To (any) reader…
The inversion of ontology and the relative problem of the probability of something
Most of the challenges to my faith over the past 20 years or so have not really been about the ‘truth of faith’ per se, but have generally been about my inability to ‘step into the stream of life therein’. [The challenges of the first 20 years were either sanctimoniously ignored—smile—or not even recognized as such—they might have been perceived as challenges, but not necessarily as challenges to my faith. I only began daily journaling in 1989 so I don’t have much access to my experiences before then.] I know this Christian system ‘works’ –the theology ‘matches’ human experience—but I have often despaired of knowing how to ‘apply it’ or how to map my particular life course or situations into the ‘principles’ taught in Scripture.
As a young man, this problem was probably due to my desire to make the system ‘predictable’ (ie, controllable—sigh!), in either mechanistic ways (“these inputs produce these outputs”) or magical ways (“this prayer formula –a specific sequence of words-- is 37% more successful than that sequence of words”). I expected the Christian ‘slogans’ to apply to a fringe person like me—and they didn’t. They were by-and-large trustworthy for ‘normals’, but I was constantly disappointed and disillusioned by them—although I continued to try to make them ‘work’ for me. God –in His gentleness, practicality, and wisdom—generally overlooked my amateur attempts at a form of “Christian shamanism” [LOL], and more-often-than-not answered my prayers anyway and granted the results anyway. I KNEW –and taught—that it was at the core a personal relationship with the Living God (who was free to make choices as to His actions)—but my scarred little psyche just was not comfortable with that level of ‘vulnerability’. I wanted the 99% predictability of Proverbs (even though it specifically disclaims that level of life-predictability at places), and was terrified by even a 1% chance of the experience of Job or the painful deliberately-agnostic despair of Ecclesiastes.
Of course, most of these types of challenges occurred in times of crises, where the ‘need’ for ‘predictable solutions’ seemed acute.
[Resumed July 6th—see what I meant about interruptions!]
The last 20 years (almost—the Tank was launched in Dec of 1995) has also been filled with the experiences of the Tank, as I tried to dive into the difficult questions of the faith and see where grace and truth revealed themselves therein. This created a massive weight of psychological experience, teaching me over and over and over again that God was trustworthy, that His revelation was credible (by our standards), and that He was ‘generously accessible’ for those who sincerely were drawn to Him.
Almost all of the questions I have wrestled with, worked through, and have been changed by have centered on aspects of the records of God’s interaction within history (e.g. data about facts in the Bible), with the experiences of those who have approached/retreated from God (e.g., ‘why can I not hear God audibly’, ‘Why does God not give us proof?’), or with selected themes/teachings that have been traditionally derived from those records and experiences (e.g. theology, ethics, the character of God).
These have dealt with questions about the past or the present—I have excluded from the scope of study anything dealing with the future (e.g., eschatology, the afterlife), except as it has been a component of another topic. For example, one cannot ignore eschatological themes when dealing with the question of “was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet” and one cannot ignore the various understandings of the afterlife when dealing with the question of “is there more good than bad in the universe?”
But within the last 2-3 years a new challenge has appeared in my thinking, that has twisted my head into torus-like structures every so often, and the response I have developed in dealing with it is what I wanted to write about here—in case others have it or a similar challenge.
The response is two-fold, one dealing with ‘inversion of ontology as value’ and one dealing with ‘relative probabilities of the improbables’.
I thought I had written on the ‘inversion’ principle before, in earlier letters on the Tank, but I cannot find any mention of it as I write this in a hotel in California, so I will have to state it here (and possibility duplicate the material…sigh).
The problem is related to the ‘apparent’ (this word choice will be the topic of discussion below) gap between the God as He has revealed Himself in His creation of history and in His interventions within history, and the God as He ‘must be’ (theologically and philosophically) to have been ‘able’ to do this. Every theological student in the monotheist Abrahamic faiths knows of this problem, and normally has had to survey (in coursework) how their individual traditions have tried to understand this (e.g., Thomism, Process theology, Mutazilla, Nominalists).
