The Folly of Violence

It only takes two people to start a bar brawl. Someone knocks over a beer, the guy hits him, and soon everyone is fighting. 

Violence always spreads and there is only one thing that you and I can do that stops it: We must not join in. 

No matter how angry one might feel about a situation, joining a violent gang is not the answer. Yet many will be tempted. Fueled by foolish rhetoric, irresponsible journalism, and insecure governance, some will go from spectators to participants. And what began as an isolated scrap will turn into a national brawl. 

The only way to stop the spread is not to join in. 

Solomon addresses the temptation to join a violent gang in the first chapter of the book of Proverbs. His advice is simple: don’t!
My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent.
Solomon knows that a gang will tempt us with all sorts of enticements. He tells us that if they try to entice us, we should ignore them. Listen to his imagined gang leader enticing a young person to join his violent gang:
If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood. Let us ambush the innocent without cause; let us swallow them alive like Sheol, even whole, as those who go down to the pit; We will find all kinds of precious wealth, we will fill our houses with spoil. Throw in your lot with us, we shall all have one purse,”My son, do not walk in the way with them. Keep your feet from their path,
Notice what Solomon's imagined gang leader offers to his potential recruit. First, he offers easy gain through ambushing the innocent. Violence appears to offer an easy way to what one wants. It takes it by force. Political violence is motivated by the desire to achieve political aims in the easiest way possible. Violence circumvents debate, good argument, compromise, and civility. Instead it is a means to beat an opposition into submission. 

Second, the gang leader offers power. Solomon's gang leader tells his recruits that they will have the power to send their victims to Sheol, down to the pit. The mob offers a way to have power over others through the use of clubs and cars. 

Finally, the gang leader offers a sense of belonging. The gang leader tells the recruit that he will have 'one purse' and that they will be 'thrown in together'. The kid who is alone is susceptible to this offer because he wants to be part of a group. The gang will accept him and no longer will he walk the halls alone. Suddenly he is ‘in’. And it feels good to belong.

So, what does the father say to his son? "DON’T DO IT! Do not be enticed by what the gang has to offer!" 

"Okay" the potential recruit retorts, "but why not?" In reply, Solomon tells us that the the way of the violent gang leads ultimately to its own destruction: 
For their feet run to evil and they hasten to shed blood. Indeed, it is useless to spread the baited net in the sight of any bird. But they lie in wait for their own blood; they ambush their own lives. So are the ways of everyone who gains by violence: it takes away the life of its possessors.
Solomon tells us that while the gang hastens to shed blood, it is their own blood that will be spilt. They are like a bird who sees the trap being set and flies right into it. In this case, the gang set the trap for others, but it is the gang who are ensnared by it. The irony of the violent gang is that the one who thinks he can gain by violence turns out to be the one who loses by it.

If we join with violent gangs, the violence will eventually get to us. If we side with the violent gang, we will meet our end in violence. And all the promises of the enticing gang leader will be proved false. Instead of gaining, we lose everything. Instead of power over others, death will have power over us. Instead of belonging, we will be eternally alone, utterly rejected.

So, at this time in America, we need wisdom - the wisdom to refuse to join with the thugs who seek violence. When the night comes and the mob calls us to go into the streets to shout, hit, curse, and destroy, we should shut our doors, close our windows, stay home, and ask the Lord to bring peace and justice to this land. Then we should demonstrate our love for one another in our actions. When the mob loses steam and the dawn breaks, we should share the only hope for sinful men and women of whatever color or background - the hope found in the good news of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. 

Education: It’s Not All About You

The following is the manuscript of a speech I gave to my students at the start of term. Enjoy...

"They built a school and placed you in the middle of it. Mom got up, made sure you got breakfast, asked you if you have done your homework, and drove you to school. Dad goes to work; he sweats and toils. Then he pays your school fees. For the whole day, the teacher talks to you and looks at you.

You might think: "This is all about me."

It is common to think this way. And sometimes it seems that way. But it is not true.

Your education is not all about you. 

Your education involves you, obviously. It is not not about you, but it is not all about you. So, the question I want to answer this morning is: what is education all about?

First, education is about grasping great ideas.

Ideas, truths, and discoveries do not depend on you in any way. They are no less great if you don’t know about them. The rules of grammar don’t diminish if you sleep during the class. The laws of logic don’t stop applying if you want them to. No amount of fooling around in class is going to make the laws of nature stop working.

In fact, the value of these ideas is not dependent on what value we give them. They are valuable even when we don’t think so. It is our job to appreciate the value of great ideas. It is not our job to determine their value.

A teacher’s job is not to see what you like and then follow you. A teacher's job is not to see what everyone likes at any given time and then teach that. We don’t have a vote on what books are great, which math problems are better, or what languages you want to learn for your summer vacation. Instead, a teacher wants you to discover the value of things that actually have value. When they look at you, they are asking themselves not what you value, but do you value what you ought to value? Can you see it? Can you recognize the greatness of what you are learning?

The ideas you are taught in class are like nuggets of gold that you and your teacher dig up and marvel at. And these nuggets you get to take home with you.

You see, education is not all about you. 

Second, education is about practicing proper powers.

I want you to consider the humble carrot. What is the purpose of a carrot? Eating, yes… growing, yes… making a snowman’s nose, yes… using as a weapon, yes. These are all uses to which a carrot can be put. But is there a function that is more important than the others? And is there some use we could put it to that would be improper?

