Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Mind independence and subjectivity in science

Now, the empiriological description of nature is essentially what Sellars calls the “scientific image” of the world, as opposed to the “manifest image” of common sense and ordinary experience. Since the subclass of “empirioschematic” sciences make use of concepts that are widely regarded as merely regulative rather than corresponding to anything in mind-independent reality, there is a tendency to identify the scientific image, strictly construed, with the emperiometric description of the world, specifically – that is to say, with a mathematicised conception of nature of the kind toward which the “mechanical world picture” tended, and that has become definitive of modern physics. That is not to say that those who take the scientific image to exhaust reality would all hold that everything real can be reduced to entities within the ontology of physics. Some would say instead that everything real need only supervene on the latter. Either way, though, for those who take the scientific image to be an exhaustive picture of reality, the ontology of physics “wears the trousers,” as it were.

… The basic idea of this “absolute conception” is to construct a description of the world that is entirely free of any explicit or implicit reference to the point of view of any particular observer, or any particular type of observer. As Nagel emphasizes, the conception in question regards anything that depends on the point of view of particular observers as “subjective,” and thus it takes itself to be by contrast an entirely “objective” description. … The distinction between primary and secondary qualities became the standard way of expressing the idea, with secondary qualities regarded as reflecting the observer’s subjective point of view and primary qualities alone constituting the truly objective features of reality. (p. 133)

Part of what this chapter has been concerned to show is that the manifest image, the world as it appears from the “subjective” point of view of the conscious subject, cannot coherently be eliminated and replaced entirely by the “objective” or “absolute” perspective of the scientific image. For the latter presupposes the former, in two fundamental respects. First, abandoning the manifest image while trying to maintain the scientific image is tantamount to attempting to keep the apex of the “arch of knowledge” aloft while destroying its feet and legs. As Colin McGinn writes, the scientific image “purchases [its] absoluteness at the cost of removing itself from the perceptual standpoint” (1983, p. 127). Hence, “to abandon the subjective view is to abandon the possibility of experience of the world” (p. 127), and thus to abandon the evidence of observation and experiment on the basis of which the claims of the scientific image are supposed to be justified. It is also to abandon the reasoning processes that take us from that empirical evidence up to the scientific image and then back down from it to testable predictions. For the subjective view includes the cognitive (as well as the perceptual) states and processes of the scientist. (Edward Feser, Aristotle's Revenge, 134)

In short, an “objective” description is itself an extension of the “subjective” point of view, and the scientific image is itself merely a component of the manifest image. (p. 135)

The practice of science involves human beings, and humans with regards to both their practices and theory choices are not objective. That said, the shift from seeing science as this objective enterprise that scientists are involved in to something that focuses on the subjectivity of scientists is in my opinion a swing from one extreme to the other extreme.

Thomas Kuhn in dealing with the history of science took note of the changes in paradigms that have taken place in science. He had noted how paradigms are by nature resistant to change until a crisis occur due to one too many breakdowns with the older paradigm. While this idea of "crisis" was overplayed by Kuhn in his early formulations of his philosophy of science, there is a sense in which crises do precipitate major changes, even if not all major changes come about through crises. Kuhn's historicist focus however does not necessarily imply any form of relativism, for the simple reason that scientists are genuinely searching for the objective truth. The problems with paradigms is not that they are "socially constructed," but rather the reason why different paradigms emerge is because of the finitude of human knowing even as it grasps after objective reality. This is seen in the problem of induction that pervades science, such that science while grasping after truth can never fully attain it.

Having said this, it is because there is a grasping after objective truth that science does to some degree approximate the truth, and scientific laws approximate the laws of nature. That is why, while Newton's Laws of Gravitation are superseded by Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, Newton's formulas can still be used in most cases where the effect of gravity on the curvature of space-time is not significant. Science is not pure objective truth, but it does approximate it to some degree.

It is because of this that Edward Feser's view concerning science is disturbing. Feser's position, while not being fully subjective, undermines the objectivity of science in such a manner that the subjectivity of scientists must be considered in science itself. It is understandable why Feser would do this so he can bring Aristotelian teleology into science, but the argument he uses is flawed. The issue with regards to science is whether there is something beyond the practice of science, and I will assert that there are in fact laws of nature that science as a discipline grasps after, albeit imperfectly. Since science grasps after the laws of nature, the subjective striving of scientists should be seen as an artifact of the discipline of science, not as part of the subject of science. For Feser, science needs to encompass the practice of scientists in understanding their observations, instead of focusing on the imperfect practice of scientists in attempting to understand the objective truths of nature. For Feser, perceptions informs science, while I would suggest it is nature that informs science, with perception being the instrument of knowing.. In other words, Feser in my opinion confuses the process of science with the subject of science, and this I think is a major categorical error on his part.

