Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Jerry Walls on persuasion in hell

Thomas Talbott argued that those persons who are in hell will be persuaded by their experiences there to repent and to reconcile with God. He thinks that the horrors of hell will provide compelling evidence that their choice to refuse God's offer of salvation is the wrong one. Jerry Walls doesn't accept this. In his most recent Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory (2014), he writes:

I am very dubious, however, that evidence is ever compelling, strictly speaking. This is especially so when we are dealing with matters as controversial as religious beliefs. The reason this is so is because belief is far more than a matter of the intellect. Our emotions, will, and desires are also involved. And if we are unwilling to repent, we cannot be compelled to do by evidence (81).

Now in a previous post, a wildly popular one relative to the kind of hits my blog normally gets, I argued that Walls has a dilemma on his hands. So long as he accepts ethical intellectualism, so long as he accepts that intellect precedes will, he has to grant that God could give those in hell adequate evidence that they are making the wrong choice. Thus they will fail to see any good in rejecting God's offer, recognizing it as evil, and will repent freely. But if intellect is not preceded by will, then by Wall's own terms, he fails to make intelligible the choice to stay in hell forever. He grants himself that there must be something about the subjective experience of choosing hell over God that makes it intelligible; the agent must see something to be gained by remaining in hell, rather than leaving. This presumes a priority of intellect to will. A blind act of will with no connection to intellect, to reasons, is not free.

He might reply to this objection along the lines I quoted above: no evidence is compelling because more than intellect is involved in belief; there are desires, emotions, and will to be considered, also. My rejoinder is two-fold.

In the first place, the evidence that provides doesn't have to be compelling; it just has to be adequate. It has to be enough to convince the damned person to leave. Consider the story of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Dekalog I. An atheist professor of linguistics named Krzysztof believes only in what is measurable and quantifiable by the methods of the physical sciences; there is no soul, no afterlife, no God. One winter day his son dies when the ice of the town take breaks, and the boy falls under, drowning. This happened despite the fact that, according to the calculations his father had performed, the ice should have been able to support the weight of someone three times the size of his son --  a fact which he personally verified the night before, walking onto the ice and jumping on it himself. After this inexplicable tragedy, Krzysztof goes into the cathedral under construction in his city, and after knocking over the unfinished altar, he attempts to cross himself with frozen holy water. What it took for Krzysztof to come to God was not some absolutely compelling piece of evidence, but it was enough for him to repent; it was evidence adequate to the agent it involved. So also, mutatis mutandis, with those in hell.

But secondly, the same dilemma applies in this case as before. Are these emotions, will, and desires which motivate the unrepentance of the damned ultimately grounded in intellect or not? If they are, then the intellectual concern can be addressed and the obstacles to repentance taken away. But if they are not, then it is difficult to see how the choice to remain in hell is a free one. How can a free choice be made on the basis of an irrational, groundless impulse in a deadly direction, a disposition with no intellectual content whatsoever? An intelligible choice, by Walls's own admission, must be made in connection with intellect. A blind desire or emotion cannot be the basis of a free choice; it hardly even seems a choice to act on such a thing. Anyway, blind desires and emotions seem to me to be an impossibility: we cannot desire a thing without understanding it to be good in at least some way; we cannot have an emotion that has no connection whatsoever to our understanding of the world around us or of ourselves.

So Walls's dilemma stands.