As we’ve talked about before on this blog, the determination or judgment of a right decision — a “should” — is made up of what is valued (preferences, interests, goals, etc.) and what thing(s) would happen as a result of various decisions.Both of the above pieces are required.
- If you’re not looking at prospective results, you’ll have nothing to gauge.
- If you’re not looking at what is valued — at least implicitly — then you’ll have no metric (like weighing a bowl of cereal without any reference to “grams” or “ounces”).
The following illustrates how goofy it is to weigh things while lacking one or the other:
This isn’t some stretched analogy, as if this double contingency is a requirement for cereal-weighing but not for decision-gauging. Try to build a decisionmaking A.I. without both of these. It can’t be done without building a pure deontological A.I. (what’s called an “expert system,” which blindly follows a pile of “If this do that” rules).
Most of us understand that prospects are important. Unfortunately, we forget that the value definition is equally as important. It’s just that we normally define that value implicitly and ambiguously — it’s usually some vague amalgamation of things like happiness, satisfaction, contentment, fulfilled aspiration, liberty, delight, and nonsuffering.
That we think these things are “good” does not require some ultimately rational appeal. In fact, if we go groping for a rational “justification” for “liking satisfaction,” we’ll end up making appeals endlessly. That’s because each value justification must, in turn, have a justifying value, giving us a disaster like this:
The Funny Solution
The strange, unsatisfying solution is to admit that our decision judgments, while containing rational and objective components (“What thing(s) would result?”), also necessarily contain non-rational parts that represent values we “just have.”
You could say that they’re “part of us” or “part of our nature,” but because we’re causal and contingent and mutable beings, we have to remember that “who we are” is dynamic and can change.
So, at the end of the day, we’re stuck with this: There’s stuff we just like, and some of it can be changed, and some of it can’t, and it cannot be ultimately rationally justified.
It’s — ultimately — non-rational.
Is That Biblical?
Ecclesiastes tells us that there is no ultimately objective meaning, and that this is an “upright and true” teaching.
We dealt with this before:
- Part 1: Ecclesiastes and Non-Objective Meaning
- Part 2: Christus Victor: Existentialism Faces Eternity
But the fact of the Bible teaching us about a certain philosophy does not mean that this philosophy is useful to us as we develop and criticize theology. It might just be a ball-and-chain we must “endure.”
In my experience, this is one of the most common reactions to the Bible’s existential view of meaning.
“Sure, the Bible says it,” one might admit. “But all that means is that we’re now burdened to deal with this sad, useless, but true philosophy.”
But what if the non-rational basis of value was theologically useful? What if the Bible told about the ultimate non-rationality of meaning not just to burden us, but to help solve some of our most vexing problems when thinking about God, his will, and his plan?
It’s Theologically Useful
The essential non-rationality of meaning serves as a reduction–stopper, which aids us significantly toward solve questions of God’s interests, theodicean problems, and maintaining the difference between God’s direct and indirect orchestration.
Let’s talk about two examples of reduction–stopping that we employ for the every-day concepts of:
- Appreciating pets
- Recognizing altruism
I know that my dog is material. He is a complicated machine, a collection or colony of cells.
In turn, those cells are colonies of organic molecules, which are in turn bundles of atoms. My dog is, thus, a bundle of atoms when we fully reduce.
I also know that a dirty napkin is also, at its fundamental level, a bundle of atoms when we fully reduce.
Given these facts, are these my only two options?:
- Treat my dog and a dirty napkin equivalently
- Deny that they are both, ultimately, collections of atoms
No, of course not.
The third option is reduction–stopping.
I love my dog. I interact with him, and like doing that. He does all sorts of things that resonate with me, in good ways and bad. He keeps me occupied and energized and satisfied.
A dirty napkin, by contrast, cannot do those things I like.
As such, I can stop that radical reduction as it suits my interests, and proclaim, “My dog is quite meaningfully different from this dirty napkin.”
Where did that meaning come from? My interests. Do I need to justify those interests? No; such a justification is ultimately impossible (as we discussed), and it’s moot. The fact is that I have those interests and, as such, a meaningful distinction is appreciated.
There are selfish motivations and altruistic motivations.
But I know that even altruistic motivations are driven by my own interests. In a very real sense, even sacrificing my life is an egoistic act, since it is a product of self-satisfaction, where the part of myself interested in preserving others is taking control over that of which is interested in preserving myself — but it’s still my interest!
Some folks say, then, that we can practice “eliminative egoism” and call all willed actions “selfish.”
But do we have to do this?
No, because we are also interested in a meaningful difference between actions that are grossly in self-service, often at the expense of others, versus those that overflowingly serve others!
