"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Gallimaufry of Galimatias - III

Heather MacDonald:

Mr. Novak cheerfully and tolerantly predicted that I might not follow his analysis of how free will coexists with God's omniscience and omnipotence. Alas, he was right. I feel like a primitive still trying to figure out the decimal system, when what is required is a leap into the realm of quantum physics. I do not understand how by "permitting" human choices that in his "simultaneous present" he has already willed, God passes responsibility for tragedy onto fallible humans... I understand even less how humans "choose" to become victims of natural disasters or accidents wholly outside of their control.
I am not up to the intellectual challenge that Mr. Novak presents. I take some solace, however, in the fact that after his sophisticated treatments of human time and divine timelessness, of human choice and divine permission of human choice, he returns to the principle that I have always assumed underlies the Christian concept of God: that He has absolute power over the world and could make it otherwise in an instant.

This is so horribly distorted as to be hypnotic. It is like looking through a prism where natural form is slanted and you acclimate yourself to a new shape for everything. When every word is dead wrong, it actually creates an illusion of cohesion.

Let us follow again our system of breaking the misrepresentations down into points:

1) She says she is bothered by the contradiction between God's omniscience and human free will. This is a classic question posed by philosophers: if God knows in advance what you will choose do you really have a choice? Personally I never got why that's a problem, but since Saadya Gaon (10th Century) and Maimonides (12th Century) troubled to answer it, I guess they consider it a valid question.

But for someone arguing as an atheist, a question like this is a total fraud. It is a question against a particular Jewish and Christian tenet, namely that God knows the future. What does that have to do with an atheist deciding if there is a God?

If the question bothers her, let her decide that God has no foreknowledge. That does not alter the basic structure of belief, which says there is a God who set up life as a testing ground for humans and will reward and punish their free choices.

If you can't see free choice coexisting with foreknowledge, then drop foreknowledge. How do you get from there to dropping the basic principle that your choices of right and wrong matter?

2) Take that from another angle: does she believe she has free choice or does she SENSE her choice is circumscribed? Of course she believes she has choices. That is her intuition; it forms the premise of her argument.

So if she feels she has a choice and the idea of God creates a presumption that the very choice she senses is the purpose of life, then she has no innate quarrel against theism. If anything, her intuition rebels against the idea of foreknowledge BECAUSE she feels she HAS a true power of moral choice.

But foreknowledge plays no role in the moral demands of religion on the individual. It is a theological detail that serves mainly to create confusion for believers. So why should that concern her at all?

What she ends up doing, in essence, is using a flaw in the irrelevant idea of foreknowledge to impugn the ultimately relevant issue of humans having real choices of right and wrong - and being accountable for those choices.

3) Her saying she is not sophisticated enough to figure it out - a clearly snarky bit of disingenuousness - is presented as a reason why she cannot accept God.

This a totally fraudulent argument. Can she understand the idea that a God created the world and man chooses between right and wrong? Clearly, yes. So what can't she understand? How other aspects of God comport with this scenario.

Fine, so you don't understand. Work harder at pondering. But how does your not understanding that detail relieve you of your duty to the essential task of choosing right over wrong? You have no piece of evidence undermining that construct.

4) I think it's pretty crazy to say that humans "choose" to become victims of natural disasters and if Novak really said that, I join her in disagreement.

However, there is no philosophical reason on the theist side to say that natural disaster has to be a choice. (If Christianity says such a thing, it is not to answer a philosophical need essential to the principle of belief in a God who grades us on application of free will.)

There is no reason natural disaster cannot be natural. Just as the body is designed to run out of life at some point, there can be various movements within the nature of the planet that cause death if encountered. Why is a world that has periodic avalanches harder to understand than a body made of cells that sometimes become cancerous?

5) Indeed even the word "tragedy" is a loaded word designed to obfuscate logic. That is to say, tragedy is itself a subjective construct. From a standpoint of reason, my mother's death at age thirty is no more a tragedy than her mother's death at seventy-five. The sense of tragedy is created by the expectation that people live to an age between seventy and eighty. What if all people lived to thirty? Would we sense tragedy in that? Certainly not; thirty years would become the standard unit.

Had my mother known in advance she could only live thirty years but they would include a happy marriage for eleven of them and four healthy children, would she have refused that life? Hardly: she had a wonderful, though abbreviated, life.

In fact, her soul might have known before birth and made that choice; what do we know about such things? The point is that the tragedy is only relative to an erroneous hope we had that hers would be a seventy-five year life. God does not need to pass the blame for her foreshortened life onto anybody. He reserves the right to deliver a thirty-year life to the world. Would we prefer she was not born?

How does death at thirty militate against a Creator more than death at seventy?

6) She wriggles like an eel to get to the juicy premise she hopes to demolish. "That He has absolute power over the world and could make it otherwise in an instant." This sets up the potential for all sorts of complaints.

But this itself is not really true. Well, it is true, but not in a sense that has any reality. Technically, He can. But for all practical purposes He can't.

