Condorcet Paradox and a Close Reading of the Scriptures

September 14, 2004 | 28 comments
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She who is as in a field a silken tent brought me home a copy of Blake Ostler on The Attributes of God. Ostler believes strongly that our having free agency means God cannot know the future with certainty. Brother Ostler acknowledges some scriptures that apparently indicate God’s foreknowlege. But, he says, we shouldn’t read too much into them. The scriptures are “pre-critical.”

That is to say, a scripture talking about God knowing the future should not be understood to be making a refined and careful metaphysical point. Any view in which God has some knowledge of some kind of the future would be compatible with the scripture.

If Brother Ostler is right, then calls for a closer reading of the scriptures are just not appropriate, if by ‘closer reading’ we mean a reading that assigns precise meaning to words, uses grammar and syntax and punctuation to elucidate finer points, etc. I believe that Ostler is right. He himself, unwittingly, illustrates the point, or at least a first, rough reading of his book suggests that he does.

He commits the scripural parallel to Condorcet’s Paradox. Condorcet’s Paradox says, briefly, that sometimes the order in which you vote on things will determine the winner, not simply the Majority Will. Likewise, the example of Blake Ostler seems to suggest that reading the scriptures closely will not always give the same answer. Rather, answers will vary depending on which part of the scriptures you choose to read closely first. Ostler, for example, appears to read very closely the Mormon scriptures on free agency. He treats them, I dare say, as if they were not pre-critical. That close reading later requires that he not read the scriptures on God’s foreknowledge closely, or else they would conflict. I would imagine that one could go the other way as well.

I would suggest then that we read the scriptures closely as an avenue to revelation, fine, but let’s not kid ourselves that there is a whole world of theological and doctrinal revelation out there only awaiting our sifting through the text.

Update:
I notice that Clark Goble seems to have the ression of Brother Ostler’s book.

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28 Responses to Condorcet Paradox and a Close Reading of the Scriptures

  1. Clark on September 14, 2004 at 5:56 pm

    Forgive me for displaying my ignorance, but what is a “ression”?

    BTW – for those interested I’ve been doing a group reading of Blake’s book. The original idea was for a bunch of blogs to read it together and comment on each chapter. Unfortunately no one else really followed up on it. But if you are interested I have the reading club along with chapters I’ve done so far. While I disagree on the foundational place Blakes puts the libertarian position, I do think it one of the more important LDS books to come out the past decade or so. It is also an excellent introduction to LDS theology for non-philosophers who are still interested in what all the fuss is about.

  2. Clark on September 14, 2004 at 5:59 pm

    BTW – I’m not sure I’d agree with your characterization of Blake’s position. I think his view arises less out of a reading of scripture than what he feels are the necessary place of responsibility in LDS theology. While I may disagree with him, I confess that at this point I’m not quite ready to be too specific about where he is wrong, beyond pushing alternative reasons to think he is wrong. (i.e. I don’t attack the basis of his position, merely places where other issues may conflict) So I think his position is much stronger than you suggest.

  3. Adam Greenwood on September 14, 2004 at 8:12 pm

    FWIW, I don’t think his views on free will are solely or even primarily based on the scriptures either. The argument is pretty much philosophical. But it does seem to me that he accepts the free will scriptures much more without hesitation/interpretation than the scriptures on God’s knowledge.

    I hope no one is interpreting this post as an attack on Blake Ostler’s work. Although I disagree with some of his conclusions, my reasons are only gut reasons, and in any case this post is really about people using the scriptures to prove too much, which Ostler does not do. As discussed, he does not rely on the scriptures to prove his point.

  4. Julie in Austin on September 14, 2004 at 10:32 pm

    I think I was put on this Earth to advocate the close reading of scriptures, and I am only half joking when I say that.

    of course some things are going to conflict–that’s when we chalk it up to translation problems, incomplete knowledge on the writer’s part, etc., etc. That doesn’t mean we should abandon close reading,

    I haven’t read Ostler, but we addressed this very issue tonight in Institute by way of Esther 4:14, which I think is one of the best scriptural resolutions of the agency vs. God’s knowledge conundrum: God knows the Jews will be saved, Esther is the first one at bat, but if she strikes out, someone else will step up to the plate.

