July 2008


For those who believe in free will, Genesis 20:6 presents an interesting problem. Abraham was traveling in Gerar. He feared one of the inhabitants might kill him, so he could take his wife Sarah, to be his own. To spare his life Abraham lied to Abimelech, king of Gerar, saying Sarah was his sister. Abimelech took Sarah to be his wife, but he did not have sexual relations with her. In a dream, the Lord told Abimelech the truth about Sarah, and that He had prevented Abimelech from having sexual relations with her.

How is it that God prevented Abimelech from having sexual relations with Sarah? Was Abimelech denied freedom of his will? Walter Schultz, a philosopher from Northwestern College, proposed an answer to these questions in the latest volume of Philosophia Christi (Vol. 10, 2008) that I found both interesting and plausible.

Humans are free rational agents, meaning they have the freedom to choose among options apart from external constraint. They also have intentions, and initiate acts that serve to fulfill those intentions. Intentions can be either proximal, or distal. A distal intention is future-directed (e.g. an intention to vote in the next election), while a proximal intention is directed at the here-and-now (e.g. an intention to raise my arm). There is an imperceptible, but real temporal gap between an agent’s exercising of his mental power to choose X (proximal intention), and the actual execution of that choice. Furthermore, time is required both to form the intention, and to act on that intention to fulfill it.

Schultz proposes that God was able to prevent Abimelech from sinning without depriving him of his free will by intervening during the formation of his freely chosen proximal intention, interrupting the conditions necessary for Abimelech to complete his proximal intention, thereby averting the otherwise certain outcome. On this view, God intervenes after the human agent has freely chosen X, but before the effect. From the human perspective, we would consider this a case of akrasia, or weakness of will, similar to the person who says, “I always wanted to travel to Europe, but never seemed to get around to it.” The person intends to do X, but find themselves unable to do so for reasons they do not fully understand. So Abimelech freely chose to have sexual relations with Sarah, but God interrupted the completion of his proximal intention, thus aborting its effect.

What do you think about Schultz’s theory?

In an earlier blog entry, “Differences in the Gospels,” I examined some supposed contradictions in the Gospels.  I argued that these are not contradictions, but differences in what and how each author chose to portray the events in question, and that the only reason we find these texts problematic is because we fail to understand how ancient writers wrote.  Unlike modern folks, they were not concerned with the minutiae.  They were concerned with the big picture: the gist.  They even felt free to report the historical facts in such a way so as to fit their literary purpose.

I gave a couple of examples to illustrate my point.  In one place, John says Jesus was baptizing in Judea.   A little later, however, he says it was Jesus’ disciples who were doing the baptizing, not Jesus Himself.   Since both statements were penned by the same author, in the same work, in close proximity, it is clear that there is no contradiction here (interestingly, if they appeared in different gospels skeptics would cite this as a contradiction).  This demonstrates for us the flexibility with which the Biblical authors reported historical events.  John felt free to say Jesus was baptizing in one place, even though He knew it was not Jesus Himself who was doing so.  He was not lying; he was not trying to deceive; he was not mistaken.  Both reports were true, even though one was more specific than the other.  For John, since Jesus’ disciples were baptizing on His behalf, it was entirely legitimate to say Jesus was baptizing (we might call this “projection”).  The problem is not with John, but modern readers who demand that ancient writers conform to the standards common to modern writing.

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It is often said that science is incapable of arriving at certainty because science is based on inductive reasoning, and the conclusions we come to using inductive reasoning are probabilistic, not certain. For example, I could reason that since every crow I have ever seen has been black, that all crows are black. This is probable given our observations, but this conclusion is not certain because it is possible that there are crows of a different color that we have not yet observed.

The history of science has demonstrated just how fallible inductive reasoning is. Many scientific conclusions have proven to be wrong as new data comes to light. For this reason, science is incapable of speaking with any level of certainty to the question of God’s existence. Inductive reasoning simply cannot tell us anything conclusive about God’s existence.

Philosophy, on the other hand, works primarily on deductive reasoning, and deductive reasoning does provide us with certain conclusions. For example, I might reason that

Premise 1 Socrates is a man

Premise 2 All men are mortal

Conclusion Therefore Socrates is mortal.

The conclusion is absolutely certain. Sound philosophical arguments for God’s existence, then, can provide us with certainty about God’s existence. But do they?

While the conclusion of a valid deductive argument is certain, we can only be as certain of the conclusion as we are certain of the premises that support the conclusion. It turns out that the premises in a deductive argument are themselves derived from inductive reasoning or experience, both of which can be mistaken. In other words, deductive arguments provide sure conclusions to probable premises. In the example above, premise two is an inductive conclusion based on our experience with other humans. We have observed that all human beings are mortal, and thus conclude that all human beings are mortal. But it could be the case that there are humans who are immortal that we do not know about. Maybe they live on other planets or in another realm of reality. Granted, the chances of this are slim, but we cannot be certain. The degree to which we can be certain that Socrates is mortal, then, is the degree to which we have reason to believe all men are mortal.

So contrary to popular conception, deductive arguments do not provide certain knowledge. They may provide us with more assurance than inductive arguments, but no argument can provide us with certain knowledge. All knowledge is probabilistic in one sense or the other. While philosophical proofs for God’s existence are vastly superior to inductive proofs, neither can provide us with certainty on this important question.

