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Michael Murray’s Response to the “Hiddenness of God” Argument Is Eh

He really is that good.

He really is that good.

Wintery Knight posted a while back (a while back on the scale of Internet time) about a response to the argument about God’s “hiddenness”—i.e., the phenomenon that God’s existence isn’t more plainly known to everyone in the same way that other, less important things, are apparent.

[Michael Murray] argues that if God reveals himself too much to people, he takes away our freedom to make morally-significant decisions, including responding to his self-revelation to us. Murray argues that God stays somewhat hidden, so that he gives people space to either 1) respond to God, or 2) avoid God so we can keep our autonomy from him. God places a higher value on people having the free will to respond to him, and if he shows too much of himself he takes away their free choice to respond to him, because once he is too overt about his existence, people will just feel obligated to belief in him in order to avoid being punished.

But believing in God just to avoid punishment is NOT what God wants for us. If it is too obvious to us that God exists and that he really will judge us, then people will respond to him and behave morally out of self-preservation. But God wants us to respond to him out of interest in him, just like we might try to get to know someone we admire. God has to dial down the immediacy of the threat of judgment, and the probability that the threat is actual. That leaves it up to us to respond to God’s veiled revelation of himself to us, in nature and in Scripture.

This sort of response bugs me because Murray pretzels himself up to preserve freewill, but given what’s at stake why would God really prefer freewill so much so over assured salvation? A skeptic would rightly be unsatisfied with this rationalization; he would much rather be tackled against his will out of the path of a careening tractor trailer—complete with bowel evacuation in front of a cadre of spectators. I would rather suffer granite scrapes, a minute of rattled nerves, and the embarrassment and stench of my own feces on display than be plowed over into a red stain on concrete.

I might approach a counterargument, or counter this counterargument, in a few different, yet very scatterbrained, ways:

1) Freewill in the metaphysical sense is not like dealing with freewill in the material agency sense. Getting jailed goes against my freewill. Falling onto floor spikes is unpleasant, deadly, and against my will to not end up like. Yet my will does not change the law of gravity or the placement of an unseen errant roller skate in my path; my freewill is irrelevant to the process. The relationship of humans to divine sovereignty is such that it could similar to the latter situation. But…

2) We’re not dealing with impersonal physical laws but an agency (God) that proposes to hold intimate knowledge about us. He could chose to reveal himself to remove doubt from all choice-making agencies (humans), but there could be something about His nature such that it prevents Him from doing that. And no, I don’t think preserving freewill is highest on the list but I have no idea what this other property would be.

3) It could be the case that some of us have freewill and some don’t. Or some of us has some kind of partial freewill, or that we have freewill at some points and none at another point. There might be no reason to think this property is static. On this side of the divide it really ends up as a epistemic crapshoot. Aside from Exodic pharoahs scriptural revelation these aren’t very strong scenarios but I’d rather err on that side than suggest there’s something very possible that God can’t do.

4) God, having perfect foreknowledge of events, knows who would choose Him and who wouldn’t, and therefore “hides” Himself, either actively or passively, from those who He knows would not choose Him and reveals Himself to those who will. There’s a theological term for this that someone with relevant knowledge can clarify for me, but we could call it “divine efficiency” for now. It does come off as a very freewill-quashing Edwardianism to me, on first impression. I don’t like this option, personally, but I don’t completely rule it out.

5) Why does it matter if a person comes to a belief in God out of fear? Does God care that belief is a result of some more “noble” situation?

6) As William Lane Craig correctly pointed out in a response to a reader’s email: God owes you absolutely nothing.

Summary of blather: Murray’s response rests too much on freewill preservation.

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The “Accumulative Existence” Argument Against God’s Existence

This is a redo of my previous post, “The ‘Accumulative Past’ Argument Against God’s Existence”. After some discussion on Facebook I decided to change it up. I thought #1 was a weak premise, even for a skeptic, seeing as time as we know it is an abstraction by itself, and if it’s applied to a transcendent being it pretty much loses enough meaning to really talk about it. But I decided to go with it since that was my initial thought.

