Terrorists, Microchips, and other Half-Baked Frankfurters

Frankfurt cases are classic thought experiments used to explore the necessary conditions of a free choice. Allegedly, they demonstrate that the principle of alternative possibility (PAP) is not a necessary condition. In other words, even if something is all you can do, you can still do it freely. Here are a few common examples to get the gist.

  • Scenario A: Suppose you are running out of a burning building and you reach the ground floor. Ten feet to your left is a door labeled Exit A and ten feet to your right is a door labeled Exit B. You choose Exit A and escape to safety. Unbeknownst to you, Exit B was actually blocked on the outside by a giant beam and could not have been opened.
  • Scenario B: Suppose there is an evil scientist who has been hired by the Donald Trump campaign in the battleground state of Colorado. This evil scientist is systematically installing microchips into people’s brains under the guise that they are Pokémon Go updates. In reality, they are chips to ensure that the individual votes for Donald Trump. If the person attempts to vote for Gary Johnson, the chip activates and changes their mind to Trump. Come Election Day, some voter, Ash, has a chip in his brain. He’s in the booth and decides that he wants to Make America Great Again™ and freely votes Trump. However, he could not have voted for anyone else but Trump.
  • Scenario C: Every evening from 6pm – 7pm, I make a cuppa joe and read from a book from my personal library. Suppose at 6:15pm, a terrorist runs into my house, points a gun at my head and says “Read that book for the next 45mins or I shoot!” I look at him and tell him it won’t be a problem because that what I wanted to do anyways. I freely read my book even though I can’t do otherwise. (This example is adapted from the great Protestant pope Ronald Nash).

I have two problems with the Frankfurt cases. First, I don’t find them convincing and second, they don’t bear the argumentative weight that some people think.

As stated, the purpose of these thought experiments is to show that the PAP is not necessary for a choice to be free. However, the strength of the argument is completely dependent on how broadly or finely one defines a possibility. Here, I appeal to Sarte’s notion of “radical freedom” in that every choice is a free choice and every situation is a freedom permitting circumstance. The standard example is of a group of hikers who going up a mountain encounter a giant boulder blocking their path. “We have no choice but to turn back”, says the leader of the group. “False,” retorts Sarte “for you have the choice to jump off of the mountain to your near-certain death”. Sarte is correct in that there are alternative possibilities in this case and in all of the above Frankfurt examples. You can choose to die in the burning building, get shot by the terrorist, or kick over the voting machine and urinate on it. There is nothing about the thought experiments that precludes any of these behaviors, thus, the hypothetical scenarios don’t truly demonstrate a lack of alternative possibilities.

The above retort is only true in the finely grained sense of “alternative possibilities”. On a more broad understanding, this isn’t the case. (By “broad”, I’m referring to the way we typically use “I had no choice” e.g. “I had no choice but to swerve off the road – I was going to run over a child”. Sure, you could run over the kid, but c’mon). In the broad sense, these scenarios might eliminate alternatives because (i) given that I want to escape the burning building, I must choose Exit A, (ii) given that Ash is going to vote, he must choose Trump and (iii) given that I don’t want to die, I must stay in my chair. Even still, I don’t think that Scenarios A and B truly capture a lack of alternative possibilities in the broad sense. Surely there is a difference between picking Exit A first and choosing Exit A after learning Exit B is locked. Equally, there is a difference between voting for Trump because the chip detected a Johnson vote and voting for Trump first. The terrorist example comes closest to truly creating a no-alternatives scenario, but, also shows the limitation of Frankfurt-style arguments.

It creates a problem for divine determinists (e.g. Calvinists) because it is by mere happenstance that the choice and the external limits coincide. My decision-making process is entirely independent of the terrorist’s, yet, they both line up by luck. The divine determinist wants to say that God sovereignly determined all events, not that His decree happens to line up with what His creatures have already decided. Notice how the terrorist has no causal relevance in the scenario. If he were or were not there, I would still read my book. To say that this scenario is some kind of parallel to the divine decree is to make the decree causally irrelevant, which is the exact opposite of what the divine determinist is wanting.

To use another illustration, suppose there is a grid of numbered squares in a large field. Each odd-numbered square has a land mine underneath but each even-numbered square is clean. Suppose Jane, who knows nothing of the land mines, is walking through the field and on a whim decides to cross the field by walking only on even numbers. The person who placed the mines didn’t determine Jane’s path – he only determined that < if Jane steps on an odd numbered square, she will die >. The fact that Jane made it to the other side seems to be by luck.

