Original Sin: Disposition or Ability.


Since the fall, human beings are said to be born with original or inherited sin. By whatever means we inherit this problem, we have it innately. We do not acquire it sometime in our lives. Paul tells us that Adam's sin affects the whole human species (Rom 5:12). Luther wrote, "all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers' wombs." Calvin wrote that original sin is "a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God's wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls 'works of the flesh' (Gal 5:19)."

The doctrine of original sin (OS) is rightly regarded as a species of nativism. Nativism is the view that features of human beings are 'within us' and are not acquired. Those features might include capacities, dispositions, concepts, or beliefs. 

According to a weak version, OS is the lack of a capacity--the inability to please God--and is only overcome by an act of God. A stronger version implies that OS is what causes sinful actions and not merely that all actions fail to please God. For example, Calvin says that OS "brings forth" sin. If so, then it must have some further meaning that accounts for a positive "inclination" to act in a sinful way. But what is it? 

It is tempting to say that what's within is a desire to sin. But is it really plausible that an infant has such a desire? Desires appear to be acquired by children as they mature. If so, then desire is not a necessary condition for original sin. 

One plausible answer is that OS leaves post-fall human beings with an innate disposition to perform sinful actions. For example, Wayne Grudem writes, "our nature includes a disposition to sin... Children do not have to be taught how to do wrong." But what exactly is a disposition? A disposition is commonly thought to be what we mean when we ascribe a property like 'fragile' to an object. Consider a glass. A glass is fragile. In other words, a glass has the disposition to shatter when struck. 

What is odd about the disposition of a glass is that it never actually has to do anything to have the property of being fragile. What if it is never struck? It would never shatter but somehow it will always have the disposition to shatter when struck. 

The simplest way to think about it is to consider a stimulus condition (the striking of the glass) and a manifestation of the disposition in question (shattering). Something like:


is disposed to A when iff O would A if C. 


In the case of our glass, this is pretty clear: The glass is disposed to shatter when struck iff the glass would shatter if struck. Now, one might come up with all sorts of counter examples such as what might happen if the glass is wrapped in bubble wrap, but this just makes the analysis longer. One only need add 'not being wrapped in bubble wrap when struck' to make it work.

Consider a definition of OS using the simple analysis of dispositions:

A human being is disposed to sin when tempted iff the human being would sin if tempted.

The trouble comes down to what counts as the stimulus condition. Clearly, not every human being sins when tempted. Thus, temptation is not a sufficient stimulus condition. Whereas a clause added to the stimulus condition of a glass dispels the counter example in the bubble wrap case, it is not so clear that this would would for OS. One cannot add a clause that would ensure a tempted person will sin without referring to some other intrinsic quality of the human being. Furthermore, if temptation is sufficient for sin, then there is precious little reason we would have for holding a sinner responsible for his actions.

One might suggest this alternative:

A human being is disposed to sin when he desires to sin iff the human being would sin if he desires to sin.

It is still not clear that every human being sins when he desires to sin. Surely that is quite usual - the denial of our desires for a greater good and the avoidance of bad consequences. Furthermore, on this analysis, the stimulus condition is the feature of the human being we are calling a disposition. But this is what we are trying to analyze!

If there is no stimulus condition external to what we are trying to provide an analysis of then a dispositional analysis of OS is not possible.

Perhaps, then, we should turn to the idea of an ability or capacity. On the weak view of OS, we are said to lack the ability to please God. On the strong view we are said to have a positive ability to commit sin couched in terms of 'inclinations' or 'natures that produce sin'. But what is it to have an innate ability to commit evil? Plausibly, to have an ability is to have a power to act. Since only agents act, abilities are unique to agents. So, it could be said that strong OS is a kind of ability. This may in turn be analyzed in hypothetical terms:

For S to have the ability to sin is for it to be the case that S would perform a sinful action if S were to have certain relevant volitions.

On this view, a person has the property of being able to sin even though he or she may not actually sin. An infant who dies before performing a sinful action may nonetheless be said to have the ability to sin if he or she had wanted to. Furthermore, this analysis can account for the general condition of OS without ever being in a position to perform a sinful action. Consider a person who is never given the opportunity to sin. Could that person have OS? Though that person does not have a specific ability to sin, she still has the general ability to sin.

One might object that prior to the fall, human beings were untainted by sin, but they were able to commit sin (as demonstrated by their actual sin in the garden). But if being able to sin is what we mean by original sin, then we would have to say that pre-fall Adam was tainted by it. This is surely not the case given Paul's argument that sin entered the human species through Adam (Rom 5:12). Furthermore, how is it that we could ever be rid of original sin if it is an ability had by pre-fall Adam? Surely, if pre-fall Adam had it, then we will always have it!

In order to respond to the first objection, recall that the weak version of OS states that a human being has OS iff that human being cannot please God. What the strong version suggests is that there is an additional feature of human beings that is jointly sufficient for the doctrine. In other words, the doctrine of original sin is about both the lack of capacity to please God and the capacity to carry out wrongful actions. If so, then pre-fall Adam has the capacity to commit sin, but does not yet lack the ability to please God. Consequently, one might say that OS only applies to those who have the ability to commit sin and lack the ability to please God.

In regards to the objection about the future prospects of human beings, one might reply that though we presently have the ability to sin, we will lack this ability in our glorified bodies. At the resurrection of the dead, a glorified body is given to each person who belongs to the Lord. In that body, the person lacks the ability to sin and never lacks the ability to please God. In the meantime, believers are able to please God due to the imputed righteousness of Christ (who lacked the ability to sin, and never lacked the ability to please God).