Most of us think the carrot’s proper function is food. A carrot has done its job well if it has fed us well. It has some function that is appropriate to its kind.

The same is true of human beings. We are designed to function properly. And a proper function implies that though we have many choices in life, the kind of thing we are is not one of them. However, we often think education is all about our choices about what our proper functions are. We say things like, “I’m just not a math person” or “I am not a writing person”. While it might be true that you are not as good as others at certain subjects, it is not true that you are a completely different kind of person.

This is because you are designed to function as a human being, and human beings, just like the carrot, have proper powers. You are designed to think. God gave you the capacity to reason, to think things through. You are designed to memorize sentences, words, and concepts. You are designed to speak, to articulate your point of view, to write, to influence people around you. Just like the carrot, you have proper powers, powers that you ought to be using. You might get to choose what those powers are used for, but you don’t get to choose which powers that are appropriate to the kind of thing you are.

This is why teachers don’t let you skip a subject because it’s not your kind of thing. It’s why we don’t want you to be lazy, to focus on one skill and ignore the others. We do this because we know what kind of thing you are and we are in the business of training you to become the most excellent of your kind.

You see, education is not all about you.

Third, education is about repairing the ruins of the world.

The reason your education is difficult is not because the material is difficult. Rather, work—of all kinds—is difficult because we are sinful.

Our trouble with authority is rooted in our rebellion against God. Our lackadaisical attitude is not merely due to poor sleep and diet, but due to our human sinful propensity to be lazy. Cheating on a test is not what one must do to get ahead. It is what one does because one is self-centered, proud, and focused only on what one can get out of life.

Education is part of God's plan to sanctify us, make us holy. He does this through using teachers to train you to obey the Lord. Sometimes teachers do this by challenging you. Sometimes, when they have to, they do this by disciplining you. A good education is less concerned with allowing you to be happy than with serving to help you be good.

Moreover, the world is a place filled with people born with the same problem – sin. It is broken, busted, ugly, and deeply hurt. And it is into this world you will go. And the Lord will use an educated person to bring His righteousness into this broken world.

The better your education, the more benefit you can be to the world. Starting with your home and church, you will be of benefit to the world around you. In the church, a well educated person will teach the best Sunday schools, share the most resources, and give the most time. In the world, a well trained person will argue the best case in a courtroom, build the best bridges, and have the most courage in their convictions when their faith is challenged.

Many people are educated merely to conform to the world around you. A good education will train you in such a way that you will be of benefit to the world around you.

You see, education is not all about you. 

Finally, education is about worshiping our sovereign God

When you discover amazing truths in your classes, the proper response is to praise God for his greatness. The wonder of mathematical truths points to the wonder of God’s thoughts. The greatness of scientific discovery points to the greatness of God’s design. The incredible events in history point to the incredible providence of God over his story.

When you actualize the proper powers you have, you will discover that those powers are all designed to glorify God. Some people use the powers God has given them to deny God, or rebel against him. But these powers are not designed to glorify you. Instead, you are being trained to use your powers to give glory to the Lord.

When you take what you have learned to the world around you, you are inviting the people around you to join you in worship of the Lord. You don’t invite people to see your greatness, but his greatness. Your education is not supposed to make everyone see how great you are but how great He is.

You see, education is not all about you."

A Silly Pro-Abort Argument

Having 'moral status' equates to being the kind of thing it is wrong to kill. According to Elizabeth Harman, if a woman decides to have an abortion, then the fetus does not have moral status. If the mother decides not to have an abortion, then, due to the future life of that fetus, the fetus has moral status.

I have moral status. If my mother had decided to abort me, then I would not have had moral status. When I was a fetus, my mother decided not to abort me and, in virtue of that fact, I had a future life. Consequently, I had, and still have, moral status.

This is a terrible and silly argument.

First, moral status of the kind in question is not something one has accidentally. One does not have it in virtue of any fact apart from the existence of the kinds of things that have it. For any x, if x has moral status, then x has moral status at any time at which x exists. Human persons have moral status at any time at which they exist.

Second, if this is not the case, and it is the case that moral status is contingent on some external factor, then there is nothing to stop one concluding the following: I have moral status unless you decide to shoot me dead. If you decide to shoot me dead, then, in virtue of that fact, I do not have a future life and, consequently, I do not have moral status.

What Harman should do is either argue that there is some feature of the fetus that renders it lacking in moral status or some morally sufficient reason for killing a child. Though, I don't think either route works, what she proposes instead is silly and dangerous (the above looks of Harman's interviewers are appropriate in the circumstances)

Notes on Evil and Evidence

Given the fact of evil in the world, is God's existence probable or not?

Many Atheists believe that the existence of God is improbable given the presence of evil in the world.

The nature of the problem they pose is inductive. In other words, they present positive evidence that reduces the probability of the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being. The argument usually looks something like this:
  1. There are instances of evil in the world that an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without losing some greater good or permitting a worse or equal evil.
  2. An omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being would prevent those instances of evil.
  3. Therefore, there is (probably) no omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being (This is William Rowe's version)
According to proponents of the argument, the kinds of evil in question are either evils for which there appear no reasons or the apparent overabundance of evil in the world.

In response, the theist generally adopts either a defensive or offensive strategy. An offensive strategy involves presenting evidence in favor of theism. The theist may appeal to proofs and evidences of God's existence or offer an argument for God's existence from the fact of evil being in the world.

