On Harvard and Home

(Cross-posted here).

Ever since I graduated in May, I have received all sorts of congratulations on my achievement. These congratulations have all been sincere, much appreciated, entirely understandable, and yet (I have felt) out of place – out of place, for the simple reason that graduation has affected me more like an eviction notice than like a major accomplishment. Indeed, graduation has seemed quite literally out of place in my life: an out-of-place displacement of me from my place at Harvard, an unnecessary rupture in the pattern of my life for the past four years.

For the past four years, after all, Harvard was my home. It was not just the place where I went to school; it was where I slept, ate, and prayed; it was where I thought I belonged. Despite all its many sins, absurdities, and hypocrisies, it was a place that I loved, and continue to love.

Now, however, my time at Harvard is up. Without any say in the matter, I have been asked to leave, have said goodbye, and have left – not my school, but my home. Where, then, is home? I have thought about that question a lot in the past several weeks. Clearly, home is no longer Harvard; graduation took care of that. But it is also true, though perhaps less clear, that home never really could be Harvard anyway. Harvard was never intended to last forever – never intended to be anything more than a stepping-stone. Life at Harvard was designed with an endpoint, even if that endpoint seemed impossibly far-off to my freshman eyes. Harvard, then, was never my home; I was just a-passin’ through.

It took some time for me to accept that fact. Once I did, however, I realized that the same could be said of anything in this life – for life on Earth, like life at Harvard, was never intended to last forever. Life itself was designed with an endpoint, even if that endpoint seems impossibly far-off to youthful eyes; and so home – true Home – cannot be found here. This world, like Harvard, is not our home; we’re just a-passin’ through. We graduate from college, but we graduate from life, too.

It is said of the biblical men and women of faith that they admitted to being strangers on the earth. This fact – that they were strangers on the earth – is, no doubt, a theological fact. But it is also a straightforwardly biological fact; it is a fact grounded in the well-worn axioms that everybody dies and that nothing lasts forever. The truth is that the faithful departed were not strangers on the earth because they were faithful, but because they were mortal; and so we mortals, too, faithful or not, are all strangers on the earth.

Where, then, is home? Where is Home for us strangers on the earth? The answer comes in the form of a question from the same old song, "This World Is Not My Home," to which I have referred: "If Heaven’s not my home, then, Lord, what will I do?" Heaven must be home – because Earth cannot be. Heaven must be home – because only in Heaven will we not be strangers, pilgrims, outgoing graduates, long-term guests at a hotel. Heaven must be home – because only in Heaven are we not just a-passin’ through.

Earth is not our home; it was not made to be our home; it is not eternal enough to be our home; it is not good enough to be our home. Those are facts. The difficult thing is to admit to those facts. Doing so is what distinguished the faithful men and women of old: not merely being strangers on the earth, but admitting to being as much. In the end, their act of faith was simply to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that they had not yet reached Home.

Harvard came and went in the blink of an eye. Returning there (as I have repeatedly since graduation) produces in me the sobering sensation of being a stranger in one's own home, a unique brand of homesickness which is at its core a longing for eternity – a longing for an as yet unreached Home. Returning, consequently, makes me miss Harvard, but it makes me miss Heaven more.

I am, and each of us is, a stranger on the earth; I have not yet reached Home. These are difficult facts to admit. But they are also beautiful facts to admit, for they speak of a beautiful Home: the Home which we have desired (knowingly or not) our whole lives, the Home made for us and the Home for which we were made. Harvard is slowly receding from memory and sight, as will any and all of my earthly homes. But that is all right, if Heaven is my home. And if Heaven’s not my home – then, Lord, what will I do? "The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door, and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore."