Language and Fellowship



"Aphasia, the loss of language following a brain injury, is devastating, and in severe cases family members may feel that the whole person is lost forever." (Stephen Pinker, The Language Instinct, 2).

Is fellowship possible without language? I don't mean without the constant presence of language. Two people might not talk for a while but feel close to one another, but what if they never spoke to one another. What if, in the very nature of things, no one spoke? I suppose we could not know what our fellowship would be like. Would we be able to communicate in some way - by looking at each other? Perhaps we really can see each other's souls in each other's eyes.

Intuitively, however, such a situation presupposes the possibility of speech. Special looks across a table are special precisely because they are unusual. What is normal about fellowship is some form of communication between people.

Consider the ultimate fellowship - the fellowship between the three persons of the Trinity. There is never a division between them; they are utterly loving toward one another. Yet, it is difficult to think of such a fellowship to be communication-free. Indeed, our only insights into their fellowship is via conversations between one member and another. A paradigmatic example is found in the Lord Jesus' high priestly pray in John's gospel. Jesus both portrays an intimate divine fellowship but suggests that those whom Jesus saves will also participate in that fellowship: "...that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us..." (John 17:21).

Of course, it is not likely that anyone can adequately describe what such a fellowship will be like. It is somewhat beyond our imagination. However, it is also difficult to imagine that it would lack conversation.


Classical Education: Loving the Rock of Reality



"Why Latin? Why Logic? Why only 'great' books?" 

Such are the questions levied at the classicist. They are good questions, but the best answers are not found in pragmatics, a list of the benefits of a classical education. Instead, the reason anyone ultimately prefers a classical approach to education is that she holds to a classical worldview. I say 'ultimately' because pragmatic answers don't count for nothing. One cannot help using them in class to garner support for Latin verb endings. "Throughout history, the best authors were great Latinists" I said the other day. I had in mind one student whose mother had told me that she would like to be a writer. Motivating a student to say 'amō, amās, amat..." thirty times a day is one thing, but adopting a clear reason for committing oneself to the classical project is quite another. To do that, one needs to off one's modern viewpoint and lean into the worldview of a classicist. One can be inconsistent for some desired good, but it is better to attempt to line up one's assumptions about the world and follow their trail.

In The Mirror of Language, Marcia Colish describes it well:

Most of the classical philosophers whom the Middle Ages knew and regarded as authoritative held that there was an objective order of being prior to the subjective order of knowing. Following their lead, medieval philosophers endorsed the idea of an epistemology grounded in and controlled by its objects of knowledge with equal assurance and vigor. And, notwithstanding the scholastic demand  for a theory of cognition explaining man's knowledge of the world of nature, the object to which medieval thinkers normally addressed themselves was the world of spiritual reality, with preeminent attention to God. The medieval theory of knowledge was a direct consequence of this radically ontological emphasis. Epistemology was conceived as a function of metaphysics. The existence of an objective order of being was the primary condition which was held to make human thought possible at all. Furthermore, medieval thinkers identified being par excellence with the God of the Bible. Thus, they held, the Being of God Himself was the guarantee, the criterion, and the conditio sine qua non of whatever men might know about him, or about anything else (Marcia Colish, The Mirror of Language: A Study in the Medieval Theory of Knowledge. 1968, 1).

In sum, human thought is possible only if there is an objective order of being including God as the ultimate being. If the world exhibits objective order, then the content of our classes ought to be determined by it. Note that the classical worldview begins with God, then moves to created reality, and finally arrives at our ability to know anything.

In contrast, those who followed educational theorist and father of modern education, John Dewey, began with the knower and then asked how education might induce his flourishing. Dewey compared the classical way with a rock. It is static and immovable. Instead, he insisted, education is more like a plant, an ever adapting organism that, given the right environment, will flourish. In his view, unless what you are teaching connects with what a student experiences, it won't aid flourishing.

Dewey characterizes the difference accurately. The idea driving a classicist is that the body of knowledge we are responsible for is largely unchanging. It grows over time like a library, but it is not revolutionized for the sake of progress. It is rocklike in the sense that a student should knock up against it. It is solid. This is a way of saying that the content of one's class serves as the measure of things. To be committed to the classical project is to love the rock!

According to the classicist, language functions to mediate reality to human beings. Since reality is ordered by God, then reality is fundementally normative. Such normativity entails a static (and growing) body of knowledge obtained through the careful use of the powers of human learning. Language serves as the means by which one is able to access reality:

"The symbolic theory of knowledge developed in the Middle Ages was cast in terms of the relationship between words, on the one hand, and reality, on the other. It was the attempt of medieval men to reflect, in the mirror of the trivium, what they believed to be the one normative epistemological relationship between man and God." (4)

Words function to point to reality. If reality is an ordered reality governed by God, then words don't take on a pragmatic function in education. Rather, they reflect ('as in a mirror') the that reality. Again, this entails the unchanging nature 'body' of knowledge. Since the very nature of reality remains the same, so does what is said about it:

"The object of knowledge always remains the yardstick against which any statement about it must be measured. Statements are thus held not to be heuristic, or productive of knowledge in the first instance, but expressive of a knowledge of already existing in the mind of the knower. Axiomatic to this epistemology is the assurance of the subject's anterior knowledge of the object, a knowledge indispensable for his recognition of the truth of the words expressing it... The word of the speaker, although it cannot produce knowledge of the object, can point to it if it is not already in the mind of the subject. If the subject already knows the object, the word of the speaker can recall it to him, making it vividly present in his mind." (5)
Colish rehearses the views of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Dante showing how each one developed a theory of language to reflect the normative nature of words, definitions, grammar, and logic.  

