Is it good to push what we consider “Biblical morals” into law?
The answer is often “no,” for two very important reasons:
When church and state are mixed, the church is corrupted by the state, and the state is corrupted by this new church.
“My small church disagrees with your mega-church.”
Koinodoxy is not orthodoxy; what is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular.
A Heuristic for Moral Legislation
It’s fine to legislate morality under the following set of conditions only:
- Without the law, things are (or would be) gravely harmful in terms of values near-universal to people.
- This harm is demonstrable (we can’t just declare the harm).
- The law would be demonstrably effective at fixing this problem (we can’t just assume the fix will work).
- The “costs” of the law and its byproducts would not outweigh its “benefits.”
It goes without saying that many Biblical proclamations would not qualify under the above conditions. Many come down to issues of discipline or scruple. Many are rooted in a bygone culture, like where braided hair was considered immodest. And many are explicitly meant only for the church.
This is why:
- We don’t make laws against lying except under grave and demonstrable circumstances.
- We don’t make laws against getting angry except under grave and demonstrable circumstances.
- We don’t make laws against coveting, gossip, etc.
… even though the Bible clearly generally frowns upon lying, anger, coveting, and gossip.
Something in the world may irritate you or violate a tenet of moral propriety to which you hold. But if your first thought is, “There oughtta be a law!,” it may be a symptom of hasty prohibitionism.
Prohibitionism from Simple Thought
Many do not realize that “Is X morally wrong?” and “Should there be a law against X?” are two completely different questions.
Prohibitionism from Memetically Strong Fictions
In the heuristic above, you may have noticed that demonstrability is required at several stages. This is necessary to maintain a “sandbag wall” of careful criticism to defend ourselves against urban myths, “common sense” nonsense, and various other memetically strong fictions.
For example, did you know that in the late 19th century, American public schoolchildren — particularly in the culturally “drier” states — were taught that drinking alcohol could cause spontaneous combustion?
However ludicrous this was, memetic fiction can have a life of its own if left unchecked. Over-demonizing was one of the many factors that helped catalyze the later nationwide prohibition, which is now universally regarded as a complete disaster.
Prohibitionism from Tribal Pride
The attempt to inject religious prescriptions into state law without qualifying under the above conditions comes often from pride.
Consider pride in a hometown football team. If I love the Spearmen, I might put a “Go Spearmen!” banner in my window.
But as soon as I spraypaint “Go Spearmen!” on my neighbor’s house, I am a vandal, which is a certain brand of property thief.
It doesn’t matter if I feel great pride in my Spearmen. I may say, “I feel that spraypainting my neighbor’s house would be standing up for my team, and expressing my support for the Spearmen.”
Unless I can demonstrate a grave harm in universal terms that would be fixed by my vandalism and that it would lack significant side-effects, my vandalism cannot be justified.
In the first of our four-part series on memetics, we talked about how the virulence (“spread-iness”) and resilience (“stickiness”) of ideas determines the flourishing of those ideas, even if those ideas are bad in terms of things we call “goodness,” like truth, justice, and quality of life.
This has the counterintuitive result of labeling really bad things as “fit.”
Today, we’re going to apply this to a thought experiment in which four brothers try to make their businesses successful through four different strategies.
First, we’ll meet Reilly, Murtagh, Shane, and Lochlan.
Later in the video, we’ll also be introduced to a fifth (bonus!) brother, Gerrard, and see what strategy he employs, and how it works out for him.
The illustration of the brethren and their booths will demonstrate how:
… memetic action — resilience and virulence — is what matters [for flourishing]. Truth kinda goes by the wayside. Making sense can kinda go by the wayside. And if you and I care about truth and making sense — which I’m sure we do — then we’ve gotta watch out…
- Memetics Pt. 1: Introduction, and the “Fitness” Snag
- Memetics Pt. 2: The Four Brothers (and Their Business Booths)
- Memetics Pt. 3: The Short Tower Problem
- Memetics Pt. 4: Short Towers + Secret Gnosis
Last week, we talked about how meaning is not objective. Every appeal for a rational justification of meaning in turn requires its own appeal.
This is the “infinite reference problem,” and pursuing it in search of some ultimate and rational end-point is a “chasing after the wind.”
We’re given this lesson from Ecclesiastes.
But, for us Christians, the future is not bleak. We have a unique solution, thanks to Jesus Christ.
It doesn’t solve the infinite reference problem, but it creates a practical meaning-fountain that annihilates the “existential monster.”
Everything is Meaningless
First, it’s vital to understand the extremely uncomfortable lesson given to us by Ecclesiastes.
In Ecclesiastes, the assumption is that when a man dies, he’s dead, and that’s it. You go to the grave. Your dust goes into the ground, your breath goes back to God. You’re finished.
“I also said to myself, ‘As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same spirit/breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit/breath rises upward and if the spirit/breath of the animal goes down into the earth?’
So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?”
His early conclusion is to “just stop” on the axial value of enjoying your toil and lot.
“This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them — for this is their lot.”
The essential premise of Ecclesiastes is that we’re not going to be around after we die.
Leaving a legacy still leaves uncertainty.
- Our bequests?
- Our treatises?
- Our progeny?
We cannot be certain in any of it.
“For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?”
Thus, the “just stop” existential conclusion:
“Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun — all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.”
Additionally, investments (though uncertain) are lauded (11:1-6), and obedience to God is demanded (11:7-10) because it’s our duty, and because we’ll risk his judgment — in life.
Many mainstream Christian teachers would like Ecclesiastes not to exist, or to say something other than what it does.
They’d prefer that it conclude with a rejection of “everything is meaningless,” as if teeing up a ball earlier only to finally smash it out of the park.
But that’s not what happens.
“Remember [the Creator], before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit/breath returns to God who gave it.
‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless!’ Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.”
Even though everything is ultimately meaningless, we still create meaning since we’re beings with innate and/or molded interests. Each one of us is a “meaning fountain” — as is God himself.
It’s not about what simply is meaningful in a vacuum. It’s about what is regarded meaningful, according to the interests of beings with interests.
The writer of Ecclesiastes recognized that we generate meaning in this way through the provisions of life that we enjoy. We find meaning in food, drink, our projects, our families, our investments, and our thankful obligation to our Creator.
But, for us, that “generation” dies. In the end, we all go kaput.
That’s the sad and bleak part of all of this.
Then Comes Christus Victor
Paul tells us that man’s physical death is a consequence of his having sinned:
“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned. To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.”