When I was a young student, the issue was phrased as a ‘conflict’ (almost) between the particular (‘biblical theology’) and the universal/generic (‘systematic theology’). Systematic theology was faulted as making ‘hasty generalizations’ from particular textual elements—ignoring context and culture, it was claimed. And systematic theologians responded with accusations that the ‘biblical theologians’ had rendered Scripture powerless to even SAY anything about the Living God of the present.
Most students I knew at the time took this with a grain of salt, believing that every biblical particular (e.g., God’s intervention in the Exodus) was the manifestation of a theological universal (e.g. the character of God as faithful and loyal), and that proper exegesis and spirituality would allow that universal to speak to us, shape our thinking, and infuse our life with His vitality and moral beauty.
Of course, in the study of philosophical theology, the air got pretty rarified up there… Some theological predicates (postulated by various traditions) about the absolutely unique being who called Himself “God” (e.g., timelessness, aseity, impassibility, simplicity, unrelatedness, incorrigibility) seemed like reasonable inferences from the particulars of the revelation, but more we reflected on it, the more inert and/or impersonal God appeared. (I personally attribute this to my belief that the category ‘person’ doesn’t map well into descriptions by such attributes—which might more properly be attributed to ‘substances’—but this is not the topic here, and the way I have worded it here is too naïve and too ‘dichotomous’ to begin with).
But you get the point—God as He ‘must be’ seemed to be at dissonance with the God as revealed. Of course, this was only at certain points—most of the theological and historical material matched well enough. And therefore, most of us have a comfort level with these few points of ‘I do not KNOW how God can be X and still say Y or do Z’. God is unique in the Abrahamic monotheist traditions, so some of these things are to be expected.
But the dissonance (ie, history-versus-timeless) problem arises for me in a very specific context: what am I PERSONALLY going to ‘be like’ in eternity/afterlife?
The question is essentially this: what mix of particularity and universality will MY character and/or experience be?
We do not have much revelatory data to work with here (IMO), and I have little faith in the NDEs as either a reliable guide as to what happens AT DEATH, or as a reliable guide as to what would be happening to me a MILLION YEARS hence (assuming ‘million years’ is a relevant term in eternity, obviously). Thus, I find myself swinging pendulum-style between some notion of the ‘particular glenn’ (e.g., I will remember everything about my human experience, including my emotional states—including despair, pain, malice, coldness, insensitivity, rebellion, panic—and I will be able to learn and grow in heaven) and some notion of a ‘universal, generic glenn’ (e.g., I will remember none of them—‘the former things will not be remembered’—and will be fully sanctified and incorrigible).
This is a false dichotomy, of course, but at least it represents the poles of the tension. I could articulate the contrast also in terms of soul versus spirit, perhaps, given some restricted understandings of those. That is, the soul as repository of the particular points/experiences of my life versus my spirit as the ‘approach’ or ‘life force’ or ‘transcendental element’ which makes the soul’s experience possible and ‘transferable’ to another later body.
[This is woefully imprecise and painfully oversimplified—I am obviously struggling with how to express this ‘contrast’(?) or distinction?—but anybody who was wondered about what their deceased family members will ‘look like’ when they see them in heaven senses the core of the issue.
My younger brother died as a 5 year old when I was 9. If I die this year at 62, will I look like a 9 year old or a 62 year old to him in heaven? Or will we both be some ‘generic’ age (i.e., less particular and more universal; more spirit than soul)? That’s a simplistic image of the problem, but it gets to the heart of the question.
There’s not much data on this specific topic, that I can find in scripture. Jesus’ post-resurrection body had the nailprint scars and no blinding luminosity, but His appearances later (e.g. to Paul on the Damascus road, to John in the visions of the Apocalypse) had strong luminous elements. The appearance to the martyr Stephen was not marked by luminosity, but this was perhaps a vision as well—which included the physical act of standing.
Elijah and Moses could have a ‘particular’ conversation with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, and Abraham could experience joy at the incarnation. And Jubilee images (blind will see, lame will leap like a lamb) support physical improvement and not just some bodiless existence.