  5. Chris Grant on September 14, 2004 at 11:05 pm

    During his 30 years as a General Authority, Elder Maxwell consistently and repeatedly took a side on the foreknowledge issue opposite that of Ostler. What’s the most recent public statement by a General Authority that expresses substantial agreement with Ostler on this issue?

  6. Adam Greenwood on September 15, 2004 at 2:12 am

    My point, Julie, is that what you decide is poor translation, incomplete knowledge, etc., is decided by which parts of the scriptures you decide to read closely first. You’ll get your precise principles there and then you’ll have to use various tactics like those you mention to avoid a close reading of the other parts of the scriptures.

  7. Clark Goble on September 15, 2004 at 3:26 am

    Regarding Elder Maxwell, who in a few articles appears to adopt a Protestant view of God’s relation to time as well as omniscience, Blake actually talked to him about it. He’s discussed it a few times and I believe discusses it in one of his articles. Blake says at that time he accepted Blake’s criticisms of timelessness but may have backed off later due to Joseph’s comment about “the past, present and future are with God one eternal
    ‘now’.” Blake attempts to reconcile that passage in his book, although I don’t find it convincing myself. But then I don’t personally agree with how Elder Maxwell reads that passage either – treating it as entailing a more Platonic kind of God that is very much at odds with an embodied God.

  8. Chris Grant on September 15, 2004 at 10:00 am

    Clark Goble writes: “Regarding Elder Maxwell, who in a few articles appears to adopt a Protestant view of God’s relation to time as well as omniscience”

    Labelling Elder Maxwell’s view as Protestant is begging the question. Should we label Ostler’s view the Process view?

    “Blake says at that time he accepted Blake’s criticisms of timelessness”

    Elder Maxwell’s preaching of God’s foreknowledge occurred throughout his 30-year ministry as a General Authority of the Church. (Date-tagged quotes provided upon request.) If Ostler got the impression that Elder Maxwell was agreeing with him, it may just have been that Elder Maxwell was being polite and had better things to do than to spend time arguing with Ostler (who was far and away the most pugnacious participant in the one symposium in which I’ve witnessed Ostler in action).

    “I don’t personally agree with how Elder Maxwell reads that passage either – treating it as entailing a more Platonic kind of God that is very much at odds with an embodied God.”

    Could you back this up with a quotation from Elder Maxwell in which he seems not to realize that God is embodied? If anything, it would seem that presentism has a problem with the physical universe. What would it mean for a god to have exhaustive knowledge of the past and the present but to lack knowledge of the future in a universe in which there is relativity of simultaneity?

  9. Julie in Austin on September 15, 2004 at 1:49 pm

    Adam–

    To some extent, you are right, but I think it is a little more complicated than that. It isn’t just what I read first, it is also what is generally taught by Church leaders, what presonal revelation confirms, etc.

    Are you suggesting that if I just squint and do a fuzzy reading instead of a close one then all those pesky contradictions will fall away? I don’t think that will work, either.

    There are things in the scriptures that are irreconcilable, regardless of how you choose to read.

  10. Clark Goble on September 15, 2004 at 4:22 pm

    “Labelling Elder Maxwell’s view as Protestant is begging the question. Should we label Ostler’s view the Process view?”

    I do label it *a* process view. Indeed I think his approach opens up criticisms along those lines. Note that there is a lot of variety in process views, especially between Hartshorne and Whitehead with respect to the nature of God. I believe the Stanford online encyclopedia of philosophy goes through that in their article on process theology. (Although I may be misremembering)

    “Elder Maxwell’s preaching of God’s foreknowledge occurred throughout his 30-year ministry as a General Authority of the Church”

    Yes, I know that. I’m merely repeating what Blake said. The problem is that many people may use phraseology without necessarily wanting to entail the philosophical literal meanings. You see that a lot with discussions of omnipotence and omniscience.

    “Could you back this up with a quotation from Elder Maxwell in which he seems not to realize that God is embodied?”

