Q and A 01: The privation view of evil

This is the first in a new category of blog – Q and A. Every now and then I get an email or a message via Facebook with a question related to something that somebody has just read at the blog or in an article, or heard in a podcast episode – or maybe just a question out of the blue about an issue in theology, philosophy or biblical studies. I haven’t answered every such question and I can’t do so in future either – not because I don’t appreciate being asked, but sometimes I’ve got a pile of emails sitting there and I just can’t justify replying to all of them, nor could I necessarily do so even if I tried. I’m really sorry if you’re one of those people who I haven’t replied to. This is what I do in my spare time.

The Q and A category is one of the avenues I’m going to use to reply to some of these questions as best I can, albeit briefly. I especially welcome questions that are related to material in the blog or podcast, or material that I’ve had published somewhere. That’s just because I’m more likely to be able to answer the question if it’s in a subject I’ve dealt with before. But I’m open to any questions you have. At least every two weeks (maybe more often, depending on what time allows) I’ll publish one of those questions at the blog in the Q and A category along with my response. You can view previous Q and A blog entries by viewing the Q and A subject in the Subject drop down box over on the right, or by clicking on the Q and A button.

I don’t promise to be able to respond to every email (in fact I can promise that I won’t), but we’ll see how this goes!

The very first question in this series comes from Paulo in Indiana.

“I wonder, what is your view on privation theories of evil? Do you see certain limitations or weaknesses in these types of explanations?

 Thanks for the question Paulo. Talk about starting with a big one! A really satisfying answer to this would require a book length response (and I’m sure I will find myself saying this in reply to a lot of questions), but here are some summary thoughts. Continue reading “Q and A 01: The privation view of evil”

Does John 1:3 rule out uncreated abstract objects?

When John 1:3 says that God made all things, does that mean that uncreated abstract objects don’t exist?

A friend today brought my attention to his question, put to William Lane Craig, on whether or not the existence of uncreated abstract objects is compatible with biblical teaching. The question concerns a disagreement that Bill Craig has with Peter Van Inwagen of Notre Dame University. It might be helpful, therefore, if I outline the background to the disagreement.

Peter Van Inwagen believes in platonic or abstract objects. These are non-physical, eternal things that do not need to be created but just exist. Examples would include the number 1, properties, and even possible worlds. These objects exist necessarily, says Van Inwagen. They exist in all possible worlds. This means, for example, “that the number 510 would exist no matter what.”1

Now we should be careful how we characterise this notion of “existence.” Van Inwagen adds:

If the notion of an abstract object makes sense at all, it seems evident that if everything were an abstract object, if the only objects were abstract objects, there is an obvious and perfectly good sense in which there would be nothing at all, for there would be no physical things, no stuffs, no events, no space, no time, no Cartesian egos, no God. When people want to know why there is anything at all, they want to know why that bleak state of affairs does not obtain.2

Abstract objects, according to Van Inwagen, are not “out there” in the world of things in creation. If they were the only things that existed, then in the same sense that people ask why there is something rather than nothing, nothing would really exist. Speaking this way, then, “all things” that exist can be thought of in an everyday sense not to include abstract objects. This clarification is necessary in order to avoid misunderstandings of Van Inwagen’s view.

Bill Craig doesn’t think this is an acceptable position for a Christian to hold. He believes that the existence of uncreated abstract objects is at irreconcilable odds with both the Nicene Creed and – more importantly for most Christians – with the teaching of the Bible. The opening words of the Nicene Creed affirm that God is the creator of all things, both “seen and unseen.” What is more, the author of the Gospel of John, in chapter 1 verse 3, says that through the logos (seen as a reference to Christ)ings were made.” Van Inwagen then, holds to a view that is incompatible with historic and biblical Christianity, says Craig.

Continue reading “Does John 1:3 rule out uncreated abstract objects?”

  1. Peter Van Inwagen, Ontology, Identity, and Modality: Essays in Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 58. []
  2. Van Inwagen, Ontology, Identity, and Modality, 58. []

Nuts and Bolts 008: Nominalism

In the “nuts and bolts” series, I explain and discuss some of the fundamental ideas in philosophy (and theology sometimes) that are taken for granted within the discipline, but which might not be very well known to ordinary human beings. This time the subject is nominalism.

Do tables exist? Do all red apples (assuming that apples exist) have something called “redness” in common? These might strike most people as pretty weird questions, but questions like these are at the heart of the distinction between realism and nominalism. They’re both ways of addressing the problem of universals. We classify things all the time; as circular, as yellow, as an elephant, as a mountain, as a snail, as wooden, as evil, and so on. Nominalism and realism are alternative ways of thinking about what we’re actually doing when we classify things this way. I’m going to be zooming in on nominalism here, but I’ll be simplifying heavily in the spirit of only attempting to provide the nuts and bolts, without going into a whole lot of depth. Continue reading “Nuts and Bolts 008: Nominalism”

Nuts and Bolts 002: (numerical) Identity

This is the second instalment in the “nuts and bolts” series of blog posts, where I take some of the “nuts and bolts,” the basic concepts employed within philosophy (and later I suppose I’ll use examples in theology as well) and explain them for those who might not be as familiar with them as people who encounter them a lot.

Recently while I was giving a public talk on the contentious issue of abortion, I made reference to the idea of “numerical identity.” In context, I was explaining that even though the features of a fetus will change considerably over time during gestation, and will continue to change considerably after birth as well, although its qualities at one point are not identical to its qualities at a later point, it is still the same entity. In technical terms, I explained, it remains “numerically identical” the whole time, and so I, an adult, am numerically identical to a fetus that once lived.

