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Lottery puzzles and Jesus' ‘Return’

  • DONALD SMITH (a1)

Abstract

This paper is about a puzzle – I'll call it ‘the Return’ – that puts considerable pressure upon Christians to accept a very robust scepticism about the future. Those familiar with work on so-called ‘lottery puzzles’ will notice much similarity between those puzzles and the Return. However, there is an important difference that renders the Return an especially difficult problem for a Christian who believes that he has much knowledge about the future. After introducing the Return, I'll argue that it is immune to the most promising non-sceptical approaches to more familiar lottery puzzles.

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Notes

1. I've learned a great deal about lottery puzzles from John Hawthorne's immensely instructive and engaging book, Knowledge and Lotteries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). The book is also full of references to the expansive literature surrounding lottery puzzles. Rather than simply duplicating a list of references, I'll leave it to the reader to peruse Knowledge and Lotteries and the references therein.

2. When asked, ‘What are you doing this afternoon?’, my initial inclination is to say, flat-out, ‘I'll be mowing the lawn for the better part of it.’ Cf. ibid., 135–136.

3. This puzzle is simply a variant of cases discussed in ibid., 1–7; my remarks about this puzzle and its structure draw heavily from the discussion there.

5. Hawthorne Knowledge and Lotteries, 34.

6. It won't help to quibble about the supposed entailment. It is true that some views about Jesus' second coming would seem to allow for the possibility that I mow my lawn this afternoon and Jesus returns before then. According to so-called ‘pre-tribulation’ views, Jesus will return and take only some people with him, leaving behind others. Given such a view, it seems possible for Jesus to return, for me to be left behind, and for me to be still mowing my lawn this afternoon. If you are bothered by this, then in the sentence that expresses what you take to be the problematic entailment, simply substitute: ‘Jesus will not return before then in such a way as to preclude my mowing my lawn this afternoon’, for ‘Jesus will not return before then’. Doing so will not affect the main arguments to follow and so, for ease of exposition, I will stick with the original entailment claim.

7. As Jesus is recorded as saying, ‘No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It's like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back – whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’. (Mark, 13.32–37, New International Version). See also Matthew, 24.36–44.

8. Fred Dretske and Robert Nozick have defended this reply to sceptical arguments. See Dretske, FredConclusive reasons’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 49 (1971), 122; idem ‘Epistemic operators’, in idem Perception, Knowledge and Belief (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); and Robert Nozick Philosophical Explanations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981).

9. Moreover, I find denying SPC implausible. See Hawthorne Knowledge and Lotteries, 36–46 to see how costly denying SPC turns out to be.

10. See ibid., 144–156 for a thorough assessment of simple non-scepticism, what Hawthorne calls ‘simple moderate invariantism’.

11. See ibid., chs 2 and 4, for a thorough discussion and assessment of contextualism and sensitive moderate invariantism as well as an interesting development of the role of practical environment.

12. Recall: to say that the probability of P's being true is absolutely inscrutable for me is not merely to say that the probability of P is difficult to estimate. That the probability of P's being true is absolutely inscrutable for me implies that I cannot sensibly say that it's likely that P is true, or that it's unlikely that P is true, or that it's just as likely as not that P is true.

13. I am grateful to Tom Crisp for raising and pressing me on both of these points.

14. James, 4.13–15, my emphasis added.

15. I am grateful to the following people for very helpful comments on and/or discussion of this paper: an anonymous referee for this journal, E. J. Coffman, Tom Crisp, Jim Davis, Jonathan Kvanvig, Trenton Merricks, Doug Meyer, Christian Miller, and Karl Strait.

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