Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Are Conditional Abilities "Real"?

In a recent video, my friend Dan Chapa and I, discussed a Conditional Analysis argument from Guillaume Bignon's book Excusing Sinners and Blaming God (link to video).  During our discussion, one of the disconnects seemed to center on whether conditional abilities are something real or not.  

We speak of conditional abilities all the time.  When someone asks a teenager, "can you drive," they typically mean something like, "have you learned to drive," "do you have a license," or "do you have a car at your disposal."  An affirmative answer describes a real ability of the teenager, even if that ability isn't presently being actualized.

It's not an ability off in some hypothetical world, it's an ability in the real world.

Likewise, we can speak of conditional disabilities.  These are also real absences of ability.  For example, if the teen responds, "I can't drive, I'm grounded," we understand the implication that the teen knows how to drive, has a license, but is currently under a parental restriction that prevents the teen from driving.  The way that the teen has expressed this disability has also informed us about an underlying ability.

Such a response is different from, "I can't, I haven't learned yet," or "I can't, I failed the driver's license exam."  These statements of disability express the absence of different kinds of abilities.  "I haven't learned yet," may express something about the cognitive and motor skills aspects, whereas "I failed the driver's license exam" may express (at least) a legal obstacle.  

If that's too abstract, consider the adjective, "flammable" (or "inflammable," which means the same thing).  A pool of gasoline is "flammable" even if there is no match nearby.  We say the same about lots of abilities of physical things.  Copper is ductile, even if no one draws it out into wire.  Granola is crunchy, even before you place it into your mouth.

Let's bring this back to the subject of the discussion.

When we say, "He could if he wanted to," we are describing a conditional ability.  When we say, "He couldn't, even if he wanted to," we are describing a conditional disability. These are real abilities, even though they are conditional abilities.  

In our discussion, we mentioned the case of a daughter whose father orders her to carry an item upstairs and she fails to do so.  We care about the answer to the question, "Could she have done what he asked, if she wanted to?" or more broadly to the question of "What stopped her from doing what he asked?"  In other words, we want to know the answer to the question, "What's the condition that would have to be removed such that on a conditional analysis, she could have done what he asked?"

If the answer is, "well if she didn't hate her dad so much, she could have," or "well if she weren't so stubborn, she could have," we have one evaluation of the situation, but if the answer is, "if the item weighed less, she could have," or "if she had heard his request, she could have," or "if the item actually existed, she could have," we have different analysis.

In the discussion, there was also a misunderstanding of the conditional analysis as suggesting that the conditional analysis implies that the past is not fixed or implying that a person has the ability to change the past.  That's not the implication of a conditional analysis that evaluates a different past.  

In fact, God himself provided a conditional analysis that involved a different past:

Numbers 12:14  And the LORD said unto Moses, If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be ashamed seven days? let her be shut out from the camp seven days, and after that let her be received in again.

God's conditional analysis, "If X had occurred, then Y would have followed," is true, even though it would involve a different past.  This is not so much about an ability, per se, but it is nevertheless about a causal chain that proceeds from a different past than the actual past.

Likewise, in Scripture, humans likewise use a conditional analysis involving a different past, to describe human ability/inability:

Judges 14:18  And the men of the city said unto him on the seventh day before the sun went down, What is sweeter than honey? and what is stronger than a lion? And he said unto them, If ye had not plowed with my heifer, ye had not found out my riddle.

Here, Samson's conditional analysis is "If X had not occurred, then Y would not have occurred."  He's accusing them of cheating, saying that without cheating they did not have the ability to guess his riddle.

Jonathan has a similar conditional analysis of Saul's requirement for fasting during battle:

1 Samuel 14:30 How much more, if haply the people had eaten freely to day of the spoil of their enemies which they found? for had there not been now a much greater slaughter among the Philistines?

In Jonathan's analysis, "if the people had done X, then they could have done Y."  He's explaining that the decisive factor for the people failing to more thoroughly exterminate the Philistines was not the people's lack of resolve or strength, but a lack of food. 

This is not an exhaustive look at the Scriptural use of conditional analysis, but I thought I would add a few from the New Testament as well:

Matthew 24:43 But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up.

This conditional analysis example is interesting because Jesus is not speaking about a different actual past, but a different past in the world of parables.  That said, the same conditional analysis applies.  "If the man knew X, he would have done Y." 

This example is also interesting because Jesus is not saying that it was possible for the man to know X.  How could he know when the thief would come?!  Rather, Jesus is explaining what the result would have been had the man known.  He's saying (among other things) something about the character of the man, that he's not apathetic about burglary nor powerless to stop a burglary that he's aware of.

An example that should spring to mind is this one, as it was recently discussed in another episode:

Luke 10:13 Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.

Once again, Jesus is providing a conditional analysis, even if it is hyperbole.  The conditional analysis is not suggesting that it is possible for the past to change, such that the same works could now have been done, but rather it is describing the relative character of the hearts of the men of Chorazin and Bethsaida, that it is even harder than the hearts of those of Tyre and Sidon.

Finally, we have a conditional analysis from Martha: 

John 11:21 Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.

Martha is not saying that Jesus has the ability to change the past.  She is saying that Jesus has the ability to heal.  Thus, she believes that the decisive factor in her brother's death was not a lack of healing power in Jesus but instead was Jesus' personal absence. 

Conditional abilities are real abilities.  They are real abilities when it comes to healing the sick, they are real abilities when it comes to being able to be wowed by miracles, they are real abilities when it comes to the ability to resist burglars, they are real abilities when it comes to warfare, they are real abilities when it comes to solving puzzles, or even to suffer shame.  Conditional analysis is valid, even when it implies a different past than the actual past. The necessity of the past is not violated by the use of conditional analysis, but it's simply set aside for the purpose of conditional analysis.