Science seeks to understand how the natural world works. It seeks to understand objectively how the world is run. Thus for example, it is either true or false that penicillin kills dangerous bacteria, and we can test that hypothesis out. The subjectivity of the scientist, while ever present, does not add or subtract from the fact that penicillin does in fact kill harmful (non antibiotic resistant) bacteria. In the laws of motion, Newton's First Law is either true or false, and the subjectivity of the scientist does not color its truth. From these two example, it should be seen that the subject of science itself is not focused on the process of observation and explaining observation, but about the facts of how the world actually works.

When it comes to complex theories and meta-theories, meta-narratives of science, then subjectivity plays an ever increasing role since human judgment is used in theory choice and construction. This is why scientific theories can be totally false, but this is not to deny their aspirations towards the objective truth, for human error does not disprove scientific truth.

Feser's conflation of process with subject has resulted in his attempt to insert subjectivity into the subject of science, instead of keeping it to the practice of science. The laws of nature are mind-independent, and Feser's arguments to undermine science's objective referent should be rejected.

On the senses and the mind

A further problem with the imagined Cartesian dualist response …. Is that it begs the question against the Aristotelian insofar as it assumes that the perceptual and cognitive states of subjects of experience can entirely float free of the body. From the Aristotelian point of view, that is not the case, even given that the human intellect is incorporeal. For one thing, perceptual experience is corporeal, presupposing sense organs and brain activity. For another thing, even cognition requires, in the ordinary case, brain activity as a necessary condition, even if it is not a sufficient condition. … If we were entirely incorporeal, we would essentially be angels, having our knowledge in a single act and without relying on perceptual experience. The Cartesian notion of res cogitans is really the notion of an angelic intellect, not a human one. Hence, from the Aristotelian point of view, to establish that there is a succession of perceptual and cognitive states in the subject of experience just is to establish that that subject is corporeal and thus that the way in which it manifests actuality and potentiality is in part by being a composite of form and matter. (Edward Feser, Aristotle's Revenge, 93)

Does the mind require senses to function? Is corporeality necessary for thinking? According to Edward Feser, corporeality is necessary for human thinking and learning, whereas non-corporeal thinking is angelic and having "knowledge in a single act and without relying on perceptual experience." Yet in Feser's steps of arguments one can see many flaws and false assumptions present.

The first flaw is the assumption that perceptual experience is corporeal. According to Feser, to perceive something one must have a body. But in the Aristotelian scheme, humans are hylomorphic (where the soul is the form and the body the matter). Since for the Christian, during the period between the first death and Christ coming back, the souls of believers will be with God while the body remains in the grave (c.f. Phil. 1:21, 1 Cor. 15:23), how is this possible if humans are hylomorphic? In this glorified but not fully recreated existence, can the soul perceive God's love for him? It would seem for the Christian that the answer should be yes. And if that is true, then Feser's assumption here is false, for the Christian soul that is non-corporeal following the first death can indeed have perceptual experiences.

Feser's second assumption is that cognition requires brain activity. But that confuses correlation with causation. If as we have argued that the non-corporeal soul can have perceptual experiences, then certainly cognition does not require brain activity as a necessary condition. Lastly, Feser continues smuggling in his idea that an object must have actuality and potentiality, but that is almost expected by now.

Since that is the case, it is not true from a Christian perspective that the senses are needed for the mind to function. The "Cartesian notion of res cogitans" is therefore not an angelic way of knowing and the fact that there is a succession of perceptual and cognitive states does not imply anything about the thinking subject or the nature of things.

On action and the problem of occasionalism

If physical objects themselves don’t really do anything, then there is no point in trying to study what they do or how they do it. God, who alone ever really does anything in the natural world, becomes the sole worthwhile object of scientific study, and natural science gives way to theology. But the situation is even stranger than that, at least if we factor in the Thomistic principle that agere sequitur esse (or “action follows being”) – that is to say, that the only way a thing behaves reflects what it is. If physical objects do nothing and only God acts, then it would follow that physical things don’t have any existence distinct from God’s existence. Occasionalism would collapse into pantheism, and the Cartesian philosophy of nature would thereby abolish nature altogether. (Edward Feser, Aristotle's Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundation of Physical and Biological Science, 92)

One argument that Edward Feser has put forward for why it is important for objects to have potentialities of their own, and why it cannot be asserted that God is the one who energizes all things, is that such an assertion collapses everything into theology, and leads to occasionalism. And if the Thomistic principle of "action follows being" is factored in, then this assertion collapses occasionalism into pantheism. That of course would be unpalatable for many people and Christians also. But is such an argument sound?

The first and major thing that must be examined is Feser's assumption that to make God the ultimate energizer of reality leads us to occasionalism. But before I examine this, it must be said that this problem plagues the Aristotelian as well, if he desires to be Christian that is. For even though every object has potentialities, the question can be asked if God decrees the potentialities of an object. If he is to be a Christian, all things must be created so there must be a time when there was no potentialities (i.e. no created thing). Of course, one can hold to eternal nature, but that is explicitly contrary to Scripture. But if there is a point of creation, then, unless one wants to speculate about other eternal entities (which compromises the aseity of God), all potentialities must come from God. So the Christian Aristotelian has the same problem that the supposed "mechanist" does, in that it seems that the Christian Aristotelian faces the same pull towards occasionalism as the "mechanist" worldview supposedly does.