In February I blogged on the first report issued by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life based on their expansive U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. The first report surveyed the religious affiliation of Americans. The second report, released a few weeks ago, focuses on the religious beliefs and practices of Americans, and how these relate to our social and political views.

I would highly recommend you read the 18 page summary report, if not the full 268 page report (personally I don’t have the stomach for the latter). But I would like to share some of the findings I found most interesting:

  • 70% of religious Americans say many different religions lead to God. Even 57% of evangelicals hold to this view. When more than half the members of the most conservative Christian group are religious pluralists, we have serious problems on our hands. Either the exclusivity of the Gospel is not being proclaimed in churches, or not being defended.
  • 78% of Americans believe in absolute moral values. This is much higher than figures posted by the Barna Research Group (22%), and is reassuring. I have to assume that such a large difference must be due to the way the question is worded in the respective surveys. I don’t know how Barna words his questions, but Pew worded theirs as follows: “There are clear and absolute standards for what is right and wrong.” The respondent was requested to rate their level of agreement with this statement. I think it is pretty straightforward. This, combined with the sheer number of participants, makes me lean toward Pew’s findings, and abandoning Barna’s as unrealistic.
  • 92% of Americans believe in God. Not everyone in a religious tradition believes in the existence of God. Buddhism, for example, is typically atheistic (although strangely enough, 75% of American Buddhists believe in God). But I would expect for all of the adherents of theistic religions to believe in God. Strangely enough, they don’t. Only 99% of evangelicals do, and 97% of Catholics. The only Christian group in which everyone polled believed in God was Mormonism. Oddly enough, 21% of atheists confessed to belief in God. I’ll never figure that one out!
  • 60% of adults believe God is personal; 25% believe he is an impersonal force.
  • Only 3 in 4 people believe in life after death, and heaven. This was lower than I expected, especially given the number of theists in this country (92%).
  • Six in ten Americans (59%) believe in hell. The gap between belief in heaven and hell has been reported to be much higher in other surveys I have read. It was interesting to see the gap between belief in heaven and hell in various religious traditions. While 95% of Mormons believe in heaven (the highest of any religious tradition), only 59% believe in hell. Jehovah’s Witnesses experience an even larger gap. Only 46% believe in heaven, but a measly 9% believe in hell (the lowest of any religious tradition—even lower than atheists!). I found this very ironic given the centrality these doctrines play in JW theology. Those who were most likely to believe in both heaven and hell were evangelicals (86% vs. 82%).
  • Christianity is not the only religion in which those who profess the name often do not confess to its doctrines. Only 62% of Buddhists believe in nirvana, and only 61% of Hindus believe in reincarnation. These are staple doctrines of these religions, so we would expect a higher number of adherents to these doctrines. This goes to show that there are many cultural adherents to other religions, who either do not know the teachings of their religion, or reject them.
  • 79% of Americans believe miracles occur today.
  • About 40% of Americans attend religious services weekly.
  • While more than twice as many people cite personal experience (34%) than religious views (14%) as the main influence on their political views, the researchers found a strong link between religious beliefs and political views.
  • Only half of Evangelicals identified themselves with the Republican party.
  • Those most opposed to abortion and homosexuality are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and evangelicals. Those least opposed are Jews, Buddhists, agnostics, and atheists.
  • The more people pray, attend religious services, are certain of God’s existence, the more politically conservative they tend to be.

It is common to hear Christians argue against atheism on the grounds that it is impossible to prove a negative such as “God does not exist.” Only an omniscient being could do so, but an omniscient being would be God by definition! This sounds convincing, and has great rhetorical value, but it is a bad argument nonetheless.

There are a couple of glaring shortcomings. First, it is a straw-man. Most atheists do not claim to know with certainty that God does not exist. They only claim that His existence is very unlikely, or vastly improbable.

Secondly, the atheist could offer a similar argument against theism. One cannot know God exists with absolute certainty. While there may be very good grounds for thinking God exists, such knowledge is not certain. We could be mistaken (meaning it is not logically impossible for us to be wrong in this belief). In fact, virtually everything we claim to know, we know on probabilistic grounds, and yet we are justified in claiming to know it. If it would be unfair for the atheist to claim theists cannot claim to know God exists unless they have proven it impossible for God not to exist, then it is also unfair for the theist to discount atheism on the grounds that no one can be certain God does not exist. If there are good reasons for thinking His existence is unlikely, then one is justified in claiming to know God does not exist, even if they cannot be certain of this knowledge.

When you think about it, all of us claim to know certain things do not exist (unicorns, leprechauns, Santa Clause, the Greek gods, etc.) without being omniscient, and without proving their existence logically impossible. But are we certain of this? After all, we are making a claim about a negative, and it is impossible to prove a negative. The fact of the matter is that we cannot be certain that unicorns do not exist. They may exist on another planet or in another dimension that we are not aware of, and yet, given the lack of evidence for their existence we are justified in claiming to know they do not exist, even if we could be mistaken. Likewise, atheists are justified in claiming to know God does not exist, even if they cannot be certain of His non-existence. That’s not to say I think they are right, but it is to say their knowledge claim is not an illegitimate one simply because it lacks certitude. If certitude is the criterion for knowledge claims, it would make skeptics of us all.

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