Bertrand Russell on Pragmatism

Pragmatism is the view that a belief or claim is ‘true’ not because it accurately represents the way things are, but because it has beneficial effects. Truth is what’s useful, what works, what gets results. Correspondingly, religious pragmatism is the view that religious beliefs should be deemed ‘true’ if and only if they have good effects. Obviously this is quite a departure from the commonsense view of religious beliefs and religious truth, according to which the statement “God exists” is true if and only if, as a matter of fact, God exists.

Bertrand Russell was no friend of orthodox religion, but his critique of William James’s religious pragmatism is both devastating (in my judgment) and a delight to read:

Bertrand RussellIn a chapter on pragmatism and religion he reaps the harvest. “We cannot reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it.” “If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true.” “We may well believe, on the proofs that religious experience affords, that higher powers exist and are at work to save the world on ideal lines similar to our own.”

I find great intellectual difficulties in this doctrine. It assumes that a belief is “true” when its effects are good. If this definition is to be useful—and if not it is condemned by the pragmatist’s test—we must know (a) what is good, (b) what are the effects of this or that belief, and we must know these things before we can know that anything is “true,” since it is only after we have decided that the effects of a belief are good that we have a right to call it “true.” The result is an incredible complication. Suppose you want to know whether Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492. You must not, as other people do, look it up in a book. You must first inquire what are the effects of this belief, and how they differ from the effects of believing that he sailed in 1491 or 1493. This is difficult enough, but it is still more difficult to weigh the effects from an ethical point of view. You may say that obviously 1492 has the best effects, since it gives you higher grades in examinations. But your competitors, who would surpass you if you said 1491 or 1493, may consider your success instead of theirs ethically regrettable. Apart from examinations, I cannot think of any practical effects of the belief except in the case of a historian.

But this is not the end of the trouble. You must hold that your estimate of the consequences of a belief, both ethical and factual, is true, for if it is false your argument for the truth of your belief is mistaken. But to say that your belief as to consequences is true is, according to James, to say that it has good consequences, and this in turn is only true if it has good consequences, and so on ad infinitum. Obviously this won’t do.

There is another difficulty. Suppose I say there was such a person as Columbus, every one will agree that what I say is true. But why is it true? Because of a certain man of flesh and blood who lived 450 years ago—in short, because of the causes of my belief, not because of its effects. With James’s definition, it might happen that “A exists” is true although in fact A does not exist. I have always found that the hypothesis of Santa Claus “works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word”; therefore “Santa Claus exists” is true, although Santa Claus does not exist. James says (I repeat): “If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true.” This simply omits as unimportant the question whether God really is in His heaven; if He is a useful hypothesis, that is enough. God the Architect of the Cosmos is forgotten; all that is remembered is belief in God, and its effects upon the creatures inhabiting our petty planet. No wonder the Pope condemned the pragmatic defence of religion.

We come here to a fundamental difference between James’s religious outlook and that of religious people in the past. James is interested in religion as a human phenomenon, but shows little interest in the objects which religion contemplates. He wants people to be happy, and if belief in God makes them happy let them believe in Him. This, so far, is only benevolence, not philosophy; it becomes philosophy when it is said that if the belief makes them happy it is “true.” To the man who desires an object of worship this is unsatisfactory. He is not concerned to say, “If I believed in God I should be happy”; he is concerned to say, “I believe in God and therefore I am happy.” And when he believes in God, he believes in Him as he believes in the existence of Roosevelt or Churchill or Hitler; God, for him, is an actual Being, not merely a human idea which has good effects. It is this genuine belief that has the good effects, not James’s emasculate substitute. It is obvious that if I say “Hitler exists” I do not mean “the effects of believing that Hitler exists are good.” And to the genuine believer the same is true of God.

James’s doctrine is an attempt to build a superstructure of belief upon a foundation of scepticism, and like all such attempts it is dependent on fallacies. In his case the fallacies spring from an attempt to ignore all extra-human facts. Berkeleian idealism combined with scepticism causes him to substitute belief in God for God, and to pretend that this will do just as well. But this is only a form of the subjectivistic madness which is characteristic of most modern philosophy.

Indeed.