Feser's assumption however is something that I reject. For one thing, in the theistic scientific worldview, apart from miracles, God does all things through intermediaries according to the laws of nature. The laws of nature are set down by God as an expression of who He is, but they are not Him per se. They "proceed" out from God, in the same way as God's decrees (plural, not the singular decree), covenants and actions proceed out of Him. Theologically, we can call them God's "energies." Laws of nature and the constants of the universe (e.g. Planck's constant, Gravitational constant etc.) are decreed by God, immutable in this current universe (as far as we can currently observe). They partake of the immutability of God while Creation stands, but certainly they are not God!

For impersonal things therefore, while God is the ultimate energizer, He acts (in providence) through scientific laws. Rather than thinking of an object as having inherent "potentiality," the object acts according to an external law (the laws of nature discovered and approximated scientifically). Since the laws of nature are not God, therefore the theistic scientific worldview does not lead to occasionalism.

The second proposition that Feser utilizes is the Thomistic principle that "action follows being," arguing that "if physical objects do nothing and only God acts, then it would follow that physical things don't have any existence distinct from God's existence." But this Thomistic principle is merely to restate and apply the Aristotelian idea that a thing has potentiality and therefore a thing must act (potentiality transformed to actuality). However, for anyone not committed to Aristotelianism and Aristotelian ontology, we reject the idea that a thing must necessarily act. Feser here smuggled in his premises to collapse occasionalism into pantheism, but this collapse only takes place if we (1) agree with him that occasionalism is true, and (2) a thing must have potentiality to act. If we deny either or both of these propositions, which I did, then Feser's argument is false.

Once again, Feser argues against the scientific ("mechanistic") worldview, but all the while smuggling in Aristotelian categories. However, if we reject those categories, then Feser's argument is invalid and thus the case against the scientific worldview is unsound.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Feser's failure in logic: Example #3

[Examples #1, #2]

So, the very existence of scientists themselves, qua perceiving and thinking subjects, presupposes the reality of change. But the reality of change, the Aristotelian argues, in turn presupposes the distinction between actuality and potentiality (Edward Feser, Aristotle's Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundation of Physical and Biological Science, 88)

Correction: Initially, I thought this was of the logical form of affirming the consequent. It is not. Rather, the problem is with the premises themselves, which posit a false causal relationship between the items mentioned.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Feser's failure in logic: Example #2

[Example #1]

From the Aristotelian point of view, the difficulties notoriously facing modern origins of life research stem, not merely from any gap in current empirical knowledge, but from the irreducibility of even the simplest organic substances to purely inorganic phenomena. The intractability of the qualia problem stems from the irreducibility of sentient forms of life to merely vegetative forms of life. The difficulties facing materialist theories of the propositional attitudes stem from the irreducibility of the rational or human form of life to the merely sentient forms of life. In other words, the difficulties in question are essentially confirmation of the traditional Aristotelian position. … (Edward Feser, Aristotle's Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundation of Physical and Biological Science, 41)

In the elemental laws of propositional logic, the logical fallacy of Affirming the Consequent states that it is invalid to assert the truth of the antecedent if the consequent is valid. Thus, in the syllogism If p, then q, if one asserts q, p is not necessarily true. This particular fallacy is pertinent here because Edward Feser just committed this fallacy in trying to argue that the problems of modern science "confirms the traditional Aristotelian position " (Emphasis added).

The syllogism can be constructed as follows:

  • P1) "If Aristotelianism is true, then there is irreducibility of animal life to vegetative life, and irreducibility of rational life to animal life."
  • P2) "This irreducibility seems to be true as seen in the failure of modern science to account for the origins of life and rationality
  • C) Therefore, the traditional Aristotelian position is true.

As it should be evident from the syllogism, the form of this syllogism is essentially "If p, then q; q; therefore p," and thus it is the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Feser errs in his argument for the truth of Aristotle in this matter, and this is just the beginning.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Rushdoony's Kinism

Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001) is the father of Christian Reconstructionism, a fringe movement on the far reaches of the Religious Right. Reconstructionism is so extreme in its view of Christianity and social engagement that I do not even think it worth discussion. Just as extreme is kinism, a view that the "races" while equal have to be separate and treated differently - basically a slightly more benign form of racism. It seems that Rushdoony has played no small part in the promotion of this ridiculous view, as can be seen here.

Kinism is racism. As I have said, this and the error of Reconstructinism is so obvious that it almost refutes itself. What can be said however is that it is now clearer to me why kinism seems to be present in some sections of supposedly conservative Christian circles in America. The trojan horse has been delivered, and under the guise of being biblical, old-time racism has emerged in the radical fringes of the right.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The priority of corporate worship: Corporate worship and Covid-19

Around the world, there have been multiple outbreaks of the Covid-19 virus, leading to the declaration that it has become a pandemic. With the high infection rate of the virus, certain precautions have been recommended included social distancing. Part of this social distancing as it pertains to the church has been societal pressure to stop corporate worship services altogether.