    I think you misunderstand. For God to be living in an eternal now of the sort he describes is incompatible with embodiment. The problem is that Elder Maxwell uses arguments and terminology from Protestantism without modifying it sufficiently for his own presumed beliefs. (Unless he has a rather more idiosyncratic view of LDS theology than I suspect) The question then becomes, how does Elder Maxwell understand his rhetoric? I don’t claim to know although I suspect he simply means God has absolute foreknowledge and not an adoption of mainstream theology of timelessness and eternity. Perhaps I’m wrong and Elder Maxwell does believe that and merely holds inconsistent beliefs without realizing that they are inconsistent.

    “If anything, it would seem that presentism has a problem with the physical universe.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by that. Could you expand here or at my blog? (I have one post on four-dimensionalism< ./a> for instance) I make no claims for really understanding Elder Maxwell’s position as in the things by him I’ve read, he doesn’t ever flesh out his views sufficiently for me to be sure what he means. If you are willing to flesh them out, I’ll even make you a guest blogger on my site.

    My own feeling is that many people use terminology and arguments which they’ve not thought through too carefully. They have a vague understanding of terms and thus use them in a vague way. To push their rhetoric from this level of vagueness into a more determinate form – typically in light of how philosophers use the same words – is quite dangerous in my opinion. And that was Adam’s main point in his original post. That we can only push scriptural meaning so far. There is a vagueness and indeterminateness to them that we overlook to our peril.

  11. Clark Goble on September 15, 2004 at 4:45 pm

    (Dang, forgot the close tag on my link. Some moderator want to fix that in the above?)

    Julie, I don’t think vagueness explains everything in the scriptures – but it explains an awful lot. But of course we also have the view that scriptures aren’t inerrant writings of God. Rather they a joint writings between God and man. And often the individual mortal writer’s own presuppositions and limitations in knowledge come through in their texts. To expect scripture to be entirely consistent is, in my mind, to assert that the human authors are not part of the process or that all human authors think the same thing.

  12. Grasshopper on September 15, 2004 at 4:50 pm

    Julie wrote:

    of course some things are going to conflict–that’s when we chalk it up to translation problems, incomplete knowledge on the writer’s part, etc., etc. That doesn’t mean we should abandon close reading

    Perhaps the great value in close reading is not so much what we conclude, but the process of questioning, exploring, learning, pondering, and asking God for further light and knowledge. In the meantime, we can make tentative conclusions, as long as we recognize that we may be wrong.

  13. Adam Greenwood on September 15, 2004 at 5:48 pm

    I second Grasshopper.

  14. Julie in Austin on September 15, 2004 at 5:58 pm

    (falling over in a dead slump upon realizing that I agree with Adam agreeing with Grasshopper)

  15. Chris Grant on September 15, 2004 at 6:21 pm

    Clark Goble writes: “For God to be living in an eternal now of the sort [Elder Maxwell] describes is incompatible with embodiment”.

    Yet this somehow escaped him. Was he just not as smart as you, or did he have one of those “pre-critical” mentalities? I’m afraid that the logical impossibility of an embodied being living in an eternal now escapes me, too, so whatever his problem was appears to be mine as well.

    “The problem is that Elder Maxwell uses arguments and terminology from Protestantism”

    Boethius was a Protestant?

    “I’m not sure what you mean by [the assertion that presentism has a problem with the physical universe].”

    I mean that the answer to the question I posed immediately after making that assertion was not obvious to me. What constitutes the present?

  16. clark on September 15, 2004 at 7:20 pm

    “Yet this somehow escaped him. Was he just not as smart as you, or did he have one of those “pre-criticalâ€? mentalities?”

    I thoughtI answered this with respect to vagueness.

    “Boethius was a Protestant?”

    Protestants clearly aren’t the only ones to make these sorts of arguments.

    “I’m afraid that the logical impossibility of an embodied being living in an eternal now escapes me, too, so whatever his problem was appears to be mine as well.”

    God appeared to Joseph Smith, moves, eats, and has a resurrected body. i.e. it moves and is subject to change. You don’t see the conflict between saying God is both dynamic and entirely static? It seems rather straightforward to me.

    I mean that the answer to the question I posed immediately after making that assertion was not obvious to me. What constitutes the present?