Romans 1-8 Outline

Romans 1-8: Righteousness Through Faith

Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations come from the 1984 NIV translation of the Bible.
  • Introduction (Romans 1.1-17)
    • Greeting (1.1-7)
    • Personal Items (1.8-15) and Statement of Theme (1.16-17)
      • "[I]n the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last...." (v. 17a)
  • No One Is Righteous (Romans 1.18-3.20)
    • The Condemnation of the Gentiles (1.18ff)
      • "The wrath of God is being revealed from Heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness...." (v. 18)
    • The Condemnation of the Hypocrites (2.1-16)
      • "You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things" (v. 1).
      • Transition: The Gentiles knew God's righteous decrees (1.32), but refused to obey them, and thus were punished. In the same way, hypocrites who know God's righteous decrees and judge others for disobeying them but disobey them themselves will also be punished.
    • The Condemnation of the Jews (2.17ff)
      • "The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the Law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker" (v. 25).
    • The Advantages of Being a Jew (3.1-8)
      • "What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew...? Much in every way!" (vv. 1-2a)
      • Note: This section is tangential.
    • No One Is Righteous (3.9-20)
      • "There is no one righteous, not even one...." (v. 10b)
      • Note: While "it is those who obey the Law who will be declared righteous" (2.13b), ultimately "no one will be declared righteous ... by observing the Law; rather, through the Law we become conscious of sin" (3.20).
  • Righteousness Revealed (3.21-8)
    • Righteousness Through Faith (3.21ff)
      • "But now a righteousness from God, apart from Law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe" (vv. 21-22a).
    • Abraham Justified by Faith (4)
      • "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness" (v. 3b).
    • Peace and Joy Through Christ (5.1-11)
      • "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ...." (v. 1)
    • The Gift and the Trespass (5.12ff)
      • "[T]he gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!" (v. 15)
      • Transition: We have received reconciliation through Christ (v. 11); this reconciliation is a gift that mirrors Adam's trespass but surpasses it in scope.
    • New Life in Christ (6.1-14)
      • "We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that ... we too may live a new life" (v. 4).
    • Slavery to Righteousness (6.15ff)
      • "You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness" (v. 18).
    • Dying to the Law (7.1-6)
      • "So, my brothers, you also died to the Law through the body of Christ...." (v. 4a)
    • The Goodness of the Law (7.7-16)
      • "Is the Law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the Law" (v. 7a).
    • Slavery to the Law of Sin (7.17ff)
      • "I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the flesh a slave to the law of sin" (v. 25b)
    • Life Through the Spirit (8.1-15)
      • "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death" (vv. 1-2).
    • The Testimony of the Spirit (8.16-25)
      • "The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children" (v. 16).
    • The Intercession of the Spirit (8.26-30)
      • "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness" (v. 26a).
      • Note: This organization of Romans 8 has been chosen to connect v. 26 to v. 16: The Spirit helps us in the same way that it testifies with us.
    • God's Love in Christ (8.31ff)
      • "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (v. 31b)


"Thy Will Be Done"

It is an interesting thing that Jesus calls us to pray: "Thy will be done" (Matthew 6.10b, KJV). It is a request, and that fact alone does not make it interesting; for requests are common enough in prayer. But it is a strange request - on the face of it, an almost nonsensical request. "Thy will be done": as though God needed our permission to do His will, as though He would not do His will if we did not beseech Him to do it! Will not Almighty God do what He wills whether or not we ask? What else could He do but that which He wills to do? Is it not inevitable that God's will be done? And, if it is, why pray for it?

Requests are common enough in prayer, because prayer is commonly thought to be nothing more than an attempt on our part to bend the will of God to our own. There is undoubtedly some truth to this understanding: "Ask, and it shall be given you," Jesus says (Matthew 7.7a, KJV). In prayer, we ask and God gives. But there is more to prayer than such requests. There is also the matter of remembering God's will.

"Thy will be done," Jesus says: not so that God's will may be bent to ours, but so that our will may be bent to God's. "Thy will be done": not because God's will is at risk of not being done, but because we are at risk of not submitting to it, at risk of resisting it and rebelling against it. "Thy will be done": not because God needs a reminder to do His will, but because we need a reminder that it is His will and not our own that is ultimately our aim. That, I believe, is why Jesus commanded us to pray that God's will be done: for our own hearts.

"Thy will be done" is a call for the believer to surrender to the will of Him Who is over us and above us, but also for us - our Lord and King, but also our Father and Shepherd. It is an exercise for the believer to lower his will and to lift his eyes to the perfect and glorious will of God. Thus, it is not superfluous or unnecessary to pray that God's will be done, though it shall be done whether we pray or not; it is vital and essential.

Father, Thy will be done.