What happens if a creature tries to go against the divine decree? Well, there are two options. Either (a) she can but won’t because God’s decree is compatible with her choices by luck or (b) she can’t because the divine decree didn’t just remove alternative possibilities but actually determined the specific choices she is going to make. The Frankfurt cases do not independently support such a strong position as (b). At most, this argument only shows that the PAP is not a necessary condition for free will which is not the same as demonstrating that a free decision is compatible with causal determinism. Don’t get me wrong – should Frankfurt-style arguments go through, the conclusion is non-trivial; however, the conclusion is often overstated. Compatibilists will need additional argumentation for their position.

Book Review: Transcending Racial Barriers

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This book is a great, short primer on addressing racial issues in the United States. Yancey and Emerson focus primarily on the tension between blacks and whites, so, it is not quite universally applicable. The core thesis of the book is that (i) proposed solutions to racial tensions fall along a spectrum of majority-group obligations (i.e. what whites need to change) to minority-group obligations (i.e. what people of color need to change) and (ii) most of these models fail because they fall too far to either ends of the spectrum. In place of these failed models, Yancey and Emerson propose a new, centrist model called the “mutual-obligations” approach. The basic contention is not all that controversial: white people and people of color have to agree on the solution if said solution is going to be successful. Saying that whites need to fix the broken system that we have created and benefitted from will not work because (i) it creates an unnecessary sense of powerlessness among people of color and (ii) heck no, we like our white privilege. Saying that we need to all just be colorblind will not work because (i) it allows the very real systemic problems to be ignored and (ii) it devalues the uniqueness of culture. Thus, Yancey and Emerson suggest that each group has obligations to the other if there is going to be long lasting reform. To evaluate this empirically, they analyze (through interviews) successful interracial communities: the U.S. military, interracial churches, and interracial marriages. In all of these cases, there was a “critical core” identity around which the communities aligned themselves and for which they sacrificed their self-interests.

In interracial churches, the interviewees expressed a common identity in Christ and need of His grace – truly an equalizing factor unlike any other. Because of this, they did not let their station as white or black influence how valuable they saw others that were unlike them. (Historical note: this has been a defining part of the church since its founding. The absolute scandal in the 1st century Mediterranian culture was that people of all social strata would participate in worship. Slaves and owners, while treated differently by their peers were equal before Christ. There is some speculation that this factored into later abolitionist movements, but, I’m not versed enough on the topic to speak intelligently one way or the other). Moreover, these churches allowed for self-reflection on the part of the leadership because they had to make decisions about conducting corporate worship in a ways such that it was mindful of all of the cultures present. The members of the church benefitted from communing with members of different backgrounds and expressions of faith. My favorite interview was of a Japanese-American who talked about how he adjusted when greeting Latino members of his church. He was shocked and uncomfortable the first time that he was greeted by a stranger with a hug where in the same situation, he would have used a simple handshake. Yet, he learned that in their culture, cold handshakes are considered distant and aloof. I identified with this man’s story because the first time I met Ada’s family and friends, they looked at me like I was performing a professional business transaction. In fact, before Ada and I started dating, I don’t think I ever gave her a hug but maybe once or twice.

It was also in these close, interracial communities that honest discussions about race relations can be had. If the environment is not political and you know the other person is not against everything you hold dear, it allows for more open conversation. Indeed, this was what helped me, as a white guy, to start to see things differently. My exposure to racial tension had always been through angry liberals in protests and it was easy for me to dismiss their opinions just like it’s easy for everyone to dismiss opinions of people you don’t relate to. But, a few years ago when I started hearing some of the same concerns being calmly stated by conservative black Christians who I respected, it was easier to accept that there might be more to the issue. Indeed, Yancey and Emerson point out this effect in interracial communities: whites began to be more aware and sympathetic to the difficulties faced by their brothers and sisters of color. Interestingly, in interracial marriages, the white spouse would show changes in their attitude toward racial tensions but the spouse of color would not. Also interestingly, the white spouse did not show a substantial increase in their socioeconomic status as a result of the marriage, but the non-white spouse on average did increase their socioeconomic status after the marriage.

There are several more interesting anecdotes and empirical results of interracial communities. The main point of this book is fairly simple: common goals, mutual obligations. I definitely recommend it if you are interested in racial tension in the U.S. and are unsure of where to start. It’s a short read, not overly ideological, and there are 15 pages of references at the end for further reading.