Here’s the revamped argument:

1. For God to be God He must embody all the properties He has to the maximal degree.
2. The universe and things inside it (people, rivers, quarks) are all separate from God.
3. God plus the universe is greater than God.
4. Therefore, there is at least one property, the quantity or “amount” of being, that God (or “God”, now) does not hold in the maximal degree (1-3).

To put it in a single sentence: all of existence (God plus anything He has created) is greater than God alone, therefore existence itself, not God, is the holds the trophy for being the category holding the most “stuff” in it.

Still, this needs a lot of discussion, and I’m going to assume this has been thought of before in a different, more academically rigorous form. Stanford’s ontological arguments page should probably have it, but I have yet to really dive into it.

In the end, though, providing arguments for this or that logically when speaking of metaphysical truths butts up against boundaries but doesn’t break through. It can’t. The nature of God should be elusive; I personally wouldn’t be satisfied in believing in a god that is perfectly logical.

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The “Accumulative Past” Argument Against God’s Existence

You are not this guy.

You are not this guy.

Most Christians are too scaredy-cat—skeptics, too dull-witted—to really step into the thinking process of someone different. I, on the other hand, can spend inordinate effort doing so.

This argument is very weak because it’s just a framework. A more realer philosopher-guy needs to put some meat on the steps. Additionally, this can only work for skeptics, who by dint of their beliefs must claim to know a lot more about metaphysical truths than theists*, and in purely materialist epistemological terms.

Enjoy!

1. God has a past.

2. God is such a being that holds properties to the greatest conceivable degree.

3. Therefore, God’s past must be the largest out of anything (1 + 2).

4. Creation (humans, rivers, quarks, etc.) has a past.

5. God’s past plus the past of all created things is greater that God’s past (deductive logic/math).

6. Therefore, God does not exist or cannot exist as currently conceived since He has one thing (His past) that is not the largest out of anything conceivable (3 – 5).

* Real theists are painfully aware of how unknowable God really is, but skeptics spin like lassos their arguments like the matter is settled. Most of those frumpy-minded theists among us that self-glorify themselves as God’s direct mouthpiece can be safely ignored.

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Why Jesus Didn’t Offer Scientific Proof

Pictured: Jesus (not to scale)

Pictured: Jesus (not to scale)

Not a bad question from an audience skeptic, and a very good response, but it really takes a moment’s thought to realize a ballpark answer. It should be common sense that people of a certain time and place are going to think and act at least a little different (i.e., different than you).

The gospels are an account of Jesus’ activity in the 1st Century. They record Jesus’ interaction with an ancient audience, as He provided them with the kind of evidence they would find persuasive. If Jesus performed the miracles recorded in the Gospels, this evidence is still powerful in the 21st Century.

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Orson Welles Narrating Plato’s “Parable of the Cave”

Via Aeon Skbole’s Facebook, witness the double-surrealism of this video explaining Plato’s Cave analogy of human knowledge narrated by Orson Welles. I know him most as the voice of Unicron because that’s what I grew up with, but that he was the broadcast voice of the fake alien attack that people took seriously yields some kind of irony.

The animation isn’t bad in that it sticks close to the original text, and the boffo half-abstract animation is an effective aid rather than a hindrance to understanding. It also really drives home the “rah rah Greek epistemology” angle, which is kind of expected and is good if you’re already all for that. I and others would have some reservations—namely it presupposes that the sun isn’t already another cave-fire in itself, another type of illusion that is really a shadow of higher level of reality.

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Socrates in the Athens School

What God Can Do and Can’t Do

Socrates in the Athens SchoolA pastor I follow online posted a quick rebuttal of a boilerplate criticism of theistic belief. In his blog is mainly concerned with theistic belief qua theistic belief, not as interpreted via Western modes of reasoning, though this post shows his strong grip on formal logic. To wit:

Smart-aleck atheist wannabe asks, “Do you believe your God can do anything?”

Christian kid says, “Yeah, sure.”

Smart-aleck: “Do you believe He can make a rock too big for Him to lift? Yes or no?”

We’ll make this quick and merciful. Three category errors, a false dichotomy and a charge of intellectual dishonesty.

My reply always went something like, “Yeah, He could maybe do it to prove that He could. But what makes you think He’d bother to prove it to begin with?”.