The general ‘tenor’ of Holy Writ affirms personal continuity, even to the point of it being a comfort for families separated by death. This suggests to me that post-mortem experience is/has plenty of particularity (especially since at least the judgment aspect of that post-mortem time includes references to ‘every idle work’ and ‘everything done in the body whether good or bad’). Or, more probably, MORE particularity than I have now (e.g., God’s plenitude can be expressed in terms of robustness and infinity of detail—visions of Mandelbrot?). Different discussion, different direction—later maybe.
Okay, back to the point (hopefully).
The more I reflect on what ‘I must be like in the afterlife’ in order to enjoy those treasures who have preceded me in death and eventually those treasures who join us later in time, the more ‘distant from my historical self’ I would seem to have to be. I am NOT interested in some time of peaceful-but-unconscious nirvana (!) but rather in vibrant social communion/interaction as the Trinity experiences it internally!
Of course, this problem exists because I have so little data from which to extrapolate. This is not an area that the Lord has given us much disclosure about. I have commented before on how ‘low resolution’ this experience seems to be. I often think of how ‘arbitrary’ it all seems in its ‘structure’—like the statement ‘the world is a stage and we are but actors upon it’—but with it more that ‘mortal life is a one-act play’ that develops and reveals who we are and/or who we are becoming (for better or worse). And that the translation of the ‘finished’ self to the afterlife preserves more of the character and less of the context within it.
Again, I trust the Lord on this—I do not have the slightest doubt that I will understand more ‘by and by’. So, by itself, this is ‘tolerable’ although ‘frustrating’ somewhat.
But, when I put that together with one “customized” version of the ‘scandal of particularity’, the stronger force manifests itself.
[Resumed July 13, 2013]
The version of the scandal that I am talking about has to do with the disparity between the immense ‘scale’ of God and the seemingly ‘restricted’ scope of His public operations in the universe.
Historically, the Scandal of Particularity was articulated as being about how a Universal God would act so decisively in human history in such a localized way--by becoming incarnate in a specific human being (Jesus) and deriving universal redemptive results based upon that single individual/life.
But I have borrowed/morphed the term into a different wording--but with a related notion of ‘improbability’. This version is similar to objections sometimes heard from distinguished scientists (especially astro-physicists?) who argue that any God that created the immense universe we now see would not likely focus (or apparently even ‘confine’) His attention on/to such a minute speck as the planet Earth, nor on such an insignificant group as ‘humanity’. Arguments from cosmology about the ‘fine tuning’ of the universe to support human life on earth are looked at suspiciously, as if God had to ‘waste’ all of the rest of the universe just to support human existence!
There is no logical (in the philosophical sense) version of either version of the ‘Scandal’ (just like there is no surviving logical version of the Problem of Evil argument), but the ‘sense of improbability’ of such local-only , reduced-scope-only operations by God gives it a similar force to that of the evidential version of the PoE.
In order words, in the evidential PoE, the existence of evil counts as (some) evidence against the existence of a (traditionally-envisioned) moral and omnipotent God. In my little version of the Scandal (a mixture of the cosmological version and the theological one), the improbability of such localized action counts as (some) evidence against the existence of a (traditionally-envisioned) infinite and universal God.
The improbability seems to increase (get worse) the ‘bigger’ the universe seems to us, although there are many many ways to challenge this IMO.
But intuitively, the force of the argument seems real to me. I can ‘feel’ the gap between what my ‘high view of God’ would predict His actions to be, and what His particular disclosures about His ‘restricted scope’ actions portray.
Now, it should be obvious to all that there are many defeaters of or at least ways to attack this general position.
*We could argue (as some have) that the large-scale was required to even have the small-scale ‘stage’ on which His actions could be manifested. This response shows up in some of the fine-tuning proponent literature.
*We could argue that there is no way to move from ‘we see only a limited set of actions’ to ‘there only IS a limited set of actions’ ( a formal problem of logical inference);
*We could argue that background actions (massive in scale via physics) which are not ‘visible’(less visible?) are just as significant as the limited-scope ‘visible’ ones;
*We could argue that the actions in human history are not necessarily unique in all of ‘created reality’--that for all we know there might be a gazillion other planets/universes in ‘other cases of created existence’ in which similar creative/redemptive/re-creative acts of God might be present. We have no way of knowing whether the Son took on other creaturely natures for redemptive purposes in other situations.] We have no reason to claim that ‘our universe’ is the only one God created/could have created. This is so far out of our ability to judge (or probably even ‘discuss’). [Of course, if each ‘universe’ like this were like THIS one, then the probability problem would just ‘scale’ with the number of universes, possibly.]
