Seductive Deductive

by Brian 1. July 2019 03:08

The conclusion of a valid deductive argument follows logically and inescapably from its premises. Well-structured deductive reasoning with true-premises is sound, where one finds the integrity of the result wholly contained within the premises. Nothing more is needed to arrive at the truth. If deductive arguments are so logically unassailable, then why are they not more seductive when it comes to persuasion?  Why don't arguments from natural theology draw everyone into a firm belief in God? Are they not sound, even though they are undoubtedly valid? When it comes to persuasion, soundness is not always king. We readily reject a sound-argument if we do not believe one or more of the premises. Just because something objectively corresponds with reality doesn't mean we see it, or even want to. There is a difference between the subjective and objective; between belief and truth. In this post, I examine these concepts in more detail, specifically around deductive reasoning.
 
The primary contact I have in mind as a topical filter is someone open and unconvinced who finds propositions from natural theology only slightly more plausible than their denial. The reason for this focus is other audiences are relatively uninteresting and uncomplicated. Even a good cumulative-case rarely alters the conviction of those who are sure and confident. Preaching to the choir or debating a hardened skeptic is rarely fruitful. I am also more interested here in rationality than rhetoric. Not to dismiss the art of persuasion, but the objective logical link between our confidence in the conclusion and our acceptance of the premises is more important to me here than how we might be rhetorically swayed.
 
Let's start with a way to measure our belief. Probability comes in at least two flavors; objective (statistical) and subjective (epistemic.) Objective-probability is what happens outside an observer, in physical systems where the laws of nature describe repeatable and predictable events, like throwing dice or flipping coins. Subjective-probability relates to what is going on inside an observer's head; the level of confidence she has in a given belief. It's objective when we measure the outcome of flipping a fair coin repeatedly. It's subjective when asked how confident we are "heads" will show on the next flip. The confidence we ought to have and what people do have further delineates the subjective flavor. The former falls into the discipline of epistemology and the latter, psychology. I am more interested here in the former.
 
Even though the truth-value of a proposition is always binary (true or false), belief rarely is. There are very few things in life where we take an attitude of certainty; instead, we hold most views with a degree of confidence. Subjective probability (SP) is a way of measuring this confidence, ranging from 1 to 0. One is: "I am certain that P is true." Zero is: "I am certain that P is false." If you do not know or on balance unsure, then your SP is in the middle at 0.5. We might use the following rubric to describe confidence as an SP:
 
1.0 - I am sure (true)
0.8 - I am fairly confident
0.6 - I only slightly believe
0.5 - I do not have a belief either way; I don't know
0.4 - I somewhat doubt
0.2 - I very much doubt
0.0 - I am sure (false)
 
In the case of flipping a fair-coin, both probability types line up. The objective and subjective probabilities we assign to the outcome of a fair coin landing "heads" are 0.5. However, the two probability types are not identical. For example, I tell you I have a box full of cards with either heads or tails depicted on them and ask you to draw one at random. But just before drawing a card, I invite you to assess your confidence as a subjective probability (SP) in the belief: "You will draw heads." Of course, you have no idea. You do not believe you will draw "heads" any more than "tails." I might have put all "heads" in the box or few. The heads-tails distribution is unknown to you. The correct SP is 0.5 because you have no justification for moving up or down without additional information. However, this does not mean as you draw cards from the box; the number of "heads" drawn will approach 50%, as in flipping a coin repeatedly. The objective (statistical) probability in drawing "heads" is unknown because the probability distribution is unknown. SP, however, is rightly 0.5.
 
Take another example: With an unfair coin, you assess the probability that you will land "heads" on the next toss. Well, again, you have no idea. Perhaps this unfair coin will always land "heads," or maybe always "tails." You are unsure, you don't know, and again your SP is 0.5. But the one thing we do know is that the heads-tails probability distribution is not centered on 0.5 because it is not a fair coin. So the objective probability (OP) of landing a "heads" cannot be 0.5 even though your SP is rightly 0.5. These examples show SP and OP are different concepts. But how do they differ in terms of betting?
 