As Christians, what should we think about this? Before we think through the spiritual issues, first, it must be pointed out that the panic seen in many parts of the world is irrational, as the relatively low fatality rate of the virus plus the fact that is it borne by droplets makes it a relatively benign outbreak. Note that I said it was relatively benign, insofar that it is not something on the scale of Ebola or the Spanish Flu. Thus, there is absolutely no need to panic over it. Second, it can be limited by taking precautions, thus we are to be responsible and take necessary precautions in maintaining hygiene and being wise in social interaction.

More importantly, the question is asked as to the worship of God on Sunday, the Lord's Day. Christians must remind ourselves why we physically meet Sunday after Sunday together to worship God. For many Evangelicals, it is understandable that there is little understanding of this matter, with only a superficial appeal to Hebrews 10:24-25. If the focus of worship is merely to sing worship songs to God and to hear His Word, then it is understandable why some churches think that there is nothing wrong with moving church online to live streaming, and this is seen as the "socially responsible" thing to do. But that manifests a deficient doctrine of the church and an ignorance of the reason for corporate worship in the first place.

Why have Christians met together Lord's Day after Lord's Day to worship God? Is the corporate nature of the worship service merely because of the technological limitations of the First Century AD, or for that matter all of human history until the last few decades?After all, if Hebrews 10:24-25 speaks about encouraging one another, surely that can be done online or even through Whatsapp and other social media platforms? But the corporate nature of the worship service is demanded by what the worship service is, and the physical presence of the saints manifests the importance of the body. The Scriptures always declare that we are spirit and body, not a spirit inhabiting a body. When we are raised up on the Last Day, our bodies are raised anew (1 Cor. 15:44) and we will always be embodied spirits through eternity. Therefore, where the physical body is is important, which is why online church or even virtual reality church is no church at all! To denigrate the body is to embrace Gnosticism, and unfortunately, many Evangelicals fail to see that.

The nature of the worship service is that it is not a time for us to give to God, to sing songs and hear the Word preached. Bur rather, the worship service is where God is present spiritually (Mt. 18:20, 1 Cor. 4:5, 11:29-30, Rev. 2:1), meeting us covenantally (Hos. 2:23, Rom. 9:26, 1 Pet. 2:10). The worship service is God's service, not ours. For just as we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, so likewise we cannot approach God to worship Him except through His invitation only. And just as in an ancient covenant, the parties of the covenant physically meet, so likewise the reason why we must be physically present for worship is that the Lord meets us there as we are there physically. We encounter God in the corporate worship, praising Him and hearing Him speak to us through the pastor who proclaims His Word. This is why Christians ought to meet together in church services Lord's Day after Lord's Day, honoring God in our use of time and our use of space.

If that is true, how then should we respond to the secular pressure to stop the worship service? First of all, we must agree that the corporate worship service is very important in the life of the Christian. It should not be something to be cancelled at whim. It must be said that it is understandable though wrong that many think that religious worship gatherings should be the first to stop, but work is seen to be something must more important and must continue. If corporate worship is that important in the Christian life, then surely it must be treated at least as important as work and school. If the outbreak results in the cessation of work and school, then certainly there should be a cessation of corporate worship for that period. Yet, if work and school continue, then the corporate worship should likewise continue.

This does not necessarily mean that there should not be precautions taken. The necessity of corporate worship does not negate the requirement for wisdom. Rather, during an epidemic or pandemic, steps can be taken to reduce the risk of infection. Perhaps this is a good time for big churches to practice church the way the early church did so, by splitting up into many congregations of smaller numbers. Instead of halting services, why not have groups of 20 or so which can worship God corporately? This can be a good time to break up the business model of doing church, in favor of a model more in line with biblical Christianity. While not for the "house church movement," there is nothing wrong with meeting in homes per se to worship God, so why not get around to doing that?

Corporate worship is biblical mandated by Scripture. Barring a situation like the Black Death, Christians ought to continue to worship God corporately. God is still sovereign over the virus, and He calls us to worship. The paranoia over Covid-19 displays the world's fear of the unknown, but Christians ought to be better than this. While taking precautions, we must have faith and trust in God. We are not to panic as the world does, but put our faith wholly in God. After all, as it is confessed in the Heiberg Catechism:

Q1: What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

God is sovereign, and thus we should not fear this virus. We must know this and believe this. If God wants me dead through the virus, I will get it no matter what. If God wants me alive, I will stay alive no matter what. So, trust God and do not panic. Take precautions and attend to the worship service. For there is where God is, and where we receive from Him His grace and mercy, our supply for each and every week.

