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Friday, May 19, 2017

Prior Commitments

There is a term derived from Latin that means literally "from the former" -- a priori. The definition is knowledge or reasoning that proceeds from a theoretical deduction from a previous position rather than from observation or experience. It is reasoning derived from prior propositions. And it is surprising how much of how we think is a priori.

Let's try a simple logic chain. Bob hates vegetables. A tomato is a vegetable. Therefore, Bob hates tomatoes. Note in this that there is an a priori position where Bob hates vegetables. He is committed in advance to this. When he hears, then, that tomatoes are vegetables, he automatically hates them. This is problematic because tomatoes aren't vegetables; they're fruit. That is, it isn't experience ("I ate a tomato and didn't like it") that informed Bob's opinion about tomatoes, but his prior commitment to a hatred of vegetables.

Very popular today is the concept of "global warming" or, more accurately, "global climate change". I would venture to guess that the majority of those who believe in anthropogenic global climate change -- the idea that human beings are killing the planet by changing the climate -- do so on an a priori basis. They have prior commitments that require it of them. Maybe it's a prior belief that humans are dangerous. Maybe it's a commitment to "trust what the scientists tell us." That's the same belief that, for the vast majority of people, is sufficient to convince them that Evolution is true.

Religion in general and Christianity in particular are rich in a priori commitments. The Bible begins with "In the beginning, God ..." (Gen 1:1) which is a statement "from the former" that there is, without question, a God. No question. No proof. No evidence. He just is. We have confidence in the authority and reliability of Scripture from which we derive the certainty of the existence, life, death, and resurrection of Christ from which we derive much more of what Christianity entails. These are just some examples.

It's surprising to me the number of positions Christians take from unexpected a priori concepts. Open Theism, for instance, begins with a previous position regarding the nature of the Free Will of Man. It is the Libertarian Free Will notion that requires that "Free Will" be defined as "without influence or constraint from God or human nature. Now, nothing in Scripture offers this definition and nothing in Scripture requires this definition. It is simply a prior concept from which a major set of conclusions are drawn.

The whole "old-earth" theory of Creation is built on this same kind of thinking. Nothing in the Bible requires the position that God could nor or did not make the universe in 6 days. It comes solely from a prior commitment to modern scientific views of the age of the Earth. To put it another way, the thinking goes, "Modern science says the world is billions of years old, so the Bible can't be right" or, more generously, "... so the entire historical understanding of the Church has been wrong." That is, it cannot be "The Bible says it's 6 days, so Science must be wrong."

Our prior commitments tell us a lot about what we believe. "If the Bible conflicts with Science, the Bible is wrong" has one prior commitment and "If the Bible conflicts with Science, Science must be wrong" is a different one. If the Bible were to teach that guys were to wear coats and ties to church, your prior commitment would determine the outcome. An a priori position of "The Bible is right" would lead to guys wearing coats and ties to church and an a priori position of "Culture (or comfort) is right" would lead to the conclusion that the Bible was mistaken on that point. The number of Christians who draw conclusions from prior commitments opposed to Scripture is discouraging. This speaks of a bottom-line prior commitment of "Truth is subject to my approval."

We ought to be people of prior commitments. We ought to assume, for instance, the character of God revealed in His Word. Like Abraham's "Will not the Judge of all the earth do what's right?", we ought to assume that God is loving, good, faithful, just, merciful, gracious, powerful, wise, and all the other attributes we know Him to be rather than question His character when we see things that cause us to wonder. We ought to assume that all Scripture is God-breathed and, as such, authoritative and incapable of error and act accordingly. That would include reading it, treasuring it, and obeying it even when we don't fully understand it. If the a priori position is correct, then it is right to hold to it, draw conclusions from it, and respond appropriately. Truthfully, God and His Word do not need our approval to be right.


Anonymous said...

Would you counsel a grandchild of yours in public school to speak out in class? Or maybe to meet privately with the teacher after class is over to lodge a complaint? At some point, your grandchild may be told that

Humans are primates

Humans are mammals

Humans are vertebrates

Humans are chordates

If a line needs to be drawn by the student, where does it fall in those categories?

Your grandchild will be told about layers in the geological column, with names like holocene, pleistocene, and pliocene. Should objection be made to the dates assigned by geologists, but not necessarily to the existence of distinguishable strata?

Stan said...

Not entirely sure of the point of your question(s). Science has good reason to question the popular claims you point out from public schools. The Bible seems, also, to make counter claims. But I don't see where the Bible (my prior commitment) makes any demands that I make sure that schools are teaching things in accordance with the truth of Scripture, so I don't know what you're asking.

When my kids were in public school, I spoke to them about these things to insure they understood the truth in the face of lies (and there were a lot more than just these) being taught in schools. It was my (biblical) responsibility to teach my kids. I don't know that it is my kids' (or grandkids') responsibility to correct error in teachers.

David said...

I happen to be a Young-Earth creationist. I have no idea why anyone would have a problem with those classifications for humans that you listed. But as Stan pointed out, the post isn't about arguing against ideas you disagree with, but to acknowledge that we all have beliefs based on prior influences outside of actual experience. If we are aware of them, we can distinguish where our priorities lay. But we have to acknowledge them if we wish to g a discussion, otherwise we'd end up talking passed each other because we are starting from different foundations. Example, I believe that God literally created everything in 6 days. An evolutionist believes there is no divine influence in the universe. So, for us to look at those different "cene"'s you listed, we would come to different conclusions based on the information presented. But if we don't acknowledge our previous biases, we simply see the other as anti-science or anti-God.

As an aside, I happen to have no problem with either the apparent age theory or an actually old earth, as long as the literal 6 day creation is maintained. We don't actually know how long Adam and Eve were in the garden before the Fall. It is assumed to be a short time, but nothing says that, and it even makes some sense for a long period since it would seem odd for God to give that command and a week later they disobey. It would take time for even thinking about disobedience to come to their heads, I'd think.

Craig said...

I'd suggest that it's our place to provide our children with the information to counter what they might be taught, but I don't see any reason to pressure them to speak out publicly if they choose not to.

As far as grandchildren, I'd say that's the parents job, but that encouragement and support would be appropriate.