Through the appeal of baptism, we can voluntarily die to our sins. We are “baptized into his death,” which has a real and profound result:
“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
In Paul’s scathing first letter to the Corinthians, he calls out those who would deny the down-the-road resurrection of the dead.
He makes an argumentum ad absurdum in support of that general resurrection, which is this: Why the heck would we risk life and limb without a prospective purpose?
1 Corinthians 15:30-32a
“And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour [if there is no resurrection of the dead]? I face death every day — yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained?”
And then 32b:
“If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'”
That’s technically a quote from Isaiah — but it reminds you of another book, doesn’t it?
Without these resurrections, our faith is useless says Paul (v. 13-14).
Instead, we have a hope in that down-the-road resurrection, because of victorious Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:54,57b
“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ … Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In other words, we’re back in Ecclesiastes-Land without the general resurrection.
The general resurrection doesn’t make Ecclesiastes false. Ecclesiastes was correct — “upright and true” — when it said that there was no objective underpinning of meaning, and that meaning is generated by interests and experience.
But the sighing sadness of Ecclesiastes has been eliminated. “Where, O death, is your sting?” writes Paul quoting Hosea.
The Limitless Future
We’re in a pickle when we demand, for every statement of meaning, an appeal to a higher justification.
But what if we simply demand a future justification?
And what if our future keeps going?
Suddenly, while the infinite reference problem still exists (and can never be solved), it can at least be made practically moot by the fact that we’ll always have new and novel prospects — forever — after the advent of that “New Earth.”
Really, Really Limitless
Some folks are afraid that we’ll get bored.
While we have a sacred hope that being in the presence of God will be overwhelmingly satisfying, it’s a hope impossible to convey or even conceptualize.
So let’s also say: “Actually, eternity probably won’t ‘run out.'”
- First, our material brains don’t store things very well. Can you recall what you were doing exactly one year ago? No, you can’t. You even find new enjoyable elements in movies you’ve seen dozens of times. You take pleasure and satisfaction in that “weakness” of perception and memory.
- Second, God’s universe is likely stocked with innumerable things to discover. And the time it would take to discover even a miniscule fraction of that universe would represent a period under which innumerable new potential discoveries would be born.
- Finally, however God’s universe is brimming with things to discover, it’ll be brimming over exponentially more with things we’ll be building ourselves for his glory.
No “Objective Meaning”; Rather, Endless Meaning
Many apologists rely on the idea of “objective meaning” in order avoid existential anxiety. They also use it as a logical wildcard in service of a rubber sword “Godproof” — often, they’ll threaten the listener with existential emptiness if they don’t accept the “objective meaning” they’re selling.
This is a very, very common tactic. But it’s not Biblical.
The Biblical message is that meaning is not objective. It’s generated by subjects with interests.
The writer of Ecclesiastes didn’t say, ‘Everything is meaningful, because it is grounded on some objective source of meaning.’
Rather, he said, ‘Everything is meaningless, and this is an upright and true teaching.’
We attain our hope by means of Christ, by whom death is conquered and obliterated. This grants us a beautiful device that allows us to generate meaning forever — and it has an infinite-year warranty.
This is our grand and overwhelming “happy non-ending.”
The problem is that incoherence can be very powerful when employed as a logical wildcard. And logical wildcards can “build bridges” that appear to account for those fallacy-accusations.
This cloaks such argumentation in the veil of cogency.
Whenever a faction thinks a line of argumentation works in its favor, it will employ that argumentation as a rhetorical weapon in order to win debate “battles.”
The problem is that when a line of argumentation is thought to be cogent, and it is not cogent, that weaponry will be made of “rubber,” so to speak.
Sure, it’ll look like a real sword when untested. It may even work to frighten off lesser opponents.
But as soon as a rubber sword is really applied to an armored opponent, it will bend.
Anyone Can be Fooled
Logical wildcards are fueled by ambiguous terminology and many-faced concepts. This makes them notoriously difficult to root out. They subsist on the language problems they create, and even very, very, very intelligent people will not and cannot recognize them unless and until those underlying language problems are identified.
This is the driving force behind philosophical and theological quietude.
Everyone Can be Fooled
When it comes to claims of which the truth values are difficult to discern or demonstrate, the veracity of an idea (or lack thereof) is much less relevant in the memetic arena than other properties of the idea, including:
- Aesthetic stimulation (using rhymes, juxtapositions, alliteration, clever and catchy paraphrasing, etc.).
- Subscription by formal authorities.
- Subscription by forebears.
- Resonance with “common sense” folk ideas.
- And much, much more.
This means that you can expect false ideas to gain widespread subscription when they meet the “difficult to test” and “has many memetically powerful qualities” criteria.
Admiring Rubber Swords
A faction is very likely to lay their rubber swords on a table and admire them, and feel pride over them.
Relying on Rubber Swords
Without rubber swords, an armory may be perceived to be ill-stocked. Furthermore, it may be the case that a faction will win more battles via sword-waving than they would have won wielding genuine, solid instruments.
This further reinforces the loyalty and subscription to them.
Criticizing Rubber Swords
A faction is very likely to react with alarming hostility to forces within the faction that declare, “The emperor has no clothes,” with regard to these rubber swords.
This is due to the “Up a Tree” problem of loss-aversion.
Rubber Swords of Apologetics
From what I’ve discovered, almost all of the so-called “Godproofs” are rubber swords.
This is not to say that we have no reason to believe. It just means that, in our zeal to see “He who is unseen,” we’ve created — over the centuries — many bad reasons to declare that “He must exist.”
In the coming months, I’ll be covering each of the “Godproofs,” showing their weaknesses (and why they don’t work against armored opponents), the fallout of rejecting them, and the Biblical faith and hope to which we should instead cling.
Already, we’ve talked about how “objective meaning” is not coherent and lacks a Biblical foundation. Without “objective meaning” as a given, the Argument from Moral Realism “Godproof” has lost its standing legs.
Is It Okay to Criticize “Godproofs”?
In the 11th century, a monk named Anselm formulated the Ontological Argument, which he deemed a “Godproof.”
I believe that I have shown by an argument which is not weak, but sufficiently cogent, that in my former book I proved the real existence of a being than which a greater cannot be conceived; and I believe that this argument cannot be invalidated by the validity of any objection.
For so great force does the signification of this reasoning contain in itself, that this being which is the subject of discussion, is of necessity, from the very fact that it is understood or conceived, proved also to exist in reality, and to be whatever we should believe of the divine substance.
