Category Archives: Philosophy

Calvinism and the Problem of Evil

Calvinism and the Problem of EvilThe book Calvinism and the Problem of Evil, edited by David Alexander and Daniel Johnson, and to which I contributed the essay “Calvinism and the First Sin,” has finally been published. Go here for more details. For some reason the table of contents isn’t provided on the publisher’s website, so here it is:

  • Introduction (David E. Alexander and Daniel M. Johnson)
  • Calvinism and the Problem of Evil: A Map of the Territory (Daniel M. Johnson)
  • Molinist Gunslingers: God and the Authorship of Sin (Greg Welty)
  • Theological Determinism and the “Authoring Sin” Objection (Heath White)
  • Not the Author of Evil: A Question of Providence, Not a Problem for Calvinism (James E. Bruce)
  • Orthodoxy, Theological Determinism, and the Problem of Evil (David E. Alexander)
  • Discrimination: Aspects of God’s Causal Activity (Paul Helm)
  • On Grace and Free Will (Hugh J. McCann)
  • The First Sin: A Dilemma for Christian Determinists (Alexander R. Pruss)
  • Calvinism and the First Sin (James N. Anderson)
  • A Compatibicalvinist Demonstrative-Goods Defense (Christopher R. Green)
  • Calvinism and the Problem of Hell (Matthew J. Hart)
  • Calvinism, Self-Attestation, and Apathy Toward Arguments From Evil (Anthony Bryson)

I haven’t read all of the other contributors’ essays yet, but the two I have read, by Dan Johnson and Greg Welty, are excellent. (Welty’s essay in particular is a real doozie.)

For a further taster, check out the Google Books preview.

Atheism, Amoralism, and Arationalism

Atheism and Amoralism

On April 1, 2010, ethicist Joel Marks sat at his computer and wrote a confession to the readers of his column “Moral Moments” which had been a regular feature in the magazine Philosophy Now for a decade. His confession was not that he had done something immoral. No, his confession was that he could not have done anything immoral, at any time, because it turns out that there really is no such thing as morality. Or so he had come to conclude. The author of “Moral Moments” had come out of the closet as an ‘amoralist’. As he puts it in the first part of his “Amoral Manifesto”:

[T]his philosopher has long been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t.

Marks immediately proceeds to explain the reasoning behind his “shocking epiphany” (bold added):

The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. I call the premise of this argument ‘hard atheism’ because it is analogous to a thesis in philosophy known as ‘hard determinism.’ The latter holds that if metaphysical determinism is true, then there is no such thing as free will. Thus, a ‘soft determinist’ believes that, even if your reading of this column right now has followed by causal necessity from the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, you can still meaningfully be said to have freely chosen to read it. Analogously, a ‘soft atheist’ would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality. And indeed, the whole crop of ‘New Atheists’ … are softies of this kind. So was I, until I experienced my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.

You get the point: the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, are “soft atheists” because they deny God yet still want to affirm moral realism. The problem is that their position isn’t a coherent, stable one, because it seeks to affirm some phenomenon — in this case, objective moral norms — while denying the one metaphysical framework that could plausibly account for that phenomenon. Marks summarizes how he reasoned his way from “soft atheism” to “hard atheism”:

Why do I now accept hard atheism? I was struck by salient parallels between religion and morality, especially that both avail themselves of imperatives or commands, which are intended to apply universally. In the case of religion, and most obviously theism, these commands emanate from a Commander; “and this all people call God,” as Aquinas might have put it. The problem with theism is of course the shaky grounds for believing in God. But the problem with morality, I now maintain, is that it is in even worse shape than religion in this regard; for if there were a God, His issuing commands would make some kind of sense. But if there is no God, as of course atheists assert, then what sense could be made of there being commands of this sort? In sum, while theists take the obvious existence of moral commands to be a kind of proof of the existence of a Commander, i.e., God, I now take the non-existence of a Commander as a kind of proof that there are no Commands, i.e., morality.

In some respects, Marks’ confession shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, theists have been making the same kind of argument — no God, no morality — for aeons. Moreover, a number of influential atheists have already “made the good confession”: Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, J. L. Mackie, and (more recently) Alex Rosenberg.