The Logical Problem of Language Acquisition



In a recent interview, linguist, Noam Chomsky, repeated his claim that there must be some innate feature of human beings that makes it possible for them to acquire natural languages:

“No one holds that the rules of language are innate. Rather, the faculty of language has a crucial genetic component. If that were not true, it would be a miracle that children acquire a language. That is obvious from the first moment of birth, when the child begins to pick out linguistically relevant information from the noisy environment, then following a predictable course of acquisition which, demonstrably, goes far beyond the evidence available, from the simplest words on to complex constructions and their interpretations. An ape with essentially the same auditory system, placed in the same environment, would detect nothing but noise. Either this is magic, or there is an innate component to the language faculty, as in the case of all other aspects of growth and development.”

Chomsky is not always clear about what he thinks is innate. Does Chomsky think that humans have innate knowledge of anything? Is it an innate ability? If the latter, how could anyone disagree? It seems obvious that human beings have an innate ability to acquire natural languages and that this is a unique ability of the human species. If the former, then it is unclear what makes Chomsky deny that the rules of grammar are innate. Sometimes Chomsky sounds like he thinks human beings have propositional knowledge of the rules of grammar. For example, in Knowledge of Language, he writes, "it seems reasonably clear...how unconscious knowledge issues in conscious knowledge" (p. 270). Devitt suggests that Chomsky is guilty of conflating innate ability with innate knowledge of propositions (Devitt, Ignorance of Language, 246). 

Fiona Cowie argues that the crucial component of Chomsky's theory is that human beings have a domain-specific learning faculty that enables language acquisition to take place. In contrast, empiricists deny that human learning faculties are domain-specific. What we must have, empiricists suggest, is a general ability to learn. We use the same facility to acquire any kind of knowledge (Fiona Cowie, What's Within?). 

What Chomsky means by 'crucial genetic component' is a feature of human brains, genetically inherited, and the consequence of an evolutionary leap. Chomsky arrives at this conclusion as a result of trying to supply a theory to explain the fact that human language learners (children) pick up languages without sufficient experience. Chomsky assumes that there must be some other cause that produces a linguistically capable human being. He argues both that the available experiences are too few--not enough information is given to a language learner--and that they are too many (there are so many non-linguistic inputs available)


The latter problem was raised by Karl Popper. Popper argues that any causal series has a beginning—the entity causing the representation—and an end—the mental state representing the entity. The problem Popper highlights is that given the mass of options for inputs from a particular environment there is nothing that can determine which particular bit of the environment triggers the series. If so, then one needs to appeal to some other factor apart from the causal series to determine which bit of the environment is the beginning of the chain (and, mutatis mutandis the end of the series). According to Popper, there is a set of mind-dependent factors such as purpose and interest that determine what, out of an incredibly complex and large amount of environmental inputs ought to be the thing to think about (Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations; the Growth of Scientific Knowledge, 395–402).

The former problem is commonly called the 'poverty of stimulus argument'. The argument suggests that Children ‘sample’ a finite set of sentences and from that set are able to construct novel sentences. The finite set might include three well-formed sentences and infer that a fourth sentence is also well formed. However, if the fourth sentence is not well formed, there is no negative evidence to show that it is not admissible. 

Cowie suggests (i) “it is likely that John will leave” (ii) “John is likely to leave” and (iii) “it is possible that John will leave” as the three candidate sentences. Sentence (iv) is “John is possible to leave.” If there is no evidence given to the learner that rules out (iv), the learner is justified in continuing to use the sentence. But no one does. In fact, we universally rule it out. The task posed by the logical problem is to explain why we do so. Chomsky posits that we have some innate ability to recognize (iv) as incorrect. 

Both of these arguments taken together imply at least that there is more to language acquisition than a general ability to learn. If our ability to learn language is only part of a general ability, then what accounts (a) for the lazer-like focus of a learner on language inputs and (b) for the ability to rule out deviant sentences despite lacking apparent criteria for doing so? According to Chomsky, only an innately possessed domain-specific faculty can explain language acquisition in human beings. 

It is difficult to find fault with Chomsky's observation that language acquisition is miracle-like. In fact, I have always thought that the fact that we humans can learn anything at all is miraculous! Even the chief opponents of Chomsky's theory grant that if there is no innate, domain-specific language module complete with its own universal grammar, then language acquisition is a mystery - we simply do not know what makes human learning possible. Perhaps, say empiricists, at some point in the future, we will discover something about our brains that will explain the miracle. 

However, there are a few difficulties with Chomsky's theory. First, if we have a domain specific language learning faculty, then what explains our ability to learn other things? Surely, learning to drive, cook, construct buildings, draw, sing, and all the other things we know how to do require their own domain-specific learning faculties. But this seems implausible. As Putnam argues:

If Chomsky admits that a domain can be as wide as empirical science..., then he has granted that something exists that may fittingly be called 'general intelligence'... On the other hand, if domains become so small that each domain can use only learning strategies that are highly specific in purpose..., then it becomes a miracle that these skills... were not used at all until after the evolution of the race was complete (Hilary Putnam, in Language and Learning, ed. Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, 296). 