To whom did Anselm write the above remarks? He wrote them to a fellow Catholic monk named Gaunilo.
Gaunilo thought it a work for the Lord to root out what he perceived to be non-cogent argumentation from his brethren in Christ.
Counterintuitively, Gaunilo correctly felt that it serves God to rebut a bad “Godproof.”
Anselm did not accept Gaunilo’s refutation. But did he fault Gaunilo for being critical? Not at all.
Rather, Anselm wrote:
I thank you for your kindness both in your blame and in your praise for my book.
Later, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote critically of an ontological argument. 18th C. philosopher Immanuel Kant refuted it, and more recently philosopher David Lewis criticized ontological arguments in his work, “Anselm and Actuality.”
It’s okay to be critical of arguments that don’t really work.
Why Would a Christian Do This?
Cancer surgery is difficult and painful, but it’s also a healing action that removes malignant elements that have ruinous implications.
Similarly, rubber swords are terrible patterns within Christianity. Each person who wields them — tricked by those facades of cogency — will become a carrier for toxic theology.
Further, as they lose these debates with truly-armored non-believers, they’ll retreat deeper and deeper into intra-faction choir-preaching.
Evolutionary patterns can be applied, by analogy, to anything that has similar basic mechanics of virulence (“spread-iness”) and resilience (“stickiness”).
Those basic mechanics aren’t that big of a deal and aren’t controversial. If something spreads and sticks, passing various selective “tests,” it has a better chance to flourish.
We take advantage of this fact when we utilize genetic algorithms in software. The software isn’t dealing with real organisms, cells, or DNA, but we don’t need those things — we just need mechanics analogous to those basic evolutionary principles.
Over the last few decades, we’ve all started to recognize that social information has mechanics analogous to these basic evolutionary principles.
Again, this shouldn’t really be controversial — obviously, some ideas are better than others at spread-iness and stickiness, and are tested against various selective agents in the environment.
This is important to recognize, however, because the various conceptual snags and counterintuitive patterns we recognize in genetic evolution can help us power past conceptual snags and counterintuitive patterns that have been infecting theology, philosophy, and any other social collection of ideas.
In the church, this bears itself out in:
- Doctrinal disputes
- Persistent error or incoherence
- Church aesthetics and “seeker-sensitivity”
- And much, much more
The following is the first in a four-part series of a basic introduction to memetics, and how it affects philosophy and theology.
So here’s the weird thing. You can have a genotype that has great virulence and resilience, but is bad in terms of things [of which we] say, ‘We think this thing is good.’
For instance, it might be bad for justice, it might be bad for truth, it might be bad for quality of life, it might be bad for all of these things — but because it is high in virulence and resilience, it wins.
It dominates the environment over time.
Ugh! That’s lame!
- Memetics Pt. 1: Introduction, and the “Fitness” Snag
- Memetics Pt. 2: The Four Brothers (and Their Business Booths)
- Memetics Pt. 3: The Short Tower Problem
- Memetics Pt. 4: Short Towers + Secret Gnosis
Consequential decisionmaking says that given full information, an action is morally justified if the consequences are net-appreciative, and unjustified if the consequences are net-depreciative.
- This appreciation and depreciation is in terms of what is valued.
- By “net,” it means that you have to add up all of the consequences of the action – some might be appreciative and some might be depreciative – and figure out whether we come out ahead or behind.
Think of it like looking at your business’s quarterly results; you take your gross profits, subtract your costs, and see whether you enjoyed a net gain or suffered a net loss (you’re either doing this in hindsight, or with perfectly-informed foresight, which is equivalent).
This is a kind of meta-ethic, which means it’s a way to talk about ethics or morality without having any specific suggestions. It tells us that moral suggestions proceed from what is valued, but it doesn’t tell us what those values are.
It is a very grounded, mechanical way of talking about morality.
It is also very “general-use.” if you want to twist in a Phillips screw, given full information you should employ a Phillips screwdriver.
This is a consequential fact that doesn’t really seem like a “moral” statement. But that’s okay, because we win big if we bite the bullet on treating moral decisions like any other decision with parameters and implications.
We can use the following figure to illustrate how consequentialism works:
The circle on the left contains what is valued. The square on the right contains some understanding of how things are, including how things work in terms of causes and effects. Having full information — being omniscient — would afford us a square with maximally-defined content.
The round box at the bottom contains what we should do, and it follows completely from the circle’s content (what is valued) and the square’s content (what’ll happen).
The first issue that stands out is the question of the content of the circle. It isn’t enough to know how what’ll happen as a result of some prospective action; moral statements, suggestions and judgments require a value referent as well.
The immediate temptation is to ask, “What should be valued?” But since that’s a “should” question, it needs its own modular rig:
And if we continue to ask “What should be valued?” at every stage, we end up building a modular chain that never ends.
To see how these modules start chaining together, consider the earlier “screwdriver” illustration.
It’s fine to say that I value twisting in a screw, but of what “parent” goal is that in service? Certainly I don’t just like twisting screws; I have a higher goal. The successful screw-twisting might be in service of the goal of building a house. But that goal, in turn, proceeds from something that transcends it, like the goal of giving my family a comfortable place to live, among other things.
Eventually, you reach what looks like a dead end. Perhaps this happens at the point where you’re asked why you value your own happiness, or the happiness of your family. But even here, you’re asked to justify those values by appealing to a parent value.
When we insist upon continually asking, “What should be valued?,” like an incessant, implacable toddler asking “Why? Why? Why?,” the modules never stop chaining together, and we’ll never arrive at a conclusion that satisfactorily wraps everything up.
This “infinite reference” problem is the result of the following reality:
- (A) For a value subscription to be rationally justified, it requires a justifying parent value.
- (B) For a value to be ultimate, it must lack a parent contingency.
- (A+B) No value can be both rationally justified and ultimate.
This problem vexed philosophers for centuries. It was only recently solved — that is, in popular fashion — in the 20th century with existentialism.
Existentialism’s solution was to stop asking “What should be valued?” at that ultimate, dead-end point. It makes the proposal that there comes a certain point, core to our very beings, when we cannot justify what we value using parent values, and so we just stop.
We might nickname such a dead end value an “axial value” (or set of axial values), because it represents the point from which other values proceed, but does not itself proceed from a parent value.
The Most Ancient Existentialist Work is In Your Bible
While both atheists and theists may count themselves among the existentialists (since existentialism doesn’t affirm or deny God), existentialism can be found in a work written thousands of years before the 20th century by a man of God whose work is found in inspired Scripture.
