Imago Dei, Stewardship, and Man's Pre-Sin Moral Nature

To see the first post of this series go here.

26Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth."
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

Making Sense of Man's First Disobedience

I have been involved in an extensive back and forth with a friend of mine, Peter Lupu, on Facebook. The discussion centers around whether the concept of Original Sin (OS) is coherent. Peter's objection was one that I, honestly, had not heard. Usually, criticisms concerning original sin involve the question of how the punishment for the first sin can be transmitted to Adam's descendants. This usually gets confused with the closely tied concept of Original Guilt (OG), something we will not be examining in this post. To be clear, Peter is not arguing that Genesis is contradictory (though I think his position ends up there), but that Christian Theology's notion of OS is inconsistent with the text of Genesis. Peter's critique is as follows:

If 'sin' is a moral wrongdoing, then committing a sin presupposes possessing the concepts of *right* and *wrong* (in the moral sense) and being able to apply them (at least in a general way). Since prior to eating from the TKGE they failed to possess the relevant concepts, they failed to satisfy the relevant presupposition. There is absolutely no evidence within the narrative that shows otherwise. Any attempt to do so is sliding from "disobedience" to "moral wrongdoing" and from that to "sin". But such sliding is fudging. Therefore, they cannot be held responsible for disobeying God's command. And since God knows all of this and presumably is just, God cannot hold them accountable for eating from the TKGE.

 Previously, Peter put the objection like this,  

 First, disobedience does not sin (=moral wrongdoing) make. Some instances of disobedience are mandated by morality. Second, while A&E did recognize disobedience, prior to eating from the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil", they lacked the concepts of good and evil and, therefore, could not have known that disobeying God is morally wrong. So, therefore, prior to eating from the tree, A&E could not have sinned, if by 'sin' we mean moral wrongdoing and moral wrongdoing presupposes comprehension of the concepts of right and wrong. And interestingly, Adam did not die. The events that are narrated post-eating also provide fairly conclusive evidence that the event of eating has absolutely nothing to do with "sin", original or otherwise.

TKGE is shorthand for "The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil". It is a lot better than trying to type that out every single time we use it in our discussion. My critique of Peter will be primarily exegetical. I responded to Peter the first time with some quick thoughts of my own assuming his understanding of what the TKGE means. I went and did some reading and it turns out this view is not held by many commentators. This doesn't prove Peter wrong, but it should give us pause when experts in Hebrew and Hebrew literature do not share Peter's understanding. Peter seems to think that we should take the TKGE absolutely, basically Adam and Eve had no moral knowledge at all before the partook of the TKGE. There are significant problems with this view, and the critique will make most of Peter's philosophical critique ineffectual.

As it is, I do not have to disagree with Peter that the interpretation of OS assumes Adam and Eve had some moral knowledge. It is arguable from the text itself that they did have moral knowledge. We know they had moral knowledge for four reasons: 1. The Imago Dei and Adam as a Steward 2. YHWH's punishment of the first pair for their disobedience. 3. The well known theme of the OT that there are two types of wisdom or knowledge: Knowledge of God and Knowledge of Man.

I am going to make this a series of posts. They will all be linked below as I move forward.

1. Imago Dei, Stewardship, and Man's Pre-Fall Moral Nature
2. YHWH's Punishment of the First Pair for Disobedience.
3. Knowledge of God or Knowledge of Man: Where does true knowledge come from?
4. Conclusion 
5. Appendix: The Consequences of Adam's Fall Throughout the Old Testament

This will be a blog series but the summary of my case is this: Peter's critique fails because he misconstrues the meaning of TKGE. TKGE is not about knowledge full stop, but about a certain type of knowledge. For the biblical writers there were two types of knowledge. Knowledge that comes from YHWH and autonomous knowledge that makes no reference to God but only to man in his autonomy. This tradition of two types of knowledge runs through out the Mosaic Pentateuch. We cannot read the book of Deuteronomy and see the blessing of covenant obedience and the punishments for covenant disobedience without understanding this. Proverbs is the same way,

"There is a way that seems right to a man,
    but its end is the way to death.[a] Proverbs 14.12

It is my argument that the TKGE represents knowledge apart from divine wisdom. This makes sense of why YHWH curses the couple and sends them out of the garden. The original audience that Moses (or the final editor, Ezra?) would have known what this was about. As the Lord had done so many times in Israel's history, he also did at the beginning of man's existence, he offered them two ways: Life or Death. Our first parents chose death.

If, per Peter, this was merely a stage on man growing up and it was a learning experience that they were not culpable for, then I doubt we would see the punishments laid out at their feet. As noted, this will be a series that goes over the next few days. Stay tuned.

Interesting Perspective on the Virgin Birth

Jason Engwer over at Triablogue has a very interesting understanding of the virgin conception of Jesus. Check it!