    I’m not a proponent of presentism, so I’m obviously not the one to ask that. I tentatively adopt four dimensionalism. (Or higher, depending upon what is required by quantum gravity) It seems to me that relativity entails that the present at a minium being subjective. However I don’t think that necessarily is problematic for Blake and his discusses it somewhat in his book. (Perhaps somewhat superficially though)

  17. Chris Grant on September 15, 2004 at 7:44 pm

    Clark Goble wrote: “I thoughtI answered this with respect to vagueness.”

    If you did, your answer was too vague for me to digest. Have you thought more carefully about an “eternal now” than Elder Maxwell did?

    “Protestants clearly aren’t the only ones to make these sorts of arguments.”

    Then why do you insist on labelling it as a Protestant view, when, in fact, the only philosopher/theologian Maxwell quoted on the “eternal now” was not Protestant and the philosopher/theologian most widely associated with this view was not Protestant?

    “God appeared to Joseph Smith, moves, eats, and has a resurrected body. i.e. it moves and is subject to change. You don’t see the conflict between saying God is both dynamic and entirely static? It seems rather straightforward to me.”

    I see. So the insight Elder Maxwell lacked is a straightforward triviality. How did he ever miss that? I wonder how many other straightforward logical contradictions escaped him.

    “I’m not a proponent of presentism, so I’m obviously not the one to ask that.”

    Then why did you ask me to elaborate?

  18. clark on September 15, 2004 at 8:17 pm

    “Have you thought more carefully about an “eternal nowâ€? than Elder Maxwell did?”

    I don’t know that I have the information to even be able to answer that. I don’t know what Elder Maxwell has thought about or considered nor how. If you feel confident about what Elder Maxwell knows and can explain it to me I’d certainly be appreciative. Otherwise you are in the same state I am with respect to understanding Elder Maxwell only vaguely.

    Your attempt appears to be an appeal to authority via Elder Maxwell with respect to the philosophical issues. But if that is the case (and I’m not sure it is) then you must be able to justify why your reading of Elder Maxwell is right, with respect to moving beyond vague senses to these terms.

    As I mentioned, if you feel you can offer a clear exegesis of Elder Maxwell I’ll put it up on my blog.

    “Then why do you insist on labelling it as a Protestant view, when, in fact, the only philosopher/theologian Maxwell quoted on the “eternal nowâ€? was not Protestant and the philosopher/theologian most widely associated with this view was not Protestant?”

    Because typically when I have these discussions it is with Protestants and I’m not familiar with modern Catholic views nor other Christian sects. To say that something is a Protestant view is hardly to say it is only a Protestant view. Aren’t you reading too much into a vague use?

    “So the insight Elder Maxwell lacked is a straightforward triviality. How did he ever miss that? I wonder how many other straightforward logical contradictions escaped him.”

    I don’t know. Once again if you can clarify Elder Maxwell’s meaning for me I’d be happy to listen. Can you explain the contradiction? To me it entails that either Elder Maxwell was wrong or the more charitable interpretation that he meant something by “eternal now” other than what you seem to suggest. You seem quite upset at me for choosing to interpret Elder Maxwell charitably and giving him the benifit of the doubt while simultaneously suggesting that I am somehow criticizing him. Perhaps you could clarify your position? I confess I’m a tad confused.

    “Then why did you ask me to elaborate?”

    I asked what you meant. I’m trying to read your words and understand them the way you intend. The phrase seemed too vague for me to make much sense of. (i.e. were you speaking of some specific philosophical position or something more vague)

    It sounded to me like you were making a claim that presentism was incompatible with science. That’s a fairly strong claim and I wasn’t sure you were making it.

  19. Jim F. on September 15, 2004 at 11:44 pm

    Chris Grant and Clark: Isn’t another possible answer that Elder Maxwell was using rather than doing philosophy? If so, he can hardly be held to philosophical standards of argument.

  20. greenfrog on September 16, 2004 at 12:31 am

    Jim F,

    Can you say more about the distinction you allude to? Surely, user or doer, he meant something. Applying the tools of understanding that we have may or may not yield a determinate result, but what alternative do we have? If your point is that some terms carry specific usages within certain contexts and that it is not appropriate to presume that others who utilize those terms intend them to carry the same specialized meanings, then I think I understand what you are saying here.