One might reply that domains evolve in the same way organs evolve. One would have to postulate that at every major intellectual discovery (nuclear physics, mathematics) there is a corresponding evolutionary leap producing a domain-specific learning module. As Putnam points out, the number of organs are limited, but the number of domains is 'virtually unlimited.' Isn't it more likely, Putnam suggests, that we have a general faculty of learning that is applied to novel domains of learning.

A further problem is that if the criteria for the correctness of a grammar is determined by the module we have been given through evolution, then it is difficult to account for the objective nature of it. We tend to think of correctness being a property of the thing that has it. In this case, sentences are well or poorly formed. Analogously, in formal logic, we don't think that the criteria for well-formed formulas are properties of our minds. 

I have recently argued that our ability to recognize good from bad sentences is analogous to a moral conscience. The power in question does not entail a prior knowledge of a set of rules, but the power to recognize objective rules. If so, then the task at hand is how to explain such a power. Surely having the power to recognize something implies a prior knowledge of what to look for even if that knowledge is only tacit. Furthermore, we are able to recognize all sorts of things given only limited information about them. At least on the surface of it, it appears that we would have to know more about what we are recognizing than experience has provided. How can we explain this power?

At this point, the question requires some auxiliary theory to help explain the phenomena. The impasse between the two sides--nativism and empiricism--provokes an appeal to a thesis about reality. What is it about reality that might help? Jerold Katz, a former colleague of Chomsky's, rebelled against the prevailing linguistic conceptualism at MIT. And there can be no more a rebellious act at an academic institution known for its science than to embrace Platonism! Katz did so and produced several works arguing that language is an abstract object.

Theism is another auxiliary thesis about reality and it would go a long way to explain how human beings learn. It would also do so whilst remaining conceptualist about human language abilities.

It seems to me that there are four problems to be solved:
  1. The intention problem - just how do we explain the human ability to pick out words and sentences from the plethora of sensory input?
  2. The criteria problem - How do we explain the human ability to recognize good and bad sentences without negative evidence for some of the bad ones?
  3. The justification problem - What justifies our belief in a universal grammar?
  4. The normativity problem - What is it about reality that would account for the objective normativity? 
Problem (1) implies that human mental acts are designed. We are built in such a way as to be able to attend our minds on something rather than something else. If God exists and created human beings, then human beings would be designed to pick out words from background noise. 

Problem (2) requires an innate knowledge of some universal grammar, but why suggest that this knowledge is within a human mind? As some philosophers suggest, the mind's ability to test sentences for grammaticality would require enormous prior knowledge. If so, then an infinite mind would know it.

Problem (3) is a problem facing all naturalistic nativist theories. Just because something is in the head doesn't make it right. If necessary truths are innately known, they are justified only if there is some reason to think them true. But, if naturalism is true, one is wise to wonder how. Nativists like Descartes suggested that the answer is God. He had a point. Without a divine mind who cannot be wrong about anything, innate knowledge in human beings is merely innate belief.

Problem (4) arises when one reflects on the human ability to recognize good and bad sentences. Chomsky clearly accepts that humans are able to weed out offending strings of words. He thinks that our underlying grammar (UG) is normative. But what explains our ability to recognize normativity? Analogously, we recognize actions are good and bad. Many philosophers, such as Richard Swinburne, have argued that such an awareness is best explained by the existence of God. If naturalism is true, however, it becomes much more difficult to explain normativity in the universe. 

Voices in Our Heads?



James Krugel is Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University. Krugel suggests that neuroscience can lend some understanding to biblical scholarship on how human beings might hear the voice of God. In a recent interview, Krugel suggests that the ancient worldview of the prophets included the idea that the mind could be penetrated by spiritual entities:

The human mind could be penetrated by outside forces. Not only by God—who is sometimes depicted as going inside people, “probing their kidneys and heart” to find out what they’re really thinking—but by various sorts of “spirits.” Some of them were benign, but others were wicked spirits dispatched by Satan to take over. They were like bacteria; you couldn’t see them, but once they got inside of you they would take charge, making you think and do things against your will. So the Bible and other texts from the same period contain prayers specifically designed to ward off these evil spirits. That’s part of what I meant by semipermeable. You couldn’t stop God from entering your mind, but sometimes you could head off a wicked angel.

The idea of our minds being subject to causal influences from other non-physical entities has been 'on my mind' lately. The Christian doctrine of inspiration only tells us that some text has been inspired if and only if God 'moves' that person to write those words. What we mean by 'move' is left largely unanalyzed. The most plausible way to analyze the idea is by coming up with a causal thesis about God's thoughts causing the writers thoughts. How might this work?

As I commented the other day, God and human persons are souls/minds, concrete non-physical entities. God is omnipresent. Consequently, God is present at every location I am present. If concrete non-physical objects have causal powers, then God can directly cause the thoughts that take place in my mind and the sentences that express those thoughts.

Some philosophers argue that God cannot be literally at every location because if something is a soul, then it is not spatially located (Hoffman and Rosenkrantz, The Divine Attributes, 40). However, if I am a soul, I am located with my body. If my soul's being co-located with my body is coherent, then God being located at (or with) every location is coherent. 

The view that a concrete non-physical entity cannot be spatially located also leads to the the mind-body interaction problem. Scantily, (i) A soul and a body interact only if they both have spacial location. (ii) If a soul does not have spacial location, then it cannot causally interact with the body. The problem arises if one accepts (ii) as a necessary truth. Again, there is good reason to reject (ii). God is plainly able to cause all sorts of physical events not least of which is the power to cause physical entities to come into existence. If this is possible, then mind-body interactions are possible and (ii) is false. So, if both God and human persons are non-physical concrete entities and spatially located, then God can cause happenings in the souls of human souls.