(Source: A History of Western Philosophy, 2007 ed., pp. 817-18)

Brian Abasciano on John 3:16

Dr. Brian Abasciano recently posted an article on the Society of Evangelical Arminians website in response to an “untenable grammatical argument” offered by (so he claims) James White, Guillaume Bignon, James A. Gibson, and yours truly. Dr. Abasciano generously describes me as a “respectable Calvinist philosopher” (who are the disreputable ones, I wonder?) even though he thinks I committed an “embarrassing mistake” (if so, at least I’m in good company).

Drs. Bignon and Gibson have replied here. Dr. White made some excellent comments in response on The Dividing Line (April 24 episode). I don’t have much to add to these, but I’ll make a few observations of my own.

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John 3:16 Teaches Limited Atonement

Yes, it really does. Hear me out.

John 3:16 is commonly cited against the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement (LA).1 The argument is simple: LA teaches that Christ made atonement only for the elect, but this best-known verse in the Bible says that God so loved the world that he sent his Son. That implies a universal atonement, for all mankind, not one limited in its extent.

The WorldThat seems like a knockdown argument on the face of it, but on closer examination it turns out to be very weak. In John’s writings “the world” (ho kosmos) rarely if ever carries the sense of “all mankind” or “every human who ever lived.” It certainly doesn’t mean that in 3:16 because that would make nonsense of the immediately following verse. (Try replacing “the world” with “all mankind” in verse 17 to see the point.) Rather, “the world” typically means either (i) “the created universe” (as in John 17:24), (ii) something like “the fallen creation in rebellion against God” (e.g., John 3:19; 13:1; 15:19; 17:13-18; 1 John 2:15-17) or (iii) “all nations” as opposed to the Jewish people alone (as in John 4:42). Whatever the exact sense in 3:16, there’s nothing that conflicts with LA.

So John 3:16 doesn’t count against LA. Perhaps most Calvinists are content to leave it at that, but I think we can go further and argue that it actually supports LA.

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  1. I prefer the labels ‘definite atonement’ and ‘particular redemption’ but I’m going to stick with the traditional label for this post.

Is There Only One Way of Salvation? (Tabletalk)

I see that my short article for Tabletalk magazine with the above title is now available online. The theme of the August 2017 issue was apologetics (“Giving an Answer”). The other articles from that issue are also available. Some good material here that could be used with a youth group or adult Sunday school, or shared with skeptical friends.

What Is Normal? What Is Natural?

Is homosexuality normal?

Is polyamory normal?

Is transgenderism normal?

Is left-handedness normal?

Is belief in God normal?

Is death normal?

Picture of a NormHow one answers such questions will hang on how one understands the term normal. The word ‘normal’ is etymologically related to ‘norm’ and ‘normative’. A norm is a standard or rule by which something is evaluated, by which it is judged to be good or bad, right or wrong. Thus the primary meaning of normal has to do with conformance to some norm. The claim that X is normal presupposes that there are norms for X (or for whatever kind of thing X is) and X conforms to those norms. The antonym of normal is abnormal, which implies some fault or failure to meet a standard: a deviation from the norm.

Accordingly the term normal, used in this primary sense, has a normative aspect to it; it involves some kind of evaluation or value judgment. A simple example of this usage would be if someone were to say, “It’s not normal to have three ears.” Evidently the speaker is taking for granted that there’s a proper form for human anatomy and having three ears is a deviation from that norm. Put simply, human beings shouldn’t have three ears.

There is a secondary sense of the term, however, which needs to be distinguished from the first. Normal can also be used to mean usual or typical. Understood that way, it merely reflects a statistical generalization and therefore doesn’t imply any value judgment. For example, if I were to say, “A high of 70 degrees is normal for Charlotte in April,” I’m only making a claim about the average temperature (or something along those lines). There’s no right or wrong about that temperature. It’s just a statistical fact for that geographical location. My statement was merely descriptive rather than normative or evaluative.

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How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 6)

[This is the last in an n-part series, where n turned out to be 6.]