Lydia McGrew on Dyschronology and Achronology

Lydia McGrew makes a helpful distinction in thinking about the Gospel chronologies when she notes the difference between Dyschronology and Achronology. Dyschrolology would be a case of intentional chronological manipulation. For instance, John puts the (a) cleansing of the temple at the beginning of his gospel. Many New Testament scholars think that John is changing the chronology and that this change is not true to when the events actually happened. Achronology is when the gospel authors do not have time indicators in stories and simply recount them, or lump them together to make theological emphasis. This type of writing does not carry any chronological indicators and is not meant to be taken in a chronological fashion.

McGrew notes that there is no evidence, despite the often made claim by evangelical NT scholars, that ancient historians were okay with dyschronology. Every case that Lydia can find in the ancient literature is talking about Achronology. NT scholars simply assume without checking sources that these passages refer to dyschronology. They don't, and Lydia gives some interesting examples. Check out Lydia's article!

Paradox of the Stone

The divine attribute of Omnipotence bedevils many modern philosophers of Religion. They seek to find necessary and sufficient conditions of God being Omnipotent. Some philosophers think it is a serious problem and others think it is much ado about nothing. Richard Swinburne, for example, is willing to give up God's essential omnipotence to resolve the Paradox of the Stone. So, what is such a paradox, and is there a resolution to it? These will be the subjects of the current post.

  1. What is the Paradox of the Stone?
      1. The Paradox of the Stone is a dilemma for the Traditional Theist. It states the following: (a) If God can create a stone so big he cannot lift it, then he is not omnipotent because there would be one thing He could not do (i.e. lift the stone). On the other hand if the opposite horn is true God isn't omnipotent either: (b) understood as "If God cannot create a stone he cannot lift, then he is not omnipotent because there is one thing he could not do (i.e. create the stone)."
      2. So, what is the theist to do with this dilemma? I think the most effective route is noting the nature of God and the nature of stones. This route shows that the main premise of the argument doesn't make sense. In other words it isn't even wrong.
  2. What goes wrong with the Paradox of the Stone?
      1. My main issue with the paradox of the stone is that it doesn't make sense. The sentence that makes up the hypothetical premises do not make sense. They are similar to the proposition: "If the color green counts the number of stars, then I eat prime numbers." I say this because God as understood in standard terms does not have a body, and is not the sort of being that "physically" lifts things. Of course there is the incarnation of Christ in which God took on a human body, but that did not change the essential non-embodiment of the Trinity.  Could God supernaturally levitate any stone? Yes, and it is hard to understand what it would mean for the weight to factor into Divine ability. This is what I mean, God's power is not limited to physical things.
      2. But what about the nature of stones? What kind of object would it be that an infinitely powerful being could not lift? Would this stone be infinite in size? But arguably an infinite body is an incoherent notion, so that wouldn't be the case. Stones are natural objects and exist in the actual world which has certain laws of physics that preclude rocks from being infinite. 
      3. But lets say that God in his incarnate form could not lift the stone, would that undermine Divine omnipotence? I do not see how, since in the incarnation God takes on a human form, and that human form is restrained by the laws of physics and chemistry, so if he was taking part in a real incarnation, then the divine being would want to partake of human frailty and weakness, but that doesn't undermine God's essential omnipotence. 
      4. Finally, the theist views God as essentially omnipotent. In other words there isn't a possible world in which God is not omnipotent, because God is the greatest conceivable being, and that entails that He is at least maximally powerful, being able to do everything that is metaphysically and logically possible for an essentially omnipotent being to do. So, it is not clear to me how God's omnipotence could undermine itself in the way needed for the Paradox of the Stone to work.
  3. Conclusion: It isn't clear to me that the Paradox of the Stone is even coherent, so I am not sure it is even wrong (or right). I do not know what it is supposed to mean.

Note on Zwingli

In Zwingli's "Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God" I came across this passage and it gave me pause. Here is the quote:
What it does say is this: "And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind: and it was so." And first, we see here that God commanded the earth to bring forth beasts. But in the creation of man he himself takes the earth and forms it into a man. Again, when he says "the living creature after his kind" he makes it clear that the soul of creature is its life, but only according to its kind or nature, which is transitory and perishable.
I found this to be suggestible and it has led me to speculate a little. The Genesis narrative teaches that human beings are unique, and since the text says that God commanded the earth to bring forth animals but teaches that God formed man directly it leaves open the possibility that all other creatures other than man may have their origin in nature. Given this, even if some hominids are similar to us, it may be the case that they were not human. Maybe they lacked some characteristic that made them less than imago dei. Anyway, just some speculations.

Support for this idea comes from the work of philosophers such as Roger Scruton and Raymond Tallis. Neither author is an orthodox Christian, but they make interesting observations about how human beings are different than other beings. Tallis has an exceptionally interesting theory that our thumbs make us unique, and Scruton notes that our subjective first person experience creates a world that isn't available to other creatures.