That Biblical book is Ecclesiastes, which expressed the futility of continuous question-asking to find ultimate moral answers. The authorship is traditionally given to Solomon, so we’ll run with that.
“Everything is meaningless,” says Solomon.
- Do we find ultimate meaning in pleasure? No, because “What does laughter accomplish?”
- Do we find ultimate meaning in wisdom? No, because “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”
- Do we find ultimate meaning in ambition and accomplishment? Not there either; “All toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
- What about wealth? Nope. “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless.”
“No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.”
And so Solomon just stopped.
He concluded that enjoying our lives and our work constituted axial values, and advised obedience to God out of a sense of obligation, and because we’ll be punished if we don’t (which wouldn’t help the whole “enjoying life” thing).
The lack of ultimate meaning – in other words, the lack of a real conclusion to the infinite reference problem – troubled Solomon. In the 20th century, philosophers who realized this were themselves just as troubled, and split into two camps.
The smaller, sadder camp, called nihilism, declared that since there is no ultimate meaning, there must be no meaning at all.
The other camp, existentialism, concluded that there is no ultimate meaning because meaning and value are imputed by evaluators. Unlike the nihilists, the existentialists recognized that since evaluators are “creating” meaning in this way, there is meaning.
But, Objective Meaning is Useful
“Meaning” isn’t some ontological flower vase sitting on God’s coffee table. And “objective morality” is not required in order to make moral proclamations or stand up for what we believe in. It is, however, extremely useful for imposing our wills on others by taking implicit appeals to a consensus and pretending as if “It’s not just us or our God — the universe condemns you, too.”
“Objective meaning” and “objective morality” are incoherent by means of the “subjective-as-objective” error. This allows them to be employed as logical wildcards, which is a dangerous, memetically powerful, and vitally important thing to learn to recognize.
Logical wildcards are used in service of all manner of goals, and especially as “Godproofs.” Thus, it’s no surprise that you’ll see fellow believers trying to convince folks of objective morality as a way to open the door to a Royal Flush of “God must exist.”
This is one of many ways in which to gold-plate “Him who is unseen” in order to make him “visible to all” without need for his private intervention or a leap of faith — two things to which many misguided apologists are rather averse.
But, Not in the Bible
If I had a dollar for every time I heard an apologist say that objective meaning and objective morality are Biblical concepts!
They’re not. The constant refrain of the Bible is that God does indeed have the properties of goodness, love, wisdom, etc., but that those properties have been shown to his people in the past, and will be proven and demonstrated down the road.
If I say Usain Bolt is fast, I am saying that he has the property of fast-ness. I am not saying that he is what fast-ness is. And if I do say, “Usain Bolt is fast-ness itself,” it’s commonly understood that I am making a poetic flourish — I’ll get strange looks if I say that the restaurant down the street serves “Usain Bolt food.”
The notion that God is goodness itself, and thus the two can be used interchangeably as it suits the theologian, is an error for which we thank our Christian Neo-Platonist forebears. Not the Bible.
Needless to say, the insinuations that objective meaning and morality are Biblical, required for “The Christian worldview,” and that a lack thereof leads to nihilism are all insinuations that grind my gears, and ought to grind yours.
See the follow-up to this post:
Is God really in control? Does his sovereignty encompass everything? Is the universe working out an orchestrated creative process according to God’s deliberate, big-picture will?
Or, by contrast, is the universe on a twisting, winding road according to the pulls and tugs of innumerable creatures with free will? Are our decisions dictating the course of the plan without, in turn, being dictated by it?
The Bible appears to support both, at first glance.
- The Bible says that a man’s steps are not his own (Jeremiah 10:23), that a man’s heart plans his way but the Lord directs his steps (Proverbs 16:9), and that God intervenes as it suits his pleasure in order to get the job done in the manner he most prefers, including affecting the decisions of people like Jacob and Esau’s mother Sarah, and hardening the heart of Pharaoh (Romans 9:9-18). The Bible says that God has bound everyone — Jew and Gentile — over to disobedience in order to have mercy on them all (Romans 11:32), and that his plan works out everything in conformity with his big purposes (Ephesians 1:11).
- But the Bible also says, later in Jeremiah (chapter 18), that if a nation exceptionally delights or disappoints God, he’ll alter his stated plans for them. Furthermore, the Bible frequently talks about human volition, choice, responsibility, and just punishment, which would appear — at first glance — to require free will as a prerequisite.
The mainstream Christian response is, “Both, somehow.” The net result, in our mind’s eye, is a non-cohering picture that flickers one way and the other, never making all that much sense.
Broken chunks of an incomplete sovereignty collide with granular pieces of a devastated free will. It’s not a very pretty picture, and folks are generally so repulsed by it that they cry, “Oh, I don’t know! It’s a mystery! One day we’ll get it.”
But that doesn’t last very long. Soon enough, that mystery is being employed as a logical wildcard, being crammed and shoehorned into whatever theology a person pleases.
As an inscrutible mystery, it should have been a dead-end of logical derivation, but they’ve taken a sledgehammer to the wall, and now anything goes.
By “anything goes,” I’m referring to the endless doctrinal opinions on freedom and sovereignty, across every denomination of the Christian religion, and throughout its history.
Sovereignty Logically Follows from God’s Classical Attributes
First, it’s important to understand that God’s absolute sovereignty really is a “free truth” that proceeds from God’s classical attributes.
Take the following 4 premises as given:
- God is omnipotent.
- God is omniscient (in the classical sense of knowing even the future).
- God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
- God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.
If those premises are given, then we can ask ourselves, “When would God intervene in such a way?”
The answer would be, “Whenever it suits the optimization of his interests — i.e., whenever he pleases.”
We can also ask ourselves, “When would God not intervene in such a way?”
And the answer is the same: “Whenever he pleases.”
Since the answer to both questions is “whenever he pleases,” this means that everything that happens must be a product of his deliberation, in service of his interests. This might include down-the-road interests, or an optimization of incommensurable interests, that generate what Paul calls the “birthing pains” of the ongoing creation.
This is the “sovereign conclusion.”
St. Augustine correctly reasoned this, in Enchiridion, ch. 24:
“This obviously is not true: [The idea that] there is anything that he willed to do and did not do, or, what were worse, [that] he did not do something because man’s will prevented him, the Omnipotent, from doing what he willed. Nothing, therefore, happens unless the Omnipotent wills it to happen. He either allows it to happen or he [directly] causes it to happen.”
