Potentially Bad Philosophy
Quietude might be described as as figuring out under what odd conditions it might be good to question some of our most trustworthy guides in philosophy and theology.
This is dangerous stuff, because we depend on those guides. We rely on their investment of (life)time, their investment of contentious discourse, and we take advantage of their brainpower. We stand on their shoulders. So when we choose to hop off their shoulders (or more commonly, hop onto another giant’s shoulders), we’d better have a good reason.
After we invest our trust in a person, concept (meme), or family of concepts (memeplex), it’s tough to make us leave. The speedbump we felt on the way “in” grows into a wall against going back “out.”
The feeling there is “incredulity.” As Manowar‘s 1987 heavy metal song “Carry On” claims, “100,000 riders! We can’t all be wrong!”
To keep incredulity in check, we ask, “When might even 100,000 heavy metal fans be wrong?” or more to the point, “When might dozens of brilliant philosophers be relying on fundamentally poor metaphysics?” What memetic “forces” could entrap even the otherwise trustworthy? When should we row against the current?
We talked before about logical Wildcards. Any concept that has “vivid ambiguity” can be used, deliberately or not, to “bridge-make” (jump to conclusions that don’t really follow) and “bridge-break” (make legitimate conclusions seem like they don’t follow).
But this doesn’t just happen in isolated moments and stop there. Anything “useful” can stick and spread. This includes “Monkey’s Paw useful,” granting immediate wishes at a hidden, horrifying downstream cost.
Furthermore, that downstream cost may be “confusion, and the chatter it causes.” While we’d call this a “cost” in terms of what we consider praiseworthy and constructive, it is not a memetic cost, it is a memetic benefit.
That’s because this chatter boosts surfacing. It’s hard to hear Quiet folks.
The rhetorical utility of vivid ambiguity, combined with its natural self-surfacing, becomes a Wildcard-fueled memetic engine:
A Potential Problem
An example of the above pattern may be the philosophical concept of Aristotelian potentiality.
I’ve said before that I don’t think it’s possible to confront Wildcards directly (see the bottom-right gray box, above). All we can do is consider alternatives and try them on for size. Last time we did this with metaethics. Today it’s potentiality.
We read in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“… Another key Aristotelian distinction [is] that between potentiality (dunamis) and actuality (entelecheia or energeia)… a dunamis in this sense is not a thing’s power to produce a change but rather its capacity to be in a different and more completed state. Aristotle thinks that potentiality so understood is indefinable, claiming that the general idea can be grasped from a consideration of cases. Actuality is to potentiality, Aristotle tells us, as ‘someone waking is to someone sleeping, as someone seeing is to a sighted person with his eyes closed, as that which has been shaped out of some matter is to the matter from which it has been shaped.’
This last illustration is particularly illuminating. Consider, for example, a piece of wood, which can be carved or shaped into a table or into a bowl. In Aristotle’s terminology, the wood has (at least) two different potentialities, since it is potentially a table and also potentially a bowl.”
(I’m not going to summarize the above so you’ll have to read it.)
This Aristotelian perspective, whereby potentiality in a sense ‘lives’ within an object, is widespread in classical Christian theology and reverberates even in modern modal analytic philosophy. But I suspect it may just be a poor (but intuitive!) way of expressing prospective imagination. I’ll show you what I mean, and why the Aristotelian sense doesn’t fit nicely with a couple examples (which in turn expose the inconsistency of the language games we play).
I can look at a quarry and imagine the potential of building a cathedral using its stone. But if we allow the test of “potential or not” to include every other requirement for cathedral assembly (including laborers to work the quarry and adequate incentives to motivate them), then it doesn’t seem so natural to say that some rock formation has such potential, in isolation. It needs help. Reductively, nothing happens unless the universe helps, including all prior states of the universe up to that point, in a cosmic help-funnel of “efficacious Grace” concluding at that final capstone. This is not simply universal reliance on some Unmoved Mover; this is, “potentiality is not real.”
In other words, in a universe empty of sculptors, but replete with rocks, no rock has potential to be sculpted. It is only when we grant the antecedent “but if there were sculptors” that its potential suddenly “is there.”
This is not real stuff. Rather, potentiality is simply a roundabout, yet shorthand way of conjoining a fact or object X with a set of antecedents, imaginary or not, which as a group are sufficient for some consequent Y. And then we utter, “X has the potential for Y.”
