Apologetics

Update on The Big Ten Series

I’ve been embarrassingly delinquent in keeping readers updated on the progress of The Big Ten series, which I’ve been co-editing with Greg Welty for Christian Focus. Five more volumes have been published since I last posted about it, and I will endeavor to post a brief summary of each one over the next couple of months.

In the meantime, here’s the list of all eight published volumes:

The final two entries in the series are in the pipeline. Working titles:

  • Why Do I Personally Experience Evil and Suffering?
  • Is There Really Only One Way to God?

It’s taken some time, but I’m really pleased with the way the series has developed and I’m very proud (in a brotherly, non-bragging kind of way) of the volumes published to date. If you’re not familiar with the series, please check it out. It’s a great resource for both skeptical unbelievers and questioning believers.

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An Epistemological Argument Against Naturalism

Consider the following epistemological argument against Naturalism (as defined below):

  1. If Naturalism is true, then all factual knowledge (i.e., knowledge of facts) is acquired empirically.
  2. Knowledge of necessary facts cannot be acquired empirically.
  3. We have some knowledge of necessary facts.
  4. Therefore, Naturalism is not true.

The insights behind the argument aren’t original to me, but the formulation is mine. Before I defend the three premises, let me clarify the key terms used in the argument.

Naturalism refers to the ontological thesis that only natural things exist, that is, things that exist spatiotemporally and can be described according to our best physical theories. On this definition, Naturalism is roughly equivalent to physicalism, the view that the fundamental ‘stuff’ of reality is physical and whatever exists can be accounted for (in principle) in terms of physical reality (physical particles, physical forces, etc.).1

Factual knowledge refers to knowledge of facts about the world; specifically, facts about an external world that exists independently of our minds. Factual knowledge is distinct from (1) analytical knowledge (i.e., knowledge of logical or conceptual truths, such as that a triangle is a polygon) and (2) knowledge of internal mental states (e.g., that I am currently experiencing pain). A simple example of factual knowledge would be that there are, at this present moment, more than two turtles in Turtle Pond.

Empirically means by way of sense experience or observation, that is, by means of our sensory organs (the standard five senses or any others we might have that operate on a similar basis).

Necessary facts are facts about what must be the case, as opposed to what merely is the case or could be the case. To know a necessary fact is to know not merely that something actually is the case, but also that it could not possibly have failed to be the case. Knowledge of necessary facts is a species of factual knowledge (as defined above).

Now, back to the argument. I think it’s fairly clear that the argument is logically valid: the conclusion follows from the three premises. If premises 2 and 3 are true, it follows that some factual knowledge is not acquired empirically, in which case — by modus tollens from premise 1 — Naturalism is not true.

So why think that the premises are true? Consider each in turn.

  1. The physicalism could be reductive or non-reductive; I don’t think it makes a difference to the argument. Some self-professed naturalists hold to a more liberal ontology, e.g., allowing for sets or abstract mathematical objects. Whether those more liberal versions of naturalism are vulnerable to this argument is an open question that I won’t address here.

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The Best Defenders and Defenses of Atheism?

Who are the best defenders of atheism? Where can one find the strongest defenses of atheism?

I get asked those questions from time to time, and they’re good questions, so I’m going to offer my own answers (for what they’re worth) in this post.

First, however, a few observations and caveats. For the last couple of decades, Christian apologists have tended to focus on the so-called New Atheists, most notably the “Four Horsemen” of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. There’s good sense in that. Among proponents of atheism, those writers receive the most attention from the public and media, whether or not they deserve it. They’re the loudest, most entertaining, most provocative, and most influential voices for the atheist cause in the public square. They’ve had a significant impact in promoting anti-religious skepticism and turning people away from Christianity. I continue to hear stories of ‘ex-Christians’ who say that reading The God Delusion or God Is Not Great shook their faith “to the core” and eventually destroyed it. I’m always taken aback by such reports, because I’ve read those books too, and there’s precious little in the way of serious and substantive argument in them. (Dennett is the most intellectually serious of the Four Horsemen, but he doesn’t so much argue for atheism as just take it for granted.)

But here’s the thing: the New Atheists are hardly the best and the brightest of contemporary atheists (despite Dennett’s unironic attempt to self-advertise as “the brights”). Their criticisms of religious beliefs do need to be refuted, of course, but as I’ve said before, that’s low-hanging fruit. The most sophisticated and formidable arguments in defense of atheism, and specifically for naturalism, come from academic philosophers, particularly those who specialize in philosophy of religion. They’re trained in logic and critical thinking. They’ve studied the scholarly literature. They’re well-versed in the arguments for and against the existence of God, both classical and contemporary. They actually know what they’re talking about.

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Van Til & the Use of Evidence

Van Til & the Use of EvidenceThom Notaro’s excellent little book, Van Til & the Use of Evidence, has been out of print for years. However, Thom holds the copyright and has generously granted permission for me to make a scanned copy of the book available for free download. Enjoy!