John Feinberg recommends that theists adopt a defensive strategy since, after all, it is the atheist who 'picked this fight.' Theists should, in this case, 'play defense.' There is wisdom in this advice. Recall that the atheist's claim is that theism is improbable. Since the claim is made by the atheist, it is up to the atheist to make his case. If it can be shown that he cannot make his case, then his argument fails. There is a clear burden of proof on the atheist - they have presented positive evidence--the fact of evil or of particular instances of evil--and claimed that the evidence supports the conclusion, 'Theism is improbable.'

John Feinberg's The Many Faces of Evil

The defensive strategy seeks to show that the fact that there is evil does not make theism so improbably that it is likely to be false. Feinberg presents three defensive strategies based on the nature of inductive arguments, the nature of probability, and limitations in human knowledge.

The nature of an inductive argument from evil is an instance of an argument that seeks to confirm or disconfirm a hypothesis. What is it that best explains the fact of evil in the world? It is not an instance of the kind of induction that makes a general conclusion from the quantity of certain kinds of experiences. The only conclusion we would be able to make from that kind of reasoning is that it is probable that there will be another experience of evil in the future. Knowing this tells us nothing about the existence of God. Instead the kind of induction in view is a inference to the best explanation of the fact of evil. Consider the following propositions:

  • God does not exist
  • God exists and is evil
  • God exists and is impotent
  • God exists and is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and has a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil

Each of these hypotheses are consistent with the fact of evil but are not consistent with each other. Thus, an argument for any one hypothesis must also be the best explanation for the fact of evil. In order to show that the hypothesis, 'God does not exist', is the best explanation, the atheist must provided both evidence and a connection between the fact of evil and the hypothesis that God does not exist. On the latter point, there is no empirical connection between the status of God's existence and the fact of evil in the world. Consequently, Feinberg points out that the connection must be conceptual, proposing that a good God would do such and such or that a powerful God would be able to prevent X.

However, it is not clear that any of this is an easy task for the atheist.

For example, Alvin Plantinga argues that no form of probability succeeds in sufficiently lowering the probability of theism to render it improbable. He argues that if the atheist accepts that it is logically possible that 'God exists' and 'there is evil in the world' both be true, the atheist has a hard time arguing that it is improbable that God exists. As Feinberg comments, "having admitted that evil can fit with God's existence, how can the atheist then hope to show that evil doesn't fit with God and thus is evidence that makes his existence improbable?"

The second strategy is to focus on the nature of probability. The probability of P being true is dependent on the total evidence available for P. If only partial evidence is made available, the conclusion will be a conclusion only justified by partial evidence. No one would accept the verdict of a jury to be a good one unless the jury had been confronted with the total evidence available. The same is true in the confirmation of the hypothesis, 'God does not exist.'

Given this, the total evidence for the existence of God is beyond the evidence that the atheist brings in the problem of evil - that there is evil in the world. Thus, the theist is at liberty to suggest that even if the fact of evil alone lowers the probability of theism, the fact of evil must be considered in light of all the positive evidence for theism. To disallow any positive evidence would be akin to convicting a man of murder for owning a gun even though other evidence is available that tells us the man was no where near the victim at the time of the murder.

Feinberg is skeptical that a theist and atheist would be able to agree on the admissibility of certain forms of evidence and he is even more skeptical of the possibility that atheists and theist will agree on the probability produced by evidence (as must be done when using Bayes' theorem, for example). Just what number should be assigned to religious experience (as either evidence or prior knowledge)?

Finally, one might block the inference from evils that appear to be without reason to the conclusion that they do not have a reason. Just because we cannot think of a reason for a particular evil does not mean God does not have one. All this shows is a limitation of human faculties. It does not show a limitation of God's goodness or power.

This strategy involves attacking the atheist's use of the principle of credulity (all things being equal, how things appear to us are good evidence for how things are). The trouble with the claim that evil provides evidence for the improbability of theism is that in order to appeal to the principle of credulity one must have a sufficient capacity to search the relevant vicinity and one must have executed said capacity (Welty, notes). But the hypothesis is a negative hypothesis. It appears to the atheist that God does not exist given the fact of evil. But since nothing has appeared to him at all, the atheist must admit that human beings are not able to search the relevant vicinity. This is because the relevant vicinity is the mind of God. The atheist has proposed that what is lacking in the universe is a reason in the mind of God for permitting a particular evil. And, the atheist reasons, if there is no reason to be found, then God does not exist. However, as William Alston suggests the data available is limited (just how much of the mind of God do we think we have available?) and of great complexity. Our cognitive abilities are simply not able to grasp what would be necessary to make the inference from apparent to actual.

All of this sounds like a cop-out. Surely the theist must do more than suggest that human beings can't know what reasons God might have for certain kinds of evil (apparent gratuitous evil) or the the quantity of evil (too much evil in the world). However, the crucial point Feinberg makes is that it is the atheist who must show that those evils in question imply that God is very unlikely to have a reason for them. All the theist is doing is reminding the atheist that it is he who has the burden of proof. In this instance, the atheist must be able to show that it is unlikely that God could have a reason for the evil in question. But he cannot show this by merely pointing to the fact that we cannot come up with a reason. This is because God's reasoning is far greater in power and scope than our own. There is good reason to think that his reason, whatever it may be, is beyond our comprehension. Thus the atheist's argument fails.

Theism: Plain or Necessary?