Aristotelian Potentiality’s Payoff
Whenever widespread language and intuitive conceptualization is imprecise in this way, we’d expect a sensible explanation for it — a rational reason why the irrational description has memetic resilience and virulence (sticky and spready).
The answer is that we’re very sub-omniscient. We don’t know very many of the facts “God knows,” so to speak. And we therefore treat the unknowns as “possible worlds,” leaning on the “holodecks of our imaginations” to narrow the focus of our prospect-seeking. This helps us avoid the anxiety of “analysis paralysis,” which is handy because, of course, the early bird gets the worm.
It should be noted that well-developed spatiotemporal faculties may be a prerequisite for using this “visual” approach to handling evaluation of contingency and consistency given uncertainty. Some studies suggest that children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, while just as capable as others in handling counterfactuals, take different strategies to evaluate them, preferring lists of facts and their contingent relationships vs. “holodeck stories.” However, as they age they acquire skill in both.
Aristotelian Potentiality’s Discomfiture
One way to expose the irrealism of Aristotelian potential is to apply it to that which is real and closed, and find it doing conflicting things; examples where it clearly “ain’t right.”
“Sea Peoples Potential”
Consider the sentence, “The Sea Peoples who invaded Egypt in the 12th century B.C. could’ve been Aegeans.” We say “could’ve” here when we know the answer is fixed, but simply unknown. And therefore there’s a sense of “potentiality” even when it’s obvious the Sea Peoples have already come and gone, and were who-they-were.
“Fallen Coin Potential”
Another example is, “The coin could‘ve landed tails, but it landed heads.” We say “could’ve” here, and retrospectively invoke the sense of potentiality we felt 5 seconds ago, prior to the flip, when the result was unknown, and therefore probabilistic. We say this even though the result of the flip was deterministic, the fixed result of chunky kinetic forces* we humans have trouble tracking.
Put another way: “Deterministic results couldn’t be other than what they were; so why/when do we give them probabilities anyway? How on Earth do we get away with saying both ‘couldn’t’ and ‘could’ve’ about them?” These questions now have simple answers.
* (If needed, imagine the coin flip in a virtual simulated environment, to control for “quantum” or “free will” factors.)
I affirm the finding of a number of early 20th century philosophers that metaphysics comes down to language. It’s often buggy. These bugs sometimes foster tiny, sneaky non sequiturs that let astounding conclusions pop forth. Unless trained against these, even brilliant people are more likely to shout “Eureka!” than “Error!”
This phenomenon creates a memetic incentive to unknowingly exploit, and tendency to inherit, buggy metaphysical concepts (because we trust tradition and the brilliant, renowned people who pass it along). I suspect Aristotelian potentiality is such a thing.
- To explore how open language is compatible with a closed past, present, and future, read “Schrödinger’s Cup: A Closed Future of Possibilities.”
Does Universal Reconciliation Destroy Free Will?
Last summer, we talked about how the claim, “If universal reconciliation (like through purgatorial hell) were certain, then free will would be destroyed,” reveals the incoherence of libertarian notions of free will.
At that time, I gave brief support to a direct rebuttal. That wasn’t really the primary thesis, though; the primary thesis was that “this whole thing” served as a good red flag “alert” that libertarian free will is just a logical wildcard (useful in rhetoric and conceptually-evocative, but mostly incoherent and ultimately confusing).
It turns out, however, that this rebuttal wasn’t very well-crafted, and I needed to do a better job of showing clearly why that original claim is false.
Hopefully I can do that irrespective of what kind of “free will” we’re talking about or in which we believe.
In this thought experiment, we’re going to pretend that Patricia is the only human being. God created Patricia and called it done. Patricia is the whole of the human race.
Patricia sins and undergoes the Fall, and is in need of reconciliation. To accept God’s offer of reconciliation, she must exert her “free will,” whatever that might mean. But she hasn’t done it yet.
God turns to an angel and declares, “Patricia will eventually be reconciled.”
One of the following must be true:
- God’s has knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation, and this has destroyed her “free will.”
- God’s has knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation, and this has not destroyed her “free will.”
- God doesn’t have knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation; he’s just guessing or hoping.