SP lines up with betting odds in many cases but not all. In the case of the cards, even though the probability distribution is unknown, a single $1 bet on "heads" for a $2 return is acceptable. After all there are only one of two possibilities regardless of how the distribution is stacked. The same goes for the unfair coin. It may have an affinity for one side, but that doesn't seem to make a 1:1 bet, a poor one. However, repeatedly betting "heads" on the card example is not at all like flipping a coin. Depending on the distribution, you might end up anywhere from losing all of your bets to doubling them. With a repeated coin-flip, you can only approach breaking even. Knowing more about the probability distribution of the cards would undoubtedly help.
 
Let's alter the card example so that instead of "heads" or "tails" on a card, there is a number. I then ask you to assess whether or not you will draw a "seven." At first, you might think: "I have no idea: 0.5." But upon reflection, you realize that even though I might have put lots of "sevens" in the box, there are so many other possibilities -- as many as there are numbers. So you decide to lower your SP to near-zero. But what changed?  In this case, background knowledge suggests more possibilities. You might, however, move your confidence up if you think I'm trying to make a point by stuffing the box full of "sevens." But again, that would use background knowledge in the assessment. Somehow, prior probabilistic understanding affects SP. I will go into this in more detail shortly.
 
Having established some footing for how probability applies to confidence, let's consider an example using one of the most basic argument-forms called modus ponens: If Annie goes to a movie, then Connie goes with her. Annie went to a movie. Therefore, Connie went with her.
 
P1: A -> C (reads: "A implies C" or "If A, then C")
P2: A
ergo, C
 
In the conditional (A -> C), Annie is the antecedent (A), and Connie is the consequent (C). In the second premise, we assert (A); therefore, (C) obtains. The argument is straightforward, and we immediately see that it is valid. If the premises are correct, then as a sound argument, we are sure in our belief that Connie went to the movies. Right?  Well, it all depends on how certain we are of the truth of the premises. If we are sure that Connie always goes when Annie does (P1), and we are also confident that we saw Annie go to the movies (P2), then we ought to be convinced Connie went as well. But what if we are not so sure? In that case, we must reconsider the argument probabilistically:
 
P(A & C) = P(C | A) * P(A)
[P(C | A) reads: "probability of C given A" and is equivalent to  P(A -> C)]
 
The probability Annie and Connie went to the movie together equals the odds Connie went, given Annie went, multiplied by the odds Annie went. P(A & C) is not the same as P(C). They are equivalent when Connie doesn't go for any other reason other than on the above condition. Let's say that we are only slightly more confident than not in both P1 and P2 and assign 0.6 as an SP. Using the probability calculus, we see 0.6 x 0.6 = 0.36 -- or we ought to slightly doubt Annie and Connie went. At first, this assessment doesn't seem to add up, given we thought each premise more plausible than not. With a level of confidence in (P1, P2) each > 0.5, shouldn't we also believe more likely than not Connie went -- not the opposite at 0.36?
 
We have to take into account background knowledge (prior probability) and adjust our view based on the new evidence of this argument. Maybe Connie is always going to the movies without Annie. Perhaps she rarely goes, but when she does it is only with Annie. This background information makes a significant difference in our probabilistic analysis. Conditionalization is the process of updating one's belief based on new evidence:
 
P(C) = P(C | A) * P(A) + P(C | ~A) * P(~A)
 
The probability Connie goes equals the odds Connie goes given Annie does, multiplied by the odds Annie does, plus the odds Connie goes given Annie doesn't go multiplied by the odds Annie doesn't go. Let's say we know on any given night when Annie doesn't go, Connie is just as likely as not (0.5) to go to a movie on her own. Using the above conditionalization rule on our prior knowledge and new evidence, we get the following:
 
P(C) = 0.6 * 0.6 + 0.5 * 0.4 = 0.56
 
This new estimate makes more sense. Given the shakiness of our argument (each premise is barely more probable than its denial at 0.6), we are only slightly more confident compared to some other night where it's 50-50. What's interesting is if we know beforehand, Connie never goes without Annie, then the second half of the equation drops to zero, and we are back to our initial assessment of 0.36 -- which should now appear more reasonable. If we confidently deny the antecedent  (I know Annie didn't go last night because she was with me -> P(P1) = 0), then the first part of the equation drops out, and all that remains is our prior probability of 0.5. Hopefully, this is starting to clear things up a bit. 
 