Review: The Historical Christ, and the Jesus of Faith Part1

I need to start by saying that the preface and chapter one of this book are refreshing. Evans doesn't write the book to convince the skeptic, but to show that believers are not irrational in believing the "Incarnational Narrative". The incarnational narrative is essentially what the church has always bore witness to in its preaching, worship, and sacraments. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus couched in the narrative of salvation history is the Incarnational Narrative. Evans seeks to show that the Christ of faith and the Jesus of History overlap in significant enough ways to make Christianity reasonable. In the preface Evans tells us that his aim in writing the book is to show that the Christian believer is not irrational in believing, and that the skeptic who appeals to critical scholarship is wrong when he asserts that the Christian cannot be rational because he (or she) has faith in Christ. For Evans faith and reason are not necessary enemies.

In the first chapter Evans argues that history is significant for Christian belief. In fact Christianity is unique among world religions in that the truth of Christian faith is based on the historicity of a person. Christian belief is based on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Evans doesn't lay out a rationalist program, but rather fully acknowledges that he is defending what the Church has taught down through the centuries. He doesn't get bogged down in defending the orthodox understanding of Christ, he simply lays it out, and tells the reader to deal with it:

"And in fact the history of New Testament interpretation strongly suggests that the New Testament under determines its own interpretation; it seems foolish even for the Christian believer to claim that an honest, reasonable interpreter of the New Testament would necessarily arrive at readings consistent with Christian orthodoxy, if the interpretive process proceeded independently of the guidance of the Church and the Holy Spirit."
 The interpretation that the Church has given to the historical events surrounding Christ are clearly described by Evans in the following:
The Church's story, the one I am calling the incarnational narrative, is an account of how the divine Word took on human flesh, was born as a baby, lived a life characterized by miraculous healing and authoritative teaching, died a cruel and voluntary death for the sake of redeeming sinful humans, was raised by God to life, and now abides with God, awaiting the time of his glorious return and ultimate triumph. So much at least seems common ground among orthodox Christians, be they Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant." (Pg. 5)
 So far so good, I completely agree. However, I am a little disappointed with how he positions the orthodox understanding. Orthodoxy isn't equal to other interpretive options, in fact I think there is a very good reason why orthodox theology won out and has been so prevalent in the history of the church.  It just is the case that if the interpreter assumes an ecclesiastical perspective on the Canon that its understanding of theology will be significantly similar to other ecclesiastical interpreters. There is a reason that interpretive history was unified on the main outlines of Christian doctrine before the era of modernity. The various branches of Christendom shared a 27 book New Testament and all branches agree on the 39 books that make up the Old Testament. Even in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches the 39 have more authority than apocryphal works. So, sure there was some interpretive plurality, but not anything could be claimed. This is different than modern NT studies where there is a plethora of theories about the OT and the NT because the authority of the documents isn't recognized. In other words, when what scripture says about itself is taken seriously, the theology flows from it. This doesn't show that there won't be disagreements, but the disagreements will be far fewer and large as we see with modernist interpreters.

A Few New Aquisitions and Good Blogs

A good library is the key to being educated, so I often work on stocking up my personal library with good books. I have bought a few recently. Here they are in no particular order:

  1. The Immaterial Self: A Defense of the Cartesian Dualist Conception of the Mind. John Foster (Routledge 1991).
  2.  Abstraction, Relation, Induction: Three Essays in the History of Thought by Julius R. Weinberg (University of Wisconsin Press 1965).

A blog you may be interested in is Beyond Necessity, an Ockhamist view is defended on this blog. It isn't one people deal with very often, but it is an interesting position on the question of Unviersals. The author of the blog also has an excellent website where he translates some classical logic texts. It is the the Logic Museum.

Some Reflections on the Sublime and Belief in God

In Edmund Burke's treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful Burke explains where the feelings of the sublime come from. For Burke, the Sublime has its roots in pain and danger. As I have been reading through this treatise I have come to realize that Burke's idea of the sublime may help get at some of what Christians throughout the centuries have said about the experience of God. Before I get to that here is Burke's section on the Sublime:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is produced of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. Without all doubt, the torments which we ma be made to suffer, are much greater their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasures which the most learned voluptuary could suggest, or than the liveliest imagination, and the most sound and exquisitely sensible body could enjoy. Nay I am in great doubt, whether any man could be found who would earn a life of the most perfect satisfaction, at the price of the ending it in the torments, which justice inflicted in a few hours on the late unfortunate regicide in France. But as pain is stronger in its operation than pleasure, so death is in general a much more affecting idea than pain; because there are very few pains, however exquisite, which are not preferred to death; nay, what generally makes pain itself, if I may say so, more painful is that it is considered as an emissary of this king of terrors. When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful. as we everyday experience. The cause of this I shall endeavor to investigate hereafter.
That which is dangerous and can cause us harm is only terrible when we experience it or are too close to it. But from a distance in time or space it can be awe-inspiring. Take my experience with a tornado as an example. When I was about 19 my family and I were caught on the interstate by a Tornado. As we were heading down interstate 64 trying to get away from one of the frequent summer storms we a funnel cloud quickly formed, within seconds it was a full blown tornado. We could see it ripping up trees about a half a mile away. It was terrible, I felt frozen but wanted to move at the same time. Looking back on it now it gives me feelings of awe and wonder, but in the moment I mostly felt terror and a strong desire to hide (which we did). I do not want to call the tornado beautiful, but awe inspiring. Similar to the way the ocean makes me feel when I stand on the shore. I know it can kill me, I know that I am insignificant before the might of the waves, but I still stand transfixed by it.