I think most Christians (who aren’t Open Theists) would bank on option #2: God’s knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation has no effect on her freedom or lack thereof.
In this next thought experiment, we’ll pretend that Patricia and Patrick are the only human beings. They Fall, they need reconciliation, and they must exert their “free wills” to accept it.
God turns to an angel and declares, “Both Patricia and Patrick will eventually be reconciled.”
Again, one of the following must be true:
- God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of both Patricia and Patrick, and this has destroyed their “free will.”
- God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of both Patricia and Patrick, and this has not destroyed their “free will.”
- God doesn’t have knowledge of their eventual reconciliation; he’s just guessing or hoping.
That Christian from the previous thought experiment, who banked on option #2, has no justifiable reason to change his mind here. Adding a second individual changes nothing.
The trick, of course, is that God’s statements were statements of universal reconciliation in both thought experiments.
And we can just keep adding people to the thought experiment — adding Adam, Eve, Tatum, Steve, Theresa, Bree, you, me — until we arrive at the total real population of human souls.
Thus, if you’re the sort of Christian who believes that God’s knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of a particular individual does not destroy “free will,” then you’re burdened to also believe that God’s knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of everyone — if he had such knowledge — would likewise not destroy “free will.”
This argument should work no matter what you mean by “free will,” as long as you’re a “Green Christian.”
Even Vague Promises are Promises
But what if you’re not a “Green Christian?” What if you’re an “Orange Christian?”
(In this case, you’d probably be an Open Theist; you deny God’s certainty of future will-contingent events.)
Let’s revisit the second thought experiment, the one with both Patricia and Patrick.
This time, though, God turns to an angel and declares, “One of these two will eventually be reconciled; the other will never be reconciled.”
In this case, where no specific declaration is made about the destination of any particular individual, the options mutate slightly. We find that one of the following must be true:
- God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of at least one person, and this has destroyed the “free will” of both Patricia and Patrick.
- God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of at least one person, and this has not destroyed the “free will” of both Patricia and Patrick.
- God doesn’t have knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of at least one person; he’s just guessing or hoping.
Option #3 doesn’t seem so bad with only Patricia and Patrick in play.
But when we add the rest of humanity into the thought experiment — Adam, Eve, Tatum, Steve, Theresa, Bree, you, me — option #3 remains annoyingly unchanged.
In other words, for “Orange Christians,” God isn’t sure that even one person will be reconciled. It may be that, in the end, literally everybody will (in exercise of their “free will”) spurn God at the last moment.
He can play the odds, of course. “What are the chances,” a future-uncertain God might ask, “that everyone will duck out at the last moment? Pretty slim!”
But it remains possible under that paradigm. The final apocalyptic expectation may be a disaster. The New Jerusalem may be empty of citizenry.
Put simply, under option #3, God supplied us with vivid promises, and there’s a possibility that he may be proven a liar.
Either Bail Out…
That “liar possibility” is a reductio ad absurdum against option #3.
If we don’t think there’s any chance that the City will be empty — if our confidence in God’s revelatory imagery is more than just “he’s pretty dang sure some folks will make it” — then option #3 must be rejected (in favor of, say, option #2).
And if option #2 is accepted, then one is burdened to admit that God’s knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of everyone — if he had such knowledge — would not destroy “free will.”
… Or Bite the Bullet
If a person does not “bail out” of option #3, then they must bite the bullet on the possibility of a complete eschatological failure of God’s plan.
“But that’s so implausible as to be silly,” such a person might say.
But now the trap is sprung; any “probability against” this silly result can be employed as “probability against” a failure of universal reconciliation (by, say, an Open Theist who believes in universal reconciliation).
Put another way, under Open Theism, the contradictory force of universal reconciliation vs. “free will” is equal to the contradictory force of “at least somebody will be reconciled” vs. “free will.”
That is, “an infinitesimally insignificant amount of contradictory force.”
If you’re a person who asserts option #1, then there’s no “free will” regardless of whether universal reconciliation is true. As such, universal reconciliation represents no “additional invalidating power” against “free will.”
Otherwise, you’re left with either option #2 or option #3. Whichever of these other routes you take, a confidence in universal reconciliation can coexist with “free will” — regardless of how you define “free will.”
- For those of us who believe God knows the future with certainty, that confidence can be a complete confidence, and “free will” remains undestroyed.
