Wednesday, September 29, 2004

theos rears its ugly head

[UPDATE: Major edits and additions to this post.]

What's up with Korean dudes with religious issues today? Something in the Chusok rice cakes?

Over at the Koram, Daehee is asking the Ultimate Question.

Over at Wooj's, the Pythi Master is talking about divine foreknowledge and human freedom.

I, of course, took it upon myself to add my own nonsense to the mix in their comments sections. I'll repeat my divine foreknowledge reply (in part and slightly edited) here:

I stopped believing in a literal, personalistic God precisely because of such logical conundrums.

For me, it works like this:

1. "Knowing" can be broken down into "the knower," "the act of knowing," and "the (thing) known."

2. It is axiomatic that a thing that isn't there can't be known. The act of knowing implicitly requires a knower and the thing known.

3. Consider the phrase "God knows every detail of the future." If God is the knower, then this means the future must already exist-- and in detail from God's point of view, because of (1) and (2) above.

4. The future is written, i.e., already actualized from God's point of view, which means possibilities are illusory.

5. On the assumption that one's freedom is tied to possibilities, it follows that zero possibilities = zero freedom.

Some people try to get around this by offering examples like the following:

My son loves chocolate chip cookies. I know that, if I place a plate of cookies on the table and leave them there, they'll be gone in ten minutes. I'm not omniscient, and my son is acting freely when he takes the cookies, but notice that my foreknowledge of his action in no way contradicts his free choice to take the cookies.

The above reasoning is specious, however, because the father hasn't really made the case that his son is acting freely. If anything, he's made a strong case about his son's lack of freedom, as the evidence of his son's cookie compulsion (and resultant predictability) would show.

There's a theological concept called "middle knowledge" that attempts to reconcile the foreknowledge/freedom issue. I've read only a little about it (and devoted a blog entry to it, basically quoting a letter from Dr. Horace Jeffery Hodges), but it smells fishy to me-- a logical dodge more than anything. I need to read more about it, if for no other reason than to blast it later on.

Strangely enough, I think your alternative (3), if arrived at after lengthy and painful theological introspection, might be an honest answer: the notion that there are some things we simply can't explain is a very human insight. In the case of divine foreknowledge, I'd reject that insight, but I'd grant that the person who offered it was, at least, being sincere.

(Then again, plenty of people zip right to the "It's a holy mystery!" answer without any reflection at all, mainly because they're too lazy to give the problem much thought and actually wrestle with it.)

People who are basically saying, "God's knowing is nothing like human knowing" are arguing that God's knowing is unintelligible to us.* If this is so, on what grounds can it be called "knowing" at all? If it's like nothing we can relate to, how is it even relevant to us?

I blogged Dr. Hodges's thoughtful email on middle knowledge here. Dr. Hodges rose marvelously to my challenge to provide a brief explanation of the term. I take it on faith that Dr. Hodges was also clear, but my puny brain can't seem to process what he wrote, even after several re-readings. Maybe I'll print his email out and try again tonight. I certainly don't blame Dr. Hodges for my own failings on this score; my brain was never wired for logic.

*I don't buy the Thomistic argument from analogy, because:

1. People are moving straight to the acceptance of paradox when they make their typical move (i.e., positing the unfathomable nature of God's knowing). All bets are off at that point. If God's style of knowing can't be made relevant and intelligible to the human experience (which is what is implied when people insist on the radical otherness of God's knowledge), then it's unintelligible, meaningless, and therefore irrelevant-- period.

2. The argument from analogy is itself flawed. The analogical leap from "how a dog knows" to "how a human knows" is a much, much shorter one than the galactic leap from "how a human knows" to "how God knows." Think about it: we can assume a lot of common ground when forming an analogy about dog/human epistemology: material bodies, brains, nervous systems, sense organs, feelings, and perhaps even a certain amount of intellection. But what common ground does a human/divine analogy stand on? Say too much about the mind of God and you're blaspheming! Whereas I can empirically verify that a dog has all the corresponding parts to make an analogy I can easily relate to, I have to posit the divine attributes (a risky business)! No, sorry, Aquinas: the divine/human epistemological analogy has too little going for it to be workable. It has to take far too much on faith. If you tell me God wills, wishes, plans, emotes, etc., you can't support your claim by putting God on a lab table (as you could a dog) and showing me the features in God's makeup that are obviously analogous to our own.

And as I said in (1) above, people claiming that God's ways aren't our ways are trying to establish the radical otherness of divine knowledge, effectively stamping out any effort at argument.

Beware the Dodging Theist, who moves suddenly from "it's analogical!" to "it's unknowable!"-- or who confuses the two arguments. If the theist was arguing logically for the reconcilability of divine foreknowledge and human freedom, then any sudden "move to mystery" entails a switch over to the unassailable realm of the paradoxical. I'm comfortable with people whose faith-positions rest on the paradoxical, but if the same person is trying to argue both logically and illogically for the harmony of divine omniscience and human freedom, then I'd submit that that person has to pick a stance and stick to it. Otherwise, s/he is cheating.

One thing I've never understood about so much Christian theology is the driving need to prove logically that the theist's theology is sensible. Considering how uncompelling the logical cases have been over the centuries, you'd think these folks would get a clue and quit trying. Something I've noticed about recent attempts in this direction is how abstruse they are. A compelling logical case should, in my opinion, possess a certain formal elegance. The increasing complexity and unwieldiness of modern theological arguments smacks of desperation. A couple years ago, I watched a debate about Intelligent Design Theory unfold online; the ID advocate went through some amazing mental gymnastics to support his case. It was kind of sad, really. By the end, he'd thoroughly convinced himself he was right. In that sense, I guess he won his argument.

And finally, a post scriptum:

I wouldn't trust a theological argument that failed to use scripture as evidence for God's attributes. Any sufficiently imaginative schmo on a desert island can form some conception of the divine/numinous/whatever; scripture, at least, provides more or less consistently consultable grounds for making claims about God's nature (whereas a stranded Tom Hanks can only make claims about the numinous realm based on his experience of it through Wilson the Volleyball and other phenomena).

But here's the problem with employing analogy in theological arguments: scripture is of two minds about whether it's even possible to think analogically about God. There's implied analogy at work in every scriptural passage where God is portrayed anthropomorphically: God's acting, but he's obviously not a human-- just analogous to one in his actions. At the same time, scripture unsubtly hints at the awesome otherness and unknowability of God-- see especially Isaiah 55:8, where God says, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways." (NRSV) The entire book of Job leaves open the question of whether the divine is comprehensible, as does the whole tradition of trinitarian theology, especially christology in its various forms. Untouchable mysteries abound. Claims about God are always made at the risk of theological inconsistency. If scripture, then, is the source from which to derive premises for a logical theological argument, is it any wonder that many Christians themselves are unpersuaded by such arguments?


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