Of course, if one does not believe in the existence of the human soul, divine voices in the head cannot be the communication of an existent divine being. For Krugel's part, no human being is a soul. Rather, his sense of self is a 'fiction':

We tend to think that there is some central part of our brains that acts as a clearinghouse, processing all the outside sensory data that come into our heads via our eyes and ears and so forth and then deciding what to think and how to respond. The problem with this picture is that scientists cannot find anything physical in the brain that seems to act as the clearinghouse. In physiological terms, there is no “I myself”; such an entity seems to be a mental construct, something human beings evolved over millions of years but which has no independent, physical reality. This “I myself” is not, we believe, identical to our bodies or our brains—we have a body and a brain, but the possessor of these things is somehow conceived to be separate from them, some fictional owner, me. This, as far as most neuroscientists are concerned, is simply a mental construct. Science doesn’t need an “I myself” to explain what goes on in our brains, but apparently we do.

Consequently, Krugel argues that revelation (the divine voice) cannot be any more than a hallucination: "I like the definition of hallucination recently proposed by a neuropsychiatrist; it’s not something false, he wrote, but a “sensory experience which occurs in the absence of corresponding external stimulation of the relevant sensory organ.” This, I think, is what some biblical texts are talking about. The person thinks he’s seeing or hearing something, but it seems to work a little like a dream. "

Krugel's argument depends on the following premise: "Scientists cannot find anything physical in the brain" so, "there is no 'I myself'; such an entity seems to be a mental construct, something human beings evolved over millions of years but which has no independent, physical reality." It should be clear that a soul is not physical and so not discoverable through scientific observation. But one should not think that this entails it is not there. It simply does not follow from not being able to see something that it does not exist. Laws of logic, numbers, souls, propositions and any number of other entities are not observable since they are not physical. We would not, however, want to deny their existence. Of course, some do, and they talk about useful fictions in the same way Krugel talks about selves. The point is that one cannot assert the non-existence of some entity based on an assumption that everything is physical. This clearly begs the question. 

Why No One Mentions Dogs and Aliens Anymore



No one lies about what happened to their homework anymore. We don't tell teachers that the dog ate it, or that aliens stole it. Instead, contemporary excuses are of two sorts. The nativist excuse suggests that there is some innate deficiency in the student that determines that she is unable to achieve success in some discipline. For example, upon receiving a terrible grade on her math test, a student may remark, "I'm just not a math person." According to the nativist, one's success or failure is determined by an innate ability (or inability) to succeed in a given domain of learning. The excuse implies that failure on a test is no more the fault of the student than it is the fault of a car that it cannot laugh.

In contrast, the environment excuse does not presuppose a student's innate ability. Instead the student claims that she is unable to achieve a task due to a deficient environment. "The house was too noisy," "some friends came to stay," or "I didn't have enough sleep" are all environment excuses. This strategy presupposes that one is only obligated to do one's homework if the environment is conducive to doing it. Otherwise, the student has no obligation to complete her homework.

Previous generations would have dismissed such excuses. Take, for example, a farming family living in medieval Britain. If the son said to his father that he was 'just not a farming person', the response would have been incredulity: 'son, you have hands, right? You can pull a plough, right?...Okay, you are a farming person.' To put it another way, (i) human beings are the kinds of things that can farm. (ii) The son is a human being. (iii) Ergo, the son can farm. 

During the same period, if the son had said to his dad, 'I'm unable to read Thomas Aquinas', the father would be equally incredulous. 'Son, you were born in farmhouse. Of course you can't read Thomas Aquinas. If you had been born in Oxford to a family of academics, then you would be well versed in Thomas Aquinas.' The premodern worldview considered the situation of one's birth to be determinative of the form of life one would live. This was not perceived negatively, but as a feature of a rational design of the world. 

The premodern's form of life was determined by the family into which they were born, but their view of human nature presupposed that whatever tasks that form of life demanded were possible due to the fact that those tasks were the kind of tasks humans could do.

In our post-modern context, the reverse is true. One's situation of birth ought not to determine any form of life. On the other hand, we think that we have innate features unique to each individual that determine what we can and cannot do. 

In response to the new homework excuses, we should teach our children three things. First, though some humans are better than other humans at doing certain tasks, we don't generally have innate features that make us non-math people. In other words, we should agree with the premodern - there is such a thing as human nature, a proper functioning of human beings according to our design. 

Second, though what family one is born into has an effect on what opportunities are available, it is not determinative (at least in America) of what career path one may take. This is a modern idea but a good one. It is especially prominent in America and something I admire about this country. 

Finally, though some environments are more or less conducive to doing homework, most are not preventing us from doing it at all and, therefore, do not absolve us of our responsibilities. Certain environments are less conducive to work, but most are not preventative. It seems to me that the environment excuse, if left unchecked, leads to a life in which blame for one's shortcomings never falls anywhere near oneself.

The new excuses are not that new. The these excuses go back at least as far as the call of Moses (Exodus 3-4). At school, I often used the nativist excuse about poetry and math. But as I reflect on the matter, my main problem had nothing to do with not being apt. Instead, I think I was only interested in working on what interested me. If I was not personally invested in something, I did not spend much time on it. I regret being this way at school. 

Human Beings - the New Morality and Kind Determination



Pre-mods generally thought of human beings as a kind. Humans have a nature; they are 'rational beasts' or embodied souls. Mods were not so concerned with human nature; they were more concerned with what we could know and how we could know it. According to mods, we are thinking things or blank slates. In the twilight years of the Enlightenment, Hume cast doubt on whether there was such a thing as human nature. Aren't we all just a bundle of experiences? The first generation of post-mods agreed with his conclusion and suggested that we are all social/linguistic constructs at best.