It’s true that both are merely “actions in the world” and that both “proceed from self’s interests in the self’s brain,” but we appreciate the difference such that we stop that reduction, and proclaim, “Some actions are selfish, others altruistic.”
Direct and Indirect Orchestration
Those of us who “bite the bullet” on God’s complete sovereignty realize the difficulty in admitting that God is superordinately responsible for the “bad stuff” — Heb. raah.
We take some comfort in the fact that, when we parse out the different senses of “wanting” and “willing,” God creates evil only in one very limited and special sense, and does not create it in the 5 other, more common senses.
We talked about this a few weeks ago in the following article:
But even if we accept this approach (and I think we should), there’s still a problem of the reduction of orchestration. After all, the above argument only “works” if God finds value in being “hands off” — that he loves his creation, but prefers that it develop mostly naturally, in a “chaotic garden bloom” of emergence.
This yields the “bloom vestiges” of trivialities and non-instrumental evils (or, instrumental, but only insofar as it satisfies that “mostly hands-off” interest). It also explains God’s preference to remain invisible but be sought, explains his indirection through prophets and the like, and syncs-up very well with Scripture’s holistic picture of God’s activity (which, as it so happens, doesn’t involve a high frequency of public miracles).
But what’s the difference, if God ultimately orchestrates it all?
After all, under this theory, God set up the initial “rules,” as well as the initial conditions, of the “garden.” His sovereign “paint” covers the Earth and, as such, even indirect products of his plan can be reduced to “it was up to him.”
In other words, direct action and indirect actions (often through what’s termed “permissive will”) can both be reduced to “orchestration,” like how a napkin and my dog can both be reduced to “a bundle of atoms.”
This is where God “just preferring” to be mostly hands-off becomes useful. When we don’t require some ultimately rational justification for that interest — which, again, is impossible — this frees us to say, “God just prefers it.”
And this serves as our reduction–stopper.
God’s omniscience and omnipotence know no boundaries, and as such, his sovereign plan encompasses everything.
But just as God can appreciate the difference between a napkin vs. a dog according to his interests, and altruistic motivation vs. selfish motivation according to his interests, he can also appreciate direct intervention vs. indirect teleology according to his interests.
What a payoff! The “non-rational” foundation of meaning empowers reduction–stopping in all three cases.
By biting the bullet on the impossibility of “ultimately rational meaning,” a truth the Bible teaches anyway, we’re no longer (as theologians trying to understand and share the reality of God) burdened to justify — in an “ultimately rational” way — the point at which a reduction is halted.
And this allows us to say, “God is mostly hands-off because that’s what he prefers. And this preference, alongside his other interests (like to intervene when absolutely vital), yields everything that comes to pass.”
This topic was later revisited, in a grander form, in “The Sun Also Rises (or, the Heterophroneo of Everything).”
It’s notoriously difficult to show that an incoherent concept is incoherent, particularly because such a concept nonetheless sparks images and real meaning in our minds.
Incoherent concepts also have rhetorical utility, so those who wield them are afraid to give them up. This loss-aversion creates an extra barrier to understanding that incoherence.
In an earlier post, I called these things “logical wildcards” and showed, in the abstract, how irritatingly useful they can be. Like a KFC Double Down, they’re delicious in the lower-order/short-term but deleterious in the higher-order/long-term.
In that previous article, I talked about how logical wildcards can serve as “bridge-makers” and “bridge-breakers.”
- Bridge-makers: Concepts that link premises to a conclusion when that conclusion should be a non sequitur. Especially useful when we desperately want something that we believe true to be provably true.
- Bridge-breakers: Concepts that serve only to deny the link from premises to a conclusion. Especially useful when benign premises lead to difficult conclusions. Difficulty makes us sad.
Bridge-making and bridge-breaking, however, may have side-effects.
- When you bridge-make, you may — as a side-effect — yield conclusions that obviously shouldn’t be connected to those premises.
- When you bridge-break, you may — as a side-effect — posit a statement of “X makes Y impossible” that doesn’t actually make any sense.
When these two things happen, it’s an excellent red flag that the original concept that allowed that bridge-breaking or bridge-making was incoherent to begin with.
I believe, once these patterns are recognized in the abstract, this can serve as our most effective weapon against incoherent concepts.
Purgatorialism vs. Libertarian Free Will
One of the best examples of this comes up when we discuss purgatorialism.
Purgatorialism says that hell is purgatorial rather than endless, and eventually all will be reconciled.
Wrote St. Gregory of Nyssa, the most eloquent purgatorialist in the early Church:
“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.”
Libertarian free will is the vague notion that our decisions somehow lack external origination.
To protect this “self-origination” — usually out of a mistaken view that it is required for ascription of responsibility — “Open” fans of libertarian free will posit that no decision of man can be completely predicted, even by God himself. The “non-Open” folk will say that God can foreknow, but not predetermine.