And the “foreknowledge is not predestination” complaint doesn’t work here. If those 4 premises are true, there is no functional barrier between foreknowledge and predestination (although they are distinct in the degree to which various divine interests are expressed in time).
Thus, some folks have taken the route of jettisoning the classical attributes of God such that he definitely is not sovereign in the way commonly understood.
This has three perceived payoffs:
- First, this approach allows the picture to cohere (so they think) upon just one of the Bible’s “pictures” above, rather than settling on the ugly hybrid.
- Second, that picture is one in which each of us has an unchained, uncoerced will. We are not fully under God’s control, they suggest; God has some control, and we have some control, and various dark agents have some control. We are the “co-authors of history.”
- Third, it’s extremely useful for theodicy (the reconciliation of God’s attributes with the bad stuff that happens in the world) if God isn’t sovereign.
Initially, they jettison only omniscience. But this doesn’t go far enough because, as it turns out, the sovereign conclusion proceeds also from these 4 premises:
- God is omnipotent.
- God knows everything about the present, but is uncertain about the future.
- God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
- God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.
Thus, Open Theists sometimes feel forced to go even further, usually ditching omnipotence in favor of “weak God” theology, or persuasively redefining omnipotence such that subtlety is “true power.”
(For more about why they’re forced to go that route, watch the following video: “Challenge for Open Theism“.)
I think there are some palatable elements to this approach, but…
Assuming We Don’t Want to Do That…
There’s a robust, complete reconciliation of the first two pictures available to us.
It eluded us for many centuries, because it required discovering and deducing enough about ourselves to get rid of the idea of libertarian free will.
You see, there are, roughly, two kinds of free will.
The first is libertarian free will (which has nothing to do with the political persuasion). This is the idea that a part of us is completely spontaneous or uncaused. Advocates like to say “self-caused,” but nobody knows exactly what that means.
Early Christian theologians were obsessed with libertarian free will, because it was a fountain that seemed to yield so many exciting and stimulative puzzle-like prospects.
And it was taken for granted because — after all — my steps feel like my own.
Origen Adamantius demonstrates the underpinning archaic folk science in his De Principiis, Bk. III:
“Of all things which move, some have the cause of their motion within themselves, others receive it from without: and all those things only are moved from without which are without life, as stones, and pieces of wood, and whatever things are of such a nature as to be held together by the constitution of their matter alone, or of their bodily substance. … Others, again, have the cause of motion in themselves, as animals, or trees, and all things which are held together by natural life or soul; among which some think ought to be classed the veins of metals. Fire, also, is supposed to be the cause of its own motion, and perhaps also springs of water.”
In none of this am I implying that these geniuses were dullards. They were simply working with the tools and body of knowledge to which they had access.
They didn’t understand how the brain works. They didn’t realize that our desires and impulses are driven by complicated machinery of neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters, which are in turn motivated by things as mind-boggling as our genetic programming to things as deceptively mundane as what we had for breakfast.
They had some understanding of these causal contingencies, of course. Obviously they understood that a person can teach another, and mold another, and discipline another, and manipulate another, and threaten another, etc., sufficiently that the other’s mind is altered.
But they held out hope that, no matter how deep we explored into the causal contingencies of our thoughts, there would yet be a blank gap with a nearby signpost, “Here there be libertarian independence.”
Libertarian free will is our “default feeling,” since we cannot sense the emergence of our thoughts from the machinery by which they were created. The fact that others surprise us by their behavior, and we even surprise ourselves, lends even more weight to the default hypothesis.
The problem is that we can’t find libertarian free will anywhere. Furthermore, we don’t even know where to look, because the concept is not articulable.
Slowly but surely, we (in philosophy) began to realize that it’s not a real thing.
And this realization was horrifying. In fact, it was so horrifying, that we (Christians) got stuck on the first stage of grief — denial — and have been, for the most part, stuck there ever since. Even Calvinists, the infamous predestination-pushers of Christianity, often have vestiges of libertarian language and thought.
Why was it horrifying?
- It feels like a new oppressive force is added.
- It seems like there’d be no moral responsibility.
- It appears that we’d no longer make real choices and have no efficacy.
- It is a “dark incubus” that births an existential nightmare by robbing us of our sense of origination.
Note that, in the above bullets, I talked about our feelings, how things seem, how things appear, and what we sense. This was deliberate, because the reality is that all of these things can be overcome.
- First, no new oppressive force has been added. The world has not changed. The rejection of libertarian free will is a “world-rocker” for sure, but we have to be ultra-careful not to let our worlds be over–rocked. I called this mistake “Kochab’s Error” in an earlier post.
- Second, there’s still moral responsibility, because responsibility is not an ethereal bauble that bounces around, looking for its buck-stops-here resting place. Rather, responsibility is a dynamic recognition of causal “nodes” in service of fixing them or encouraging them.
(For more about dynamic responsibility, watch the following video: “Responsibility: Ejecting the Looseful and Keeping the Useful“.)
- Third, we still make real choices, because real choices are simply this: Electing one from a menu of prospective options to actualize. Nothing more magical than that.
- Further, efficacy is retained, because efficacy is simply the fact that what you do causes things to occur accordingly. Nothing more magical than that.
- Finally, our sense of origination can be retained through our individual uniqueness and the increase thereof through recursive self-molding.
19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote:
“I felt as if I was scientifically proved to be the helpless slave of antecedent circumstances, as if my character and that of all others had been formed for us by agencies beyond our control, and was wholly out of our own power…
I pondered painfully on the subject, till gradually I saw light through it… I saw that though our character is formed by circumstances, our own desires can do much to shape those circumstances; and that what is really inspiriting and ennobling in the doctrine of [compatibilistic] free will, is the conviction that we have real power over the formation of our own character; that our will, by influencing some of our circumstances, can modify our future habits or capabilities of willing.
All this was entirely consistent with the doctrine of [antecedent] circumstances, or rather, was that doctrine itself, properly understood.”
That’s the other major kind of free will: Compatibilistic free will.
Compatibilistic Free Will
As the name might suggest, it’s completely compatible with there being a predetermined chain of events. Compatibilistic free will is a semantic revision that extricates the volitional dictionary — things like choice, responsibility, efficacy, and the term “free will” itself — from the libertarian shackles of incoherency that had kept these issues so insanely intractable.
Compatibilism asks us, “When you say free will, what are you saying the will is free from, and to what degree?”
It correctly recognizes that nothing is “free” in a vacuum. You have to be free from something, even if that something is merely implied. For instance, “Buy one, get one free,” really means “Buy one, get one free of charge,” or “of cost.”