Based on where prior-probability lands on our example, we end up with a range from 0.36 to 0.76. Our assessment of 0.56 reflects an uncertain background where, independent of Annie, on any given night, Connie is just as likely to go as not. Our modus ponens example makes sense and is relatively easy to quantify. But what about common arguments from natural theology? Let's consider the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) as a conditional.
 
P1: If a thing begins to exist, then it has a cause. (BE -> C)
P2: The universe (a thing) began to exist. (BE)
ergo: The universe has a cause (C)
 
The KCA is a valid argument with a relatively modest conclusion (though the conceptual analysis of the "cause" being God is another matter!) Again, we will use our assessments of 0.6 for both premise P1 and P2 and restate the KCA as a probabilistic conditional:
 
P(C) =  P(C | BE) * P(BE) + P(C | ~BE) * P(~BE)
 
So what about prior-probability? Here I believe the KCA runs into a problem. What is P(C | ~BE)? The probability the universe has a cause given it not beginning to exist seems very low indeed. With no beginning, it would be an eternal thing without a need for a relevant-cause. The KCA is not interested in some other kind of Leibnizian-cause (reason.) Therefore, it seems appropriate to assign a near-zero value to P(C | ~BE) resulting in P(C) near 0.36. In other words, we ought to somewhat doubt the conclusion at the proposed level of confidence in the premises.
 
Perhaps other arguments from natural theology fair better than the KCA under this analysis. Let's take a look at the moral argument (MA):
 
P1: If God doesn't exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
P2: Objective moral values do exist.
ergo: God exists
 
Once refactoring from the more compelling modus tollens form of P1, and then into a probabilistic conditional, we get the following:
 
P1: If objective moral values exist, then God exists (OMVE -> G)
P2: Objective moral values exist. (OMVE)
ergo: God exists (G)
 
P(G) = P(G | OMVE) * P(OMVE) + P(G | ~OMVE) * P(~OMVE)
 
Looking at our prior; what is P(G | ~OMVE)? The probability God exists given objective moral values do not exist, seems highly unlikely to me. As objective moral lawgiver, this doesn't look like a great-making attribute we can waive. For the Christian theist, a God who is not the locus of moral value has little appeal. Accordingly: P(G) = 0.6 * 0.6 + [very low value] * 0.4 = near 0.36. Once again, we are on the side of doubtfulness.
 
What's worse, from a Christian apologist perspective, the KCA and MA are counterproductive at these low levels of confidence. A value of 0.36 indicates we ought to doubt the conclusion more than accept it. If an apologetic contact is hovering slightly above "undecided either way on P1, P2," then these arguments are unhelpful from my perspective. The reason has to do with the highly-probable material equivalence between the antecedent and consequent in both cases. This equivalence means "if" in P1 can probably be replaced with "if and only if."
 
P1: Iff a thing begins to exist, then it has a cause.
P1: Iff objective moral values exist, then God exists.
 
Given material equivalence, the atheist apologist might favorably reformulate these arguments, even using our above 0.6 confidences:
 
KCA:
P1: If a thing doesn't begin to exist, then it doesn't have a cause.
P2: The universe did not begin to exist.
ergo: The universe doesn't have a cause
 
P(~C) = P(~C | ~BE) * P(~BE) + P(~C | BE) * P(BE)
P(~C) = [very high value] * 0.4 + 0.4 * 0.6 = approaching 0.64
 
MA:
P1: If objective moral values do not exist, then God doesn't exist.
P2: Objective moral values do not exist.
ergo: God doesn't exist
 
P(~G) = P(~G | ~OMVE) * P(~OMVE) + P(~G | OMVE) * P(OMVE)
P(~G) = [very high value] * 0.4 + 0.4 * 0.6 = approaching 0.64
 