Monday, March 09, 2020

One critique of Aristotelian ontology

But a problem with this view is that it entails that dogs, trees, stones, and the like are not really substances. The true substances are the fundamental particles, and to be a dog, a tree, or a stone is just for these particles to take on a certain kind of accidental form. Yet this seems clearly wrong insofar as these and other natural objects appear to have causal powers that are irreducible to the sum of the causal powers of fundamental particles. … (Edward Feser, Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science, p. 30)

Another problem is that from the Aristotelian point of view, the atomist doesn’t really get rid of substantial form and prime matter at all, but simply relocates them. Supposed that to be a dog, a tree, or a stone really is to have a merely accidental form, and that the only true substances are the fundamental particles. We would still have to regard them as composites of substantial form and prime matter, for the reasons given in the arguments from limitation and from change. (p. 31)

The basic idea of the first line of argument is, again, that a form is of itself universal, so that we need a principle to explain how it gets tied down, as it were, to a particular thing, time, and place. … Matter – the matter of this individual bowling ball, of that individual wheel, and so forth – is what does this job. (pp. 27-28)

On an Aristotelian analysis, a real change involves the gain or loss of some attribute, but also the persistence of that which gains or loses the attribute. For example, when a banana goes from being green to being yellow, the greenness is lost and the yellowness is gained, but the banana itself persists. If there were no such persistence, we would not have a change to the banana, but rather the annihilation of a green banana and the creation of a new, yellow one in its place. (p. 28)

Without prime matter, there could be no substantial change, because there would be no subject of change that persists through the change. (pp. 30)

Aristotelianism as a philosophical system is certainly something that should be learned, as it provides the background from which much of modern thought emerged. However, it is another thing altogether to assert its continual relevance for modern thought, especially when it deals with ontology on the same level of empirical science, as Edward Feser seems to have done.

In the initial part of the book, Feser asserted that the atomism of modern science is not feasible as an understanding of how things are constituted. Feser does not dispute the empirical findings of modern science, but rather the modern theory of atomism that lies behind the empirical findings. Feser argued his case by utilizing Aristotle's view of form and matter, utilizing an argument from limitation and an argument from change to assert that modern atomism fails to explain the nature of things.

While there is a rejection of modern atomic theory, it must be stated here that Feser is not disputing atomic theory in general, just its explanatory power. Feser is not "anti-science" in rejecting that atoms are there, but rather, as we shall look further in subsequent posts, he is rejecting the status we assign to atoms in modern atomic theory.

With that caveat, it must be stated that Feser's rejection of modern atomic theory is flawed. First, in the argument from limitation, Feser argues that even if atoms were constitutive of substance, they still need to have "substantial form" and "prime matter." But that is to impose Aristotelianism as constitutive of reality, instead of a description of reality one chooses to use. But what is reality, really? Whatever reality really is, on the empirical level, reality is investigated through the scientific method. It is not modern atomic theory that has to conform to Aristotelianism, but modern ontology that has to conform to modern atomic theory.

In this instance, the answer to the argument from limitation is simple: Atoms are made up of the subatomic particles: Protons, Neutrons and Electrons. All of them ultimately are made up of quarks. The process by which quarks make subatomic particles make atoms which make things does not imply a reduction of all substance to quarks, for we can say that substances emerged out of more basic matter. Form is an emergent quality, not a basic quality. It emerges through the interaction of atoms with each other, and complexity in their interactions creates form.

The response to Feser's second argument, the argument from change, is to assert that qualities like color are emergent qualities not primary qualities. There is no substantial change in the banana because the banana did not change, only various chemicals in the banana have been altered as the fruit ripened. There was no change from green-ness to yellow-ness, but rather there was substantial change in certain chemicals in the banana, while there is no change in the banana itself, and the secondary quality of "green-ness" changes to "yellow-ness" due to the chemical changes that have taken place in the banana. One does not have to postulate prime matter, because based on modern scientific theory, there is no need for this idea at all.

As will be seen in subsequent interactions, Feser has more objections to this and other modern scientific theories. Again, the conflict is not truly at the empirical level, but rather one step above in ontology in the empirical plane (since Aristotle is no idealist).

Sunday, March 01, 2020

How we should speak of sin

Aaron O'Kelley has a great article on the issue of speaking about sin, especially in light of the growing tolerance for vile wickedness at Christianity Today. An excerpt:

Polite discourse minimizes and, over time, neutralizes the instinct of moral revulsion. While moral revulsion alone is not enough to sustain ethical practice over time, it is an important community-shaping element. Healthy communities express moral revulsion at that which is truly abominable, and the healthy effect of such revulsion is a natural deterrent toward said behavior within the community. People who are socialized into being appalled at what is appalling to God have the blessing of a moral compass shaped according to truth.

It is not enough to say something is sin if we trivialize it. When God made divisions in sins calling some abominations, such ranking is meant to shape our discourse and understanding of life such that certain sins are to be considered so vile that they are to be treated with absolute disgust. Moral revulsion is a good thing, and it is sad that such an obvious point needs to be even mentioned in the first place.