Van Til & the Use of Evidence (with cover) (3.5 MB)

Van Til & the Use of Evidence (without cover) (3.2 MB)

The advantage of the “without cover” version (other than the smaller size) is that the PDF page numbers correspond exactly to the book page numbers.

Both versions are searchable (big thanks to Fred Zaspel and Michael Riley).

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Van Til and Analytic Philosophy

An essay written for a forthcoming collection of essays “in the Van Til tradition.”

The main thesis: While Van Til was rightly critical of the early forms of analytic philosophy (Moore, Russell, etc.), there is no inherent conflict between Van Tilian philosophy and contemporary analytic philosophy; in fact, there are significant points of affinity or complementarity. Thus, “analytic Van Tilianism” is not a contradiction in terms, but rather a project worth pursuing.

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A Muslim Defends His Worldview

What's Your Worldview?I was gratified to receive the following message via the Contact form:

Sir, I’m a Muslim, and I’ve read the Islam section in your book What’s Your Worldview. However, to say the least, I haven’t found any of the objections therein to be tenable:

He goes on to give brief responses to two of the “objections” I raised. (In the book, I really presented them only as food for thought, as prompts for readers to think more critically about the Islamic worldview. But still, it’s fair to call them objections.) In this post, I’ll reproduce the relevant sections from What’s Your Worldview? along with his responses, and then reply to them. (In the quotations from WYW, I’ve omitted the endnotes, most of which provide references to verses in the Quran.)

Objection #1

From WYW, pp. 65-66:

One of the central teachings of Islam is that there will be a final day of judgment. On that day, all of our words and deeds will be weighed in the balance of divine justice. Those who have believed in Allah and lived good enough lives will be rewarded with pleasures in paradise, while the rest will be punished with torments in hell.

Muslims don’t think that you have to live an absolutely perfect life to enter paradise. They insist that Allah is compassionate and merciful, and can forgive the sins of those who believe in him and love him (though no one should ever presume upon Allah’s forgiveness). However, there seems to be a tension within Islam between the justice and the mercy of Allah. If justice is to be satisfied, every violation of the law should receive its just penalty. Therefore, an absolutely perfect judge would ensure that no crime goes unpunished. According to Islam, however, Allah simply chooses to overlook some people’s sins. How, then, can he be an absolutely perfect judge? Does Allah consistently uphold his own just laws? The problem for Islam is that, unlike Christianity, it has no doctrine of atonement that could explain how God could forgive human sins without violating his own principles of justice.

Our Muslim friend responds:

1. “First, anyone who acts unjustly towards any person or being would fall short of being perfectly good. So, if there are cases in which God needs to prioritize being just over being, say, forgiving, God’s perfect goodness requires him to do what is just in that case. Second, justice reflects the balance and harmony between God’s moral attributes. Hence, the cases in which God deems it more appropriate to be forgiving over treating people as they deserve, He concedes justice and acts mercifully. However, in those cases, justice is at work in a different way, as God judges it to be more harmonious or appropriate to be forgiving over doing what justice––in its first sense––requires to do.” – Seyma Yazici: Is God perfectly good in Islam?

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Greg Welty on Alvin Plantinga

Greg Welty’s book Alvin Plantinga hits the bookstore shelves today. I’m sure you’re dying to hear what I think about it, so here’s my endorsement:

Alvin Plantinga by Greg WeltyAlvin Plantinga is one of the titans of contemporary Christian philosophy and it would be almost unforgivable to omit him from P&R’s Great Thinkers series. His writings over the course of a six-decade career combine an astonishing degree of creativity with rigorous analytical precision, a delightful sense of humor, and a refreshingly uncomplicated Christian piety. Until now, there has existed no reliable introduction to Plantinga’s work that I could enthusiastically recommend to students, pastors, and other interested readers. That deficiency is now remedied with the publication of Greg Welty’s Alvin Plantinga, a superlative addition to an already excellent series. As a seasoned teacher-scholar with advanced degrees in theology and philosophy and a firm commitment to confessional Reformed doctrine, Dr. Welty was the ideal person to write this book. In a concise and eminently readable style, Welty clearly explains Plantinga’s major contributions and argues that, despite Plantinga’s own deviations from the Reformed tradition at points, his most valuable contributions can be comfortably accommodated by that tradition. I would never suggest reading only one book on Plantinga, but if it must be one, make it this one.

If you want to find out a bit more about the book and its distinctive contributions, I recommend this interview with the author.

The book is available from the publisher at a significant discount right now ($10.39 instead of $15.99). So what are you waiting for? Go order a copy!

Addenda:

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Philosophy after Christ: A Short Review

Philosophy after ChristTony Flood was kind enough to send me a copy of his latest book, Philosophy after Christ, and I promised I would post a brief review. As the introduction explains, the title of the book is inspired by Colossians 2:8, where the apostle Paul contrasts two kinds of philosophy: philosophy that is “after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world,” and philosophy that is “after Christ” (KJV). The English word ‘after’ translates the Greek preposition kata, which in this context might be better rendered ‘according to’. As such, Flood’s agenda is not to expound a philosophy that is subsequent to Christ or beyond Christ, but rather according to Christ. Since Christ is “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24, 30) only a philosophy founded on Christ and his Word can succeed. Philosophy after Christ is thus a spirited and invigorating defense of a truly Christian approach to philosophy and apologetics. As the author notes, the material in the book is not entirely new but consists of revisions of essays written between 2018 and 2021, some of which began life as articles on Flood’s website. However, it is useful to have them collected and systematically arranged in one volume; the assembled whole carries more force that the sum of the parts.