On Christ's Divinity

From G.K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man:
"There is a sort of notion in the air everywhere that all the religions are equal because all the religious founders were rivals, that they are all fighting for the same starry crown. It is quite false. The claim to that crown, or anything like that crown, is really so rare as to be unique. Mahomet did not make it any more than Micah or Malachi. Confucius did not make it any more that Plato or Marcus Aurelius. Buddha never said he was Bramah. [...] The truth is that, in the common run of cases, it is just as we should expect it to be, in common sense and certainly in Christian philosophy. [...] Normally speaking, the greater a man is, the less likely he is to make the very greatest claim. Outside the unique case we are considering, the only kind of man who ever does make that kind of claim is a very small man; a secretive or self-centered monomaniac. Nobody can imagine Aristotle claiming to be the father of gods and men, come down from the sky; though we might imagine some insane Roman Emperor like Caligula claiming it for him, or more probably for himself. Nobody can imagine Shakespeare talking as if he were literally divine; though we might imagine some crazy American crank finding it as a cryptogram in Shakespeare's works, or preferably in his own works. It is possible to find here and there human beings who make this supremely superhuman claim. It is possible to find them in lunatic asylums; in padded cells; possibly in strait waistcoats. [...] [A delusion of divinity] can be found, not among prophets and sages and founders of religions, but only among a low set of lunatics. But this is exactly where the argument becomes intensely interesting; because the argument proves too much. For nobody supposes that Jesus of Nazareth was that sort of person. No modern critic in his five wits thinks that the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount was a horrible half-witted imbecile that might be scrawling stars on the walls of a cell. No atheist or blasphemer believes that the author of the Parable of the Prodigal Son was a monster with one mad idea like a cyclops with one eye. Upon any possible historical criticism, he must be put higher in the scale of human beings than that. Yet by all analogy we have really to put him there or else in the highest place of all. [...] If Christ was simply a human character, he really was a highly complex and contradictory human character. For he combined exactly the two things that lie at the two extremes of human variation. He was exactly what the man with a delusion never is; he was wise; he was a good judge. What he said was always unexpected; but it was always unexpectedly magnanimous and often unexpectedly moderate. Take a thing like the point of the parable of the tares and the wheat. It has the quality that unites sanity and subtlety. It has not the simplicity of a madman. It has not even the simplicity of a fanatic. It might be uttered by a philosopher a hundred years old, at the end of a century of Utopias. Nothing could be less like this quality of seeing beyond and all round obvious things, than the condition of the egomaniac with the one sensitive spot on his brain. I really do not see how these two characters could be convincingly combined, except in the astonishing way in which the creed combines them. For until we reach the full acceptance of the fact as a fact, however marvellous, all mere approximations to it are actually further and further away from it. Divinity is great enough to be divine; it is great enough to call itself divine. But as humanity grows greater, it grows less and less likely to do so. God is God, as the Moslems say; but a great man knows he is not God, and the greater he is the better he knows it. That is the paradox; everything that is merely approaching to that point is merely receding from it. Socrates, the wisest man, knows that he knows nothing. A lunatic may think he is omniscience, and a fool may talk as if he were omniscient. But Christ is in another sense omniscient if he not only knows, but knows that he knows."


De Futilitate

From C.S. Lewis' "De Futilitate":
"There is, to be sure, one glaringly obvious ground for denying that any moral purpose at all is operative in the universe: namely, the actual course of events in all its wasteful cruelty and apparent indifference, or hostility, to life. But then, as I maintain, that is precisely the ground which we cannot use. Unless we judge this waste and cruelty to be real evils we cannot of course condemn the universe for exhibiting them. Unless we take our own standard of goodness to be valid in principle (however fallible our particular applications of it) we cannot mean anything by calling waste and cruelty evils. And unless we take our own standard to be something more than ours, to be in fact an objective principle to which we are responding, we cannot regard that standard as valid. In a word, unless we allow ultimate reality to be moral, we cannot morally condemn it. The more seriously we take our own charge of futility the more we are committed to the implication that reality in the last resort is not futile at all. The defiance of the good atheist hurled at an apparently ruthless and idiotic cosmos is really an unconscious homage to something in or behind that cosmos which he recognizes as infinitely valuable and authoritative: for if mercy and justice were really only private whims of his own with no objective and impersonal roots, and if he realized this, he could not go on being indignant. The fact that he arraigns heaven itself for disregarding them means that at some level of his mind he knows they are enthroned in a higher heaven still. I cannot and never could persuade myself that such defiance is displeasing to the supreme mind. There is something holier about the atheism of a Shelley than about the theism of a Paley. That is the lesson of the Book of Job. No explanation of the problem of unjust suffering is there given: that is not the point of the poem. The point is that the man who accepts our ordinary standard of good and by it hotly criticizes divine justice receives the divine approval: the orthodox, pious people who palter with that standard in the attempt to justify God are condemned. Apparently the way to advance from our imperfect apprehension of justice to the absolute justice is not to throw our imperfect apprehensions aside but boldly to go on applying them. Just as the pupil advances to more perfect arithmetic not by throwing his multiplication table away but by working it for all it is worth."
(Hat tip to VR.)