Overall: 4.0/5

Book Review: The Heresy of Orthodoxy


“Early Christianity was a mess with scores of contradicting gospels and different beliefs about who Jesus was. It wasn’t until hundreds of years later that the orthodox squashed out opposing views and rewrote the NT manuscripts”. Such is the charge that Köstenberger and Kruger tackle in this short work. They argue (I) early Christianity was remarkably United around the core identity and actions of Jesus, (II) the disagreement on the NT canon was localized to peripheral books and the 4 Gospels enjoyed widespread privileged status as early as the beginning of the 2nd century and (III) the textual reliability of the NT collection far and away outsrips any contemporary work.It’s important to go into this book with the right expectation. Essentially, this is a condensed summary of the authors’ work in three controversial areas of Christian origins: plurality of beliefs in the early church, origin of the NT canon, and textual criticism. I did not know this and having already read Kruger’s work on the canon and Daniel Wallace’s work on textual criticism, the arguments came off as surface level. DO NOT GET ME WRONG, it’s a great overview book, but if you are already familiar with Kruger or Köstenberger’s work in these areas, I would not recommend it. If you are looking for a starting place in these controversies, I would absolutely recommend it and further, follow the rigorous footnotes for detailed discussion on every point made.
With the caveat that this is not an extremely detailed work, I found many of the arguments to be a little rushed. To their credit, the authors would often cite a more detailed discussion in the footnotes. The form of some of the arguments were not overly persuasive to me even though I agree with the conclusions; however, as mentioned in my previous review on “Is There A Synoptic Problem?”, I think that if you are going to make a probability claim, it needs to include a properly justified p-value. 
Overall 3.8/5

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Book Review: Is There A Synoptic Problem?


There is a lot of good and a fair bit of “meh” in this book. Linneman’s main thesis is that current scholarship’s obsession with the Synoptic Problem and, by extension, the two-source theory is unwarranted. Then, she defends the litereary independence of the Synoptics. 
At the start, she surveys several modern NT textbooks that blithely assert (without argumentation) the literary dependence of the Synoptics and the use of Q by MT/LK. This area stands out as she effectively shows that modern scholarship is effectively indoctrinating students with the two-source theory. This critique is also shared by Mark Goodacre (who actually thinks the Synoptics are literarily dependent). He and Linneman both argue that the Synoptic Problem is taught through the lens of the two-source hypothesis without proper attention given to the data that need explanation. It is to this question that Linneman turns in Part 2 of the book. 
Here, she provides an extensive quantitative analysis of the parallels that supposedly demonstrate literary dependence. While her work is extremely valuable, I did not find her analysis overly convincing. For example, she would argue along the lines “We are expected to believe that Luke only found 28% of his source material from Mark valuable enough to retain verbatim which is absurd!” Granted, this is about the same caliber of reasoning used by the folks that came up with the two-source hypothesis. However, I think Linneman should have done more statistical analysis. Admittedly, I am an engineer, so, something like “On the hypothesis of literary dependence, we find a p-value of 0.036 for this pericope” would be much more convincing. Linneman thinks she has definitively shown that the literary dependence hypothesis is absurd and untenable. I do not find her argumentation that persuasive; however, I can say that her work has switched me from leaning towards the two-source theory to leaning slightly towards literary independence. YMMV.
The other weak area is at the end where she attempts to construct a plausible theory of how the Synoptics originated. I do not think that she substantially interacted with the objections to (a) the reliability of the patristic fathers nor (b) the Aramaic origins of Matthew. I think she could have been a bit more critical.
Lastly, I understand that she perceives historical-criticism as parasitic to Christian belief; however, I found her style to be unnecessarily polemic. Once I got used to it, it was fine to read; however, people who are already hostile to her position will not find the style to be any more comforting. I get the impression that may be an unnecessary barrier to interacting with her detractors.

Overall, this is a good read. It’s a great example of how conservative scholars interact with and take liberal scholarship seriously even when not reciprocated. 

Rating: 3.9/5

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luismolinaRomans9

Who Overheard Jesus and Pilate?

Ge, Nikolay Nikolayevich 
“What is truth?” Christ and Pilatus
1890, oil on canvas

(Alternate Title: The Problem of Private Parlance Pericopes)

There is an interesting objection to the reliability of the Gospels centered on the problem of private conversations. There are several interactions, the objection goes, wherein the details of the events are privy only to the participants of those events. The writers of the Gospels neither participated themselves in these events nor plausibly had access to witnesses of these event. Consider for example the conversation between Jesus and Pilate described in John 18.

Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”

Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?”

Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?”

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”

Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?”

Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”

Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?”

  • John 18:33-38 (NASB)

This is a pretty detailed account for a guy who was not there to hear the conversation. Could it be the case that the author of John wove this vignette from whole cloth? Before we jump to that conclusion, let’s survey the potential candidates for John’s information.