[P.S.: Just remember, Christianity Today has also asserted (without proof) that voting for Donald Trump is a great sin. So evidently, for these "Evangelicals," voting for Donald Trump is a greater sin than flirting with "polyamory" or adultery]

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The issue of change: Zeno's Paradox revisited

[continued from here]

For Parmenides to work through the steps of his argument, he has first to entertain its initial premise, then to entertain its succeeding premises, and then to entertain its conclusion. He will also thereby have gone from believing that change is real to wondering whether it is in fact real, and finally to being convinced that it is not real after all. But all of that entails the existence of change. If he considers such an objection, wonders how he might reply to it, and then finally puts forward a response, that too will involved change. The truth of static monism would thus be incompatible with the existence of static monists like Parmenides. [Edward Feser, Aristotle's Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundation of Physical and Biological Science (Neunkirchen-Seelscheid: editiones scholasticae, 2019), pp. 14-15]

According to Parmenides and his disciple Zeno, change is illusionary. Zeno's paradox on motion was meant to show that real change is impossible. Obviously, Zeno was not saying that change does not seem to happen. Rather, he would probably be happy with the cliche phrase "the more things change, the more they remain the same," interpreted literally. Behind the illusion or facade of change is the reality of changelessness, according to Zeno.

In a book heavily promoting Aristotelian philosophy, Edward Feser puts forward what he thinks is an impeccable argument against the "changelessness" view. Feser argued that change within a person happens and therefore change is real. While this argument is indeed applicable to a naive interpretation of Parmenides and Zeno, I do not believe it actually works.

Feser's argument essentially shows that change does in fact occur, and that a denial of change is a contradiction. However, as we have seen, Zeno does not deny change. Rather, he denies the reality of change. What does this actually mean? From Zeno's position one can go in diverse directions. One can claim that even our responses and thoughts are illusions of change. One can instead hold that there is true change mentally but not physically. One can claim that all change is phenomenal while the noumenal never changes. The common theme here is Idealism. Feser's argument, at least in dealing with Parmenides and Zeno, only proves that some form of succession is necessary, but it does not prove change, or at least the type of "change" that most people would consider change.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

CT on Polyamory

As if signs of apostasy in the American Evangelical church were not clear enough, Christianity Astray Today decided that an article about polyamory (what used to be called fornication and adultery) is acceptable to be published by them. While the article does assert that polyamory is sin, it also says this:

Another important pastoral step is to distinguish elements of polyamory that are in violation of God’s will from elements that are simply culturally unfamiliar to us. When we want to lovingly call people to repentance, we should be precise about what needs repentance and what relationships or elements can and should be sanctified in Christ. For example, the notion of kinship in polyamory is a secular echo of the way Scripture calls the church to function as a new family. In cultures that idolize individualism (but actually isolate individuals), polyamory’s focus on relationship, care, and affection can have a powerful pull. And in churches that idolize marriage and the nuclear family, polyamory’s focus on hospitality and community can be an attractive alternative. We can acknowledge that many of the elements that draw people to polyamory—deep relationships, care for others, hospitality, and community—are good things.

Whereas Scripture says:

Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. (1 Cor. 6:18)

Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. (Eph. 5:11-12)

The problem with this article is less about the issue of trying to "redeem" elements from something that is so obviously sinful, but rather that this article has to be even written at all! As Jesus revealed in Ephesians 5:11-12, some evil are just too depraved that it is even shameful to be speaking about them, and the immediate context of Ephesians 5 is about sexual sin. The world has slowly desensitized even believers such that something so depraved can be treated as a legitimate topic of discussion, as if we are talking about ways to "redeem" food.

The sad thing is that this type of article was used to desensitize Christians on the issue of LGBTQ+, and now in certain circles of professing "Presbyterian" circles, calling LGBTQ according to its biblical category ("abomination") is grounds for rebuke by the pastor! Substitute polyamory with LGBT in any of the arguments that have been used by many liberal Christians (inclusive of "Side B" proponents aka Revoice), and the form of the arguments are identical in every way. When will Christians wake up and realize that we are being manipulated into tolerating sin?

It is grievous that Christians by and large have lost the vision of the holiness of God. We fail to recognize that what God says is the truth, period. We fail to recognize that what God says about sin is what sin is, and "abomination" is indeed "abomination." We are not given the liberty to alter God's Word and make God "kinder" than He really is. If God says something is an abomination, then the only right response is detestation and a holy hatred of that sin, and woe to the pastor who thinks himself smarter and kinder than God! Exactly who does he thinks he is, to go against the words of the Almighty God?

Monday, February 17, 2020

The continual simplification and misrepresentation of those who do not subscribe to Classical Theism

Over at Ligonier, Keith A. Matthison has written an article for Table Talk on the importance of Classical Theism. Matthison asserts the importance of Classical Theism and strongly asserts that "classical theism is simply a shorthand way of describing God as He has revealed Himself in His Word." The problem however is that Matthison's assertion is simply that: a mere assertion, without proof.