"The Supreme and Serene Blessing of a Jealous God"

From Chesterton's The Everlasting Man:
"It is often said with a sneer that the God of Israel was only a God of battles, 'a mere barbaric Lord of Hosts' pitted in rivalry against other gods only as their envious foe. Well it is for the world that he was a God of Battles. Well it is for us that he was to all the rest only a rival and a foe. In the ordinary way, it would have been only too easy for them to have achieved the desolate disaster of conceiving him as a friend ... stretching out his hands in love and reconciliation, embracing Baal and kissing the painted face of Astarte, feasting in fellowship with the gods.... It would have been easy enough for his worshippers to follow the enlightened course of Syncretism and the pooling of all the pagan traditions. It is obvious indeed that his followers were always sliding down this easy slope; and it required the almost demoniac energy of certain inspired demagogues, who testified to the divine unity in words that are still like winds of inspiration and ruin. The more we really understand of the ancient conditions that contributed to the final culture of the Faith, the more we shall have a real and even a realistic reverence for the greatness of the Prophets of Israel. As it was, while the whole world melted into this mass of confused mythology, this Deity who is called tribal and narrow, precisely because he was what is called tribal and narrow, preserved the primary religion of all mankind. He was tribal enough to be universal. He was as narrow as the universe. In a word, there was a popular pagan god called Jupiter-Ammon. There was never a god called Jehovah-Ammon. [...] If there had been, there would certainly have been another called Jehovah-Moloch. Long before the liberal and enlightened amalgamators had got so far afield as Jupiter, the image of the Lord of Hosts would have been deformed out of all suggestion of a monotheistic maker and ruler and would have become an idol far worse than any savage fetish; for he might have been as civilised as the gods of Tyre and Carthage. [...] [T]he world's destiny would have been distorted still more fatally if monotheism had failed in the Mosaic tradition. [...] [T]he world would have been lost if it had been unable to return to that great original simplicity of a single authority in all things. That we do preserve something of that primary simplicity that poets and philosophers can still indeed in some sense say an Universal Prayer, that we live in a large and serene world under a sky that stretches paternally over all the peoples of the earth, that philosophy and philanthropy are truisms in a religion of reasonable men, all that we do most truly owe, under heaven, to a secretive and restless nomadic people; who bestowed on men the supreme and serene blessing of a jealous God."


The Great Iconoclast


Joyce, Nozick, and the Evolutionary Argument

[N.B.: For whatever reason, the footnotes to this paper don't show up here.]

In §§6.0-1 of his book The Myth of Morality, Richard Joyce tells a story about the evolutionary origins of our moral beliefs. According to Joyce, humans evolved first a disposition toward thinking of helping kin as morally required, and second a disposition toward thinking of reciprocal helping among non-kin individuals as morally required. Thus, our moral beliefs - or at least our disposition to view certain actions as morally required - are the result of natural selection.

In §6.4, Joyce argues that, if this story about our moral beliefs is true, then our moral beliefs are unjustified, because we have evolved the disposition to have such beliefs irrespective of their truth:

Suppose that the actual world contains real categorical [i.e., moral] requirements - the kind that would be necessary to render moral discourse true. In such a world humans will be disposed to make moral judgments ... for natural selection will make it so. Now imagine instead that the actual world contained no such requirements at all - nothing to make moral discourse true. In such a world humans will still be disposed to make these judgments ... just as they did in the first world, for natural selection will make it so.#

Put differently, because the disposition to have moral beliefs (i.e., make moral judgments) would be evolutionarily advantageous to us whether or not there were moral truths, we would evolve such a disposition - and, consequently, come to have moral beliefs - whether or not there were moral truths (and, a fortiori, whether or not our particular moral beliefs were true). But if we have come to have moral beliefs irrespective of the truth of those beliefs - if, as Joyce puts it, “the process that generates moral judgments exhibits an independence relation between judgment and truth” - then our moral beliefs are unjustified.# (For Joyce, a belief is justified only if it is formed by a reliable process such that one’s coming to have that belief depends in some way on the belief’s truth.)

In this essay, I will assume that Joyce’s story in §§6.0-1 is correct and focus exclusively on a criticism of Joyce’s argument in §6.4 made by Robert Nozick.# I will argue that Nozick’s criticism fails to undermine Joyce’s argument and that the argument is therefore sound if the story in §§6.0-1 is correct.

In response to the assertion that we have come to have moral beliefs irrespective of the truth of those beliefs, Nozick writes,

[E]thical behavior will serve inclusive fitness through serving or not harming others, through helping one's children and relatives, through acts that aid them in escaping predators, and so forth; that this behavior is helpful and not harmful is not unconnected to why (on most theorist's views) it is ethical. The ethical behavior will increase inclusive fitness through the very aspects that make it ethical, not as a side effect through features that only accidentally are connected with ethicality.#

According to Nozick, the aspects of our behavior which make it moral are the very same aspects which make it evolutionarily advantageous. As a result, Nozick argues that Joyce’s argument in §6.4 is unsound, because it is not the case that we have come to have moral beliefs irrespective of their truth.