The Witnesses

First, Pilate would have the information regarding this information. Is it likely, however, that he would willingly participate in an interview with the early Christians? Admittedly, I am not an expert in this area, but it does seem highly improbable that a man of Pilate’s stature and background would take time out of his day to tell some fisherman what he discussed with their murdered Messiah. I think we can safely assume Pilate was not John’s source.

Second, there may have been bystanders. The text is unclear as to how private this conversation actually was. The term Praetorium is sometimes translated as “palace” or “headquarters” indicating that this was a large building presumably occupied with many of Pilate’s servants as well as military personnel. It does seem slightly unlikely that Pilate would take a criminal into a completely private room without any security. Thus, it is throughly plausible that a member of Pilate’s court overheard the entirety of the conversation, later converted, and shared their story with the believing community. Over time, this permeated into the oral tradition and eventually became encapsulated in John’s Gospel. While this is less of a stretch than John interviewing Pilate, it does seem slightly ad hoc.

Lastly, we have Jesus. Jesus would certainly have the relevant information about the conversation seeing as he was a participant. Moreover, Jesus certainly would not have a problem talking to John or any of the other disciples about what happened. In other words, Jesus was not a hostile witness. He seems to be the perfect candidate. Why would he not be considered a legitimate option? Here, we reach the crux of the problem.

Analysis

The problem that a sceptic is going to have with Jesus being the witness is that Jesus was killed after this conversation, before he could tell anybody else. But, notice how this is circular! The only reason that Jesus could be invalidated from being a witness would be if he did not rise from the dead. But, if he did not rise of the dead, then the Gospels are not telling a true story in the first place. In other words, to raise this objection to the veracity of the Gospels requires assuming the Gospels are not veracious in the first place.

But isn’t the Christian reasoning in a circle, too? Isn’t she assuming the Gospels are true to defend the Gospels are true? Here, we need to clarify that the objection is an internal critique.

You Christians have an inconsistency in your source documents. You claim they are eyewitness testimonies, but even on your own view, there isn’t an eyewitness to this conversation!

On this count, the Christian can retort that she has the explanatory resources to remain internally consistent. Since the Gospels were written after the resurrection of Christ and the 40 days of teaching described in Luke 24, Jesus is a legitimate source to fill in some of the gaps, particularly during the Passion Week events. Note that the scope of this response is limited to internal consistency.

What’s the point? It means that the “covert conversation challenge” is not an independent objection  to the veracity of the Gospels; rather, it is dependent on an objection to the resurrection of Christ: whether that is a general philosophical argument against miracles or specific historical case.

Every #RaviTAMU Question

(Or at least every question I could find)

This is a post that I started over a year and a half ago. I found it in my drafts. Here you go!

April 1, 2014

Ravi Zacharias came to Texas A&M for the 2014 Veritas Forum. A part of the lecture included a Q&A populated by questions on Twitter under the tag ‘#RaviTAMU’. Unfortunately, Ravi did not address all of them despite some of them being really thought provoking. Today, I scoured the #RaviTAMU tag and copied all the questions I could find. I’ve grouped them into similar categories.

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Reflection and Clarity on the Molinism Debate

Wednesday, I participated in a debate on Molinism v Calvinism. I tag teamed with Richard Bushey against TurretinFan and Josh Sommer. It seems inappropriate for me to evaluate if our side “won” or not – that should be left to the audience. Nevertheless, there are a few issues I think deserve comment. In general, most of the debate hinged on definitional issues rather than true disagreements. There seemed to be a significant amount of talking past each other. In addition, I did not make my points with the greatest clarity. I would like to elucidate more clearly so future discussions can be more profitable.

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Molinism v Calvinism Debate

Richard Bushey (thereforegodexists.com) and I defend Molinism in a 2v2 debate against Josh Sommer (seeinggodministeries.com) and TurretinFan (turretinfan.blogspot.com).

Here is the mp3 for download.

Video:

Debate Review: Seidensticker & Tarico v Markuly & Raschco

Recently, there was a debate on the topic “Does God Exist?” at Western Washington University (WWU). The participants for the negative were Dr. Valerie Tarico and Bob Seidensticker (of the Cross Examined blog). The participants for the positive were two professors from Seattle University. Dr. Mark Markuly, Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry, and Rev. Mike Raschko Ph.D, professor of Catholic Systematic Theology. My evaluation of the debate will be broken into three parts. First, a quick summary of the main arguments and counter arguments. Second, a few technical comments on the debate. Third, my analysis of the arguments presented.

The video of the debate can be found on YouTube

Quick Summary

The debate was structured as follows.

  • 10 min opening for each speaker alternating Affirmative then Negative
  • 3 min rebuttal from each speaker in same speaking order
  • Open Q&A

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