This term caused a bit of confusion for a couple of people in attendance. For example, one man thought that “numerically identical” just meant “a set made up of the same number of things.” He objected that my comments summarised above committed me to the claim that I am identical to one of my hairs. After all, there’s just one of me, and if I pluck out a hair, there’s just one of it too, so the two things would be numerically identical (after all, 1 = 1)! So I’ve decided to make this second nuts and bolts blog post all about the concept of numerical identity. It’s not the most riveting of subjects, but a pretty important one in philosophy one nonetheless.

So what is identity? Although it’s a term used in philosophy, it certainly isn’t unique to the field of philosophy. Philosophy isn’t an abstract, arcane discipline unto itself. It’s an approach to concepts and ideas that actually apply to the whole variety of disciplines, subjects and issues that all of us interact with in our lives as we use or employ language, science, medicine, as we engage new beliefs, come up with new ideas about the universe, decide how to evaluate theories, pursue justice and so on. Philosophers have had plenty to say as they have explained and discussed this concept of identity that all of use use in everyday speech and life, whether we realise it or not. For example, it gets used in police line ups (e.g. “looking at these five people, can you identify the man who robbed the bank?”), it gets used in romance novels (e.g. “could this really be the same man I knew all those years ago as a child?”), it gets used in our study of the natural world (e.g. “scientists tagged the salmon so that in the months to come as they tracked its movement, they could identify it as the one they were studying”), it gets used in spy movies (e.g. “my cover was blown. In spite of my changed appearance, the KGB now knew who I really was”), and so on.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, all of these scenarios are taking for granted the most fundamental of all logical laws, namely the law of identity (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_identity). It is both simple and obviously correct, and is as follows:

A = A

That’s it. In English, it is best stated this way: “everything is identical with itself” (or ?A = A, “necessarily, everything is identical with itself”). This may seem fairly trivial and obvious, but it requires us to distinguish between two important concepts of identity. The law of identity is referring to what is called “numerical identity,” although there is another way that things can be identical, namely by being “qualitatively identical.”

In order for entities to be qualitatively identical, they must share all the same qualities (i.e. their qualities must be identical). Two perfectly manufactured ping pong balls would be qualitatively identical provided they are made exactly the same way. To see the difference between the two kinds of identity, consider this: Imagine that I showed you those two ping pong balls and asked you to point to one of them. Next, imagine that I were to put those ping pong balls behind my back and switch them between my hands a few times. Then imagine that I held them out to you, one in each hand, and asked you “which one is identical to the one you chose?”

You could react in one of two ways, depending on how you interpreted my question. If you thought I was talking about qualitative identity, you might say “they are BOTH identical with the one I pointed to earlier.” And you’d be more or less right if that was what I meant. But that’s not what I meant. What I’m talking about now is numerical identity. Imagine that unbeknownst to you, each of the ping pong balls had a name, X and Y. The one you had pointed at was Y. In terms of numerical identity, the correct answer to my question is “Y. Y is identical with the ball that I originally pointed to.”

Numerical identity is not about the qualities that a thing (or person) has. It has everything to do with whether something is the same object or entity as another. Qualitative identity on the other hand is something that comes in degrees. Two things can be more similar or less similar. Two ping pong balls are very similar. They are not absolutely the same in all qualities (e.g. including even location), or we would be talking about the same ball after all. But two things can be pretty much qualitatively identical while still being not at all numerically identical. Here’s another example to hopefully make this distinction clear: Imagine that you were a witness to a murder on a cold and dark autumn night. You got a good clear look at the killer standing under a street light. He had a menacing scowl on his face, a long beard, and wild woolly red hair. Now you stand in the dock as a witness as this man stands trial. The prosecution lawyer asks you – “is that man the same person you saw at the scene of the murder?” You look over at the accused man. He has had his hair cut short since that terrible night, and now he’s clean shaven as well. From what you’ve heard, he has changed his attitude as well. He felt so terrible because of what he had done that he has really turned his life around, and now he wouldn’t hurt a flea. Because of all these changes, you say to yourself, he’s not the same man anymore. So you say to the lawyer, “No. That’s not the man I saw that night. He’s different from that man.”

Of course, you can see exactly what’s wrong with this answer. The person in the dock is confusing two different understandings of the word “same,” each of which deals with a different type of identity. This man’s qualities have changed over time, so in a qualitative sense he’s different, but it’s still true that he’s the same man as the murderer in a numerical sense. This could have been easily demonstrated if, on the night of the murder, you branded a number into his rump – the number 75 (Why 75? Well, why not!). That way, when standing in the dock, you could have simply asked the man to drop his trousers, and then you could declare – “Yes, that man has the identity of (i.e. he is identical with) the killer I saw that night. You would have established that whatever changes he might have undergone, he is numerically identical with the killer (unless of course there’s another man with the number 75 branded onto his rear, but we won’t go there).

Stated differently, numerical identity means that if everything in the universe had a different number assigned to it (and only one number), the things that I have in mind share that number (meaning that they aren’t different things, but rather the same thing after all). Take for example the fetus that was in my mother’s uterus six months before I was born. Give it a number (let’s pick 498,178, 895, 659). Then look at me, sitting here typing this. What’s my number? It’s 498,178, 895, 659 – the same number as that fetus. The fetus has kept that number for more than 33 years, and now that fetus sits here, typing. I am therefore numerically identical with a fetus that once existed (of course what exists now is not a fetus but an adult).

So there you have it, the concept of numerical identity.

Glenn Peoples