Plain Theism is the view that ‘God exists’ is a logically contingent proposition. ‘God exists’ is neither necessarily true nor necessarily false. In contrast, necessitarian theism holds that the proposition, ‘God exists’ is necessarily true. In other words ‘it is false that God exists’ is a contradiction.

I often wondered what would motivate my old prof, Keith Yandell to hold to plain theism. What does it mean to say that God does not have necessary existence or that ‘necessarily, God exists’ is necessarily false? Most theists contend that if ‘God exists’ is true, it is true necessarily.

The answer, I think, lies in some of Dr. Yandell’s theistic argumentation. In his excellent introduction to the philosophy of religion, Dr. Yandell carves out an extended version of the cosmological argument. In this argument, he teases out an assumption that works for the argument but entails plain theism. Due to the length of the argument, let me present a ‘supplemental’ argument for the conclusion that materialism is false. The argument assumes the same premise.

The first stage of the argument is straight forward:

(1) It is logically possible that an omnicompetent being exists
(2) If it is logically possible that an omnicompetent being exists, then it is logically possible that an omnicompetent being destroy everything material
(3) Therefore, it is logically possible that an omnicompetent being destroy everything material

If we accept the argument, then we have the plausible conclusion that material things can all be destroyed. If you or I were a supremely powerful disembodied soul, then we could have a huge bonfire and burn the universe. We could ensure that not one particle of matter was left standing. This sounds weird but entails no contradiction. Thus, it is logically possible (a proposition is logically possible if and only if it is not necessarily false).

What Yandell takes this to mean is that material things do not have necessary existential security. If X has necessary existential security, X exists and, necessarily, X is not caused to exist and does not depend on anything else for its existence. Clearly, material things have no such thing. The next step argues this point:

(4) If it is logically possible that an omnicompetent being destroy everything material, then nothing material has necessary existential security
(5) Therefore, nothing material has necessary existential security

The next step is the crucial part of the argument for it assumes the truth of a proposition that entails plain theism:

(6) If nothing material has necessary existential security, then something exists that is not material
(7) Therefore, Something exists that is not material

(6) is the crucial premise and relies on a version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. According to Yandell, what is required in this case is the following:
“If it is logically possible that the truth of a logically contingent existential proposition be explained, then there is an explanation of its truth”
Yandell’s strategy is to claim that some existential statements require explanations. In contrast, a version of the argument focused on beings would suggest that the existence of X requires the existence of Y. Y has some causal or other power sufficient to bring about the existence or sustenance of X. However, Yandell suggests that we see the dependence in terms of the logical relationships between propositions. The proposition ‘nothing material has necessary existential security’ is a logically contingent proposition. It is also a proposition that it is possible to explain by reference to another proposition.

However, this strategy entails that the proposition one refers to not be a logically necessary truth. If a proposition, P, is a logically necessary truth and it entails Q, then Q cannot be logically contingent. This, in turn, entails that the explaining proposition must itself be logically contingent but must also lack the possibility of an explanation.

Therefore, the proposition ‘something exists that is not material’ is a logically contingent proposition that is not logically possible to explain. This entails that ‘necessarily, something exists that is not material’ is necessarily false. For if a proposition is logically contingent, then it is necessarily logically contingent.

Yandell presumably means to suggest that the non-material entity in question does have necessary existential security. Though the entity in questions does not have necessary existence, necessary existential security is sufficient to explain the existence of anything that does not have necessary existential security. Voila, plain theism!

The argument concludes with the claim that materialism is false, a conclusion I recommend to you even if Dr. Yandell’s argument does not convince you:

(8) If something exists that is not material, then materialism is false
(9) Therefore, Materialism is false

One might still wonder if getting such a conclusion is worth the price. Wouldn’t necessitarian theism be plain better theism? Furthermore, one might wonder if plain theism itself is workable. In Beyond the Control of God?, a book on the ontological status of abstract objects and their relationship to God, my present prof, Dr. Welty points out that plain theism combined with a commitment to the necessary existence of propositions produces some strange results. Consider the status of the proposition, ‘God exists’. Does the proposition ‘God exists’ have necessary existence? If it exists, then either it necessarily exists or not. If it does and God does not exist, then what are we to make of any proposition with necessary existence? Wouldn’t it be the case that any proposition that necessarily exists would not have a truth value related to reality? On the other hand, if ‘God exists’ does not have necessary existence, then it cannot be true that God exists. Dr. Welty considers this view to entail that God does depend for his existence on something outside himself, a clear denial of the aseity of God.

What seems to motivate Yandell toward his version of the cosmological argument is the problems inherent in traditional claims about existence and change. A common objections to cosmological argument revolve around versions of the principle of sufficient reason. The dilemma presented to the cosmological argument proponent is as follows (Murray and Rea, Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, 142):

(1) The Actual World is a collection of facts for which an explanation is required. Call this collection, F, and its explanation, E.
(2) If E is a necessary truth and E is a sufficient reason for F, then in every world in which E is true, so F obtains.
(3) (2) entails that only the actual world is possible. This is false, so E is not a necessary truth.
(4) If E is not a necessary truth, then it is only true in a world in which F obtains (the actual world).
(5) (4) entails that there are propositions that are only true in one possible world. The only proposition that is only true of one possible world is equivalent to the proposition, ‘the world described by F exists’ but this proposition is the very proposition we are attempting to explain.

The conclusion of all this is that the principle of sufficient reason leads to unacceptable consequences and should, therefore, be abandoned.