Consider, after all, some non-moral property A of some behavior x.# Suppose that the following is true: Because x is A (because x has the property of A-ness), x is both morally required and evolutionarily advantageous.# If x were not A, then x would be neither morally required nor evolutionarily advantageous. But if x is not evolutionarily advantageous when it is not morally required - that is, precisely when it is not A - then it is not the case that we come to believe that x is morally required (or even come to be disposed to believe that x is morally required) irrespective of the truth of that belief. For if it were not true that x is morally required, then it also would not be true that x is evolutionarily advantageous, and thus not true that we would come to believe that x is morally required. Therefore, since it is not the case that we come to believe that x is morally required irrespective of the truth of that belief, Joyce’s argument in §6.4 is unsound.

In this reply to Joyce’s argument, Nozick takes into consideration two possible worlds: one (call it “Nozick-1”) in which x is A, morally required, and evolutionarily advantageous, and one (“Nozick-2”) in which x is not A, not morally required, and not evolutionarily advantageous. Clearly, it is not the case that we come to believe that x is morally required in both Nozick-1 and Nozick-2 (i.e., whether or not x is A), because x is not evolutionarily advantageous in Nozick-2 (because x is not A in Nozick-2). But this fact - the crux of Nozick’s reply - is irrelevant to Joyce’s argument, because Nozick-2 is physically different from the actual world,# and consequently not one of the worlds which Joyce takes into consideration in his argument in §6.4. After all, Joyce can agree with Nozick that we would not come to believe that x is morally required in Nozick-2 and still argue that we would come to believe that x is morally required in both of two possible worlds physically identical to the actual world which differ only in that certain behaviors (including x) are morally required in one and no behaviors (including x) are morally required in the other. But if we come to believe that x is morally required in both of those possible worlds, then we come to believe that x is morally required whether or not x is morally required, and Joyce’s argument in §6.4 stands.

This response to Nozick can be formulated more explicitly. If A does not necessarily make x morally required - if, in other words, it is possible that x is A and evolutionarily advantageous but not morally required - then we can speak of two worlds: one in which x is A, evolutionarily advantageous, and morally required (Nozick-1) and one in which x is A and evolutionarily advantageous but not morally required (“Joyce-3”).# It is Nozick-1 and Joyce-3, not Nozick-1 and Nozick-2, that correspond to the two possible worlds Joyce discusses in the excerpt from §6.4 quoted above: one in which the actual world (i.e., the world in which x is A and evolutionarily advantageous) is such that certain behaviors (including x) are morally required - that is, Nozick-1 - and one in which the actual world is such that no behaviors (including x) are morally required - that is, Joyce-3.# To undermine Joyce’s argument, Nozick must demonstrate that it is not the case that we come to believe that x is morally required in both Nozick-1 and Joyce-3 (i.e., whether or not x is morally required). But Nozick has not demonstrated that claim; he has demonstrated only that it is not the case that we come to believe that x is morally required in both Nozick-1 and Nozick-2. As a result, Joyce’s argument in §6.4 stands.

Importantly, this response to Nozick is successful only if A does not necessarily make x morally required. If A does necessarily make x morally required - if, in other words, it is impossible that x is A but not morally required - then Joyce-3 is not a possible world, and Joyce’s argument in §6.4 fails.# Joyce’s argument against such a claim can be sketched briefly here: Suppose that x is some sexual act and A is the property of being an episode of incest. Then, the claim in question (“E”) is “If x is an episode of incest, then, necessarily, x is morally forbidden.”# If E is true, then there is no possible world in which x is A but not morally forbidden, and the response to Nozick fails; if E is false, then the response to Nozick succeeds and Joyce’s argument in §6.4 stands.

One could defend E by contending that it is simply a brute fact, but Joyce finds such a contention ad hoc and unattractive,# as do I. Consider, in addition, the following famous occurrence of incest: Oedipus married his mother Jocasta and had sex with her without knowing that she was his mother. Is he morally responsible for these episodes of incest (assuming that they were morally forbidden) if he did not recognize them as such? If not, were his sexual acts with his mother morally forbidden even if he did not know that they were episodes of incest? It is plausible - or at least possible - that they were not morally forbidden under the circumstances. But if that claim is true, then E is false.#

Alternatively, one could attempt to establish E by employing some intermediate step: “If x is an episode of incest, then x is psychologically traumatic to someone; and if x is psychologically traumatic to someone, then, necessarily, x is morally forbidden.” But this first conditional appears to be false; as Joyce argues, “We can easily imagine circumstances in which ... incest does not lead to [psychological] trauma” (e.g., circumstances in which the parties committing incest do not realize that they are committing incest, as was the case for Oedipus and Jocasta).# Indeed, any such conditional appears to be false; counterexamples such as the Oedipus counterexample can be offered for all of them. As a result, there appears to be no reason to accept E, and consequently no reason to reject the initial response to Nozick.