And so, we can talk about “free-from-X will, to degree Y” about any oppressor X that we feel is meaningful to us.
“Destiny” is not a meaningful oppressor, because to be divorced from it is nonsensical. But Goliath of Gath could be a meaningful oppressor. Same with Nazi propaganda. Same with other lies, threats, manipulations, coercions, and brainwashings.
These can all constitute very meaningful oppressions of my will, making it “less free” than it would otherwise be.
Once we have a volitional dictionary that “works” with God’s sovereignty, our hybrid picture turns from this monstrosity…
… into this beauty:
We can use “heterophroneo” as a compound term that means “different ways of thinking about things.” This helps capture when non-contradictions nonetheless seem paradoxical due to the different vantage points at play.
- Yes, God is in control. But still, I can talk about in what ways my decisions are efficacious.
- Yes, a man’s steps are not his own. But still, I can talk about my own steps in a subordinate sense (just as I can talk about my own house versus my neighbor’s, though God transcendently owns both).
- Yes, God is benevolent. But still, we can talk about the local “birthing pains” of his creation — sins, disasters, etc. — and put our hope in their being instrumental for an ultimate happy ending. We hold a sacred hope that God will be proved holy and righteous (Isaiah 5:16).
- Yes, God knows what’s going to happen. But still, he can use hypothetical language to convince us to do the right thing, proclaim true (but ungrounded) counterfactuals, and make anthropomorphic statements about having regrets and changing his mind.
What follows are two great examples of heterophroneo from the Bible.
Timen and Atimian
In Romans 9, Paul talked about how Israel was being used for instrumental purposes despite itself.
In service of his thesis that God decides the destinies of the nations, Paul referred to the fact that God ordains the destinies of individuals, even intervening to change them, even to harden their wills.
When his imaginary antagonist asked, “Who, then, can resist his will?,” Paul did not say, “Oh, don’t misunderstand. Of course you can resist his will!”
Rather, Paul launched into a staunch defense of God’s sovereign orchestration of destinies:
“Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?”
You see that “special” and “common”? Those are actually the Greek words timen and atimian; honorable and dishonorable.
It’s important that we recognize this. It’s not about being a hero versus lukewarm. It’s about being a tool of honorable use versus a tool of dishonorable use. Both have purposes. Both have a role to play.
That’s the sovereign perspective.
And then comes the heterophroneo.
Paul repeated the very same language in 2 Timothy — but from the human perspective, wherein we can “cleanse ourselves” and choose which role we’ll adopt.
2 Timothy 2:20-22
“In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special [Gr. timen; honorable] purposes and some for common [Gr. atimian; dishonorable] use. Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special [Gr. timen; honorable] purposes, made holy, useful [Gr. hegiasmenon euchreston; set apart and very profitable] to the Master and prepared to do any good work. Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.”
He was able to do this without contradiction because our decisionmaking is compatible with God’s sovereignty.
The Sins of Joseph’s Brothers
Joseph’s brothers were sick and tired of Joseph and his visionary dreams, wherein those brothers bowed down to him. They were also envious of his coat, a symbol of their father’s favor.
So they attacked him and sold him into bondage.
“So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe — the ornate robe he was wearing — and they took him and threw him into the [empty] cistern. … [And] when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.”
Needless to say, that’s a pretty serious sin. It’s one thing to throw your family members into a cistern, but to then sell them into slavery? Pretty reprehensible. Undoubtedly a sin of malice and unchecked envy.
And then comes the heterophroneo.
Joseph became a ruler and managed a plan to store up food in preparation for a big famine. His brothers came to Egypt seeking a portion, but didn’t recognize Joseph. After messing with his brothers for a while, Joseph finally revealed himself.
“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come close to me.’ When they had done so, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.'”
Did you catch that? God sent Joseph. Did God sin? No, the brothers sinned.
But their sin was the dishonorable instrument — the tool of atimian use — by which God saved his people.
And it’s not as if God just kinda rejiggered his plan to work with what he had. Joseph referenced God’s sovereignty — and counterintuitive tactics — as a way to comfort and relieve his brothers of a measure of guilt, now that they had come to repentance.
And this segues into our final stop.
Why the Heterophroneo?
Heterophroneo can be confusing. At first glance, it looks like a contradiction. As such, it was held as a paradoxical mystery alongside belief in libertarian free will for centuries.
So why would Scripture use it? Because we’re supposed to use it.
Heterophroneo is useful.
The human perspective is good for:
- Recognizing our own wills and dispositions and how they can be turned in various directions.
- Deliberation among multiple imagined prospects.
- Recognizing when we are being subverted, coerced, or exceptionally manipulated by things we consider meaningfully oppressive.
- Assigning responsibility without feeling like we have to do a radical backward reduction. “Talking about your house and my house, even though God owns the universe.”
- Reframing our uncertainty into prospective hopes and fears, and using those vivid images to aid in our decisionmaking. This helps us make choices in better service of our higher-order interests.
The sovereign perspective is good for:
- Humbling ourselves.
- Praising God, and recognizing his attributes (his power, wisdom, dominion, and will).
- Helping us fight through suffering, Elihu-style.
- Taking comfort in God’s grand plan of reconciliation.
- Recognizing over what things we do not have control, and sacrificing that anxiety and uncertainty, converting it to faith in God and his promises.
If an argument is unsound, then the claims it makes do not “follow” even though its premises are true.
For example, if I argue, “If pigs cannot fly, then I am the fastest runner on Earth,” the truth value of “I am the fastest” does not emerge “for free” even if pigs are indeed unable to fly.
I’m going to talk about an unsound argument today. The first written evidence we have of this argument is from St. Augustine of Hippo, the most significant (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse) early theologian of his time (the late 4th and early 5th centuries).
Augustine and Endless Hell
In his Enchiridion, Augustine wrote much about his views of hell. Augustine was a proponent of the doctrine of endless hell, as are most Christians today. (It wouldn’t be very reckless to posit that Augustine was the person most evidently responsible for the ubiquity of belief in the doctrine, as well as the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin.)
In Augustine’s day, however, there were a bunch of Christians who didn’t believe in endless hell. These were genuine Christians who were purgatorialists, in the vein of St. Gregory of Nyssa, which means they believed fully in hell — an agonizing, humiliating, to-be-avoided destination — but that it was a remedial punishment.
(One of three major views in the ancient Church, alongside annihilationism and “endless hell.”)