In order to avoid the objection, philosophers commonly reject the principle in favor of other principles such as ‘there can be no independent contingent thing’ (Murray and Rea, Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, 143) or intentional explanations in terms of beliefs, hopes and desires of an agent (Timothy O’Connor, Theism and the Ultimate Explanation).

The latter approach is exemplified in some versions of the kalam cosmological argument. Here is one from Dr. Welty:

(1) The universe has a beginning
(2) The beginning of the universe is caused
(3) The cause of the universe is personal

In support of (1), suppose the universe has no beginning. If the universe has no beginning and is in time, then it is part of an actual infinite series. But it is highly plausible that there cannot be an actual infinite series. Consider attempting to finish counting (there is always one more).

In support of (2), the universe cannot come from nothing. This is because, whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence. This is not a necessary truth but it is the most confirmed claim we have! It is, therefore, highly plausible.

Whatever causes the universe cannot itself be in time. This is because if the universe cannot be infinite in time, then neither can its cause. 

(3) states that whatever causes the universe must be a person. A person is something with a mental life that includes intentions, and desires. The plain existence of the cause is not sufficient for the effect since if it was not in time and sufficient for the effect, then the universe would always exist. This harks to the first horn of the dilemma facing the principle of sufficient reason. What is sufficient is the additional claim that the cause of the universe must be personal, a being who makes decisions based on intentions and desires. In this case a being can decide to cause the universe or not.

This would entail that the proposition, 'the cause of the universe is personal' is true but not that 'God exists' is a necessary truth. Importantly, it does not entail its denial either. 


Everybody wants security. In the eighties, security meant having money. In the nineties, it meant owning a home. On the turn of the century, security meant winning a war on terror. Now, security is about having a political system that secures all our needs - healthcare, education, and even jobs. Political security of this kind is only achieved when governments become the source of some or all of the more valuable goods in society. But can a human system of government achieve that kind of security for its people?

Just like every other quest for a human-made source of security, the search is in vain. When one puts all one's hope in political security, it will always disappoint. It is like sugar, an empty calorie. I heard someone remark that we need another "-ism", a great, totalizing political worldview. I am now old enough to remember the fall of the last great ism, a barbarous, dehumanizing system in which every need was supposed to be met by the state. But instead of meeting needs, communism determined needs. It told the people: "you need what we tell you to need."

We sometimes think there are people who know how to manage the world, spread its resources just right so that no one is unhappy. Such people are like a mirage - from a distance they look promising, but when we get close, there is nothing there. We live in a modernist hangover in which we think that if we just get the right person, we could push stuff around so that no one goes unfed, uneducated, unloved, or unemployed. The hangover is worse than the night before because while modernity was filled with optimism about our grandiose ideologies--a kind of drunk-happy--its hangover is neither optimistic nor happy. Indeed, ideologies of our age are fueled by the kind of rage hangovers are known for: if an ideology sticks it to the enemy, then it's worth having no matter the cost.

We think there might be a political system for which we are a perfect fit. But no political system is a perfect fit. These sorts of utopian-aimed political systems are like poorly made chairs - it is only when we try to sit on them that we realize they won't hold our weight. Try fitting a humanist into communism or a Jew into fascism. The only way they fit is by suppressing their freedom or killing them. There is no romance in the reality of the 20th centuries political ideologies, there is only death and tears. Of course, as time goes on, our memories photoshop the bad bits making them seem honorable. Hollywood versions of Che and Fidel are like their mafia movies - a romanticizing of evil.

Political security is also infuriatingly elusive. The search for it is like trying to catch a newt - just when you think you've got it, it slips away. We think that just one more election will do it; one more revolution will bring in a new day.

Not only is it impossible to create, it is also very difficult to know what it is. What do we mean political security? In this way, it is like time - everybody always talks about it, but no one really knows what it is.

Not knowing how to get it or what exactly it is doesn't stop us reaching for it. somehow we keep on trying to create utopia. It is like the perfect practical joke - everybody always falls for it.

History teaches us that political security is an uncommon good, something that never seems to last very long and usually doesn't happen easily. According to Van Doren, the Roman Empire only achieved 26 years of actual strife-free prosperity and peace! So, even when the going is as good as it gets, it doesn't last long!

Now I have been thoroughly pessimistic about our ability to provide security through human government, I would like to provide some hope about a different kind of government.

Psalm 72 is a prayer of Solomon for the coming Messiah king. The kind of rule that Solomon is praying for is important because it describes the kind of rule that the Messiah will bring. Solomon’s prayer is not a vain hope but a sure thing. It is akin to our prayer ‘thy kingdom come’ - we are sure that it will, but we pray for it also.

Solomon begins by requesting that the Messiah would judge the people justly, Bring peace to the people, vindicate the people, save the people, and crush the peoples’ oppressor:

Give the king Your judgments, O God,
And Your righteousness to the king’s son.
May he judge Your people with righteousness
And Your afflicted with justice.
Let the mountains bring peace to the people,
And the hills, in righteousness.
May he vindicate the afflicted of the people,
Save the children of the needy
And crush the oppressor.

This depicts the Messiah’s reign. Isaiah 11:1-16. For example, verse 4 reads: "But with righteousness He will judge the poor, And decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth; And He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, And with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked."

Solomon then prays for the Messiah’s Eternal and Secure Reign:

Let them fear You (or a better version, ‘May he continue’ LXX) while the sun endures, And as long as the moon, throughout all generations. May he come down like rain upon the mown grass, Like showers that water the earth. In his days may the righteous flourish, And abundance of peace till the moon is no more.