It reminds me of a C.S. Lewis’ line from Miracles: nonsense is still nonsense even when we talk it about God.

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Thor (2011) Credits Sequence

There’s no reason for me to post this other than I thought that this was one of the better modern movie endings I’ve seen. I didn’t see this in theaters but I imagine this scene was quite the spectacle, especially in IMAX theaters. The score certainly helps.

It’s obvious that Branagh, et al, proposes the Yggdrasil tree of Norse cosmology as the “correct” one in the Marvel theatrical universe. The Norse gods (or “gods”) are contained within the physical and we’re not given any indication that they are transcendent. In other words, the religious/metaphysical questions—in this case, of the Nordic pagan belief system—is left unexamined.

That metaphysical propositions are left untested is common in sci-fi/fantasy films and it’s not a criticism; it makes perfect sense since anything we can resolve with our epistemological tools are not going to be inconclusive about truths that remain outside of their domain.

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I F*cking Love the Universe!

Not pictured: science.

Not pictured: science.

There’s a Facebook group called “I fucking love science“, which basically posts science-lite factoids, mostly by way of photos of astronomy- and zoology-oriented things, and quotes from scientists.

But why love science? It’s a method and process of uncovering facts and collecting data about material, observable phenomena. I’ve said it before on here, but science is a mixture of sense perception (usually aided by instruments) and inductive logic, along with mountains and mountains of a priori knowledge going into it.

When people say they love science, I don’t think they really do love the process of scientific inquiry. They are affected towards the objects towards which people aim their sense and induction: star clusters, liquid density comparisons, the physiology of deep sea creatures. It’s these physical things for which our affections are aroused, not the process of uncovering the data about them.

When I listen to Cynic’s “Textures“, I don’t say “I fucking love my ears!”, nor do I say something like “I fucking love the air between my ears and the speakers!”, and it’s not because I’m not inclined to swearing. My affections aren’t drawn towards the apparatus through which I sense the vibrations, nor the medium that activates my sense perception. They’re directed at the actual thing itself: the sound of the music.

I may say something like, “I fucking love Chapman sticks!” because they are an unusual instrument and the song utilizes it rather well, but Chapman sticks by themselves do nothing and the novelty of interesting objects eventually fades away. It’s the agency (people) behind them that I appreciate in this context, and even then it’s not the final object of affection. I wouldn’t really care for members of Cynic (how much empathy can someone feel for people they would not even heard of?) unless they were musicians. Thus, my epistemological conclusion is honest (and accurate) when I exclaim “I fucking love this song!”

Most of us would probably consider the scientific process dry and grueling, certainly rewarding if successful but heartbreaking if a failure. This not even including the soul-killing experience of having to deal with uncooperative academic bureaucracies, pandering to and placating two-faced politicians for funding, or dodging jealous and vengeful colleagues. There is just a danger when conflating the object itself with the process of data collection, especially within the highly reified realm of modern science.

Photo by NASA Marshall.

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A Quick Thought on Non-Aristotelian Epistemology

Flowin’ straight from the survival scrolls.

I’ve mentioned a few times on here, and in a roundabout way in the review of Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief, about non-Aristotelian epistemology. This is sometimes called Middle Eastern (ME) or Hebraic epistemology. ME epistemology utilizes divine revelation as a legitimate, basic form of knowledge, the same way we accept sense perception or memory or logic, etc., as presupposed methods of knowing things.

Plantinga, armed with some Aquinas and Calvin ordinance, called the working apparatus that utilizes this epistemology the sensus divinatus; our “sense of the divine”. I’m not aware of how much Plantinga knew of ME epistemology but from what I know of his ideas and the ME method, he seems to describe some version of it. If you are a Christian or any kind of religious person you accept the ME method of knowing things of the supernatural even if you don’t name it as such.

The other side of that coin is that, if someone makes any statement at all concerning the metaphysical realm, he uses the ME epistemological method to induce this. In other words, a definitive statement about metaphysical things is intrinsically a-rational, because it does not involve the Aristotelian faculties. This includes claims of atheists, who have the tendency, de rigueur, to claim religious belief as irrational. All of the philosophical dodges involving withheld judgments of God’s existence until “scientific proof” is presented are incoherent because science is unable to measure anything metaphysical. Those who maintain a “scientific, rational” mind while at the same time insist on God’s nonexistence are using non-scientific, non-rational methods to conclude it.