St. Gregory of Nyssa, “On the Soul and the Resurrection,” 4th century:
“… It will be useless to talk of [the contingency upon earthly failures] then, and to imagine that objections based upon such things can prove God’s power to be impeded in arriving at His end.
His end is one, and one only; it is this: when the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last—some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards in the necessary periods been healed by the Fire… to offer to every one of us participation in the blessings which are in Him, which, the Scripture tells us, “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor thought ever reached.”
… But the difference between the virtuous and the vicious life led at the present time will be illustrated in this way: In the quicker or more tardy participation of each in that promised blessedness. According to the amount of the ingrained wickedness of each will be computed the duration of his cure. This cure consists in the cleansing of his soul, and that cannot be achieved without an excruciating condition, as has been expounded in our previous discussion.”
St. Augustine admitted, in Enchiridion, that there were a great many Christians in his day who were purgatorial universalists like St. Gregory was. He also admitted that they weren’t in outright defiance in Scripture, but opined that their position was driven by soft-hearted “human feelings.”
A purgatorial universalist might ask him, “Why would God blanket-punishment all of the unsaved regardless of their individual infractions?”
Augustine’s answer was that there were a variety of intensities of hell, and that certain folks might get what amounted to “lunch breaks” in hell; “Let them suppose… that for certain intervals in time, the punishments of the damned are somewhat mitigated.”
A purgatorial universalist might ask him, “Why, then, do we pray for the dead, that they might escape a measure of their punishment?” Augustine had some creative eschatology here, and it worked like this:
- Imagine that if you have a “score” of +1 to +10, you’ll be saved.
- If you have a score of -10 to 0, you’ll go to hell forever.
- In life, you merit a score “window” on the bad-good scale like, “-9 to -6,” or “-2 to +2,” or “+7 to +10.”
- Prayers, sacrifices, alms, etc. for the dead could push a person higher in their window.
- If your window wrapped around the midpoint, prayers could potentially push you up into salvation.
- The higher you are, the better off you are, since “hell for -10 people” would be worse than “hell for -1 people.”
“Where they are of value,” Augustine wrote, “their benefit consists either in obtaining a full forgiveness or, at least, in making damnation more tolerable.”
Already, you can probably see how these answers aren’t very satisfying. In my experience, and I think the honest experience even of believers in endless hell, most “creative” formulations of how endless hell might address the difficulties it poses are, indeed, unsatisfying.
Isn’t God, Ultimately, Merciful?
The purgatorial universalist then says, “But Scripture says that he has bound everyone — Jew and Gentile — over to disobedience in order to have mercy on them all (Romans 11:32); he deliberately subjected creation to frustration in the hope of redemption and as part of a creative process (Romans 8:20-22).”
Augustine’s response is that the Bible’s references to God’s ultimate, winning mercy must only be in reference to the few who will be saved from punishment.
This “must” is presented as contingent on the soundness of the following argument, again from his Enchiridion:
“Even so, if they suppose that the text applies to all men, there is no ground for them further to suppose that there can be an end for those of whom it is said, ‘Thus these shall go into eternal punishment.’ Otherwise, it can as well be thought that there will also be an end to the happiness of those of whom the antithesis was said: ‘But the righteous into eternal life.'”
Purgatorial universalists do not translate Heb. olam or Gr. aion/aionios/aionion as “eternal” or “everlasting.” Rather, these words mean “age-pertaining,” often with overtones of significant gravity or broad domain.
This determination proceeds from the variety of olams in the Bible that do not refer to everlasting things, and from the fact that many of these olams are brought across, in the Greek Septuagint, as aion/aionios/aionion.
A few examples:
Isaiah 63:11 (portion)
- From Hebrew: “His people of Moses of the old [Heb. olam] days, he remembered.”
- From Septuagint: “And he remembered days of old [Gr. aionion]; the bringing up from the land the shepherd of the sheep.”
Genesis 6:4 (portion)
- From Hebrew: “In those days in the earth were Nephilim, renowned men of old [Heb. olam], mighty men.”
- From Septuagint: “Those were giants, ones from the eon [Gr. aionos], renowned men.”
Isaiah 42:14 (portion)
- From Hebrew: “I have been still for a length [Heb. olam], held my peace.”
- From Septuagint: “I kept silent from the eon [Gr. aionos], shall I also continually keep silent and endure?”
Here’s the unfortunate reality: Because belief in endless hell is nearly universal among Christians, and has been so for 15 centuries, tertiary translations of the Bible feel no impetus to keep their olams and aions vague; when it comes to the kolasin aionion, they nearly all read, “everlasting punishment.”
But not all translations do this. For example, the literal translations of Young and Weymouth are careful to temper themselves on the issue.
Compare Matthew 25:46 from the NIV, from Young’s Literal, and from Weymouth’s Literal:
- (NIV) “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
- (Young’s Literal) “And these shall go away to punishment age-during, but the righteous to life age-during.”
- (Weymouth’s Literal) “And these shall go away into the Punishment of the Ages, but the righteous into the Life of the Ages.”
At this point, even staunch believers in endless hell generally admit that the “everlasting” or “eternal” translation is a bit reckless. But they are quick to invoke Augustine’s above argument.
So, without begging the aion question, is Augustine’s argument sound? Does this same-sentence comparison show us that the kolasin and zoen must be of equal time duration?
Can’t Beg That Question? Can’t Reach That Conclusion.
Imagine that “aionion” meant “intense,” just for a moment.
The verse would read,
- “Then they will go away to intense punishment, but the righteous to intense life.”
Would we then argue that the punishment and life must be equal in time duration? No. We’d say, “This verse says they are both intense. It does not say that they are of equal time duration.”
Imagine that “aionion” meant “astounding,” just for a moment.
The verse would read,
“Then they will go away to astounding punishment, but the righteous to astounding life.”
Would we then argue that the punishment and life must be equal in time duration? No. We’d say, “This verse says they are both astounding. It does not say that they are of equal time duration.”
Imagine that “aionion” meant “divine,” just for a moment.
The verse would read,
“Then they will go away to divine punishment, but the righteous to divine life.”
Would we then argue that the punishment and life must be equal in time duration? No. We’d say, “This verse says they are both divine. It does not say that they are of equal time duration.”
Now let’s use “aionion” how it ought to be prudently rendered: “age-pertaining.”
“Then they will go away to punishment of the ages, but the righteous to life of the ages.”