*We could argue (with some support, actually, from passages like Eh 2.7; 3.10; 1 Pet 1.12) that the entire limited-scope operation of God in human history is simply a ‘sample’ or piece of evidence in a larger, more universal, ‘heavenly’ dialogue/conflict. The eternal aspects (of the plan of God) as described in the Bible present the earth as a subset of a larger narrative (a cosmological one in involving the entire created universe, and a larger ‘spiritual’/ heavenly one), and as such its ‘scale’ is determined by the scale of the context--in both cases (cosmos/universal, heavenly) ‘large’ enough to eliminate the scale-mismatch problem. This would make the case of human history like the story of Job: a particular case in the context of a larger, heavenly argument between God and the Accuser. In that case, the character of God as intrinsically desirable (and not just as a provider of benefits) was under dispute. In the case of human history, it might be other issues (eg, the efficacy of God’s love versus just His force/power, the vitality of the social dimensions of the Trinity, the congruence between power and humility). This could be a fruitful approach, but it involves considerations that might be at least as complex as the problem itself. Eg, the ‘experiment’ aspect of this [like Job], might suggest that it was an after-thought or consequence of a prior ‘step’ in an argument, whereas the biblical witness is that this was the ‘eternal plan of God from the start’. Of course, theologians place all types/numbers of ‘sequences’ in the eternal past (cf. the ordo salutis) , so it could still be BOTH ‘response’ and ‘primordial’.
*I would certainly argue that the vast number of astronomical entities and scale of the universe is NOT ‘wasted’ in ANY sense, but this is because of my theological understanding of God’s love for beauty and life. I wouldn’t ‘put it past Him’ (smile) to have created a universe (or many universes) without ANY life in it--simply as expression of His artist heart and love for beauty.
[I was reminded of this this past week, as I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The exhibits on jellyfish and the anemones confronted me --again, like in the case of wildflowers -- with the fact that the vast majority of these abjectly beautiful creatures and their dance-motions are never ‘enjoyed’ by anyone but God. [The angels might look too, I suppose, but that wouldn’t reduce the force of the argument [But they may actually be the agents doing the creative acts under God’s directions.] The scale of these creatures are both minute (in physical size) and massive (in population size). Astronomical entities and scales are similar--they would be ‘minute’ when compared to ‘God’ (category mistake, I realize, but the point is obvious) and ‘massive’ in sheer numbers in our infinite-yet-bounded or finite-yet-unbounded universe. But even then, the ‘massive aspect’ is irrelevant--God could have made only ONE daisy and be perfectly justified in this act of ‘particularity’ via this understanding (with due respect and admiration for Chesterton’s ‘do it again!’ truth!). With a love for beauty--regardless of scale--the minuteness of earth, humanity, and even of the universe itself (relative to the God of the theologians) is frankly irrelevant as an argument against His making such.]
Which leads me to the first half of the title (‘inversion of ontology’)… (thought I would never get here, did you?--smile--such a bunch of skeptics…smile)…
[I would have sworn that I had written this point up before, but I cannot find it on the Tank for the life of me…]
The bible has a consistent theme of ‘reversal of status’ (or maybe ‘removal of status’) for the New Future. ‘The proud shall be humbled and the humble exalted’, and role-reversal (mostly status, not behavior necessarily) are fairly pervasive themes. Sometimes it is the ‘leveling’ aspect that is emphasized (eg, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female--for you are all one in Christ”; or the ‘smoothing of paths’; or the Common wealth of 2 Cor 8.13ff).
Related to this, IMO, is the ‘re-scaling’ of values. When Jesus makes the comment to His disciples that the widow put in ‘more than all the others’, because of her financial context (Luke 21.1-4), we see a re-scaling of values. The principle that giving is related to what one has, instead of some absolute number (2 Cor 8.12) is a similar re-scaling of a ‘good work’. Charitable deeds, of course, are re-scaled by a number of factors, such as desire for recognition or praise (cf. Matt 6.2 and parallels, and Acts 5.1-11).