Nozick’s reply to Joyce’s evolutionary argument fails once we recognize that Joyce’s argument takes Nozick-1 and Joyce-3 into consideration rather than Nozick-1 and Nozick-2. Furthermore, the claim that A necessarily makes x morally required (or forbidden) - which, if true, could salvage Nozick’s reply - is not very plausible. Thus, Joyce’s argument in §6.4 is sound if Joyce’s story in §§6.0-1 is correct.


"All That Is Here Are Humans"


What Is Romans 2.12-16 Saying?


The Slavery of Death: Part 3, The Gospel as the First Christians Understood It


Can We Question God?

A few weeks ago, I saw this video from Francis Chan, which was made in response this video from Rob Bell.

One of Francis Chan's main points is that we should not submit God to our own fallible reasoning. He quotes Isaiah 55.8-9:
"'For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Neither are your ways My ways,'
Declares the Lord.
'As the Heavens are higher than the Earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.'"
But is the point of Isaiah 55 that God's ways and thoughts are inscrutable? Look at vv. 6-9:
"Seek the Lord while He may be found;
Call on Him while He is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way
And the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him,
And to our God, for He will freely pardon.
'For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Neither are your ways My ways,'
Declares the Lord.
'As the Heavens are higher than the Earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.'"
The point does not seem to be that God's ways and thoughts are inscrutable and beyond (or above) our comprehension, but that they are superior. God's ways and thoughts are not necessarily difficult for wicked men to understand, but rather difficult to follow.

That being said, I do not disagree that God's ways and thoughts are beyond our comprehension. (Romans 11.33-36 makes that much clear.) But I wonder if there is more to the story than Francis Chan says.

At first glance, it sounds sinful, faithless, and un-Christian to submit God's actions to our judgment. However, according to Genesis 18.16ff, Abraham does exactly that. Abraham balks at God's original plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah entirely; in response, God does not correct him, but instead listens to him. Can we question God? Apparently, God's answer to Abraham was yes.

Of course, just four chapters later, Abraham submits to God's (famously inscrutable) command to sacrifice Isaac. Clearly, submission is in order at certain points, because God's will is not always easy to understand. However, God's will is not always difficult to understand, either; after all, God has revealed Himself to us through His Word.

Are all questions honest, humble, and faithful questions? Certainly not. But nor are all questions deceitful, arrogant, and faithless. Sometimes, Abraham's faith called him to submit; at other times, however, Abraham's faith called him to question (and even to challenge) God. If Abraham's obedience to God in Genesis 22 was an act of faith, then so were his questions in Genesis 18.