It may not seem obvious, but the problem with Matthison's article is surprisingly simple: Matthison asserts that it is important that we hold on to the biblical doctrines of God's simplicity, immutability, and impassibility, and that without those we would have a different God than the God of Scripture. But Matthison nowhere argues that Classical Theism is necessary or we would have a different God than the God of Scripture. The whole article assumes that Classical Theism, and only Classical Theism, will preserve the biblical doctrines of God's simplicity, immutability, and impassibility. However, for orthodox Christians who object to Classical Theism, that is precisely the point of contention. We do not agree that Classical Theism is the only way to preserve the biblical doctrines of God's simplicity, immutability, and impassibility. From my own perspective, while I do not think that Classical Theism is totally wrong, I do think that there is a bit too much paganism in Classical Theism which corrupts our understanding of God, if taken to its logical conclusions.

Take for example, the idea that the will is a property of nature. From that assumption, it is denied that the Triune God can have three wills, because if He has three wills, then He has three natures and thus there are three Gods. But why should we assume that will is necessarily a property of nature? On the contrary, if we insist that will is a property of nature, then it would seem that communion with any Person of the Godhead is impossible. One communes with the whole God, but it is not possible to commune with Jesus, or with the Father, for they are all one will. After all, anything that smacks of "Social Trinitarianism" must be rejected right? Even Jesus' High Priestly Prayer was interpreted to mean Jesus in his human will submitting to His divine will, so I guess any communion with Jesus is only with his human nature, and any communion with the divine nature is with the whole Trinity?

The fact of the matter is that there is just too much Aristotle and not enough Scripture in Classical Theism. That is why I reject Classical Theism. There is just too much philosophical baggage from Aristotelian categories that are not philosophically or theologically tenable. One example is the idea that "infinity" is a divine attribute, an assertion which is not tenable in light of Cantor's mathematical insights. Thus, we should reject the notion, prevalent in Classical Theism, that infinity is necessarily a divine attribute. Rather, we must say that created infinities point us to the ultimate infinity that is God, and thus infinity becomes a communicable attribute not an incommunicable one. This is just one of many potential modifications that have to happen in our thinking about God, for a blind adherence to Aristotle may give us a coherent system, but a system that is philosophically untenable and intellectually bankrupt.

It is of course hoped that Reformed adherents to Classical Theism may be a bit more critical in their theology, and more receptive to criticism instead of circling the wagons of "orthodoxy." The conduct of many Reformed leaders during the 2016 ESS fiasco however does not give me confidence that that will happen anytime soon. Thus, there will continue to be articles like this that essentially ignore the critics and ignore the many problems with Classical Theism, and, like the ostrich with its head in the ground, continue to sound off in the Big Reformed echo-chamber that only a limited audience will hear.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Did John Calvin teach a doctrine of secondary justification?

Steven Wedgeworth over at The Calvinist International had written a blog article arguing that the notion of a "secondary justification" is a Reformed doctrine, taught by no less than John Calvin himself. According to Wedgeworth, John Calvin does in fact teach Justification by Faith Alone, but alongside that he taught a secondary or "different kind of justification" which "remains a forensic and declarative act" and takes account of the "transformative work of regeneration" and "render(s) a sort of judgment on the spiritual fruit of sanctification." This secondary justification is "built atop" and "dependent on" the initial justification, and thus it can be said that there is a sense in which justification is by works, as long as one holds to that justification as a "secondary justification." But are Wedgeworth's arguments sound? We will address them theologically, then historically.

Theologically, it is unclear how this view of initial and secondary justification is not functionally similar to Federal Vision, Arminian and Roman Catholic soteriologies. Just because the "secondary justification" is built upon and dependent on the initial justification does not solve anything, for after all Arminians and Roman Catholics believe that too. For the latter, here is what Trent says about justification and works:

Of this Justification the causes are these: ... the efficient cause is a merciful God who washes and sanctifies gratuitously, signing, and anointing with the holy Spirit of promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance ... (Chapter VII, Council of Trent Sixth Session, On Justification - First Decree)

And whereas the Apostle saith, that man is justified by faith and freely, those words are to be understood in that sense which the perpetual consent of the Catholic Church hath held and expressed; to wit, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons: but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification-whether faith or works-merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace. (Chapter VIII, Council of Trent Sixth Session, On Justification - First Decree)

As it can be seen, in Tridentine Roman Catholicism, justification is "free," and faith and works do not merit the grace itself of justification, since the efficient cause of justification is the God who is merciful and washed and sanctify gratuitously sinners through the Holy Spirit. In popular Evangelical rhetoric, it is assumed that Roman Catholicism teaches justification by faith and works, or by works. However, while Roman Catholicism ends up being about salvation by faith and works, it is not technically true that it teaches justification by faith and works. Rather, justification is by grace through faith without works, but justification in Roman Catholicism is a process and thus the works is the "outworking" of grace through works. In orthodox Roman Catholic theology, the works are treated as the outworking of faith in justification, and therefore works become essential for one's status before God, albeit in a round-about way.