Then, the next step in my wild speculation is to factor in the non-spatial character of our God, and the redefinition of ‘scale’ to something more like ‘intensity of essence’.
The imprecise image I have of this is one of God looking ‘into’ the universe and seeing things using a ‘different filter’ than space-time-matter-energy. The analogy I think of is infrared vision in which intensity of an object’s heat is seen, rather than physical size of an object. (Between heat-emitting objects, there is distance of course, but my point in the analogy is that intensity is what is visible and not scale of an object, except incidentially.)
If I assume a filter of ‘conformity to Reality’ (God being the ultimate reality by which all other ‘levels’ of reality are derived and ‘measured’), then what God would ‘see’ would be the aspects of Himself instantiated in creation in various forms.
The prime examples of more intense elements would be the “image of God” embedded in humanity (whether one considers this term/title a functional one or ontological category--both could still work in this argument), and/or the ‘image of Christ’ in redeemed and re-constituted human beings. So, under this filter, the incarnate Christ would be a blinding light (point and source), and evil agencies would be like mini-black holes or something. Believers would have different intensities, depending on their level of progressive sanctification (ie, conformity to the image of Christ), and pre-believers (giving everyone the benefit of the doubt!) different intensities depending on their acceptance/embodiment of ‘common grace’ moralities and ‘borrowed’ ethics from natural revelation or contact with other Images of Christ in their life situation.
[This might could be related to/connected with hierarchy of freedom (as an aspect of God’s nature), as described in the Black and Blue Books on the tank: bnb001026.html]
[For a bizarre image related to re-scaling, consider the work done on representation of the body inside the cortex. The ‘sensory homunculus’ and ‘motor homunculus’ models- https://www.jwz.org/blog/2004/12/sensory-homunculus/ show an ‘informational gap’ (?) between the brain and the scale of the body. I realize this is a very loose connection, but again, it is for illustrating the point of ‘filters’.]
If you follow this ‘intensity of reality’ model out, what you end up with are ideas that a simple believing child might appear significantly more ‘intense’ than a self-righteous do-gooder, and a humble, honest, value-sharing, struggling single parent more ‘intense’ than a billion cubic millions of space and/or cosmic matter. When the ‘scale’ becomes intensity, and when the basal metric is ‘degree of being’ instead of physical size/distance/force, then physical ontology is replaced with a ‘spiritual ontology’ (words are difficult here). The Incarnate Christ--in this model--would have been ‘larger than’ the entire known universe (under this filter).
This is a redefinition of scale (but not really of ‘ontology’, under this understanding btw). Strictly speaking, it is not an ‘inversion’ of ontology (as my title might suggest), but the practical effects would almost look like it. That is, the tiniest baby might be ‘larger than’ the largest nebula, and the evil ‘powers and principalities’ might be “black holes”, shadows, or simply infinitesimally small objects (various definitions of ‘evil’ would suggest different representations).
One can also relate C.S. Lewis’ descriptions of the flora in the Great Divorce as being so ‘heavy’ because of their ‘intense reality’, or the way the spirit figure in a scene of Out of the Silent Planet seems to be standing crooked, until the main character/Ransom senses that it is the room itself that is crooked compared to the angelic figure.
Now, to close this though out, I need to point out that my mention of God ‘wearing a filter when looking at the universe’ is an inversion itself. It is WE who see our existence through a ‘filter’, and it is GOD that sees it the way ‘it really is’. My view of space-time-matter-energy objects and motions are ‘filtered’ by my own nature as embedded in that nexus. Our views are ‘true’ and ‘accurate’ but--to use a biblical image--we cannot see ‘into the heart’ or probe the nature of spirit … we just do not have the perceptual tools or resolution or precision or ‘absoluteness’(?) to go there. [This is apart from being locked into the practical and good-enough-for-us structures talked about in the Linguistic Wall (phil0615.html).]