In a highly irregular series of posts, I’ve been considering the question, How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? As I explained in the first installment:

Molinism is a theory that purports to reconcile a robust doctrine of divine providence and foreknowledge with a libertarian view of free will by appealing to the notion of divine middle knowledge: God’s eternal knowledge of the so-called counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, that is, contingent truths about what possible creatures would freely choose if they were created by God and placed in particular circumstances.

Luis de MolinaI noted that Molinism has been both defended and criticized on both theological and philosophical grounds, and that’s entirely appropriate since it’s a philosophical theory that seeks to reconcile certain theological claims. However, discussions of the purported virtues and vices of Molinism are often conducted at a safe distance from the text of Scripture. (I’ve observed elsewhere that this is a more general shortcoming among analytic/philosophical theologians.) So in this series I’ve endeavored to bring the discussion into closer contact with the more explicit and direct teachings of the Bible. My approach has been to evaluate Molinism alongside what is arguably its leading competitor among orthodox Christian theologians, Augustinianism,1 by considering which of the two views better fits some key “data points” provided by the Bible.2

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  1. As I noted in the first post, I’m using the term Augustinianism simply as shorthand for causal divine determinism.
  2. See the first post for a brief discussion of what I mean by biblical “data points” and how they can be used to evaluate philosophical theories.

No God but One: Allah or Jesus?

No God but OneMy review of Nabeel Qureshi’s book No God but One: Allah or Jesus? appeared in the September 2017 issue Reformed Faith & Practice. The review was written some time before Nabeel’s death, and, by unfortunate coincidence, it was published online on the day of his funeral. For that reason, I didn’t draw attention to it at the time. Still, I think it makes some important observations about current trends in evangelical apologetics, so I’m now highlighting the review here.

How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 5)

[This is the fifth in an n-part series, where n>1 and very probably n=6.]

A long time ago, in a galaxy remarkably like this one, I began a series addressing the question, How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? It’s high time I started to wrap things up. So, to recap:

  • In the first post, I argued that Augustinianism and Molinism can equally well accommodate comprehensive divine providence and God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, both of which the Bible clearly affirms. I observed that if Molinists wants to argue that their position is more biblical than the Augustinian position, they need to identify some proposition p that meets two conditions: (i) p is affirmed by Molinism but denied by Augustinianism, and (ii) p is affirmed or clearly implied by some biblical teaching.
  • In the second, third, and fourth posts, I considered three candidates for p: first, the proposition that moral freedom is incompatible with determinism; second, the proposition that God desires all to be saved; and third, the proposition that God is not the author of sin. In none of these three cases, I argued, does the candidate p meet conditions (i) and (ii).

In this post, I turn the tables and argue there are three propositions, each of which meet the following two conditions: (i) the proposition is denied by Molinism but affirmed (or at least not denied) by Augustinianism, and (ii) the proposition is affirmed or clearly implied by some biblical teaching. That being the case, we should conclude that Augustinianism is better supported by the Bible than Molinism. Continue reading

Absolutely Subjective Moral Values

In a previous post I drew a distinction between Objective Moral Values and Subjective Moral Values before giving a couple of illustrations of the importance of the distinction in Christian apologetics. In this follow-up I want to take matters few steps further by deploying the distinction in a version of the moral argument for God.

Consider these two propositions:

  1. There are some objective moral values.
  2. All values are subjective.

Each of these claims has arguments in its favor. (If you worry about the second, bear with me.) The reasons for affirming the first proposition are pretty straightforward. When we reflect on certain moral values that we all recognize, we can see that they hold independently of subjective human factors: personal feelings, opinions, desires, goals, and so forth. Take, for example, the moral value (currently the subject of much public discussion) that sexual harassment is wrong. Suppose that every human on the planet became infected with a disease that brought about a kind of moral insanity, with the consequence that everyone began to think that sexual harassment is good and everyone experienced moral sentiments along those lines. Would sexual harassment cease to be morally wrong? Would that moral value change overnight? (If that example doesn’t persuade you, I’m confident it wouldn’t take me long to identify a moral value that you do take to be objective in the sense I defined.)

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The Inescapability of God

A (very) abridged version of chapter 4 of Why Should I Believe Christianity? was recently published in the Christian Research Journal 40:5 (2017). It’s reproduced here with permission.