I would argue that classical theism should make us feel much the same way. The only difference I would add is that God gives rise to both emotions of beauty and the sublime. If we look at the divine attributes there is a beauty to the balance and sheer power, knowledge, goodness, and creativity. But there is also a very real sense in which God could snap us out of existence. If he ceased to think about the world and uphold it with his power everything but Himself could cease to be. That is a level of the sublime that nature cannot even approach.

In scripture God is not only the creator of all that is, but is also the moral judge of human beings. This adds an added dimension to the sublimity of the divine. Some day Christ will sit on his thrown and judge us for whether we have believed and followed his way, or did things our own way and abandoned divine love. There is awe we should have at human authorities as well. The couple of times I have seen the Supreme Court in DC was sublime as well. Because you know that there decision of major import are made, that authority exists in those halls.

Anyway, just a few reflections.

What Am I Reading?: "Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World"

This book is an interesting history of the origins of Atheism in the ancient world.  Most people think that no one was an atheist in the ancient world. Whitmarsh gives examples of modern proponents of both religion and Atheism arguing that Atheism is a modern development. Whitmarsh's purpose is to show that this is not the case, that Atheism was alive and well in the ancient world. Before he gets to more theoretic forms of atheism he discusses aspects of Greek culture that made fertile soil for Atheism. By the Ancient world Whitmarsh means ancient Greece and Rome. Greece laid the intellectual foundations for the rise of Atheism for two reasons: i) The nature of Greek Polytheism and ii) the "secular"nature of greek religion.

Whitmarsh gives a very helpful explanation of why Greek polytheism gave rise to Atheism. The deities of ancient Greece were not the same as the monotheism that would arise later in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The God(s) of the Abrahamic religions is transcendent, perfect, and wholly other. The gods of the Greek pantheon were not any of these things. The best that can be said about the God's of polytheism is that they are quantifiably more powerful than humans, but the monotheistic conception of deity is qualitatively different. More can be said on this point than Whitmarsh discusses, but he makes the differences clear enough:

Even the deities themselves were different in kind to their monotheistic cousins. The defining feature of the god of the modern monotheisms- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam- is that he is transcendent and remote. Christianity grappled since its very inception with the question of Christ's transcendence... This was not a problem that presented itself in traditional Greek religion, since the gods were thought (except by a few philosophers) to be entirely of this world. They may have dwelled on the most remote, elevated mountain in Greece, they may have been capable of flight, but they nonetheless belonged to the same ecostystem as we do. 
This is actually a good way of putting the difference. The gods of polytheism do inhabit the same existential plain as human beings. The gods are actually contingent in the polytheistic schema. They usually arise out of some pre-creation chaos, this makes the deities of the greek pantheon contingent. The God of Christianity, as an example, is a necessary being (not a contingent being). In essence, for the Christian, God is at the root of all other existences. Everything in the world we can sense, experience, and come into contact with everyday may not have been. Any thing that could possibly not exist is contingent. The Christian God is not like this, if God exists then he exists of necessity. This is a very different concept.

This conceptual difference gave rise to what Whitmarsh describes as "Theomachy", which is the contest of men versus the gods. He gives many interesting examples from greek mythology of characters like Sisyphus, Odysseus, and Diomedes who injures a god in the Illiad. The contingency of the gods made theomachy possible, because a being that is merely contingent, may not exist, and could go out of existence. Hence, the God's are not viewed as necessarily always existing. This made conceptual space for criticisms of the god's and whether or not they existed.

Another issue that potentially undermined belief in the gods was the immoral nature of many of the gods. Whitmarsh notes the use of allegory in Greek writers who tried to cover over many wicked actions of the gods. The contingent and immoral nature of many stories about the Greek gods gave rise to what I would call "intellectual theomachy". Intellectuals began to ask difficult questions about whether or not the gods should be worshipped or believed in. This gave conceptual space for Greek science to arise in the writings of the pre-socratics.