So if this all seems a bit strange, don't take my word for it. Let's see what the experts have to say. William Lane Craig used to say that if we take a valid deductive argument and believe each premise to be more plausible than its denial (confidence in P1, P2 each > 0.5), then we ought to accept the result. Craig's view doesn't follow from the above analysis. Tim McGrew recently corrected Craig on this matter by stating that to guarantee the conclusion is more probable than not, the conjunction of the premises must be more probable than not. For the KCA, the product of the confidence in P1 and P2 would need to be > 0.5, for example, SP > 0.71 for each would barely do. Though this puts a higher burden on the apologist than I initially thought necessary, my analysis agrees with McGrew's correction. Craig agreed with McGrew as well and has since said so on his website.(1)
 
McGrew and DePoe propose an approach whereby the sum of the uncertainties in (P1, P2) is used as a lower bound on the probability of the conclusion. In their paper on the topic (2), they use a few esoteric examples to invalidate other strategies. However, I found their strategy mostly unhelpful. By treating the uncertainties as a lower bound, we are potentially left worse-off solving the credibility problem than before. Taking the above KCA at (P1, P2) = 0.6, the lower confidence bound is 1.0 - ((1.0 - 0.6) + (1.0 - 0.6)) = 0.2. That's: "I very much doubt the KCA." So for the purposes herein, looking at those contacts hovering just above 0.5-uncertainty, all we can say is that such an argument cannot be any worse than very poor. I understand this is merely a lower bound, but that hardly makes the strategy helpful in terms of persuasion even though the lower-limit might be raised using other means -- like a complex cumulative-case.
 
Consider this before we wholesale abandon classical apologetics: First, some arguments routinely have a high confidence level in one of the two premises. Take the causal principle in the KCA: "Things that begin to exist, have a cause." I find this to be near-certain, and it's denial ridiculous -- all deception from pop-scientists like Lawrence Krauss notwithstanding. If we recalculate using P1 = 0.9 and P2 at our original 0.6, then our confidence in the conclusion ought to be > 0.5. Some classical arguments, like the KCA, might have one highly-confident premise, even for the kinds of contacts we are considering here. The MA, on the other hand, is not so fortunate. Untenable as I believe it is, there are many worldviews where objective moral values are thought to exist apart from God. P1 is far from guaranteed for many agnostics. Ironically though, Craig says the MA has been more effective in his apologetic efforts than the KCA. (3) This anecdote leads me to another consideration.
 
This entire analysis looks at deductive reasoning, ideally and objectively. How background-knowledge and arguments from natural theology might entail and intertwine within the psychology of any given contact is practically impenetrable. People willingly accept weak arguments and reject strong ones. I know someone who found the KCA compelling as a young believer only to dismiss it later when their desire to go their way made following God inconvenient. How one's will relates to all of this is another matter entirely. There is a wide gap between sound apologetic arguments and persuasion, and this objective rubric is not going to bridge it. That, however, does not mean apologists ought to ignore the quality of their approach. Is it a sound apologetic-practice to leave one persuaded in a conclusion that is objectively unwarranted based on their confidence in P1, P2? Do the ends justify the means if we are confident in the truth? I have to say no -- other apologists may disagree. The fact remains, many of the classical arguments from natural theology have a suboptimal logical form when dealing with the honest agnostic only slightly convinced in the premises.
 
In light of this analysis, we might want to reconsider our apologetic-style. Inferences to the best explanation and other forms of abductive reasoning do not suffer from the same problem as some of the above classics. The historicity of Christ and the Resurrection based on generally agreed upon historical facts is a good example. Design arguments, where we consider the best explanation for information in nature; the primacy of information over matter and discussions around the Arche (the ultimate foundation of reality) being a mind versus non-mind (material) are all good candidates. It might be purely coincidental, but these kinds of arguments have always resonated more with me than some of the classics.
 