Part I (“Basics”) makes the initial argument that Christian philosophy must be conducted self-consciously in the context of biblical Christian worldview, and, more provocatively, that even non-Christian philosophies tacitly depend on a Christian theistic worldview for their very intelligibility. Flood rightly recognizes that there can be no such thing as an autonomous or worldview-neutral philosophy:

If philosophical problems are embedded in a worldview, then the adjudication of worldview-conflict cannot be such a problem. The attempt to address such conflict also operates at the level of worldview. There is no worldview-neutral stance from which to undertake such a task. (p. 4)

Flood proceeds to argue that if Christ is indeed the Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24) and the Word of God (John 1:1) then no philosophy that is anti-Christ can ultimately stand, and if autonomous thought must be shunned then philosophers need to recognize their dependence upon divine revelation. As Flood vividly puts the point (with acknowledgements to Scott Oliphint), Christ is “our philosophical GPS” that not only supplies our map but also (crucially) tells us our position. Developing further this recognizably Van Tilian line of thought, Flood contends that the God of the Bible is “under the floorboards” of every argument, even those arguments leveled against God. Moreover, since God’s existence is not only evident (Rom. 1:19-20) but “the very ground of evidence-seeking,” atheists have no excuse for their unbelief.

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A Brief Statement on Muslim Apologists

Paradox in Christian TheologyIt has been brought to my attention that some Muslim apologists have been citing my writings on theological paradox to support their arguments against the doctrine of the Trinity, especially in debate with Christian apologists. Since that’s directly contrary to my own views and arguments, I thought I should issue a statement to clear up any confusions.

In Part I of my book Paradox in Christian Theology, I argue that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is paradoxical in the sense that it presents us with an apparent contradiction. However, I reject the conclusion that the Trinity is really contradictory. In Part II of the book, I develop and defend an epistemological account according to which (1) the doctrine of the Trinity is a merely apparent contradiction and (2) Christians can be rational in believing the doctrine, on the basis of divine revelation, despite its paradoxical nature.

It is true that I claim (in PCT and elsewhere) that there is currently no satisfactory solution to the so-called logical problem of the Trinity. (That’s why we find it paradoxical!) But it doesn’t follow that there cannot be a solution to the logical problem, or that the doctrine of the Trinity is illogical, incoherent, or nonsensical. In fact, since I deny that there are any true contradictions, I think there must be a solution to the logical problem, even if it turns out that that God alone can comprehend it. I don’t argue that we will never understand how the doctrine of the Trinity is logically consistent. Perhaps we will gain that understanding in the eschaton; I can’t rule that out. All I argue in my book is that there are good rational grounds for believing the doctrine of the Trinity even in the absence of a satisfactory solution to the logical problem. In other words, it’s rational for Christians to believe that there is a solution, even if we can’t specify that solution. (Compare: it’s rational for physicists to believe that there is a solution to the apparent conflict between relativity theory and quantum mechanics, even though no one has figured out that solution.)

All this to say, my book taken as a whole is a defense of rational belief in the Trinity. If you encounter Muslim apologists citing it against the doctrine of the Trinity, you should know that they are not representing my views and arguments responsibly. They’re citing my work selectively and not giving the full story and context. That’s rather like the critic who quotes some New Testament scholar saying “There have been tens of thousands of changes to the text!” without also mentioning that most of those changes are trivial and make no difference to the meaning of the text.

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What is the Problem of Induction, and Why are Christians Uniquely Situated to Answer It?

[From a short article written for the ILIAD Forum.]

The problem of induction is a notorious philosophical problem concerning inductive inferences; more specifically, whether that form of reasoning is generally reliable or rationally justified. An inductive inference aims to draw a general conclusion from a series of particular observations. For example, if I observe one thousand swans, and every one of those swans is white, I can infer inductively that probably all swans are white, and on that basis predict that any future swans I observe will (probably) be white. Unlike deductive inferences, in which the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises, inductive inferences cannot deliver absolute certainty—for example, the possibility of observing a non-white swan in the future cannot be decisively ruled out—but all else being equal, the greater the number of past observations confirming a general law or pattern, the stronger the inductive conclusion becomes.

Inductive inferences have been widely used in scientific research to discover laws of nature. To take one example, Newton’s universal law of gravitation was inferred inductively from empirical observations of the attractive forces between two masses. We haven’t observed the forces between every pair of masses in the universe at every point in time, of course, so we don’t have direct and infallible knowledge of a universal law. Nevertheless, we have made enough observations to be confident that they are instances of a universal law, and we can make reliable predictions about future events by positing that the universal law holds.

Continue reading…

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