The pre-socratics questioned the nature of the world, because they had become unsure about the traditional gods. So we have some pre-Socratics believing in unifying principles like water, strife, fire, and other elemental explanations of reality. The Pre-socratics were looking for naturalistic (not appealing to supernatural explanations) explanations of the world. This desire to find naturalistic explanations for everything continued over into classical Athens (after the wars with Persia and much fighting amongst the members of the Peloponnese) where Herodotus and Thucydides applied it to history. Whitmarsh notes:
The most visible and influential sign of this new "forensic" approach to the world came in the of the writing of history. The desire to record the past is a feature of all literate societies, but what distinguished fifth century history from other ancient narrative traditions- those found, say, in the Iraqi epic Gilgamesh, in the poems of Homer, or the Hebrew Torah- were the excision of any mention of direct divine involvement in human affairs and the idea that the truth about the past needs careful sifting from competing reports. 
The two writers that used these methods of naturalizing history were Herodotus and Thucydides. Herodotus was the first to do away with anthropomorphic deities in his histories. If there is a divinity it exists "to make sure that there is retribution for wrongdoing (sometimes several generations later) and that the fortunes of individuals and communities both wax and wanes... As in the pre-Socratic cosmologies, then, "god", in this sense means not the god of traditional religion but an abstract, underlying system that the author claims to disclose thanks to his painstaking research." In other words, these gods are not supernatural in the sense of constant intervention in human affairs.

The second historian of this period, Thucydides, excludes supernatural explanations full stop. There are no gods who intervene in history, and there is no over arching moral arc that the gods enforce. Thucydides overlooks religion, unless it plays a part in the political history of Greece.

Another thread that Whitmarsh weaves into his history is the secular nature of Greek religion. What I mean by this is that religion did not play an all dominating role in Greek life. It is noted again and again that we should not confuse devotion in monotheistic religions to polytheistic religions. That seems exactly right to me. I also think that this played a significant role in the Greeks ability to question divinity. If there is not much invested in the religion, then it is easier to change, amend, and even add deities (or subtract deities).

The two streams of "theomachy" and "secularity" of Greek religion gave rise to intellectual challenges. The first challenges came from the Sophists who emphasized rhetoric and logic in public speaking.  Protragoras is the first example, he argued that since the gods are represented so differently by religions that they most likely do not exist. He even became a foil for one of Plato's dialogues. Whitmarsh gives many more examples: the account of Prodicus in On Piety, Democritus who envisioned the world as made of atoms and the void, Philodemus who developed a theory of religious development which could be traced etymologically, and many play writes ridiculed the gods and even questioned their existence and justice (see Euripides, Sophocles).

Whitmarsh gives plenty examples of pre-Platonic examples of atheism or impiety. He also strengthens the case that many of the pre-Socratics rejected anything like a theistic notion of God. When Whitmarsh comes to Socrates and Plato his account is pretty standard. Socrates probably did deny the Athenian gods and sought to replace that religion with his own religion of the Daimonion, and he also took the Oracle of Delphi seriously when she told him that there is no one more wise than Socrates. In a sense Socrates was an Atheist  (pg.133), but in another sense that did not exclude something divine in the world for Socrates. Whitmarsh sums up the evidence well in discussing Socrates examination by Meletus in the Trial of Scocrates:
This Socrates is still following in pre-Socratic footsteps, rejecting the epic conception of the gods warring and cheating one another. But what is striking is that although he claims to have divine approval for his action, his program is anything but religious. It calls for no worship, no acts of devotion: the only requirement is that the individual live her or his life in the most moral way possible. Socrates himself would probably not have understood it in this way, and Plato certainly would probably not have done so, but to all intents and purposes this is what we would now call humanist ethics. Do not accept inherited wisdom about anything, question everything, live only according to principles you can justify rationally: in this sense, Meletus was right about Socrates' atheism. 
Further, Plato becomes the first Greek theist in its more modern or monotheistic incarnation. In Plato God is the creator of the world, the metaphysical foundation for morality, and Plato also practices an early form of Natural Theology because he gives arguments for God's existence.

After Plato the evidence for a more philosophical atheism gains steam. There are the skeptics, Epicureans, Stoics, Cynics, Lucretius, and many others. Up until the rise of Christianity both Greek and Roman Polytheism had room for some forms of atheism and non-belief. Piety was viewed as socially cohesive and not necessarily requiring the devotee to believe in the deity. Whitmarsh argues that this was the state of things up until Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. Whitmarsh recycles the familiar viewpoint that Christianity brought millenia of intellectual darkness, before the modern age rediscovered atheism.


Whitmarsh has done us all a service in giving a one stop shop for a history of Ancient Atheism. This book will be helpful to students of philosophy and theology. The style is extremely enjoyable, and Whitmarsh gives clear explanations of concepts. He tells the story of the pre-Socratic story in an engaging way, which is missing in many textbooks of the History of Philosophy.

When he gives historical arguments that run counter to received scholarly wisdom he notifies the reader and gives a argument for his own reconstruction. There are also plenty of little facts about ancient thinkers that the non-specialist wouldn't get from an undergraduate or even an Masters degree in philosophy.