So I’m not going to dwell here on what I think should be reasonably evident to those who reflect on the metaphysical foundations of morality. Instead, I want to focus on some comments Marks makes in the second part of his “Amoral Manifesto” which, while tangential to his concerns, I find to be quite revealing and hugely significant. For what Marks hints at in these later remarks is that a consistent atheist ought to be not only an amoralist who denies objective moral norms but also an arationalist who denies objective rational norms.
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A Non-Vote Is Not a Vote

One of the reasons put forward by some conservatives for voting for the controversial Republican nominee is that not voting for him would be “a vote for Hillary”. It’s important to understand why this is a really bad argument.

In the first place, the claim itself is inaccurate. If there are only two candidates, A and B, and Oscar doesn’t vote for A, that could mean one of two things:

(1) Oscar votes for B rather than A.

(2) Oscar votes for neither A nor B.

Clearly these aren’t equivalent, because (1) hinders A’s chances of winning more than (2) does.

But it’s worse than that: the reasoning here is incoherent, because if a non-vote for A is a vote for B, then by parity of reasoning a non-vote for B is a vote for A, from which it follows that not voting for either candidate is voting for both candidates. On the most charitable interpretation, that simply means not voting at all would be neutral with respect to the candidates: it wouldn’t favor either of them. On a less charitable interpretation, it’s just a nonsensical conclusion.

Perhaps there are some good reasons for conservatives to cast their vote for the Republican presidential ticket in 2016, but this isn’t one of them.

Addendum: I should add that the same incoherence afflicts another popular argument, namely, that not voting would “allow Hillary to win”. If a non-vote for A would allow B to win, then equally a non-vote for B would allow A to win, in which case not voting for either candidate would allow both candidates to win, which is absurd. (Actually, the conclusion in this case could be interpreted somewhat more charitably: not voting would allow either candidate to win. But again this just highlights the neutrality of a non-vote.)

Negligibly Resistible Grace

It’s well known that Calvinists and Arminians disagree about whether God’s redemptive grace can be resisted by those to whom it is directed: Calvinists affirm irresistible grace (the ‘I’ of the TULIP) while Arminians affirm resistible grace. The labels aren’t ideal (I prefer to speak of “efficacious grace”) but they still capture a key difference between the two camps. Consider, for example, the fourth of the Five Articles of Remonstrance which represents the classical Arminian position in contrast to the Calvinist position:

That this [saving] grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of any good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without that prevenient or assisting; awakening, following, and co-operative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements that can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But, as respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, inasmuch as it is written concerning many that they have resisted the Holy Ghost, -Acts vii., and elsewhere in many places.

In debates between Calvinists and Arminians the issue is typically treated as a simple binary choice: grace is either irresistible or resistible. It’s not often recognized, however, that resistibility typically comes in degrees.

For any person S, something offered to S could be more or less resistible. Likewise, for any two things offered to S, one could be less resistible than the other. For example, a ham sandwich may be more resistible for me than a bowl of chili. I could resist either of them, but one would be less resistible than the other.

Varyingly Resistible Cupcakes

Furthermore, two items of the same kind could have different degrees of resistibility. Of two cupcakes offered to me, I might find one to be less resistible than the other. Of twelve different cupcakes, some will almost certainly be less resistible for me than others. (The resistibility of any particular cupcake will depend on many other factors, of course, such as how hungry I am, but that qualification doesn’t affect what I’ll argue below.)

Presumably the same principle would apply to divine grace (however exactly we define ‘divine grace’). If the divine grace offered or given to some particular unbeliever is resistible at all, it could be more or less resistible. One assumes God has considerable freedom as to exactly what grace is given to a person, and how much of it. That grace could include both external and internal elements (e.g., the preaching of the gospel would be an external grace, while the drawing of the Holy Spirit would be an internal grace) and those elements could be given in more or less resistible forms.

If divine grace can indeed vary in its resistibility with respect to any particular unbeliever, this presents something of a challenge to the Arminian. Consider the following three propositions:

(1) For any unbeliever S and resistible grace G, there is a less resistible (but still resistible) grace G’ — a grace that S is less able or inclined to resist.