The most recent generation of post-mods found such skepticism dull. Consequently, they sought to mix some pre-mod in with their view. According to the new post-mod, we have natures but they are not species wide. There is no human kind. At least, if there is such a thing, it is irrelevant. In its place, there only kinds of humans, humans with innate identities known through introspection or observing the kinds of actions we perform. As Fiona Cowie says,
Today, "Nativism Rules, OK"... Features as diverse as scholastic performance, sexual orientation, violence... poverty, alcoholism... susceptibility to diseases, sexual mores, the desire to rape women, the attainment of concepts, language use, even attitudes toward divorce and religion--features that were formerly held to be substantially under environmental control--are now routinely claimed to be largely, if not wholly, innate. 
Part of our moral discourse relies on what we think we are. Thinking that there is a human nature leads a person to believe that there are ways of living that are appropriate to that nature. If so, then all people are obliged to live according to it. This was the view of the founding fathers. Rights were species-wide, universally applicable, nationally protected.

Thinking that there is only my nature or your nature will lead one to think that the appropriate form of life for a person is determined mostly by the nature of that person. When we Christians indicate that a form of life is immoral, our message is received with scorn. Why? Well, if one's moral compass is rooted in the view that one should live according to one's nature, it is immoral to oppose it. Consequently, assertions of universal morality are greeted in the same way we might greet a Nazi. This is self-refuting, of course, since it assumes that there is at least one universal moral law.

There is another consequence of the view. When we praise something for a good life, we generally think of that life having exhibited many of the good qualities of its kind. A human being is praiseworthy if he or she displays great characteristics and those characteristics are characteristics appropriate to being a human.

A contemporary post-mod rejects the basis for such praise. A person is not praiseworthy for exhibiting characteristics appropriate to human kind since either there is no such thing or it is irrelevant. Instead, a post-mod will suggest that a human is praiseworthy if that human lives maximally according to the nature she has. Of course, due to the subjectivity of the knowledge of her nature, she must inform the world of the nature she has. When she has done so, she is worthy of praise when she acts maximally according to that nature.

Consequently, the rest of us are required to be 'warm' or 'affectionate' toward one another as we attempt to live according to our natures. This is often interpreted as the maxim: we must cheer each other on no matter what the nature we have. Enter Facebook likes.

The new nativist post-mod wants to construct the world around herself no less than the old empiricist did. All that has changed is that there is some supposed truth-maker found inside a person, a truth-maker, mind you, that only one person can get at. But what is it? A desire, an idea, a feeling of some sort? Though the new post-mod appears to adopt some of the pre-mod view, she cannot adopt its epistemological justification for it. Whereas a pre-mod justified his views on the basis of publicly observable evidence or rational inferences, the post-mod has no such recourse. She appeals to inner feelings, which are only privately accessible, but feelings don't have truth values.

Furthermore, the pre-mod identified entities according to kinds (at least, those of the Aristotelian variety). But the new post-mod cannot self-identify as anything unless she has knowledge of the kind of thing she identifies herself as. In other words, the new post-mod's theory is parasitic; it is only plausible if one assumes realism about kinds--the very thing she wishes to deny.

Mind you, one might object to the pre-mod view on a similar basis. What accounts for knowledge of kinds? How do we know a carrot is primarily a kind of food and not a kind of snowman's nose? The pre-mod had (and has) one sure ground for his knowledge - theism.

Theism is at least the view that God designs the world according to his purposes and equips its creatures for species-specific knowledge. Human beings are uniquely equipped to discern what's what in the world according to the properties which it possesses. What theism possesses as a worldview is the resources for a kind-determining being. Things are of the kind they are due to the all-determining mind of God. In contrast, the new post-mod, in as far as she rejects any such being, must posit some other kind determiner--herself.

The above picture is not supposed to support any view of immigration policy. I thought the sign was relevant and could be adapted to say, "No way of being human should be illegal" 

From Sentences to God



From a very young age, we can recognize the quality of sentences. We evaluate sentences according to some standard, some criteria of good, bad, better, or worse.

If God created the world then it is likely that he would endow human beings with some way to recognize good and bad sentences according to some standard. One might think that this would entail that human beings know what makes sentences good or bad. But recognition of the value of an entity does not entail knowing what makes it valuable. This is true of good and bad actions as much as it is true of good or bad sentences. One might not know why murder, theft, or deception are bad even though one can recognize them to be so. If so, then it is not necessary that humans know what makes those sentences good or bad.

If God did not create the world, it is implausible to think (a) that sentences have good or bad making properties (b) that we would find bad sentences objectionable. One might reply that what we mean by 'bad' is something like useful. In order for our species to advance, clarity of communication is essential. Thus, we have developed languages that are the most useful means of communicating with one another. Unfortunately, this merely begs the question. Clarity of communication implies a standard--some sentences are more clear than other sentences. Merely suggesting that we have adopted such a standard for the advancement of the species does not avoid the assumption that there is an objective standard to adopt.

Furthermore, the nature of natural human languages does not appear to provide evidence of evolutionary advantage. English, for example, is not merely a mechanism by which human beings advance their selection over other species. Indeed, language is far more complex than a survival mechanism. And, if we were designing a language for this purpose from scratch, we would not choose English!