I can agree with Whitmarsh that Atheism did exist in the ancient world, and that Polytheism is very different from Monotheistic forms of religion. It is also true that monotheism tends to demand orthodoxy over orthopraxy unlike the various forms of paganism. Whitmarsh's book gives a fascinating history of the thought and beliefs of many ancient people, and shows that non-belief is not a modern invention. He shows that his initial point is correct: Atheism is not a modern invention, and there was plenty of doubt in the ancient world as well. Not sure how helpful the proof of this thesis is, but he makes his point convincingly. At the end of the day though many will demur that Theism still has the better philosophical case over Atheism. 

Reflections: My Discussion with Stefan Molyneux

  I appeared on the call in show over at Free Domain Radio (June 10, 2018). Let me be the first to say that this did not go very well. It was my first time discussing any issues of philosophical theology in this format. Stefan ably controlled the conversation from the first, and definitely won our interaction from a rhetorical angle.
   I do not think that a few of my points were responded to adequately though. I am going to give some bullet points for the areas I think I am correct on, and explain why I think his responses missed the mark. The points are as follows: i)Simplicity ii) God's Omnipotence iii) Immateriality as being synonymous with "nothing" iv) Claiming arguments from natural theology don't work because of science.

i) My original examination of Stefan's argument may not be correct. Arguably, the language in his book "Against the gods" makes his first arguments sound deductive. He seemed to claim it was more of an inductive argument: We never see rational minds without a complex underlying physical structure. God would be a rational mind without a complex physical substructure. Since, we have never seen such a mind it is reasonable to conclude that: "probably no such rational mind exists."

ii) This point is out of order, but I'll go ahead and address it here, since I think this was one of the points that simply failed because of a lack of definition. Stefan's original argument was that since God is omnipotent, then God would be able to change what I am having for breakfast in the morning (future contingent state of affairs), but if God knows what I will have for breakfast in the morning, then he can't change it because if God can change some event in the future then he doesn't know it will happen which would be a violation of his omnipotence. So, if God can change what I will do in the morning, then he cannot know it, but if he can know it, then he cannot change it. So, it seems we would be forced to reject either omniscience or omnipotence.

  I responded that I did not think that this worked. I gave one of the three ways this chestnut can be cracked. I noted that God's knowledge of future contingents is based on his foreordination of the future. So, God knows the future based on his power. This is part of a classic understanding of the divine attributes, that the divine attributes entail one another. So, God knows all things because he foreordains all that will come about, and he has access to all things that will happen by means of his omnipresence, etc. So, that is one point: God's knowledge is dependent on God's power. The second point, is that we need to be careful when we are discussing things like divine foreknowledge. Since, the theist would have good reason to think God is outside of time, it follows that God's mode of knowing future contingents would be different than a temporal being. So, it isn't like God is waiting on the future to get here, in a real sense he is already "there". All of space and time is present to the divine nature, so in a very real sense God is presently aware that I am typing this post at time t1, and is also presently aware that Julius Caesar is defeating Hannibal at t2. And he knows how everything will shake out because he has decided it will happen in such and such a way. So, in a real sense God can change anything he pleases since he is fully present to the full timeline. God doesn't wait for moments to come about. He doesn't experience temoporal duration like we do.  One simple way of showing how Stefan's argument doesn't work is to note that God can timelessly create an infinite number of worlds. So, if part of the nature of goodness is to defuse itself, then God would create by necessity of his own nature. God's power is infinite, and would cover all logically possible worlds. On this account God creates W1....Wn, so he creates all possible worlds. So there is a world W1 in which I eat eggs for breakfast, and a W2 in which God tells me to eat cereal for breakfast. Since, all worlds are actual, God excercises all his power in one divine moment. This would also work with an account of divine temporality. So, it would appear that God not changing what I will have for breakfast in the morning is a problem with omnipotence, since God could create all possible worlds.

   What the problem seems to be is with God's freedom. But I am not sure what the problem is, since all of God's actions are not restrained by anything other than his own nature. Now, if there was some external state of affairs limiting God's power, then it would be a problem for Divine Freedom, but since what God ordains is simply God's unrestrained decision to instantiate some state of affairs, then God is the most free being imaginable. Stefan scoffed at this critique of his point, but I see not logical problems with it.

iii) Another one of Stefan's points was that since God is immaterial, then it is virtually the same thing as saying that God does not exist. He gave the example of walking through a door way. We know that the doorway is there because we walk through it. In other words the litmus test for something existing is that it be physically detectible by the senses or that we can observe some effect of the object in the world. I forgot to bring this point up in the discussion because of my nerves, but I will here. Stefan's statement is a proposition, but a proposition isn't a physical thing. It is a meaning. So, Stefan's criteria isn't a physical item in the world.

Second, the laws of logic are immaterial. He claimed that they are like physical laws that we know from experience, but there is a serious difficulty with this. If the laws of logic were like the discovery of physical laws, then it is conceivable that we will discover that there are true contradictions, since if logical rules are simply empirical discoveries about the world then they cannot express universality. However, logic are laws of thought they hold in all possible worlds. They are necessarily existing things. There isn't a world in which the law of non-contradiction isn't a thing. If the laws of logic ended up being false, then it is hard to see how we could gain valid knowledge of anything.