Should a person argue that the punishment and life must be equal in time duration? No. We should say, “This verse says they are both pertaining to ages; it may simply mean that they will both last a long time (finite in one case, infinite in the other). Or maybe it has nothing to do with duration, and simply means that both will take place at the consummation of the ages, the age to come after the general resurrection. Or perhaps it refers to the aionios zoe of the Kingdom of God, the age under which its subjects finally come to know the Father and his Son (John 17:3) and where the self-righteous hold-outs are excluded (Matthew 21:31-32). In any case, it does not suggest that they are of equal time duration.”
Put Very Simply
Here’s a very simple way to understand what’s going on here.
- (1) Given: X has the property A, and Y has the property A.
- (2) Given: X has the property B as well.
- (3) Question: Does that mean that A = B?
- (4) Question: Does that mean Y has the property B?
The answer to both questions is, “No way!”
“Y has the property B” if and only if we have “A = B” as a given.
Thus, Augustine’s argument is unsound, as are unsound all modern repetitions of his argument.
“I Believe the Bible over Xs, Ys, As, & Bs”
Okay. Here’s proof, straight from the Bible, that “forever-ness” does not “pop out” of olam parallelism.
- “He stood and surveyed the earth; he beheld and drove the nations asunder; the everlasting (adah) mountains were scattered, the olam hills bowed low; His ways are olam!”
Keep reading that verse, noble Augustine, until the unsoundness of the argument is ascertained.
(For another exercise that demonstrates this unsoundness, see “The Gift Game & Prudent Hermeneutics.”)
Let’s learn the Mountain Game! It’s the hottest board game around.
The Mountain Game board looks like this:
Its rules are as follows:
- You begin at [START HERE]. This is the “start.”
- You advance upward, one space at a time.
- You must follow all given instructions on visited spaces.
- If you modify the board — or break the rules, or change the rules — of the Mountain Game, including by means of whatever creative semantic or temporal trickery, you lose. That is, there is a “modal spy helicopter” that “sees” any attempt to change the game and declares “This now a different game” upon “seeing” that modification.
A Mountain Game is any challenge defined by the fact that it cannot be met. If someone claims they have won a Mountain Game, you know for 100% certain that they are lying, no matter how powerful they are or what freedom they claim to have.
In pure consequentialism, an act is morally right if it produces results that represent an optimization of what is valued (whatever that is).
All statements of “should” or “ought” are built from two inputs:
- “What is valued?,” i.e., “What is the goal, interest, or desire (or set thereof) to which I’m acting in service?” and
- “For each prospective course of action, what will happen as a result?”
So we have our circles (input values or goals) and our squares (how things work). These always resolve into rounded rectangles (moral statements under consequentialism, e.g., “It is right to do X,” “I should do X,” “X is justified,” “X is correct,” “X is praiseworthy,” “Y is wrong,” “Y is suboptimal,” etc.).
Our Problem: We Are Numbskulls
The thing is, our squares are ill-defined. We may never have perfect squares because observations about the mechanics of the world, in general and in specific instances, may never be completely accurate.
And because the world is chaotic (that is, rather orderly, but nonetheless incalculably complicated), our faculties of foresight are dramatically limited.
We can’t even predict the weather accurately more than 3 days out. How much more terrible are we at predicting the effects of our actions on human behavior, including our own behavior?
We not only recognize that we don’t know that much about how the world works, but we simultaneously recognize that this ignorance leads to unintended consequences all the time.
We respect this intuitively, and we account for it in our decisionmaking.
Our Solution: Humility and Recognition of Uncertainty
Just as businesses account for risk in their decisionmaking, we individuals make intuitive attempts at accounting for risk. We recognize that our squares are severely crippled, and so many of our “shoulds” are loaded with qualifiers like “probably” and “maybe.”
For this reason, we say that pure consequentialism is impractical. We adopt some diluted form of consequentialism that recognizes our imperfect understanding of the world and the dramatic impact that imperfection has on our ability to predict the full consequences of our actions.
This includes even moral templates that allow for rules; it allows us to say that blanket, imperfect social laws may sometimes and in some places be required to correct for subjective error and individual stupidity.
So even as consequentialists, we reject pure consequentialism on the grounds that we are dummies. We humble ourselves below the status of omniscient beings because we know we aren’t.
See this post for an introduction to this concept, called “The Angelic Ladder.” We are “Near-Proles”; we are not completely stupid and blind to consequences, but we are pretty stupid, and pretty blind to consequences.
Loaded Moral Dilemmas
So, here’s the trick that many thought experiments pull:
- They set up a situation that tests your decisionmaking in a consequential context.
- They then give you some measure of implausible omniscience, e.g., “You know for absolute certain that pushing the fat man in front of the train will derail it, and that the train is certainly empty, and that the derailed train will not hurt the group of people you’re trying to save.”
- They then watch as you squirm with the anxiety of being an “omniscient prole,” where you’re struggling to reconcile your learned, intuitive, hammered-in humility with the new God-power you’ve been granted by the situation.
The thought experiment wants you to think that it’s demonstrating that consequentialism is an incomplete description of morality and needs additional deontological (“morality is all about rules”) magic. But all it’s actually doing is showing that we are intuitively averse to pure consequentialism because we know we’re so limited.
In other words, morality isn’t some same-level hybrid of consequentialism and deontology. That’s something a lot of people think and something with which a lot of people struggle.
Rather, morality is consequential, but due to our limited faculties of foresight and understanding, we find it useful to employ bits of subordinate deontology.
I’ll again link you to the previous post on the subject, “The Angelic Ladder,” which serves as a primer to “rules under consequentialism.”
Dealing with Loadedness
If someone asks you, “Are you a piece of garbage, or do you just smell like one?,” how should you respond? No, don’t punch them in the face. Rather, choose one of the following options:
- Indict the loadedness. “That’s a loaded question so I refuse to respond.”
- Unload the question. “I am neither a piece of garbage, nor do I smell like one.”
Similarly, if someone gives you a moral dilemma loaded with implausible omniscience, either are fine:
- Indict the loadedness. “That situation gives me implausible omniscience which ungrounds us completely, so I’m not going to respond as if my answer would reveal anything morally significant.”
- Unload the situation. “I wouldn’t fathom that the man’s body would be able to derail the train, would worry that the train would contain passengers I’d put at risk, and would be concerned that a derailed train might hurt the very group I’d like to save. Sorry. Real situations are addled with uncertainty.”
(It so happens that if we’re dealing with a moral situation with low uncertainty and non-competing interests, then the more grounded that moral dilemma is, the easier it is to answer confidently.)