(2) For any unbeliever S and resistible grace G, God is able to give G to S.

(3) God always prefers to give less resistible grace.

What reasons would an Arminian have to affirm each of these? (1) seems to follow naturally from the fact that there are degrees of resistibility. (2) follows from divine omnipotence; if it’s logically possible for S to receive G, it should be within God’s power to give G to S. (3) would be supported by the Arminian axiom that God wants everyone to be saved. Given the choice between giving more or less resistible grace to an unbeliever, surely God would choose the less resistible grace, simply because the unbeliever is less likely to resist it (and therefore more likely to be saved).

Here’s the problem: (1), (2), and (3) taken together imply that God will always give minimally resistible grace to every unbeliever; indeed, he will give infinitesimally resistible grace. (By analogy, think of an asymptotic function that approaches zero but never actually reaches zero.) Yet surely an infinitesimally resistible grace — what we might call “negligibly resistible grace” — is for all practical purposes indistinguishable from irresistible grace. If the latter is morally or theologically objectionable, why not the former?

So I assume the Arminian will want to back up and reject one of the three propositions above. But which one, and why? (I have a hunch about how most Arminians will be inclined to answer here, but I’ll let them speak for themselves!)

Plantinga Drains Russell’s Teapot

Alvin Plantinga on Russell’s teapot, from a 2014 interview by Gary Gutting:

G.G.: You say atheism requires evidence to support it. Many atheists deny this, saying that all they need to do is point out the lack of any good evidence for theism. You compare atheism to the denial that there are an even number of stars, which obviously would need evidence. But atheists say (using an example from Bertrand Russell) that you should rather compare atheism to the denial that there’s a teapot in orbit around the sun. Why prefer your comparison to Russell’s?

A.P.: Russell’s idea, I take it, is we don’t really have any evidence against teapotism, but we don’t need any; the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, and is enough to support a-teapotism. We don’t need any positive evidence against it to be justified in a-teapotism; and perhaps the same is true of theism.

I disagree: Clearly we have a great deal of evidence against teapotism. For example, as far as we know, the only way a teapot could have gotten into orbit around the sun would be if some country with sufficiently developed space-shot capabilities had shot this pot into orbit. No country with such capabilities is sufficiently frivolous to waste its resources by trying to send a teapot into orbit. Furthermore, if some country had done so, it would have been all over the news; we would certainly have heard about it. But we haven’t. And so on. There is plenty of evidence against teapotism. So if, à la Russell, theism is like teapotism, the atheist, to be justified, would (like the a-teapotist) have to have powerful evidence against theism.

Plantinga goes on to discuss whether there is such evidence, whether there are any good arguments for or against atheism, and whether theistic beliefs need to be justified by philosophical arguments. He concludes with a nice summary of his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.

How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 3)

[This is the third in an n-part series, where n>1 and probably n<10.]

In this unintentionally and regrettably sporadic series, I’ve been considering the question: How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? In the first post I argued that the Bible affirms (1) comprehensive divine providence and (2) God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (i.e., knowledge of what any created agent would freely choose if placed in specific circumstances), but Molinism holds no advantage over Augustinianism with respect to (1) and (2). I concluded with this statement:

If we want to show that Molinism has better biblical support than Augustinianism (or vice versa) then we need to find some proposition p which is affirmed by Molinism and denied by Augustinianism (or vice versa) such that p enjoys positive biblical support (i.e., there are biblical texts which, on the most natural and defensible interpretation, and without begging philosophical questions, assert or imply p).

In the second post I examined one candidate for proposition p: the proposition that moral freedom is incompatible with determinism (which Molinists invariably affirm, but Augustinians typically deny). I concluded that the Bible offers no support for incompatibilism. In this post I’ll consider a second candidate for proposition p: the proposition that God desires all to be saved.
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A Reductio of Naturalism

Keep Calm and Study PhysicsLet’s define Naturalism as the view that everything is either physical or causally dependent on the physical. On this definition, Naturalism encompasses both “hard naturalism” (strict reductive physicalism) and “soft naturalism” (which allows for some non-physical things such as minds, provided those non-physical things are causally dependent on physical things).