Third, take another example of an immaterially existing thing: Truth. Take the following proposition:

(*) If no physical thing existed, then it would be true that no physical things existed.

This seems to be a modal statement of impeccable truthfulness. Since, there are no physical things in such a universe, then truth wouldn't be physical. So, there appears to be one thing that isn't physical in nature, and that it is truth. Now, maybe Stefan wants to be an anti-realist about modal claims, and about truth itself. If that is the case, then he may have more problems than he thinks. Some other problematic properties of truth would be:

1) Truth exists at all times (it is true that I am sitting now, it was true three hours ago that I would be sitting now, and it will be true tomorrow that I was sitting now). It is Atemporal.

2) Truth exists in all places (It is true for someone in China that I am sitting in Indiana right now; it is true that a premise that is undistributed in the premises of a syllogism cannot be distributed in the conclusion of a categorical syllogism, and this is true whether I am on earth or in Proxima Centauri.) It is Omnipresent.

These are only two problematic properties truth has, and neither of them applies to physical objects. We could give a whole list of abstract objects that would undermine Stefan's claim that only physical objects exist.

iv) The final counterargument Stefan made was that Aquinas' metaphysics were based on his physics. This is a common trope among internet atheists, but it is false. Aquinas' argument from motion is not based solely on locomotion. Stefan didn't say it but I gather that he thinks that Newtonian Physics and then modern physics has undermined an Aristotelian understanding of causation and motion. So, take Newton's conceptual idealization that things on a frictionless plain would move forever. Now, it is often claimed that this undermines arguments from motion, but I fail to see how, since for an object to go in a different direction it would need to be moved. The following two principles are often thought to contradict. Aquinas' is the scholastic thesis and Newton's is his first law.

Aquinas' Principle of Motion: "Whatever is in motion is moved by another"

Newton's First Law (Principle of Inertia): "Every body continues in its state of rest or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.

As Edward Feser writes:

It is widely thought that the principle of motion is in conflict with the principle of inertia, and that modern physics ha therefore put paid to medieval theology, or atleast to its notion of God as the Unmoved Mover of the world. The Assumption is that Aquinas and other Scholastics held that an object cannot keep moving unless something is continuously moving it, but that Newton showed that is simply a law of physics and once set in motion an object will remain in motion without any such mover. Hence Anthony Kenny judges that, 'it seems that Newton's law wrecks the argument of the First Way.'
This common claim is false and misunderstands both what Aquinas and the Scholastics meant by motion and a misunderstanding of what Newton understood.  Feser gives five reasons for thinking that a conflict between Aquinas and Newton is mistaken. I will give the first three as reasons for thinking Stefan's points fail:

  1. No formal Contradiction
  2. Equivocation
  3. The "State" of Motion
  4. Natural Motion (See Feser's paper)
  5. Natural Science versus philosophy of nature (See Feser's paper)
I will briefly summarize Feser's points and I think they will adequately show that Stefan's claim that science (at least Newton) undermines Aquinas. Then I will close asking why we should think Quantum Mechanics or Darwin would undermine Aquinas' arguments from Natural Theology.

So, Feser's first point. Let us assume that "motion" in both Newton and Aquinas is used in the same sense. Even if this was the case it would not undermine Aquians' point. Why? Because Newton's law tells us that if something is moving it won't stop if there is no external force doesn't prevent it, but this doesn't tell us why things obey Newton's First Law, nor does it tell us. So there isn't any logical contradiction.

   Second, the terms are equivocations. Newton's principle of inertia is concerned solely with local motion or change with respect to place or location. This is the exact point I made in our discussion, and Stefan brushed it off. I also noted that when Aquinas refers to motion he is discussing change of any type what soever. Things like changes in quanitity, quality, or change from one substance to another are all species of the more abstract genus of "Motion" or "change". To quote Feser,

Hence what the principle of motion is saying is that any potency that is being actualized is being actualized by something else (and in particular by something that is already actual.)  

Newton's Principle isn't even talking about change in the Aristotelian sense of the word. Act and potency isn't the same as local motion. Rather, it is referring to going from what state to another. So, if I am sitting I have the potential to stand. When I do stand I am actually standing. I have gone from potency to act. This is different than Newton's first principle, hence the Scholastic notion is untouched by Newtonian Mechanics.

   Third, modern physics views motion as a state. A state implies stability, and in fact some physcists note that absolute motion is the same thing as motion in zero speed. Hence, motion is taken as an absence of change. Since this is the case external forces are indeed required to move a thing out of this "state" and bring about change. This is all the scholastic needs to get the arguments from motion off the ground.

