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Mitch Stokes on The Unreliability of Evolutionary Cognitive Faculties

Evolution doesn’t necessarily sift for cognitive mechanisms that produce true beliefs. At least not directly. The philosopher of science Ronald Giere puts it this way: For early humans . . . [their] problems were the very specific ones of doing the right things enough of the time. Thus, human physical and cognitive abilities evolved together to promote appropriate actions, not to promote the discovery of anything like general truths about the world. In fact, these two goals are often in conflict. For example, given that one has to act quickly and thus on the basis of only partial information, it is usually better for long-run survival to overestimate the presence of predators and take evasive action even when it is not really necessary. 11 We’re of course familiar with this sort of neurotic behavior in animals. (It’s why we never get a chance to pet wild bunnies.) But Giere goes on to the real question: “How did creatures with the evolved physical and cognitive capabilities of contemporary humans come to create the vast body of scientific knowledge that now exists, including evolutionary theory itself?”

All evolution cares about is survival, getting the organism in the right places at the right times so that it can reproduce. And of course, organisms don’t need beliefs to do that. Viruses and antibodies war with one another without so much as second (or first) thought. And each has its share of victories; each is remarkably successful at identifying threats, locating sources of fuel, and otherwise navigating through a world bent on killing them. They perform fantastic feats of staying alive without any beliefs at all, much less true ones. And this is probably so for even more complex organisms. In fact, it isn’t clear at what point organisms begin having beliefs. Do dogs? Maybe. Cats? Surely not. Cockroaches? Unlikely. Yet all have a talent for survival. Even Darwin had some misgivings about the reliability of human beliefs. He wrote, “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

Given unguided evolution, “Darwin’s Doubt” is a reasonable one. Even given unguided or blind evolution, it’s difficult to say how probable it is that creatures—even creatures like us—would ever develop true beliefs. In other words, given the blindness of evolution, and that its ultimate “goal” is merely the survival of the organism (or simply the propagation of its genetic code), a good case can be made that atheists find themselves in a situation very similar to Hume’s. The Nobel Laureate and physicist Eugene Wigner echoed this sentiment: “Certainly it is hard to believe that our reasoning power was brought, by Darwin’s process of natural selection, to the perfection which it seems to possess.” That is, atheists have a reason to doubt whether evolution would result in cognitive faculties that produce mostly true beliefs. And if so, then they have reason to withhold judgment on the reliability of their cognitive faculties. Like before, as in the case of Humean agnostics, this ignorance would, if atheists are consistent, spread to all of their other beliefs, including atheism and evolution.

That is, because there’s no telling whether unguided evolution would fashion our cognitive faculties to produce mostly true beliefs, atheists who believe the standard evolutionary story must reserve judgment about whether any of their beliefs produced by these faculties are true. This includes the belief in the evolutionary story. Believing in unguided evolution comes built in with its very own reason not to believe it. This will be an unwelcome surprise for atheists. To make things worse, this news comes after the heady intellectual satisfaction that Dawkins claims evolution provided for thoughtful unbelievers. The very story that promised to save atheists from Hume’s agnostic predicament has the same depressing ending.” — Mitch Stokes, A Shot of Faith (To The Head): Be A Confident Believer In An Age of Cranky Atheists, 43-45

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Peter Leithart on Quadriga

“Over the course of several centuries, medieval theologians and biblical students had developed what is known as the fourfold method or quadriga. According to this mode of reading, Scripture as a whole and its particular passages are not single in sense, but have multiple senses, specifically the literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical. Interpreted literally, a passage tells us what happened; the allegorical sense teaches us what we are to believe, particularly about Christ and his church; the tropological tells us what we are to do; and the anagogical tells us what we are to hope for. From the time of John Cassian, Jerusalem served as a key example of the method.

Literally, Jerusalem is the city of David; allegorically, it is the church; tropologically, each of us is a city in which God dwells, so what applies to the whole city applies to each of us; anagogically, it is the future Jerusalem.