Now, under purgatorialism, if GIVEN that God’s willed end is a full reconciliation, and GIVEN an omnipotence shall meet his willed ends eventually, there logically follows a 100% certain prediction that everyone will eventually choose God, even if after a purgatorial hell.
Uh oh! That’s a problem. “Open” fans of libertarian free will cannot tolerate a 100% certain prediction with regard to the choices of man. And “non-Open” fans of libertarian free will who deny purgatorialism cannot tolerate a blanket eventual destiny — something about that reconciliatory hope is bleakly oppressive to them.
So, the argument goes, “Purgatorialism must be false because it would destroy libertarian free will.”
Here’s the rhetorical question:
- Why on Earth would the manner in which we make decisions make an eventual universal reconciliation impossible? Through what mechanism or tether would this be the case?
The answer to this rhetorical question is:
- There is no such mechanism or tether.
And this is a huge red flag for the incoherence of libertarian free will.
(Any deterministic paradigm, by contrast, has such a tether: The “domino chain” serves that role.)
Is the Prediction the Problem?
The stalwart, “Open” libertarian free will fan might say, “All this means is that God can’t make the prediction with certainty. Purgatorialism may be true, but not even God knows whether it’s true.”
They forget that this collapses into, “God cannot predict with certainty that anyone will be saved, nor can he say that anyone will be punished.” For “a mix will come to pass” is also a prediction made with certainty, and is ostensibly defiable by libertarian free will.
Any predictive prophecy, if given as “certain to happen eventually,” precludes libertarian free will if the fulfillment thereof could be delayed or affected by decisions of people, even if that prophecy is, “Some will be saved, others will be punished.”
This is the “mix problem” of prophecy + “Open” libertarian free will. We’d like to think that only sweeping proclamations would invalidate libertarian free will. But “Some will X, some will Y” has the same invalidating strength.
The response ought not be to rack one’s brain for a creative salvage of libertarian free will.
The simple response is, “This incoherent concept is spawning, as a side-effect, declarations that make no sense.”
The problem: Such a response is boring, and discussion ending, and difficult. Those qualities, especially in tandem, are memetically selected-against.
And that means we have to get ultra-excited about it and ultra-courageous about grappling with its challenges.
- We can use Compatibilism — through the “heterophroneo” — to reconcile Scripture’s statements on sovereignty and freedom.
- For more about the incoherence of “Can do otherwise,” see this article, called “Heroes, Not Superheroes.”
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.
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.
Let’s say you’re playing poker. Five Card Draw, specifically. You ship some cards and get some back, and end up with a measly pair of deuces.
This isn’t looking so hot. You’ve been bluffing a great hand this round, and don’t have the goods to back it up.
“Oh, we forgot to tell you,” says your friend Harriet, “Bernice is dealer and — while you were in the kitchen — called this round as deuces wild.”
What? Deuces wild? Just as you’re about to complain that the whole round was contaminated, you suddenly realize that with deuces wild, you have a royal flush!
The Utility of Wildcards
Wildcards are extremely useful. They can turn weak hands into kingmakers. They can turn low pairs into royal flushes.
Their power is that they don’t mean anything discrete and coherent unless and until they’re integrated into a final, optimal hand resolution. At that moment, they mutate and solidify into whatever the player pleases.
There is an analogous object, with analogous utility, in logic and rhetoric. Any claim that has no discrete and articulable truth value can qualify, and there are many ways that a claim can be “amorphous” in this manner.
- A claim may be many-faced. “My car is pleasing.” Well, what does that mean? Jake could call his car pleasing, when it doesn’t even work, but looks nice in his driveway. Vera could call her car pleasing, when it looks like junk, but performs great on the road.
- A claim may be nonsensical. “My house is a thing against which there house is no house my house isn’t my house in transcendence, cannot it being.” The preceding sentence probably invokes various images in your mind’s eye, but it does not cohere, and thus can’t have a truth value.
- A claim may be otherwise vague, unclear, ambiguous, or wide open to interpretation.
- A claim may have a hidden referent. The many-faced example above is also a good example here. If the referent is explicated (what pleases Jake versus what pleases Vera), it can cohere. But as long as the question is without its necessary referent, it lacks a truth value. Subjective claims that are mistakenly put into objective language are very often guilty of this referent-lacking problem.
If any of these problems are present and yet are undetected, and treated like coherent and solid claims with discernible truth values, they can mutate and solidify around whatever the hand-holder desires.
Cheryl is late to my party, and I’m worried that she might be lost. In a misguided effort to comfort me, Brent claims the following:
- “Cheryl is flawless at finding a house if she knows its address.