   All in all, Stefan's claims about Aquinas and science fail. Stefan told me to stop name dropping during the call in show, and forced me to give arguments. He was correct about that, but he needs to do the same. When confronted with and argument he will need to do more than simply say, "science".
   Now, I can imagine Stefan pushing back with Quantum Mechanics (QM), but QM would seem to show that something like the idea of act/potency is correct, since electrons have multiple ways they could be or potentialities I fail to see how this would cause problems for someone holding to Aquinas' metaphysics. Stefan also trotted out Darwin, but I fail to see how Darwinism undermines the act/potency distinction.  It is for these reasons that I continue to disagree with Stefan. hopefully in the future I will be able to discuss these things more with him.

What Am I Reading?: "The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump"

This book by Corey Robin attempts to be an overview of the conservative movement from Burke to Trump. I hesitate to say that there is an argument in the book. Robin certainly thinks so, but I do not think he hits his target. Essentially he tries to argue that conservatism is marked by the attempt to maintain hierarchies, to keep power in the hands of an aristocracy. Here is an example:

Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty, and agency the prerogative of the elite. 
The thing this misses is that for the conservative the elite and lower classes can have movement between them. He does note this, but there is always a hint of disapproval as if  one man's ability to prove himself in some endeavor is an injustice. For instance,

What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension.
Say we agree to this, which I do. How exactly does that distinguish a progressive (or leftist, they aren't the same) from a conservative? It doesn't, because everyone no matter what political ideology views certain groups as lower, and that others are higher. The only difference between the conservative and the progressive (or leftist) is that we view different people of lower and higher orders. The Conservative will not think that wanting to limit marriage to male and female relationships is oppressive, but simply the definition of marriage. As a counter example to Robin's definition, does anyone for a minute think that Robin thinks that a neo-Nazis should have power? Obviously not, but this is Robin, a progressive, wanting to keep some lower class from having power. So, does that make Robin a conservative? No, of course not. Robin misses the essence of conservatism. It is true, of course, that the conservative seeks to place those of whom he approves into places of power. That only makes sense in a republic. We put people in place who we want to do our bidding.

Arguably the conservative wants even more mundane rights for the "lower classes" than the progressive. Robin even notes that, "by virtue of polity, Burke allowed, men had a great many rights - to the fruits of their labor, their inheritance, education, and more." That doesn't sound like a repressive society to me. The only thing Burke did not think the lower classes had access to was a, "share of power, authority, and direction in the management of the state." There isn't anything inherently conservative about this. I am sure Lenin didn't want the Russian Democratic Liberals running things alongside of him, because he didn't think they were fit to lead by reason of their ideology.  Robing goes on and tries to give other defining features of conservatism like the idea of struggle found in Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful, as interesting as Burke's writings are on this I fail to see how it gives us an essential definition of what Conservatism is or what a Conservative believes. The Bolsheviks after all also praised the military life and struggle for the revolution. In fact Trotsky thought that the revolutionary struggle should be on going. Again, we don't claim Trotsky as a conservative.

Unfortunately, Robin never gives us a true definition of what Conservatism is, because he is missing the mark. There are many different types of conservatives, Burkean conservatism is only one type. Robin thinks he can draw a line from Conservatism to Trump, but this seems wrong to me. I don't think there is a clear line, there may be possible lines that lead to a Trump presidency, but the best we can argue is that conservatives supported Trump in the election out of necessity. Trump isn't a conservative but maybe conservatives thought he was more in line with their principles than Clinton. Robin tries to say he is, but he isn't. Trump is a populist that tapped into a populist impulse that had some overlaps with Conservatism, but so what?

So what exactly is conservatism? I think we need to actually look at someone like Russel Kirk. Kirk wrote a fairly famous essay Ten Conservative Principles in it he gives us twelve principles that various types of conservatives may share. Not every conservative will share everyone, but if you share most of them you can be called a conservative, Conservatism isn't an ideology like Liberalism, progressivism, or Marxism. I would call it a family of ideas that have relative similarities. Here is Kirk's list:

  1. The Conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order.
  2. The Conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.
  3. The Conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of conscription. "The Individual is foolish, but the species is wise, Burke declared. In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for the great mysterious incorporation of the human race has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man's petty private rationality. 
  4. The Conservative is guided by the principle of Prudence. Which is, "the idea that any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences. Liberals and radicals are imprudent says the Conservative for they dash at their objectives without giving heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away." The motto for this would be : "Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries."
  5. Conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. "For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgement and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation.
  6. Conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectibility. "Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults..." "Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created."
  7. Conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.
  8. Conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.
  9. The conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and human passions. 
  10. The thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. 
I consider myself a conservative. I agree with a lot of the points above but not all. My point is this: that Robin puts conservatism on a Procrustean bed. The result is one sided, and misrepresents the tradition as a whole. As I was reading through the book I could see numerous places where I couldn't recognize what he was saying as conservative. He could pull some quotes from here and there, but he focused on a very narrow selection of writers. 

There were many interesting insights in the book, but at the end of the day I am not sure it tells us much about Conservatism from Burke to Trump. I also have a problem with Robin lumping Conservatives with reactionaries. This may be for another post, but I view reactionary thinkers like DeMaistre to be removed from Burke or DeTocqueville.