Among the Reformers, Luther was the most deeply informed by medieval methods of interpretation. In his early commentary on the Psalms (1513-1515), Luther combines the quadriga with the double literal sense of the French humanist Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples to produce a hermenetuic of eight senses. . .

Even Calvin, though very hostile to medieval flights of fancy, came close to a Protestant version of the quadrige with his hermenetics of promise and fulfillment. What is most distinctive about Calvin is his attention to the historical context of the text. When he read Joel or Daniel, he made every effort to discern what the text meant for the original hearers and how the prophecy was fulfilled close to the time it was delivered.

Yet Calvin also made room for multiple fulfillments, so that a prophesie delieverance of Israel came to fuller realization in the deliverance achieved in the cross and resurrection. Beyond that, Calvin believed that prophecies could also be applied to his own time, since the church of the sixteenth century existed within the unfolding histroy initiated by Jesus. These multiple fulfillments were all, for Calvin, contained in the literal sesnese, since the literal sense spoke not of isolated moments of time but of the “historical succession” of the kingdoms expansion. This scheme yields three wheels of the four-wheeled quadriga.” — Peter Leithart, Deep Exegesis 13-14

Praying The Attributes of God

One thing that I’ve noticed in my short tenure as Pastor at New Haven Church is there seems to be a common problem among God’s people. That is, many folks experience real struggle with the spiritual discipline of prayer. For these folks, when in prayer, all that comes out is a bunch of “uh’s,” Father this, and Father that’s, and sometimes, depending on how late in the day, some even end up catching a couple of Zzz’s. The struggle is real, as “they” say.

After spending some time thinking deeply on this problem, I think one of the reasons why we struggle is we’ve simply never been taught how to pray, or if we have, we haven’t been taught on how to do it well. I think another reason is we’ve simply lost historic ways of praying, as well, but I’m not going down that rabbit trail right now.

However, be that as it may, one thing that I have found to be very helpful in combating this issue apart from learning how to pray the Bible is to pray the Attributes of God.

Introduction To The Attributes

Now, what are the Attributes of God you may be asking? Don’t be intimidated. Though it sounds complicated, it’s not so hard to understand. The Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of God is an enumeration of His attributes:” God is Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”

So, to put it in a simple way, when we speak of God’s attributes, we are simply speaking of who He is (He is triune, He is love, He is eternal, etc.)

Now, God possesses what has been called communicable and incommunicable attributes. Again, don’t be intimidated by the wording. Communicable attributes simply mean that these are attributes that God possesses which are reflected in us through the Holy Spirit such as blessedness, love, goodness, patience, and mercifulness. Incommunicable attributes simply mean that there are attributes that God possesses which are not reflected in us that He alone possesses such as triunity, divine simplicity, eternality, omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence.

Why Should We Pray The Attributes?

Now you may be thinking, “that’s kind of weird. I was never taught to pray to God about who He is. Why would I do such a thing, and in what ways is there benefit?”

Well, before we dive into the benefit, let me speak to the fact that we’ve typically never been taught to pray to God about who He is. I’m afraid that this point, though common, really speaks to our shame that we would think this is somehow odd. I say this because we see this type of prayer modeled for us many times in Scripture, and therefore we shouldn’t find it to be odd. Let me demonstrate with the Lord’s Prayer.

This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from evil for yours is the kingdom, power, and the glory forever. Amen.

Jesus at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer starts off by saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Jesus begins by praising the Father by naming His attributes. By mentioning that Our Father is in Heaven, Jesus is saying that He is wholly other and that He is holy (that’s what hallowed means). Right after that, Jesus acknowledges the Father’s sovereignty and glory by praying that His kingdom would come on earth as in heaven. If God were not gloriously sovereign, He would have no kingdom. When Jesus asked for the Father to give us this day our daily bread, He is asking that God would be merciful in granting us another day of life and food to eat. The same about forgiving our debts and not being led into temptation.  At the end of Jesus prayer, you will notice that it is shaped by the sovereignty, omnipotence, and glory of God. These again, are all attributes of God. Whenever you see that Jesus’ own prayers were built around that attributes of God, it really changes the way you view your own prayers.