Solomon is praying for an eternal reign (as long as the sun and the moon exist, from generation to generation) and a secure reign (rain waters the crops and brings abundant life).

Notice Solomon’s description of God’s care for his people through the Messiah. God means not only to save his people but to provide for them, to care for them, to provide the security they need.

Isn’t this our contemporary problem? We require a political security, some governance that secures our needs so that we need not worry where our next paycheck will come from. A call for universal basic income is this kind of security – we won’t have to worry about income because our government will eternally secure it.

The Messiah will be such a king as to provide eternal security of income to his people. They will not worry about the bounty of the harvest.

Next, Solomon prays that the Messiah king will rule over all the earth:

May he also rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. Let the nomads of the desert bow before him, and his enemies lick the dust. Let the kings of Tarshish and of the islands bring presents; The kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts. And let all kings bow down before him, all nations serve him.

From sea to sea, to the ends of the earth, everyone will recognize the king: The nomads of the desert, all kings, all nations, and even his enemies will recognize his rule. His enemies will recognize his rule in their defeat (cf. Gen 3:14-15). The reference to the Kings of Tarshish and the islands are probably be a reference to Tartessus in Spain, but was often used to talk about extremely long voyages (like saying ‘he went to Timbuktu’). The Isles or coastlands were synonymous with the ends of the earth (cf. Is 42:10).

Solomon says that the Messiah’s reign will be characterized with compassion:

For he will deliver the needy when he cries for help, the afflicted also, and him who has no helper. He will have compassion on the poor and needy, and the lives of the needy he will save. He will rescue their life from oppression and violence, and their blood will be precious in his sight;

This is a beautiful picture of the Messiah's reign. In the gospels we get a glimpse of the kind of compassion the Messiah brings. Our desire for a compassionate ruler can only be fulfilled in the King who has the kind of compassion we need. While our mere human sentiment runs low, the Messiah's compassion for his people is unending.

Solomon also tells us that the Messiah's reign will be marked by abundance, a time of continual prosperity:

So may he live, and may the gold of Sheba be given to him; And let them pray for him continually; Let them bless him all day long. May there be abundance of grain in the earth on top of the mountains; Its fruit will wave like the cedars of Lebanon; And may those from the city flourish like vegetation of the earth. May his name endure forever; May his name increase as long as the sun shines; And let men bless themselves by him; Let all nations call him blessed.

The Messiah’s reign will be incredibly prosperous. According to Solomon, prosperity is marked by riches of gold being brought to the king. One might think of Matt 2:11: “After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh”

Furthermore, there will be an abundance of grain even to the tops of mountains, a heavy crop of fruit, and a flourishing population. Over everything will be a glorious king whose name endures forever, increases over time, and is invoked by the people as they bless one another (as the NET puts it, “May they use his name when they formulate their blessings!”).

Our human attempts to build universal totalizing human governments will not succeed in satisfying us in the way the Messiah's reign will satisfy his people. 

Logic and Normativity

As I argued the other day, there are some people who think reality is underwritten by various norms. I call them normativists. For example, a normativist will think that there are ethical principles that are objective, universally binding, and immutable. As I suggested, normativists will also think this about the rules of grammar - they are objective rules to be discovered not conventions to be created.

Today I came across an article that suggests that the normativist is wrong about when it comes to logic:

...logic has developed over a long time, and it is likely to continue developing. Currently, non-classical logic is working to fix some of the things that are wrong with classical logic and the normative status of logic is being disputed... So, although we like to think some things have always been the same and will never change - perhaps logic isn’t one of them. The field hasn’t always been what it is today - so why do we expect it to stay the same?

The author argues that since logical systems have changed over time, we should be doubtful that logic has normative status. The argument is similar to the argument of a scientific anti-realist. The scientific anti-realist will contend that since scientific observation reaches different and contradictory conclusions over time, we should not think the conclusion we have reached in the present reflects reality:
  1. At t1 the best scientific minds agreed that p
  2. At t2 the best scientific minds agreed that ~p and that q
  3. Therefore, we should withhold judgment that q.
Analogously, the author of the article argues that the conclusions of philosophers about logic have changed over time and we should consider the changes to indicate the non-normative status of logic itself. 

Unfortunately, on its own, the author's argument does not support the conclusion that logic is non-normative. In contrast, to the scientific anti-realist argument, it is very difficult to show that different approaches to logic contradict each other. In fact, in most introductory logic books one finds each historical period of history taught successively, from Aristotle's system, to propositional logic, usually ending with higher order or 'predicate' logic. As one works one's way through, one is hard pressed to find explicit (or even implicit) contradictions between two systems. 

That's not to say that human understanding of logic hasn't changed over time. For example, on an Aristotelian approach to logic, universal statements imply existence. "All unicorns are creatures with one horn" implies the existence of unicorns. We can then use the universal to generate the statement, "Some unicorns have one horn." We don't think that now and generally take universals not to imply existence ("for any x, if x is a unicorn, then x will have one horn"). But this is not system wide nor does it entail that the nature of logic itself changed over time. This change is compatible with logic being immutable and our understanding of logic changing. 

At best, the author's argument tells us that logic is complex and that we change and expand our view of its nature and application over time. But this is a far cry from the claim that logic itself evolves or that logic is unreal or only instrumental. It certainly doesn't show that it is relative. 