- Thus, Cheryl is not lost.”
Of course, at this point, I think, “But what if she doesn’t know my address?” Brent suspects I might be thinking this, but doesn’t himself know whether she has my address or not. So he tells me something deliberately vague:
- “Cheryl has quasi-panomic knowledge.”
What does that even mean? Further inquiry yields only more such strange statements from Brent, each more unclear than the last, but all in supposed service of clarifying that odd term.
He hopes that I will eventually give up and accept his statement as a bridge. This happens when the images conjured by what he’s saying — a sense of “knowledge” and “full,” at least — come to a rest at some inferred coherent place, like, “She has my address.”
But I refuse to quit, and shout, “Brent! Does she have my address or not?”
“I’m trying to tell you the answer to that!” he says, “You see…” and then continues with the ambiguity.
Now, instead of coming to rest at something vaguely conjured, I can instead say, “Brent, what you’re saying is not cohering. So while it might express some manner of truth, I can’t use it as a premise in service of any conclusion.”
Soon, Brent appears to be drunk. “How many drinks have you had, Brent?” I say.
“Eight,” he says.
“In an hour??” I say.
“Yeah,” he answers.
“You’re drunk,” I proclaim.
“No I’m not! I’ve got a just-firm and nigh-set constitution,” he says.
“A ‘just-firm and nigh-set constitution?'” I ask.
“Absolutely,” he responds. “It means that eight drinks in an hour does NOT mean that I’m drunk. Such a thing would be unthinkable.”
I press him for a more dissected meaning of “just-firm and nigh-set constitution,” in order to determine whether he “has that,” whatever it is, but only ambiguity and dangling references (like circular references) come forth.
How on Earth can I determine whether he has the thing that invalidates my conclusion when the thing’s definition is “that which invalidates your conclusion” and nothing more?
Now, instead of coming to rest at the vaguely-conjured image of someone exceptionally tough who can hold a lot of alcohol without issue, I can instead say, “Brent, what you’re saying is not cohering. So while it might express some manner of truth, I can’t use it as a premise that would stop the accepted premises — how many drinks you’ve had in this period of time — from yielding the conclusion that you’re drunk.”
These examples are rather silly, but in the abstract and confusing worlds of philosophy and theology, Brents abound.
And they’re incentivized to proliferate! Wildcard-loaded hands are “better.” And confusion, “subjective-as-objective,” and ambiguity all yield exciting conversations in fruitless attempts to reach cohesion.
This is especially the case in theology, where it is accepted and acknowledged that various revelatory statements are mysterious and beyond our comprehension. The error comes when those mysteries are treated as non-mysteries for the purposes of bridge-making and bridge-breaking.
As believers, we hold to revealed mysteries faithfully. But we should regard them with enough humble reverence not to treat them like pilons or sledgehammers.
In the meantime, if someone employs some strange term as a premise and refuses to articulate it in a coherent way, treat that term like it’s toxic glowing green and reject their logic until they take a break and figure out what they’re trying to say.
This video, called “The Difficult Ds we Get for Free,” talks about how formal logic gets us “free truth” as corollaries of benign premises, but how the “dirty tricks” of ambiguity can be used as logical wildcards.
“No True Scotsman” is a rhetorical trick where you modify the definition of something on-the-fly to rebut someone’s claim of an exception.
- Let’s say I proclaim, “All Scotsmen love haggis.”
- A person might say, “I’m a Scotsman, and I hate haggis.”
- I could then claim, “Well, then you aren’t a true Scotsman. True Scotsmen love haggis.”
Some Christians pull a version of this maneuver when confronted with the deplorable and regretful actions of various historical Christians.
It works a bit like this:
- Dave says, “Christians always do good things.”
- Jill says, “How can you say that? What about the forced conversions, burning of heretics, and wars of religion we see perpetuated by Christians throughout history?”
- Dave replies, “The people who did those awful things weren’t true Christians.”
This isn’t to say that this is always a trick. Sometimes, the intent isn’t to perform a rhetorical evasion, but to clarify the particular sense of the word they were originally employing.
In the above, it may be that there are two definitions at play:
- Jill’s definition of “Christian” is probably in the sense of outward and visible declarations of belief and/or allegiance. In this way, many people responsible for unimaginable atrocities have declared belief in Christ and themselves to be Christians.
- Dave’s definition of “Christian” is probably in the sense of an inward and relatively invisible state of an individual and her genuine relationship with Christ, which ostensibly prompts her to act charitably as she is being sanctified by his Grace. When a person commits an atrocity, then, it is a spike of evidence that they are not a Christian in this sense.
I believe that Jill’s approach is much better than Dave’s; Dave’s hinges on “unclear genuineness” which is toxic for communication.