Let me explain. If GM makes a certain car model, it confirms two preexisting decisions. One, to make cars as a business. Two, to make this car as a model. Can they stop it? Yes, if they eliminate a well-thought-out product, essentially vetoing a prior decision. Or by shutting their business down completely, vetoing the entire business concept. If you come with a complaint about the windshield wipers, should they junk the car model? No, they should fix the wipers.

God already decided to make a world, and He decided to make it with earthquakes and hurricanes built into the design structure. Is that negotiable? Definitely not. If every believer on the planet prayed simultaneously for earthquakes to disappear forever, no rational religion would expect that prayer to be considered. God CAN'T do that because He won't. That decision has been made and built in; it is beyond the purview of 'possible' change short of shutting down the whole world.

Any idea of changes in policy effected through human behavior or through prayer must be limited to details outside the basic formula of the world's existence. It might be possible to pray the earthquake should occur only when so-and-so is out of town, for example.

9 comments:

Hunter Baker said...

I think old Mac Donald is also ignoring the basic problem of a finite being passing judgment on an infinite one. "Who has known the mind of God and who has been his counselor?"

Jay D. Homnick said...

Yes, Hunter, you ARE right, but only AFTER I am right. I'll explain what I mean.

For a believer to tell a non-believer "you can't know the mind of God" is just as manipulative as a non-believer saying "I'm stuck on the foreknowledge vs. free will conundrum so I reject all religion". The reason for that is that God is in essence asking to be known and embraced, except that at some point He says: "Until here but no further."

And why is the believer engaging the non-believer if not to convince him that the mind of God is knowable - to the extent necessary for Man to serve?

So the first stage of the debate must always be: we CAN know the mind of God in its lower realm, i.e. how He operates within the relationship with humanity. Here we may posit with certitude that

a) He created the world
b) He must have done so for a purpose
c) the purpose must be in the hands of Man, as the only intelligent creature with free will, to fulfill
d) the purpose must be knowable by Man so that he may fulfill it
e) the purpose is to choose good over evil
f) there must be a way to determine what is good
g) the revelation of the Bible is to be the ultimate arbiter of the Good.

Now "g" is expendable if the debate gets really intense. But all these elements are expressions of the mind of God that we CAN know and we are OBLIGATED to know.

An issue like foreknowledge, on the other hand, is not something we really need to know to fulfill our purpose and/or the world's purpose. It is a piece of theology, an "extra revelation", a gift if you will. If you get it, fine. If you don't, fine. But it has no reflection on the basic outline of an intelligent Creator building a world for Man as a testing-ground for choosing Good over Evil to earn a reward in a heaven beyond this place.

So you are right, but only because I am right. Since foreknowledge is an "extra" piece, it is part of the mind of God that Man cannot fully know - and need not.

Hunter Baker said...

I take your point.

S. T. Karnick said...

I like this formulation, but I disagree with point "e." The purpose of man is to glorify God, as Scripture says explicitly. "Doing good" may seem to be the way (or a way) to glorify God, but it is not, because it is impossible to do so on a consistent basis and God does not ask the impossible of us. As a result, God states explicitly, in ultimately rejecting the Israelites' sacrifices, that what he wants is not good works but faith. Faith is what glorifies God—and good works flow from faith.

Jay D. Homnick said...

S.T., that hardly rises to the level of disagreement. You are simply narrowing the definition of how much we are responsible for the Good.

Of course you are aware that this is a fault line between Judaism and Christianity. Judaism believes that faith is only one component and we are responsible to choose the Good in all situations.

It also recognizes that it is impossible to do Good always, so we are promised that God will factor that into the judgment. (I'm counting on this very heavily, I'm afraid.) No one is responsible to do more than he can, and God knows exactly how much he can.

As the Talmud famously says; "The Bible was not given to angels."

S. T. Karnick said...

Yes, Jay, I think that it's a critical distinction, but I agree that it does not constitute a major disagreement between us as compared with the gulf between our position and that of Ms MacDonald. Absolutely.

James F. Elliott said...

I think old Mac Donald is also ignoring the basic problem of a finite being passing judgment on an infinite one.

Which only works if you're starting from the premise that there is a god. Thus making the whole enterprise a matter of dueling a priori assumptions and revealing religious intellectualism as devoid of either logic or substance. But by all means, continue.

Tom Van Dyke said...

MacDonald, to her credit, is assuming a certain burden of proof in challenging theistic claims on their own terms instead of her own. The old demand for proof of the unprovable is refreshingly absent.

Well answered, Jay, on the subject of free will. Questions of right and wrong still obsess us.

We have free will, and so truth claims of moral systems, whether the Bible or of a reasonable fellow like Kant, don't really change anything. We believe in them or not; we choose to obey them, or not. We listen to Jiminy Cricket, or squash him like the scolding little bug he is.

Hunter Baker said...

Ah, well James, there are many, many reasons to believe in God, but we've been over that territory before. Heather Mac Donald, like Voltaire, proposes to judge God into nonexistence by pointing to tragedy and evil in the world. I simply provided one of many different scriptural answers to that point which is also quite a logical answer. If there is a God, how exactly do we suppose we can criticize? We get the answer he gave Job -- did you put the stars in the heavens?