For completeness, let’s also define physical as a catch-all term for those entities and properties recognized by modern physics (subatomic particles, forces, etc.) or any reasonable refinement thereof (i.e., any refinement that doesn’t introduce radically different ontological categories). On this view, whatever is physical must be spatiotemporal.

I now offer a reductio ad absurdum of Naturalism, as defined above, which deduces the non-truth of Naturalism from its truth.

  1.  Naturalism is true. [assumption for reductio]
  2. If Naturalism is true, then Naturalism is possibly true.
  3. If Naturalism is possibly true, then, necessarily, Naturalism is possibly true.
  4. Necessarily, Naturalism is possibly true. [from 1, 2, 3]
  5. There is at least one necessary truth. [from 4]
  6. There is at least one necessarily true proposition. [from 5]
  7. Necessarily, if some proposition P is true, then P exists.
  8. If some proposition P is necessarily true, then P necessarily exists. [from 7]
  9. There is at least one necessarily existent proposition. [from 6, 8]
  10. There is something that does not exist contingently. [from 9]
  11. If Naturalism is true, then everything that exists, exists contingently.
  12. Not everything that exists, exists contingently. [from 10]
  13. Naturalism is not true. [from 11, 12]

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Further Thoughts on Tuggy’s Challenge

Dale Tuggy has replied to my brief response to his challenge to “Jesus is God” apologists. In this follow-up post I’ll clarify the thrust of my earlier response and add some further thoughts.

Dale’s original challenge presented an argument, with premises he thinks orthodox Christians should accept, to the conclusion that Jesus “is not a god.”

I offered a parallel argument as a means of indicating where I think Dale’s challenge goes awry. Dale seems to think that I was arguing along these lines: Michael Rea’s view of material constitution is correct, therefore premise 4 in the parallel argument is false, and hence premise 4 in Dale’s original argument is false. To be fair, I can understand why he might have interpreted my response that way, but that wasn’t quite my point.

As it happens, I don’t endorse Rea’s position on material constitution. I think it’s plausible and defensible, but I recognize that there are some serious arguments against it. I have an open mind on the issue, because it’s a difficult one to resolve. There are competing metaphysics of material objects, each with its own virtues, and it’s a tough debate to adjudicate. And that’s my point — or at least part of it.

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A Brief Response to Tuggy’s Challenge

Dale Tuggy has offered a challenge to those who claim that Jesus is God. The challenge takes the form of an argument, with premises that Tuggy thinks orthodox Christians should accept, to the conclusion that Jesus is not God (more precisely, that Jesus is not “a god”).

Here’s Tuggy’s argument:

  1. God and Jesus differ.
  2. Things which differ are two (i.e. are not numerically identical)
  3. Therefore, God and Jesus are two (not numerically identical). (1, 2)
  4. For any x and y, x and y are the same god only if x and y are not two (i.e. are numerically identical).
  5. Therefore, God and Jesus are not the same god. (3, 4)
  6. There is only one god.
  7. Therefore, either God is not a god, or Jesus is not a god. (5, 6)
  8. God is a god.
  9. Therefore, Jesus is not a god. (7, 8)

So where does the argument go wrong?

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On Contradicting the Bible

Suppose Chris says, “Gordon is married,” and Malcolm says, “Gordon is a bachelor.” Has Malcolm contradicted Chris? It depends on whether Malcolm is referring to the same ‘Gordon’. If Malcolm is talking about some other ‘Gordon’, there’s no contradiction. Conversely, if you think Malcolm has contradicted Chris, you’re presupposing that they’re talking about the same ‘Gordon’.

Now suppose you think, as is plausible, that when the Quran says that God has no son (Q4:171; Q6:101) it’s contradicting the Bible (John 3:16, etc.). In that case, you’re presupposing that the Quran is referring to the same God as the Bible. Conversely, if you think the Quran is referring to a fictional, non-existent deity when it says that God has no son, you need to consider whether the Quran is actually contradicting the Bible in saying so (and if it is contradicting the Bible, how it is doing so). The same goes for other objectionable statements the Quran makes about God.

If you say the Quran is in fact referring to the God of the Bible (because it make false claims about the God of the Bible) are you thereby implying that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God”? Not necessarily. It all depends what you mean by “worship the same God”.