I’m sure after viewing the Lord’s Prayer in this light, you can probably recall many other prayers in Scripture that are structured in similar ways. Now then, since we’ve seen that this practice is indeed biblical, let me speak to some of the reasons why we should pray this way.

The first is that it allows us to know God on a deeper and more intimate level. Whenever we pray God’s attributes, it helps us to understand in a greater way who He truly is. It helps to cultivate deeper communion between us and Him. Whenever we’re trying to get to know a person, we grow closer by learning about who that person is. The same is true with God.

A second thing is that it helps us in the fight against selfish prayers. One thing that we can tend to get caught up in is praying in a way that is selfish. This typically looks like constantly asking for stuff rather than glorying in and finding joy in who God is for us in Christ. Whenever we pray to God and glorify Him for who He is, the attention rightly shifts away from us to Him.

A third thing that it helps us with is that it gives us a systematic way to pray. Many times, we go into prayer without a plan. Learning to pray the attributes of God gives us a system that can keep us grounded, and systems are helpful in keeping at things.

The Attributes of God

So then, if we could gather together a list of the attributes, what would it consist of? I really like the list that Mark Jones uses in his book titled God Is: A Devotional Guide To The Attributes of God.

  1. God is Triune
  2. God is Simple
  3. God is Spirit
  4. God is Infinite
  5. God is Eternal
  6. God is Unchangeable
  7. God is Independent
  8. God is Omnipresent
  9. God is Omniscient
  10. God is Omnipotent
  11. God is Yahweh
  12. God is Blessed
  13. God is Glorious
  14. God is Majestic
  15. God is Sovereign
  16. God is Love
  17. God is Good
  18. God is Patient
  19. God is Merciful
  20. God is Wise
  21. God is Holy
  22. God is Faithful
  23. God is Gracious
  24. God is Just
  25. God is Angry
  26. God is Anthropomorphic

How To Pray The Attributes

This is my personal approach to praying the attributes. The thing that I really enjoy about the list that Jones has provided us with a list of both communicable and incommunicable attributes, and it nearly spans a month if you wanted to pick one attribute per day to pray through.

So then, if we were to start today to pray through this list of attributes, what would it look like practically? Here’s an example of what it would look like to pray to God about His Triune nature.

“God, I thank you that the Scriptures teach us about your Triunity. In learning this attribute, we can come to know you deeper, and for that we are thankful. And God, we thank you that among the Godhead, there is unbroken communion between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are thankful Father that you have loved the Son and sent Him to ransom us from our sins, and we thank you that you have sent the Spirit to indwell us and to live among us. Amen.”

Or perhaps, offer up a Triune prayer like this:

“God, I am thankful today for your Triune nature. Father, thank you for loving me and setting your sights on me from before the Foundations of the World. Jesus, thank you for taking on flesh, and bearing my sins upon the Cross at Calvary. Holy Spirit, thank you for indwelling me and leading me into all truth. Amen.”

Not too hard is it? We are just praying to God about who He is. That’s just a couple of ways that you can pray the incommunicable attribute of God’s Triunity. But, what about the communicable attributes? This is the way that I would approach it.

“Lord, I thank you that you have been merciful to me. You have mercifully sought me while I was yet a sinner, and not only did you seek me out, but you also bought me. So Lord, in light of that, would you help me to be merciful to others? Would you help me to imitate you in that way to the people you have put in my life? I pray this prayer in Jesus name. Amen.”

Here, we are praying about the Mercy of God. And, also, notice how I shaped the prayer to glorify God for His Mercy, and then asked that He would make us merciful. Why did I do that with this prayer and not the others? Again, this has to do with some attributes being communicable and incommunicable. We cannot become Triune, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can become merciful.

That’s all for now. I pray that this is helpful and feel free to leave any feedback in the comment section below!