There are some philosophers who offer substantial arguments in favor of the view that logic is non-normative, most famous among them is Graham Priest. He argues that there are paradoxes in logic that entail that laws of logic that we take for granted are not as normative as we might think. See his defense of dialetheism here and listen to an interview about Priest's views on Buddhism here.

Fighting for Life

"Bodily life, which we receive without any action on our own part, carries within itself the right to its own preservation. This is not a right that we have justly or unjustly appropriated to ourselves, but it is in the strictest sense an "innate" right, one which we have passively received and which preexists our will, a right which rests upon the nature of things as they are. Since it is God's will that there should be a human life on earth only in the form of bodily life, it follows that it is for the sake of the whole man that the body possesses the right to be preserved. And since all rights are extinguished at death, it follows that the preservation of the life of the body is the foundation of all natural rights without exception and is, therefore, invested with a particular importance… the body does not exist primarily in order to be sacrificed, but in order that it may be preserved" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 154-155).

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" (United States Declaration of Independence, 1776).

The first good pursued in the intersts of human life is the preservation of that life. It is the first instinct of all living organisms to preserve their own lives. The natural good of life is self-evident. Life is an intrinsic good. As Bonhoeffer says, it is a good that precedes our will. In other words, the value of life is independent of our wants and desires.

This is a vital principle the usurpation of which leads only to grave evil.

If another value is treated as greater than life, then evil always follows. History is replete with examples of evils carried out after wearing down the intrinsic value of human life. If racial purity is more valuable, gas chambers follow. If material goods are more valuable, then the Chairman's slaughters are just.

Yet, in our time and in the very civilization in which the value of life has been so highly regarded, we are in danger of another great usurpation.

Abortion advocates say that there are many competing goods that outweigh the value of a child's life. From the physical condition of the child to the ambitions of the parent, Planned Parenthood displays goods they suggest outweigh the value of preserving the unborn.

Euthanasia advocates cheer on the desires of the dying as outweighing goods. If suffering is too much to bear, then death with dignity is the better option. Life is not as valuable as being suffering-free.

And now what prevents us going further? Once we say that the fulfillment of the desire of a sufferer is a greater good than the life of that sufferer, what prevents us thinking that if a suffering infant could speak, she would request the same as the one who can speak? If the best interests of the child are not the preservation of his life, then who determines what good should determine the actions of medical professionals?

Indeed, there are several people who have been arguing that if abortion is morally permissible, the infanticide is morally permissible. This is the argument of Jerry Coyne who writes, "If you are allowed to abort a fetus that has a severe genetic defect, microcephaly, spina bifida, or so on, then why aren’t you able to euthanize that same fetus just after it’s born?... I see no substantive difference that would make the former act moral and the latter immoral."

One comment on Coyne's blog post responded to another comment by saying, "In future, we’ll look back and wonder how we allowed society to doom a child to a life of misery from the moment of birth….not to mention dooming its parents to poverty, having to provide for care for someone essentially a vegetable."

This person's ideal future is not utopia, a world in which we have no obligations to preserve the life of those who are sick. It is hell. We've seen it before and we ought to prevent its return. 

Grammar and Normativity

In Chapter 2 of Gwynne's Grammar, Nevile Gwynne claims that happiness is partly dependent upon good grammar:
  1. "If we don't use words rightly, we shall not think rightly"
  2. "If we do not think rightly, we cannot reliably decide rightly, because good decisions depend on accurate thinking"
  3. "If we do not decide rightly, we shall make a mess of our lives and also of other people's lives to the extent that we have an influence on other people"
  4. "If we make a mess of our lives, we shall make ourselves and other people unhappy"
  5. Therefore, "Happiness depends at least partly on good grammar"
Premise (1) suggests that good grammar is the necessary condition for right thinking. On Gwynne's view, thought and language have a necessary connection. He writes, "Without words...we cannot think. We cannot reason things out, not even the simplest things." In turn, Gwynne suggests that an understanding of vocabulary necessitates grammar.

The upshot of the argument is that the good life depends on grammar. What is interesting about this argument is that it depends on an assumption about the nature of reality. Grammar is simply the set of rules governing the use of a given language. Gwynne's argument assumes that those rules are objective features of reality, features discovered and not created by human beings.  

This line of argument appeals to those who are committed to the assumption that the world is rule-governed. To those who think like this, it comes as no surprise that underlying language and thought is some set of universally binding norms. Normativists think the same about ethics, laws of nature, logic, and politics. As Gwynne points out, what counts as a good life is one lived more or less in accord with those objective norms. Deviation from normativity is what leads to a bad life.

normativist about grammar is generally called a prescriptivist. Gwynne claims that he knows the right way to write in English and instructs his reader to act accordingly. 

However, there are those who oppose the idea that underlying any part of reality is some governing norm. Indeed, even if there were such things, they would be unknown to us. Norms are either an archaic idea to be disposed of or they are hidden realities with no intention of disclosing themselves with sufficient force to produce universal agreement. Non-normativists are generally committed to the idea that norms are reducible to expressions of preference.

A common objection to prescriptivism is that it stratifies society, building an upper class based on their command of the right kind of writing and speech. In our present political climate, the non-normativist will accuse the normativist of some racial or gender predjudice. In a recent statement from at the University of Washington, Tacoma, the Writing Center made a set of promises.

"We promise to... emphasize the importance of rhetorical situations over grammatical “correctness” in the production of texts... [and to] challenge conventional word choices and writing explanations."