The Fine-Tuning Argument and the Anthropic Principle Objection

Not ten years ago, physicist Paul Davies claimed, “There is now broad agreement among physicists and cosmologists that the universe is in several respects ‘fine-tuned’ for life.”[1] If the universe were just slightly different in one of many respects – if, for instance, the mass of the neutron were increased by 1/700 its actual mass – then life would almost certainly not exist.[2] Consequently, that the universe is capable of supporting life has led some to believe that the universe was “fine-tuned”: specifically designed or created for the purpose of supporting life, in particular human life. According to proponents of this line of thinking, the odds that the universe just happened to be capable of supporting life – the odds that the universe would be capable of supporting life without having been fine-tuned to do so – are so minuscule that we ought to believe that the universe was fine-tuned by God, and thus that God exists. In Alvin Plantinga’s words,
It’s as if there are a large number of dials that have to be tuned to within extremely narrow limits for life to be possible in our universe. It is extremely unlikely that this should happen by chance, but much more likely that this should happen if there is such a person as God.[3]
Following Robin Collins, we can formulate this fine-tuning argument for the existence of God more explicitly as follows:
1.     The existence of apparent fine-tuning is not improbable under theism. (Premise)
2.     The existence of apparent fine-tuning is very improbable under atheism. (Premise)
3.     The existence of apparent fine-tuning provides strong evidence in favor of theism over atheism. (1, 2, prime principle of confirmation)[4]
 (3) follows from (1), (2), and the prime principle of confirmation, which states that an observation counts as evidence in favor of one hypothesis over another if it has a higher probability under that hypothesis.[5]
Like any philosophical argument, the fine-tuning argument has its detractors. In this essay, I will consider the merits of a key objection raised by opponents of the fine-tuning argument – what Collins calls the anthropic principle objection – and argue that this objection does not mitigate against the argument.[6]
Before we address the anthropic principle objection directly, it is helpful to reflect on what exactly the fine-tuning argument is designed (as it were) to achieve. As Collins notes, the argument itself does not purport to prove theism; it only purports to provide strong evidence in favor of theism, all else being equal. Just how strong that evidence is can be determined by using Bayes’ Theorem, which allows us to calculate how the epistemic probability of a hypothesis (in this case, the theistic hypothesis) is affected by specific evidence (in this case, apparent fine-tuning). Let us, then, “plug in” the fine-tuning argument to Bayes’ Theorem.
Suppose that P(T), the prior probability of theism (i.e., the probability of theism without taking apparent fine-tuning into consideration), is 0.5. (As a result, of course, P(~T), the prior probability of atheism, is also 0.5.) Suppose further that P(F|T), the probability of apparent fine-tuning under theism (i.e., the probability that the universe is apparently fine-tuned if God exists), is 0.5, and that P(F|~T), the probability of apparent fine-tuning under atheism (i.e., the probability that the universe is apparently fine-tuned if God does not exist), is 0.1. Then, according to Bayes’ Theorem, P(T|F), the posterior probability of theism (i.e., the probability of theism after apparent fine-tuning has been taken into consideration), is [P(T) x P(F|T)]/[P(T) x P(F|T) + P(~T) x P(F|~T)] = [(0.5)(0.5)]/(0.5 x 0.5 + 0.5 x 0.1) = 0.25/0.3 ≈ 0.83, or 83%. Therefore, if our values for P(T), P(F|T), and P(F|~T) are correct, then the existence of apparent fine-tuning increases the probability of theism substantially, by approximately 33%.
This claim, in essence, is the claim of the fine-tuning argument. In Bayesian terms, the fine-tuning argument states that the values of P(F|T) and P(F|~T) are such that P(T|F) is significantly higher than P(T): If P(F|T) is much higher than P(F|~T), then P(T|F) will be markedly higher than P(T), and apparent fine-tuning will serve as strong evidence for theism.
Recasting the fine-tuning argument in these Bayesian terms is useful because it makes clear how one ought to go about responding to the fine-tuning argument: namely, by ascertaining the relative values of P(F|T) and P(F|~T). If one can demonstrate that P(F|~T) is not appreciably lower than P(F|T), then the fine-tuning argument loses its force. (Presumably, one could also respond to the argument by questioning the applicability of Bayes’ Theorem to the argument, but the use of that theorem in this case has not been a main point of contention.) In addition, the Bayesian formulation of the argument makes clear how one ought not to go about responding to the argument. In particular, any response to the fine-tuning argument that does not consider the relative values of P(F|T) and P(F|~T) misses the point.
Unfortunately, some responses to the fine-tuning argument either do not focus on these values or confuse them with other values. Most notable of these inadequate responses is the aforementioned anthropic principle objection:
According to the weak version of [the] so-called anthropic principle, if the laws of nature were not fine-tuned, we would not be here to comment on the fact. Some have argued, therefore, that the fine-tuning is not really improbable or surprising at all under atheism, but simply follows from the fact that we exist.[7]