- Under Open Theism, that confidence can be a near-complete confidence — akin to the confidence one has that at least somebody will be reconciled — and “free will” remains undestroyed.
- We can use Compatibilism — through the “heterophroneo” — to reconcile Scripture’s statements on sovereignty and freedom.
- For a big primer on purgatorialism, see the Purgatorial Hell FAQ. Included is additional discussion of free will, and how incoherent views of free will can allow “modal scope fallacies” to emerge.
Appellate Prayer, Sovereignty, and Superstition
For us Christians who believe in absolute sovereignty in the classical sense — that is, a God with an optimal predetermined plan for everything — we see appellate prayer not as a way to derail God’s plan of action, but to express ourselves and establish a conduit by which a communicative connection can be made between ourselves and God.
1 John 5:14
“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.”
That is, when we pray for something in service of his will, and that thing comes to pass in startlingly, apparently significant ways, it’s not as if we think those prayers surprised or jarred God into action.
With All of Our Hearts
We who reject such a “surprising God” paradigm say instead that, by praying for something, we engage in two important Graces.
First, we’re given a release to express our tensile poverties and weaknesses.
“The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Second, we’re establishing a “flagpost A,” and when the thing comes to pass as “flagpost B,” we ostensibly have communicative evidence and, as such, appellate prayer is a vital “faith-helper.”
Jeremiah 20:13, 33:3
“[To the exiles in Babylon:] You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. … Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.”
1 Chronicles 16:11
“Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.”
That’s what it means to say that God answers prayer, even while being completely sovereign (in the classical sense) and non-contingent. This is also why we echo Christ and say in our hearts to the Father, after every appeal, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.”
We temper and humble ourselves also because we know that we’re really bad at asking for what we really need.
Sometimes this is due to selfishness, but other times it’s merely due to our woefully volatile and corrupt interest sets, combined with our pathetic faculties of discernment and foresight.
“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions… Come near to God and he will come near to you.”
As a result, “Flagpost B,” is very often completely unexpected, very often shrewdly timed, and very often startlingly profound, because the Spirit transforms our subpar vocalizations into secret prayers that conform to the Father’s sovereign will.
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”
With All of Our Minds
At the same time, if we’re to have the kind of faith that is reasonable, we have to be self-critical and temper our faith with careful scrutiny.
It’s all-too-easy to go from what we Christians consider healthy faith into destructive superstition, over-attributing every little thing to miraculous divine intervention. You’ve seen this happen when reckless Christians claim God’s miraculous stamp of approval for every decision they make, and when certain Christians, like modern-day Dr. Panglosses, arrogantly and sinfully make false prophesies about the specific reasons for natural disasters and the like.
We have all sorts of skeptic’s considerations to keep our judgments prudently humble which we must diligently employ.
- Littlewood’s Law. Given enough time, weird stuff is bound to happen naturally and without discernible purpose. (Be careful with this one; “enough” is an ungrounded antecedent.)
- Confirmation bias. We tend to recklessly rush to conclusions when we’d prefer them to be true.
- Placebo. Thoughts and attitudes can have recursive psychological and physiological effects on ourselves. This isn’t inherently bad or good; there are healthy and unhealthy ways that this can affect us.
That said, there may come a threshold, in an individual’s experience, after this healthy scrutiny, at which it can be reasonable to conclude “God.”
Counterintuitively, this can be reasonable even if God doesn’t exist or doesn’t answer prayer. Reason (in the Kantian sense) proceeds from fully-considered experience tempered by fully-employed logic, and is not synonymous with “truth,” because an appeal is made to an individual’s corrupt faculties of observation and contemplation.
At the same time, we’re not Solipsists in practice, and so we come to conclusions given imperfect evidence. We do our best prep, then make our best guess. Relentless skepticism is not a religion, but relentless skepticism risks an opportunity cost, just like any religion.
Between Heart and Mind
Prayer is our tether to an interactive God, who is nonetheless “He Who Is Unseen.” It’s a prerequisite for reasonable faith, essential for genuine humility, and a conduit to unload our anxieties to he who is in complete control of the global situation.
But his activity is subtle and shrewd, and the wisdom underpinning it — beyond human understanding or dissection — warrants humble, diligent seeking and sifting, and not reckless prophesying.