In conclusion; an objective assessment of subjective-confidence in deductive arguments from natural theology shows some to be problematic for the Christian apologist. The Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Moral Argument are two examples. Any deductive reasoning from natural theology that can be logically-refactored as modus ponens is potentially problematic. If your apologetic contact is hovering just above 0.5-uncertainty, such arguments are potentially counterproductive. Even though the vast majority of listeners will not consider any of this, that doesn't negate our responsibility as apologists to put forth solid reasoning. If we are going to propose cases (like the KCA and MA), we will need to ensure higher confidence-levels on the premises if we want them to be honestly persuasive. Other abductive arguments and inferences to the best explanation do not suffer from the issues raised and are worth considering within the context of our approach to apologetics.
 
(1) - https://www.reasonablefaith.org/question-answer/P160/deductive-arguments-and-probability
(2) - https://appearedtoblogly.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/depoe-john-and-mcgrew-timothy-22natural-theology-and-the-uses-of-argument22.pdf
 
(3) - recent interview with Ben Shapiro on his Sunday Special 

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I don't know, but I know you don't know!

by Brian 20. June 2018 06:10

If I've heard the phrase "I don't know, but I know you don't know" once, I've heard it dozens of times over the years in my apologetics conversations. This assertion is usually followed by an accusation of arrogance and a rebuke to walk me back to a proper agnostic posture. It's as if one's claim to know is an affront to another's uncertainty. Why is that? It's hard to say exactly, but I suspect the underlying motivations are mostly emotional since it is rarely a tenable philosophical position. Let's take a look at why this phrase ought to be avoided.

What does it mean to know and what kind of knowledge are we talking about? When discussing a controversial topic, it is propositional-knowledge that leads to the above accusation. No one has ever said to me: "I don't know, but I know you don't know your wife, or how to ride a bike." Instead, we are interested here in claims about things taking the form of person S knows that proposition P. So what does it mean for S to know that P? Traditional views of knowledge vary around the notion of justified true belief (JTB.)  In order for S to know that P: S must have justification for their belief, P must be true, and S must believe that P.

The latter two aspects of the tripartite view are relatively clear; you do not know that P if P is false or if you don't believe it. It is the aspect of justification that is somewhat controversial. What does justification mean? Mostly it is good reasoning for believing something. What does good reasoning look like? A minimalist response called the deontological view (DV) gives us a place to start by placing a low burden on the knower:

S is justified in believing that P if and only if S believes that P while it is not the case that S is obliged to refrain from believing that P.

Given this view of justification: I know my keys are hanging downstairs if it is the case they are hanging downstairs, I believe it, and I am not obliged to refrain from believing it. What would obligate me to not believe you might wonder? Some other knowledge acting as a defeater would be an example. Say my wife says she sees my keys in the car and not where they usually are. If I trust her assessment more than my recollection, then I am obliged not to believe the keys are where I initially thought they were.

On the other hand, I would not know it's raining tomorrow in Tallahassee, even if I believe this proposition and it turns out to rain tomorrow if my sole justification for believing is the prediction of a fortune cookie. I'm obliged to refrain from believing the printed prophecies in fortune cookies. Fortune cookies confer no justification in this case, and if it's my only justification, I don't have any.

There are more rigorous approaches to justification than DV. In our current culture of scientism, some form of evidence is often a requirement. Does S have evidence for believing that P? Is it good evidence? These controversial criteria are debatable within the discipline of epistemology and not something I want to get into here. Giving the modern skeptic the benefit of the doubt; I'll concede justification for the kind of knowledge we are discussing requires more than a lack of defeaters obligating me to refrain from believing. I'll go as far here to say justification requires some positive external grounding -- a sound argument based on evidence being a good example. Now that we have set some terms on what knowledge is, let's move on to the problem.

So how could S', who doesn't know that P, know S doesn't know that P? The short answer from the JTB-perspective of knowledge is uncomplicated. Leaving out the question of the sincerity of S by assuming S believes that P: S' would have to know that P is false or that S has no justification. Take my example of the car keys. Let's say S' tells S: "I don't know if your car keys are hanging downstairs or not, I just know you don't know that they are hanging downstairs." How could S' know this if she doesn't know whether or not they are hanging downstairs?  She can't solely on the truth-value of P because she doesn't know whether P is true or false. This truth-value angle is a dead end for S'.