    But if that’s our operating principle, where do we go next?

  21. Clark Goble on September 16, 2004 at 12:42 am

    Jim, I largely agree, but would simply point out that to use the argument without coming to grips with it tends to entail a certain vague relationship with the meaning. i.e. someone who say uses Einstein’s statements about God but whose sense of what Einstein means by that is very vague and doesn’t know that Einstein is pretty much adhering to a Spinoza kind of God.

  22. Chris Grant on September 16, 2004 at 11:01 am

    Clark Goble writes: “I don’t know that I have the information to even be able to answer [the question: 'Have you thought more carefully about an “eternal nowâ€? than Elder Maxwell did?']“

    Then you don’t have enough information to conclude that you are right and he is wrong when you “don’t personally agree with how Elder Maxwell reads” statements about an eternal now.

    “Your attempt appears to be an appeal to authority via Elder Maxwell with respect to the philosophical issues.”

    Elder Maxwell seemed to believe that he had a calling to speak out on these issues that you call “philosophical” and that he would call “things as they really are”. Given the less-than-fully-honored place that philosophy holds in the rhetoric of the Church and its leaders, it’s surprising (and, to me, offensive) that ostensibly loyal LDS philosophers (amateur or otherwise) are so quick to claim certain issues as their own turf and so quick to dismiss both scripture and General Authority sermons as “pre-critical” or too vague to have any discernible objective meaning.

    “typically when I have these discussions it is with Protestants and I’m not familiar with modern Catholic views nor other Christian sects.”

    Well, typically when I have discussions on this issue, it is with Mormons, so I suppose I’d have the same warrant for calling it the “Mormon view” that you have for calling it the “Protestant view”. But seriously, this view was well-developed long before the Protestant Reformation, as even a little reading would confirm.

    “To say that something is a Protestant view is hardly to say it is only a Protestant view.”

    I see. So if, say, the Nazis were in favor of gun control, there’d be nothing rhetorically wrong with saying that gun-control advocates have “adopted a [Nazi] view”?

    “Can you explain the contradiction?”

    I don’t think there is a contradiction, anymore than I think there is a logical contradiction in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being permitting evil. (I wish I had a dime for everytime that an LDS philosopher claimed that, not only is there such a contradiction, but that it is an obvious and “straightforward” one. They’ve apparently never heard of Alvin Plantinga.) But I know from 10 years of past experience with you on the Internet that there is little point in debating you on the alleged contradiction in question, so I’ll forbear.

    “You seem quite upset at me for choosing to interpret Elder Maxwell charitably and giving him the benifit of the doubt while simultaneously suggesting that I am somehow criticizing him.”

    I don’t think you are interpreting him charitably. Interpreting him charitably would involve taking his words into account, taking his words seriously, and taking them at face value unless there is a good reason not to. That you disagree with a face value interpretation is not, in my opinion, a good reason. I don’t think that dismissing his statements is charitable, even if the words you use in dismissing them are more sugar-coated than saying flat out that you don’t think he was a careful thinker, speaker, and writer.

  23. David on September 16, 2004 at 11:40 am

    Chris,

    Are you concerned because Clark does not appear to agree with some of Elder Maxwell’s statements or conclusions relating to philosophy (and theology)? Or are you concerned because you feel Clark implies that Elder Maxwell was a less than careful thinker or author?

  24. Clark Goble on September 16, 2004 at 1:31 pm

    Chris, you clearly are upset at me, for reasons I don’t quite fathom. Once again I’ll repeat my now oft made request. What do you think Elder Maxwell meant? You’ve avoided that question yet it seems to be the basis for your anger towards me. If, as you suggest, I’m misreading Elder Maxwell, I’m more than willing to correct it.

    As to the problem of evil, I’m not sure how that is quite relevant. And yes I am quite familiar with Plantinga and indeed typically suggest his small book God, Freedom, and Evil to many people to come up to partial speed on the issue. If you think it resolves all the issues though, I’d probably differ.

  25. Jim F. on September 16, 2004 at 1:32 pm

    Greenfrog: “Some terms carry specific usages within certain contexts and that it is not appropriate to presume that others who utilize those terms intend them to carry the same specialized meanings.”

