:7 (although the NASB translates it there as reverence) and in the Septuagint (admittedly, an older Greek) 1 Sam 18:29 the word could mean something like being astounded.

So now you have a word (eulabeia) which could mean reverence and it could mean actual fear. Hrm. Maybe we can differentiate it by looking at one of the other words for fear: phobos?

The Bible is choc-full of references with this word but the problem of literal meaning comes up once again. In Matthew 14:26; Rom 13:3; and 1 John 4:18 it means terror or fear but sometimes it could mean reverence, respect, or honor (1 Pet 1:17; 1 Peter 3:2; Rom 13:7; 2 Corinthians 5:11).

Indeed phobos, in some cases seems to mean that terror-sort-of-fear but in (strangely enough) a positive sense (1 Cor. 2:3; 2 Cor. 7:15; Eph. 6:5; Phil. 2:12).

This is all to conclude that textually, you can’t decide on a position merely because of the words being used. The words can mean something differently in different contexts and within those contexts is where you find the proper breeding ground for this or that position. Mind you, this isn’t to say you can embrace whatever you want. Just because the words have a range of meaning doesn’t imply that you can pick or choose from whatever you want within that range.

In this case a simplistic answer of “No.” or “Yes.” To the question “Did Jesus fear” doesn’t do justice to the words themselves, but it also doesn’t do justice to the text since it doesn’t adress all the complexities involved within the text.

It winds up being primarily a philosophical question (as I pointed out in that other post) based on the implications of the theology of the hypostatic union—which is exceedingly Biblical.


Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 2: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament

Lust, J., Eynikel, E., & Hauspie, K. (2003). A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint

Newman, B. M. (1993). A Concise Greek-English dictionary of the New Testament

Thomas, R. L. (1998). New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek dictionaries : Updated edition.

Zodhiates, S. (2000). The complete word study dictionary : New Testament

 

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