It’s easy if we think of ME epistemology as a sense, like sight. There are people who look and see a tree outside of the window and maybe determine some of its qualities, and there are people who look and see no tree. Both are using their eyes, even if the latter claim that eyes do not exist in the first place and that trees do not exist because they conclude that trees must be, say, felt in order to really exist.

Looking at it this way, the only ones who can legitimately claim non-use of the ME method are strong agnostics (“No one has eyes to see this concept of the tree, so we cannot say whether or not they exist.”), and possibly weak ones (“I don’t know if we have eyes or not, but if we do we may be able to figure out if tree exist.”). If one claims Aristotelian epistemological methods are the only valid ones, then a statement about the supernatural cannot be made. Such a statement would be considered incoherent. There are no eyes to determine if the tree is not there.

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Book Review: Can Man Live Without God

No, seriously. Where’s the question mark?


Ravi Zacharias’ Can Man Live Without God explores the moral and material, not spiritual, consequences of atheism, particularly on a cultural scale. I think Zacharias intends to explain that atheism (he terms it “antitheism”), flowering to its logical consequences, intrinsically leads to philosophical and existential despair. The book’s audience seems to be people of various belief systems, not just Christians, but whether or not the arguments can be acceptable to non-Christians depends on the “due process” of the individual skeptic’s intellect.

I first heard, and heard of, Zacharias on a Christian-oriented AM radio station in Connecticut. I appreciated his broadcast, which were really recorded speeches, because he was an academic lecturer and not a pastor or preacher. The western church in general has an abysmal record for placing effective people in academia, and it was a relief to hear Zacharias, with his Indian lilt and persuasive cadence, on a Christian station where the norm is having an radio-vangelist bore to tears anyone under the age of 70 with droning JAYSUS talk.

The bulk of the book has Zacharias explaining how atheism will lead to existential despair, and how theism—Christianity in particular—can provide the meaning that searching souls are looking for. In a broader, more cultural and political sense I think this is accurate: when the metaphysical foundations for morality are done away with, a la Nietzsche, man as a heroic being has to recreate and affirm morality. This was kind of Nietzsche’s prediction and warning to those that have found God “dead”. Unfortunately, the desire to recreate intrinsic moral laws is a delightful prospect for politicians (usually despots) as a way to expand the state to obscene, lethal proportions at the expense of the individual.

It seems that Zacharias believes that the despair of atheists is inevitable. In fact, he spends a chapter or so on the loss of meaning in the atheist’s life and later attempts to remedy that with a metaphysical solution. But I don’t think it’s necessarily true on an individual level. It’s not that complicated, really: the theist finds meaning in life through divine revelation and it stretches beyond the material universe. The atheist finds meaning in life through material epistemologies and intellectual apprehension, and it doesn’t go beyond physical death*. The new Christian can experience similar despair when he abandons a former belief system and enters into the Christian one, however short-lived it may be.

If it sounds like I’m just badmouthing the book, I don’t intend to. There’s lots of little pulses of information and arguments to to be found scattered around the whole book, wrapped in Zacharias’ endearing expository prose. The most informative section, for me, was Zacharias’ sectioned summary of intellectual skepticism through mini-biographies of philosophers past, from Descartes up to Sartre and Russell. He did a great job of summarizing the scope of skepticism of belief in absolute morality and demonstrating the weaknesses in each thinker’s philosophy (he thankfully didn’t hold back on the theistic philosophers, either). Because some of the book presupposes theism to be true in order to accept some of the arguments, this section is more objective and can hold the most value for any reader.

*It’s important to remember that there are different kinds of atheism that allow for a supernatural reality or a type of god. Buddhism is technically atheist because it does not posit a God, but asserts some kind of metaphysical reality. Additionally, there can be some atheists who believe in some sort of god, though it has to be wholly material (Zacharias, at some points, seems to annoyingly conflate atheism with materialism).

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