It seems implausible that we would react to sentences with evaluative judgments of the kind exhibited in an eighth grade classroom. Evaluations are almost always couched in terms of objective value. Sentences are described in aesthetic terms--beautiful, ugly. They are often categorized in an analogous way to how we evaluate the moral status of an action--wrong, wicked, or deviant. This may be for good reason. If God created the world and has designed language for multiple purposes (truth-telling, worship, fellowship), then one would expect him to have designed humans with the ability to recognize and evaluate utterances and inscriptions.

Logic and Obligations



Jason Lisle argues that we have a moral obligation to be logical: "Thinking rightly is not optional... It is something God requires of us." His argument is as follows:

To think logically is to think – in a sense – like God thinks. And, by definition, to be logical is to reason correctly. This makes sense when we consider that God always thinks correctly. God is the ultimate standard of correctness. So if you want to think about a particular topic correctly, you must think about it in the same basic way that God does.

The argument depends on what it means to think about something 'in the same basic way that God does'. Presumably, this does not mean that we think about some topic in exactly the same way. After all, God does not arrive at conclusions. He does not infer to the best explanation. His knowledge is comprehensive. Thus, he already knows the conclusion and the explanation.

So, what does 'basic way' mean? It is temping to think that we must merely agree with God about what we are thinking about. If God thinks the grass is green, then, if we think the grass is green, we are agreeing with God -- thinking like him. But Dr. Lisle has more in mind than merely affirming the same propositions as God affirms. He says that we ought to use logical reasoning in the same way God uses it. It may be that a person agrees with God about the color of the grass without using any inferences. We are not merely obligated to affirm the same propositions as God, but to arrive at those propositions in the right way.

But what do we mean by 'the right way'? If we are obligated to use logic, logic must be some form of law. One is only obligated, if there is a rule of some kind. In this case, perhaps the rule is in the form of a command from God. God commands us to reason in a certain way in virtue of which we are obligated to obey. This appears to be what Dr. Lisle is suggesting. According to Dr. Lisle, when we fail to think logically, we sin against God:

Sin is disobedience to God (Romans 5:19). And it is sin to think irrationally. This is because (1) God always thinks rationally, and (2) we are commanded to think like God – to take captive every thought into obedience to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5)...Our mind is a gift from God, and we are obligated to Him to use our mind correctly – in the way that God intends...The study of logic is not merely an academic topic. It is an aspect of sanctification: the transformation of our character to conform to the image of God.

So, if we fail to think logically, we are failing to meet an obligation to obey a divine command. Consequently, since failing to meet a divine command is sinful, if we fail to think logically, we are committing sin. On this interpretation, the laws of logic are divine prescriptions for human reasoning established in accordance with his divine nature. To think rightly is not necessarily to think in the same way as God thinks but to think in such a way that we obey the laws God has established for human thought.

One might object that one is culpable for failing to meet an obligation only if we have knowledge of such an obligation. A person who has not taken Logic 101 may say that she is not obligated to use logic. If one doesn't know the rules, how could one be responsible? Moreover, if we are obligated to use logic, why doesn't the Bible include a book on it?

Dr. Lisle suggests that the laws of logic are either innate or acquired. He suggests that laws of thought are somewhat like moral laws. They are clearly known by all human beings even though we are not sure how they are known. Paul may have implied a form of nativism when he writes, "For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them" (Rom 2:14-15). Ultimately, Dr. Lisle's argument does not depend on how the laws of logic are known. One might suggest that laws of logic are acquired by human beings since they are exhibited in the world. Perhaps laws of logic are known in the same way natural law is known.

The fundamental point Dr. Lisle makes is that the world in which we live is infused with normativity. Our actions, thoughts, and speech are subject to laws prescribed by God. In confession, Christians acknowledge sin in all three areas. I'll leave you with a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer:

Most merciful God, 
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we earnestly repent.
For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ, 
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in thy will,
and walk in thy ways,
to the glory of thy Name. Amen.

Picture borrowed from Answers in Genesis. 

Alexander Campbell's Argument for the Existence of God



Alexander Campbell was an influential pastor in 19th century. He came up with an interesting argument for the existence of God. I saw it nicely analyzed by Caleb Clanton. Campbell argues that human beings must have obtained the concept of God at some time in the past. But what best explains the cause of our having such a concept? There are five plausible options. First, the idea of God is innate to human minds. We never really obtained the concept; it was always within us. Second, the concept of God was acquired through direct experience of God. Third, the concept of God was arrived at by experience and reflection. Fourth, the concept of God is a product of human imagination. Finally, the concept of God was revealed to human beings by a being that has the ability to reveal concepts to human beings.

Campbell argues that the best explanation for the concept of God in human minds is that God revealed it to us. He argues that all the other options have serious flaws.

First, Campbell agrees with John Locke on innate ideas. Locke argued that human beings are born with minds that are ‘blank slates.’ Locke argued that it does not follow from knowledge being universal that it must be innate. It may just be that there are some truths that are more obvious than others. Moreover, children do not appear to have any innate knowledge of true propositions because they do not understand them. If one replies that they have dispositional knowledge of those propositions, but not occurrent knowledge, then Locke replies that this new definition of innate implies that all propositions we come to know are innately known. One might reply that innate knowledge is knowledge of how to do something, an ability. Locke replies that having an ability does not entail knowledge any more than having the ability to see entails perceiving anything.

Second, Campbell argues that if we gain knowledge through experience, then it is not possible to gain the concept of God unless God appears to our senses. At this point Campbell makes a general point about what humans experience in the world. Objects of sensations are not spiritual objects. Thus, without an act of God in revealing himself via objects of sensations, we could not acquire the concept of God.