Once the Tridentine Roman Catholic teaching on justification is properly understood, it is unclear how it differs from what Wedgeworth is proposing, except that instead of a process of justification we have two acts of justification—the initial justification and the secondary justification. Since the term "justification" is literally "to make just," this calls into question Wedgeworth's assertion that the "secondary justification" does not change the verdict given by the initial justification. In what sense is that secondary justification "justification" if it does not actually "make [the person] just"? Therefore, whatever the intent of those promoting this view of "secondary justification" is, it seems clear that this "secondary justification" smuggles works into the act of justification by a more sophisticated route compared to Roman Catholicism, a move which coincides with the redefinition of "faith" to become "faithfulness" in Federal Vision discourse.

Historical theology is where Wedgeworth's assertions about the historical pedigree of his view come undone. Wedgeworth asserts that John Calvin teaches this secondary justification, but the passages cited from Calvin clearly states that God justifies the unclean works of believers. This "secondary justification" if you may is God declaring that the works of believers are acceptable to Him, or as cited and emphasized by Wedgeworth, "their works are esteemed righteous by the same gratuitous liberality. (Comment. on Ezekiel 18:17)." Note here that the object of this "justification" is the believers' works, not believers themselves. It is the works which are justified, not believers who get doses of justification every time they do a good work. This view of God justifying our works is taught by the Westminster Confession of Faith in the chapter on good works:

Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him, not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections. (WCF 16.6)

Wedgeworth's argument that Calvin taught a doctrine of secondary justification is therefore a misinterpretation of what he actually wrote. Knowing what Tridentine Roman Catholicism actually teaches, and that the orthodox Reformers unanimously rejected it, we must understand that the orthodox Reformed position is a denial of any kind of two-stage justification or process of justification. The scandal of the Reformation was not because Roman Catholicism believed in works meriting justification (a typical Evangelical caricature), but that the Reformers taught that justification requires no work of any kind at all. That is the essence of the Gospel message of Justification by Faith Alone that scandalized the Pope and the entire structure of Medieval Catholicism. Why is it that charges of antinomianism were leveled against the Reformers? Were 16th century Roman Catholic theologians so dense that they did not know (if it were true) that Protestants have a place for good works in justification (beyond evidence), and therefore the dispute is one of semantics rather than substance?

So did John Calvin taught a doctrine of secondary justification? He did not. Moreover, knowing the centrality of the Gospel and the importance of justification, I think it is very dangerous that such teaching is deemed acceptable in Reformed circles, for once we lose the Gospel, we lose the faith. It is my sincere hope that all of us including Wedgeworth would one day come to reject this teaching as misleading at best, and heretical at worst.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Adams again on Doug Wilson and FV Baptists

On his blog, Brandon Adams has written an interesting response on the issue of Douglas Wilson and the Federal Vision. You can read it here.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Eternity, essential and accidental attributes

The problem is this. If authority over the Son is an essential, not an accidental, attribute of the Father, and subordination to the Father is an essential, not an accidental, attribute of the Son, then something significant follows. Authority is part of the Father’s essence, and subordination is part of the Son’s essence, and each attribute is not part of the essence of the other persons. (Millard J. Erickson, Who’s Tampering with the Trinity: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate (Grand Rapid, MI: Kregel, 2009), 172)

When it comes to issues of time and eternity, issues of contention are very very difficult to be dealt with. Nowhere is this so when we talk about predication of God. Since God is eternal, does whatever God does in eternity essential to Him? This is the argument put forward by Millard Erickson against what he calls the "gradationist" position, now commonly called ESS (Eternal Submission of the Son). The problem when we deal with God in eternity is that we can come across some rather strange difficulties. Let us put the issue of ESS to the side for now. Rather, let us go back to the basics.

When we say that God the Father is the the Father, is Him being the Father necessary or contingent? Surely if we believe in immutability, we must say that God the Father is always God the Father, because there is not where the three persons mutually decided that one of them is the Father, the other the Son, and the last one the Holy Spirit. But if God the Father is always the Father, then is "being the Father" always part of the Father's essence, "being the Son" always part of the Son's essence, and each of these attributes is not part of the "essence of the other persons"? But, you object, there is only one essence in the Godhead. And you are perfectly correct. This is why Erikson's formulation of the supposed problem makes no sense, because what is of the persons is not necessarily predicated of the essence. The "unbegotten-ness" of the Father is not shared with the Son or the Spirit, but this does not imply that "each attribute is not part of the essence of the other persons."

The orthodox formula on the Trinity is: One undivided divine essence subsisting in three divine persons. It is an "unstable" formula, in the sense that it is not at all clear what that means, except that God is truly one, and yet truly three, in different senses. Since that is the case, predications of "necessity" and "contingency" are liable to fallacies. What does it mean for something to be an "essential" attribute of a person, if the person is not the essence (each divine person is fully God, but none of them are the essence apart from the other two)? If each person is distinct from the other, does that not imply that whatever is distinct is not shared between them, as "unbegotten-ness" is not shared with the Son and the Spirit?

This is not to say that there are no difficulties with saying that "authority over the Son is an essential, not an accidental, attribute of the Father." Rather, it is to assert that unless we can be clear about what we mean by "essential" when predicated of a divine person as opposed to the divine being, we cannot assume that the position known as ESS leads to ontological subordination of some kind.