But for me--historically--this ‘inversion’ motif has been adequate to defuse the scale-implies-improbability argument, at least emotionally. The older I get and the more I actually ‘see’ the moral intensity in people, acts, and beauty around me, the more this ‘inversion of ontology’ argument seems on target --and prophetic about MY future ‘nature’ when I am fully conformed to the image of Christ(!), and I leave the constraining/tainting debris of my own acts of moral anti-luminosity behind… (“Thank you, Lord, for the promise and proof of the ‘redemption’ of this body--unto the freedom and incandescence of your New Future”).
So, this first point has sufficed more-or-less over the past few years, but a new response has emerged that challenges even the intuitive force of the scale-against-probability objection. I merely call it the “Relative Probability of Something Problem”. It’s just the old ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ question, recast into a probabilistic context.
Remember, the force of the scale-against-probability argument was largely intuitive and/or emotional. It was not precise or stated in logical form, but was an evidential argument. [Evidential arguments CAN be laid out in more precise forms of course, but their power to get us to take them ‘seriously’ comes--IMO--from our holistic response to them.
A similar concept can be seen in the evidential form of the PoE. If it only uses ‘everyday evil’ for its fodder, the conclusion it argues for does not appear as compelling or urgent. But put ‘horrific evil’ into it--the subject of intense theological and philosophical reflection--then the God-inscribed ‘common grace’ mechanisms legitimately cry out that the data must be taken very, very seriously.
So, there’s no real way to assign a real ‘probability’ number to the scale argument, but it nets out to the more simple ‘is it more probable than not that the real universal God would act so particularly?’.
If we ‘feel’ that it is LESS probable that such a God would act so, then to that level of ‘feeling’ we would deny the existence of such a god.
[Of course, as a student/follower of classic Christianity, I have tons of other ‘reasons’ and evidence to support my belief in such a God. This is merely analysis of another anti-God argument--and not a decisive one at that… ]
Okay, here’s where the “Relative Probability of Something Problem” comes in--as a ‘contrary’ probability argument to compare with this one--at an intuitive level.
At the simplest form--and the strongest one, in its force on my psyche--it goes like this:
“The probability that there would be something rather than nothing without a god, is SO MUCH LOWER THAN the probability that such a God would not act particularly that the latter improbability is rendered almost negligible/neutral by comparison”.
So, when coupled with the fact that ‘something exists’, this argues that such a god exists--and that all bets on ‘probable behavior’ are therefore ‘off’.
BTW, the ‘something from nothing’ issue is not about physics or infinite universes or any such mechanisms, but is about brute existence. Virtual particles, big-bangs, who-made-God questions, and cyclical emergence-collapse-emergence patterns are completely irrelevant to this issue: why anything at all?
The various versions of cosmological arguments can be attacked and defended, but --at the INTUITIVE LEVEL, where the objection hits--the ‘improbability of something from nothing’ is hugely difficult to dismiss. This means that --at an intuitive level--the ‘evidential argument’ for the ultra-cosmic/pre-cosmic existence of a designer/creator God is significantly ‘more compelling than not’ (or, in better form: “more compelling than the NULL hypothesis” perhaps). [In fact, the more complex and intricate the alleged ‘something from nothing’ MECHANISMS are, the more awesome --IMO--the Designer/Creator God appears…]
[Of course, eliminating the force of the scale-against-probability in no way argues that God DID act so in history, but merely that it was not ‘unlikely’ of Gid.
When this is placed against the scale-against-probability objection, the emotional force of the latter improbability is muted--at the intuitive level-- by the former.
I realize that this is pitting one mystery against another, and that there are many soft spots I could attack/question in the above argument (if it can even be called an 'argument'--it is mostly an 'exhibition' of sorts), but at the intuitive level--where the Scandal-objections hit--I find these two approaches to be satisfying and ‘reasonable’, and even to lead me to a greater awe of, respect for, wonderment at, and delight in the God of truth, beauty, and love. And when coupled with the various approaches mentioned above (eg, God and beauty, Job-like scale), the overall mix of the 'reasoning trajectories' seems to satisfy me even more deeply.
Hope this helps… little glenn… struggling under workload, travel, and family demands--appreciate your prayers.
July 13, 2013,
glenn the little--