Third, If our experience of the world is not sufficient to produce a concept of God, then we could not acquire it by reflecting on our experience. This is also true of the imagination. If experience does not provide the raw materials for the concept of God and the imagination operates only with the materials it is given, then the imagination could not produce the concept of God. With one's imagination, one might be able to modify what is experienced but not conceive of something quite outside it.

Campbell argues that the only plausible explanation we are left with is that God must act to reveal himself if human beings are to acquire a concept of God. And, if so, then if human beings have a concept of God, then God exists. Since we do indeed have a concept of God, Campbell argues, then God exists.

Presumably, Campbell has in mind incidents in which God appears to human beings in a manner for which their intellectual equipment was designed. Clearly, this is how the Bible portrays many human experiences of God. God is said to take human form in the garden. At least, he is said to "walk" in the garden. Abraham is confronted by the Lord in human form. Moses hears the voice of God in a burning bush. And Paul confronts a bright light and an audible voice on the road to Damascus. Of course, there are many other incidents in which we are not told the exact nature of the human experience of God. Prophets are told what to say, but we do not know whether those 'tellings' are audible or involve any means by which the natural senses of humans are abel to receive. The point presumably is that the concept of God is acquired by humans through God using experienceable means. Once humans have this experience, they have acquired the concept.

There are a number of objections one might pose to Campbell's argument. The most promising lines of attack are to show how one might obtain the concept of God via one of Campbell's discarded means. Why not defend a nativist position? Alternatively, why not say that we can experience God through experience? William Alston argues that this is precisely what we do when we join a community of people who are open to experiencing divine reality.

Let's assume that Campbell is right: we can only acquire the concept of God from God himself as he reveals himself through sensible means. Let's say that God took on a form that humans can experience. Let's say that he did this in the garden. Adam and Eve experienced God first hand and God told them about himself. He gave them sufficient information about himself so that they acquired the concept of God that we still have today.

If so, then what follows? If the concept of God can be revealed in this way, then either God's talk about himself is sufficient for humans to acquire a concept of God, or God demonstrated his attributes in such a way that humans could piece together a concept, or somehow both talk and action are sufficient for the task.

If talk on its own is sufficient, then terms that do not apply to experienceable entities can convey meaningful content. God could talk about himself and use terms like 'immutability', 'necessary existence', and 'timelessness' and be sure that his human interlocutors would gain those concepts merely through hearing those words. Although Adam and Eve would not be able to experience 'immutability' they would know what it was when God said it. Analogously, we know what atoms are without ever experiencing them.

The problem with this is that, according to those who follow in the Lockean tradition, introducing concepts via language relies on concepts already present in the mind of the hearer. Indeed, this is how empiricism works - theoretical terms like 'atom' have content precisely because they are either analogous to experienceable terms like 'billiard ball' or because they are defined by an observable operation. If concepts are innate, then God's use of the term, 'immutable' would have content, but Campbell's argument has already rejected nativism.

A more contemporary view might help Campbell's argument. Linguistic nominalists hold that concepts are identical to linguistic expressions. This is a far cry from Locke's view. Locke held that concepts are mental items analogous to images. The trouble with this view is that if true then the name 'God' and the predicate 'immutable' are sufficient for concept acquisition. It is far from clear that they are.

If, on the other hand, God is able to demonstrate his attributes in such a way that the first humans could gain concepts of his attributes, then God would have to give Adam and Eve first hand experiences of those attributes. However, it is difficult to imagine how this would go. Do we think God took the first humans to a timeless place to show them timelessness or to a changeless place to show them immutability?

One might reply that God merely has to show them an instance of power and extrapolate up to maximal power. Perhaps God is able to show humans timelessness by pointing at time or changelessness by saying that it is the opposite of change. The problem is that we could do this without him showing it to us. We gain concepts like this all the time without the need for divine revelation.

If neither conversation nor demonstration is sufficient (or possible) for God to reveal a concept of himself to human beings, then what?

So, here is a suggestion. Instead of considering God's causal means as human experience or linguistic input, why not think about God's concepts? Here is a sketch of what I'm getting at:

(1) God is a 'soul' or 'mind'
(2) Concepts are not abstract objects but are, as Locke held, some form of concrete mental event
(3) God is omniscient so all concepts reside 'in' God's mind
(4) God is omnipresent. His being is present at every point.
(5) If God's being is present at every point and God is a mind, then the concepts that are in God's mind are present at every point
(6) Human persons are minds/souls
(7) Human minds have some concepts
(8) Human minds are present at limited locations
(9) God's concepts are present at every point at which a human mind is present
(10) Human minds can 'grasp' the concepts that are in the mind of God

The idea is that the mind of God is able to reveal the concept of God since one of the concepts in the mind of God is the concept of God. God causes human minds to grasp the concept of God by his presence at the same point as the mind of human beings. Such a view does not entail nativism since God determines what concept he causes to be grasped by human minds. Furthermore, such a view explains the similarity of concepts across human minds.

If so, then Campbell's argument has a substantive defense of the last premise--that God causes human beings to have a concept of God. The defense can retain its Lockean view of concepts as mental events and avoids an appeal to nativism.

Much of the analysis of Campbell's argument I acquired from J. Caleb Clanton, “Alexander Campbell’s Revealed-Idea Argument for the Existence of God” Restoration Quarterly 54 (2012): 105–124. Apparently he also has a book on Campbell.