But let's imagine S' took an epistemology class and challenges the justification-claims of S. "Why do you think your keys are hanging downstairs," she asks? Now S may have all sorts of justification for believing that P (I won't bore you with examples.) Suffice it to say, S might be justified in believing that P. Therefore, S' has a burden here because she is making the claim to know S is unjustified in believing that P. That burden is not just difficult to satisfy in the car-keys example, but in your typical real-world discussion of complex and controversial topics as well. Let's take a look at something more representative to see what I mean.

S claims the universe has a cause of its existence (P). S' says: "I've seen the evidence and arguments and on balance, I don't know, maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. I just know you don't know that it does." S' freely admits she doesn't know if P is true or false. S' is agnostic on P. After S tries to persuade S' with arguments Q...Qn, S' says: "I find all of your arguments unpersuasive." Now does S' remaining agnostic and unpersuaded mean S has no justification for believing that P? Not necessarily, and in many cases, not likely.

Say S gives the following argument Q as justification for P:

P1 - Things that begin to exist have a cause.
P2 - The universe began to exist.
P (conclusion) - Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The above deductive argument is valid; if the premises are true, the conclusion follows logically and inescapably. Therefore, if S' knows S has no justification for believing that P, she must know (at least) Q provides no justification for believing that P. But how could she possibly know this without knowing either P1 or P2 is false or unjustified? She can't. She cannot logically infer P1 or P2 is false merely because she is unconvinced P1 and P2 are true. Nor can she know the belief of S in P1 or P2 is unjustified unless she knows all of the justification-claims of S for the premises.

What typically transpires while discussing a valid argument like Q is S' says: "I'm not convinced P1 or P2 is true. So your argument is unpersuasive." That's fine; how persuasive Q is to S' is partly up to S', but that hardly means Q is unsound, thereby providing no justification for S. With a deductive argument, justification is conferred as follows:

Q provides justification for S if Q is valid and upon S performing their epistemic duty (considering the arguments and evidence) for P1 and P2 find the conjunction of the premises more plausible than its negation. 

Of course, this doesn't mean P1 and P2 are true! Nor does it say the conclusion (P) is true. Keep in mind we are talking about justification, not truth-values. Of course, S' being agnostic on P1 and P2 may enter into a regress and attack the justification for believing the premises. But this rarely happens and when it does, the problem is merely pushed to the next level down. When S' fails to ask for the justification from S for P1 and P2, then we know S' doesn't know S is unjustified.

I've given a somewhat technical explanation as to why the phrase "I don't know, but I know you don't know" is usually philosophically untenable. The person who levels this claim doesn't know if the proposition in question is true or not. Nor do they likely know all of the possible ways you justify your belief. They don't know if you know or not. Perhaps a more straightforward way to address this kind of unreasonableness would be to respond: How do you know I don't know? But that approach leaves me little to write on. As for humility: If you don't know if something is true or not, then just admit it without attacking your interlocutor. The truly humble attitude is: Maybe you do know; I'm just not sure. This response is not only more reasonable; it is more likely to get the other person to consider your position.

The Fool Says

by Brian 4. June 2018 03:02

Soon after becoming a follower of Christ, I ran across Psalm 14:1 (and Psalm 53:1). The author writes: "The fool says in his heart there is no God." Having just transitioned from non-theism, I thought this verse somewhat harsh. Afterall, I wasn't a fool at 30 and now suddenly wise at 31. All I could do at the time was put these words in the cognitive-dissonance category and move on. Today, I wholeheartedly agree with the writer. I realize I had years ago misconstrued a fool with one who is slow of mind. I similarly had the wrong idea about what it means to be wise. So what are wisdom and foolishness and why is the latter a defining attribute for the man who denies God?