    Yes.

    Clark: “To use the argument without coming to grips with it tends to entail a certain vague relationship with the meaning.”

    To a certain degree, yes. But I’m not sure that, given Elder Maxwell’s purposes, that vague relationship with the meaning of the philosophical terms and positions he used and the philosophers he referred to wasn’t appropriate. I understand Elder Maxwell to be preaching the gospel and offering reassurance to those who are concerned that God is not aware of our difficulties or cannot guarantee that he will triumph. For various rhetorical purposes he uses some philosophical terminology and he refers to someone like Boethius. But that doesn’t mean that he was doing philosophy.

    My indirect experience with him when I was working on the entry on divine foreknowledge for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism makes me believe that as long as a philosophical position guarantees God’s ability to bring about our salvation and to comfort us, Elder Maxwell would have had no trouble with a Latter-day Saint holding such a philosophical position. As far as I could tell, he felt that it wasn’t that important which philosophical position one adopted. The important thing was to insist on certain beliefs. He felt that the position he took better supported those beliefs than did others, but he had no trouble with others taking other philosophical positions. In my experience, he was willing for the question to remain open, which is why my entry ended up saying, ‘You can believe x or y, but not z.”

  26. Clark Goble on September 16, 2004 at 2:31 pm

    Note that I’m definitely not saying Elder Maxwell’s words weren’t appropriate. Far from it. That’s partially why I don’t quite understand Chris’ comments. It seemed to me that Elder Maxwell only deals with the foreknowledge issue in vague terms. As best as I can make out, Chris feels that this is wrong. That Elder Maxwell was taking a clear definite position. I’m not sure why that is necessary nor do I see anything in the texts I’ve read which lead to that conclusion.

  27. Chris Grant on September 16, 2004 at 3:46 pm

    Clark Goble wrote: “Chris, you clearly are upset at me, for reasons I don’t quite fathom.”

    If you can’t comprehend the reasons from reading my last post, I doubt that I will ever be able to make it clear to you. I’d be glad to dip into my archive of your past misreadings of my statements to share with our audience in a game of “Is it him or is it me?”, but I probably shouldn’t.

    “Once again I’ll repeat my now oft made request. What do you think Elder Maxwell meant?”

    Oh, but, Clark the words in that question are subject to ever so many interpretations that I’m at a loss as to what your question really means! I jest, of course, but the meaning of Elder Maxwell’s statements seem just as clear to me as the meaning of your question, and it therefore seems silly for us to behave as if your question is crystal clear while Elder Maxwell’s statements are opaque, and I refuse to participate in that game. (For some reason, I’m reminded of Susan Haack’s hilarious essay on how philosophers criticizing the use of metaphor have so often themselves used metaphor in the very process of making those critiques.)

    “As to the problem of evil, I’m not sure how that is quite relevant.”

    It’s a parallel situation in which people claim that something is a “straightforward” contradiction based on the fact that it seems like a contradiction to them, while careful thinkers have poked all sorts of wholes in their claims.

    “And yes I am quite familiar with Plantinga”

    Great! Which of his trilogy on warrant did you enjoy reading the most?

    “indeed typically suggest his small book God, Freedom, and Evil to many people to come up to partial speed on the issue”

    I think it’s a mediocre book. Modal logic is just something that can’t be effectively dumbed down to the level that Plantinga attempted in that book. I’d recommend The Nature of Necessity or nothing at all.

    “If you think it resolves all the issues though, I’d probably differ.”

    If you don’t think it resolves the logical problem of evil (as opposed to the evidentiary problem of evil, etc.) then, if Feinberg and Stackhouse can be trusted, you differ from the consensus opinion of the philosophical community.

  28. Clark Goble on September 16, 2004 at 4:19 pm

    Chris, I’m honestly at a loss to understand what you’re so upset at, so I’ll drop it.

    To me it is quite straightforward that something can’t simultaneously be without change and also changeable. So I’ll leave it at that. I don’t think Elder Maxwell is suggesting that. I’m not sure what you think he is suggesting, but given your comments, I’m not sure I care anymore.

    (BTW – I have read quite a few Plantinga books and have several on my shelf behind me)

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