The objection’s underlying intuition is simple: If the universe were not apparently fine-tuned, then life would not exist, and we would not be able to observe any apparent fine-tuning. But we are able to observe apparent fine-tuning; our ability to do so follows from our existence as living things. Why, then, should we be surprised at the existence of apparent fine-tuning in our universe?
This intuition can be restated in terms of the relationship between two values: P(L), the probability that life exists in the universe, and P(F), the probability that the universe is apparently fine-tuned. Roughly speaking, the intuition seems to be that P(L) = P(F). If P(L) were 0 – that is, if life did not exist in the universe – then P(F) would also be 0. (After all, if life did not exist in the universe, then we would have no evidence to support the claim that the universe was apparently fine-tuned for life!) On the other hand, if P(L) is 1 – if life does exist in the universe – then P(F) is also 1, because apparent fine-tuning is necessary for life to exist.
The problem, of course, is that neither P(L) nor P(F) factors into the Bayesian formulation of the fine-tuning argument. That P(L) and P(F) both equal 1 says nothing in and of itself about the values of P(F|T) and P(F|~T). As far as I can tell, then, those who employ the anthropic principle objection have erred simply by confusing P(F) with P(F|~T): They have attempted to refute the fine-tuning argument by demonstrating that P(F) is very high (which, though true, does nothing to undermine the argument) instead of demonstrating that P(F|~T) is very high (which would undermine the argument). The important thing to realize, though, is that P(F) is largely irrelevant to the fine-tuning argument. Even if P(F) equals 1, P(F|~T) can still be very low – and if P(F|~T) is very low (and lower than P(F|T)), then the fine-tuning argument retains its thrust.
To understand how P(F|~T) can be very low even if P(F) is 1, and to understand the confusion behind the anthropic principle objection, Collins provides a firing squad analogy.[8] Suppose that I am a prisoner scheduled to be executed by a firing squad of fifty expert marksmen; when the time comes for me to be executed, however, all fifty marksmen miss me. What should I conclude from the fact that all fifty marksmen missed me? As Collins notes, it would be extremely odd for me to say, “Of course I survived! If I hadn’t survived, I wouldn’t be alive to observe my survival!” On the contrary, I would probably react to my survival by concluding that the marksmen were (for whatever reason) trying to miss me.
Why is the latter reaction by far the more natural and reasonable reaction? We can answer that question by analyzing my thought process in terms of specific probabilities. Assume that I believed before my failed execution that there was a 10% chance that the marksmen would intentionally try miss me. If the marksmen were in fact trying to miss me, then there was a 99.9% chance that they would miss me – but if the marksmen were not trying to miss me, then there was only a 0.1% chance that they would miss me. Thus, P(I), the probability that they would intentionally try to miss me, is 0.1; P(M|I), the probability that they would miss me if they intentionally tried to miss me, is 0.999; and P(M|~I), the probability that they would miss me if they did not intentionally try to miss me, is 0.001. From these three pieces of information, we can again use Bayes’ Theorem to conclude that P(I|M), the probability that the marksmen intentionally tried to miss me in light of the fact that they did actually miss me, is  [P(I) x P(M|I)]/[P(I) x P(M|I) + P(~I) x P(M|~I)], or approximately 99.1%.
Notoriously absent from these considerations is P(M), the probability that the marksmen actually missed me. Obviously, P(M) = 1: They did, in fact, miss me. Nonetheless, the fact that they missed me does not entail that they had to miss me – remember, the men in question are marksmen – nor does it entail that they were not intentionally trying to miss me. Consequently, to determine whether or not they were intentionally trying to miss me, we must consider P(I), P(M|I), and P(M|~I) – not P(M).
What is the point of this analogy? Just as P(M|~I) can be quite low even if P(M) = 1, P(F|~T) can be quite low even if P(F) = 1. Just as the fact that the marksmen missed me does not entail that they had to miss me or that they were not intentionally trying to miss me, the fact that life exists in the universe does not entail that life had to exist in the universe or that God did not fine-tune the universe. Just as P(I|M) does not at all depend on P(M), P(T|F) does not at all depend on P(F). Returning to the original objection therefore, the proponent of the fine-tuning argument can say the following:
I do not dispute the weak version of the anthropic principle: If the universe were not apparently fine-tuned, then we would not exist to discuss fine-tuning. But we should still be surprised by the fact that there is apparent fine-tuning in the universe, because we should still be surprised by the fact that we exist. Granted, we couldn’t possibly observe any possible universe in which there was no apparent fine-tuning and in which life did not exist. However, those other universes, unobservable though they would be, still could have existed – and since they all could have existed, our existence and the apparent fine-tuning of our universe are still both much more improbable under atheism than under theism.

If that thinking is correct, then the anthropic principle objection poses no threat to the fine-tuning argument.
Obviously, in spite of the shortcomings of the anthropic principle objection, other objections to the fine-tuning argument remain. Although Collins lists four kinds of fine-tuning that suggest that P(F|~T) is quite low – the fine-tuning of the laws of physics, the fine-tuning of the constants of physics, the fine-tuning of the initial conditions of the universe, and the fine-tuning of certain higher-level features of the universe – other physicists, such as Victor Stenger, have challenged the low value assigned to P(F|~T) by proponents of the fine-tuning argument.[9],[10] Of course, as a non-scientist, I am not well equipped to adjudicate disputes over the precise value of P(F|~T). (That being said, I do find it telling that even Stephen Hawking, a committed skeptic, agrees that “the values of [the dimensionless fundamental physical constants] seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life,” implying that life would not exist in the vast majority of possible universes.)[11] Nevertheless, the anthropic principle objection itself, insofar as it fails to take P(F|~T) into direct consideration, does not mitigate against the fine-tuning argument.

[1] P. Davies, “How bio-friendly is the universe?”
[2] J. Leslie, Universes
[3] A. Plantinga, “The Dawkins Confusion; Naturalism ad absurdum”
[4] R. Collins, “God, Design, and Fine-Tuning.” For the sake of simplicity, Collins’ original argument has been modified slightly.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] V. Stenger, “The Anthropic Principle”
[11] S. Hawking, A Brief History of Time


Van Inwagen's "Quam Dilecta"

I thought I had posted it before, but I don't think I have. It is well worth the read. I hope someday to be the sort of person who "[shines] with the same, dearly familiar, uncreated light that shines in the pages of the New Testament."


Article on Disciples Today

Roger Lamb graciously asked me to write a brief article for Disciples Today. Here it is.

(I love how easy I am to spot in the second picture because of my purple hat. Go Tigers!)