 
 
Let's set some terms at the outset. Wisdom is poorly defined these days to mean not much more than common sense or good judgment. But what is common is not always good, and what is good, not always common. Such definitions are subjective and unclear. Taking an objective and scriptural position: Wisdom is the right application of knowledge such that it aligns with the Lord's intentions. The closer the alignment, the wiser we are. When we are foolish, we fail to apply rationality in ways that align with His purpose. The fool's thoughts are askew from God's.
 
Foolishness may arise from intelligence and careful deliberation. Wisdom may be discerned quickly and without forethought. Neither qualities are necessarily dependent upon our natural talents. A person might be highly intelligent and foolish, or have a sub-100 IQ and be wise. Since believers and unbelievers alike cover the full spectrum of intellectual ability, mental acuity is not a prerequisite, nor the lack thereof a preclusion, for acknowledging God. Something else drives the alignment of our understanding, regardless of how limited or how vast that understanding might be.
 
Scripture is clear that everyone ought to know God. Psalm 19:1 says: "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork." Romans 1:18-20 builds on this: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse." Not only is the denier of God without excuse, given the sufficient evidence for His existence revealed in creation, but Paul says unrighteousness leads to a suppression of truth. One commentator clarified this suppression as "Truth held in the bondage of immorality."
 
From Augustine to Nietzsche, noted throughout history is the primacy of will over reason. When desire fixates on what is contrary to knowledge, a capitulation of the intellect takes place. We twist the truth (rationalize) or enter into denial and stubbornness. Our understanding is at the mercy of our will and affections. This conflict takes place at our noetic core; a place Scripture refers to as the heart.
 
We might think the heart as that part of the soul merely concerned with passion and desire. But Jesus said that "out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts" (Mark 7:21). Luke 1:51 refers to the proud "thoughts of their hearts." So the heart is also involved in the higher parts of the brain. The heart can soften creating a humble desire for the light of truth. It can also harden where the intellect is wrestled into a darkened position and pinned to the mat. Ephesians 4 describes how obdurance leads to this futility of mind: "Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart." The intellect is downstream from the heart.
 
Another word oft misunderstood, unrighteousness, put simply, is the state of being in sin, a state contrary to the divine law which follows necessarily from God's nature. Unrighteous acts are sinful acts. Righteousness, on the other hand, is freedom from sin. Paul states in Romans 3: "No one is righteous, no not one." But it is interesting to note what directly follows: "No one seeks God." Again we see the linkage from unrighteousness to a foolishness that denies the Creator.
 
Piecing things together we can show a complete causal chain: 
 
Unrighteousness -> the heart hardens, grows dishonest, desiring darkness and things contrary to God -> the will wrestles the intellect into ignorance of God and misalignment with His intentions -> foolishness
 
Righteousness -> the heart softens, grows honest, desiring the light of truth -> the will stimulates the intellect into a diligent and open inquiry of God and His aims -> wisdom
 
The Holy Spirit plays a critical role in the causal chain to wisdom. Abiding in Christ allows us to walk by the Spirit who counsels us on precisely how to align our thinking with God's intentions. This counseling process, where His spirit testifies with our spirit, involves our noetic core in ways beyond what I'm prepared (or able) to write on here. Nevertheless, this interaction is an essential element of the process, and I would be remiss not to mention it. 
 
There is also a feedback loop to consider: Foolishness leads to more sin and unrighteousness. This loop has the potential to drive our spiritual state into utter depravity. Similarly, there is a feedback loop with wisdom within the causal chain. John 3 illustrates this concept: "The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” Doing what is in alignment with God's aims draws us further into the light.
 
We see the writer's claim is justified. The foolish deny God, and their state of ignorance is not unexpected given Scripture. Righteousness leads to wisdom, unrighteousness to foolishness. The Holy Spirit plays a crucial role in leading us into the light. Sin is dangerous as it gives birth to foolishness and more sin, creating a positive feedback loop driving one into darkness. God has carefully ordained the world with enough knowledge of himself so we are without excuse. As Pascal wrote: "There is enough light for those who only desire to see and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition." But there are greater forces at work than mere evidence upon our intellect pushing us off the fence of general revelation.

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About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

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