On the face of it, the center appears to suggest that norms should be broken in cases in which the situation demands it. We do this. All. The. Time. There is give and take on the matter in ordinary speech, tweeting, and advertising. But if this is what is being said, it is trivial at best. 

Given the aims of the statement--"to help students become more critical of these unjust language structures as they affect students’ writing and the judgment of that writing"--the center appears to be claiming that our general social situation is what is in view. In other words, given the situation we find ourselves in at the moment, a situation rife with systemic racism, we should override the norms of grammar in order to quash racism. In other words, according to the statement, a happier people are people who are prepared to break the norms of grammar if doing so prevents racism. 

However, having read Gwynne's Grammar, I cannot see how any of the rules of grammar perpetuate racism. Perhaps I am missing something! So the statement cannot be saying that the rules themselves perpetuate racism. What is more likely is that the statement is saying that people of different races use language differently and that we shouldn't force people to conform to the grammar of one race. Of course, this assumes that the rules of grammar are race-relative in which case they are not rules at all; they are preferences. And I think this is the problem - the writing center assumes that the rules of grammar are relative to cultures/races/genders. They are not universally binding norms to be discovered but rules chosen by those in power and imposed on the weaker. 

The prescriptivist generally replies that he does nothing more than discover and advocate for norms that are objective. Anyone--not merely an elite--can learn the rules of grammar and, according to Gwynne, obtain greater happiness. To hold that there are objective norms according to which we should conduct our lives and by doing so will achieve greater happiness is not racist or bigoted.

Of course, the response of the non-prescriptivist is that what the prescriptivist takes to be norms he discovers are really preferences he expresses. In other words, he merely wants to remake the world in his own image.

The view that there are no objective norms in reality such as rules of grammar is a self-refuting assertion. Consider the statement, "We promise to... emphasize the importance of rhetorical situations over grammatical “correctness” in the production of texts." Presumably, the writer intends that the statement be taken seriously. The writer promises to perform some action and promises are binding according to an obligation that the writer takes to be normative. Furthermore, the statement assumes normatively by suggesting that we ought to emphasize situation over the rules of grammar. The trouble with thinking that there are no norms is that they appear to rear their head at every turn. This is especially true when we try to write or say anything.

If I have made any grammatical errors on this page, feel free to point them out to me. In doing so, I hope you feel the weight of responsibility that normativity carries with it. You will not be telling me that you would prefer me to write differently, but that I ought to write differently. 

Why Charlie Should Have Been Permitted a Shot at Life: A Reply to Ian Kennedy

Ian Kennedy argues that we are wrong to criticize the court's decision to prevent the parents of Charlie Gard to travel to America to seek treatment not available in the UK. He cites a case in which parents of a sick child in Aukland, New Zealand had declined treatment for their sick child. The court stepped and ordered that the child be deemed a ward of the court and was treated. The child lived. Kennedy uses this case to argue that sometimes it is right for a court to step in a rule against the wishes of parents. Here is his argument: 

These are the steps. The first is to recognise that children do not belong to their parents. Second, when a claim is made that parents have rights over their children, it is important to step back and examine the language used. We need to remind ourselves that parents do not have rights regarding their children, they only have duties, the principal duty being to act in their children’s best interests. This has been part of the fabric of our law and our society for a long time. Third, if we are concerned with the language of rights, it is, of course, children who have rights; any rights that parents have exist only to protect their children’s rights. Parents cannot always be the ultimate arbiters of their children’s interests

Now, one might quibble with the semantics of 'belonging' by suggesting that the term is ambiguous. After all Kennedy presumably wouldn't say to my wife and me that our assertion that the children in the other room are our children is false. But we surely wouldn't say that they 'belong' to us in the same way our car belongs to us. 

But let's assume he is right about the legality of the matter. The central problem is that the argument misses the point. Even if the argument is sound, a key premise is that parents have a "principal duty to act in their children’s best interests." 

However, there appears to be no more clearer interest of the child than preserving his life. In the case of Charlie Gard, the parents were prevented from carrying out this obligation even though they had obtained independent funds and were willing to make the trip to the States. If the obligation rests on the parents and if what they intend to do clearly falls under the best interests of the child, then they should have been permitted to travel to seek care. 

What Kennedy must show (but didn't) is that such a course of action is not in the best interests of the child. The analogy with the Aukland case fails on just this point. In the Aukland case, the court interviened to fulfill the obligation that the parents had abandoned. It was the right thing to do for the very same reason that it would have been right to permit the Gard family to travel!

Kennedy even accepts the point when he says, "the parents’ views as to their children’s interests should usually be respected." But he then says that they are not the "ultimate arbiters of their children’s interests. If parents, for example, insist on subjecting their child to a particular diet that, in the view of others with acknowledged expertise in the subject, will cause the child harm, we do not stand by. We intervene to safeguard the child." 

Apart from the alarming idea that a state could tell us what to feed our children, the point Kennedy makes is that when parents fail to meet the obligations of working for the best interests of the child, then intervention may be justified. But isn't the obtaining of treatment to save the life of a child just that - working clearly in best interests of the child. Indeed, it may be argued that in the Gard case, the parents went above and beyond their obligations in seeking care. In which case, they pursued the interests of the child beyond other parents who may have given up earlier. 

Kennedy tells us that parents are not always the arbiters of the best interests of their children, but he gives no reason to think that the Gards were not pursuing those interests. Thus, his argument fails.