Materialism and Mysteries

Bart EhrmanA friend brought this recent blog post by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman to my attention. Since it intersects with several areas of interest to me, I thought it would be fun to write some commentary on it.

Dr. Ehrman makes four basic points in his post:

  1. He is a metaphysical materialist. He believes that everything that exists is material in nature.
  2. Materialism faces some “enormous conceptual problems.”
  3. Even so, that’s no reason for him to abandon materialism, because every belief-system has its mysteries. Every belief-system has conceptual problems that seem to defy explanation, but it doesn’t follow that it’s unreasonable to hold on to that belief-system.
  4. Moreover, while every belief-system has its mysteries, it can still be the case that some belief-systems are more reasonable than others.

Let’s consider each point in turn.

1. Materialism

After some throat-clearing about not trying to “impose” one’s views on others, Dr. Ehrman writes:

Anyway, as probably fewer members know, I have been more-or-less a complete materialist for about twenty years. I do not believe there is such a thing as a non-material, supernatural realm. There’s the material realm, and that’s it, all the way down.

I used to think that we are (I am) made up of two things: a body and a mind/soul/spirit/whatever you want to call it. I don’t think that anymore.

But for now, I think I am made up of one thing. Matter. I’ve got (by my count) one body, eleven organ systems, 79 organs, roughly 37 trillion (count them!) cells, and god knows how many molecules. And nothing else. If some of those cells die – well they die all the time. If enough of them die in one place at one time, it could be a problem. If one of the organs goes kaput, it could be a very big problem. If one of the vital organs goes, as we used to say in high school, it’s cookies.

So Ehrman is clearly rejecting any version of dualism in favor of a clear-eyed, straight-talking, unabashed materialism. Everything that exists is entirely material in nature, including you and me. There is no soul distinct from the body. There is no mind distinct from the brain.

As I’ll explain shortly, I think this materialist position is demonstrably false, but I have to give Ehrman credit for being so direct and explicit about his position. No mincing words here! No side-stepping or fencing-sitting. I’ve encountered many unbelievers who are eager to criticize other people’s views without ever committing to any specific position themselves. They’re very eager to declare what they don’t believe (and why they don’t believe it) but very reluctant to tell us what they do believe (and why they believe it).

Bart Ehrman is not one of those unbelievers. Kudos to him for nailing his materialist colors firmly to the mast!

Reforming Apologetics (Dualisms)

Previous posts:

Summary of Chapter 7

The purpose of chapter 7 of Reforming Apologetics is to defend natural theology (in the Reformed Thomist tradition) from the charge that it succumbs to “dualistic thinking.” The central target is the Dutch neo-Calvinist thinker Herman Dooyeweerd, although Cornelius Van Til plays a supporting role as another critic who complains about a dualism that afflicts Roman Catholic theology and infects some streams of Reformed theology.

In fact, Dr. Fesko introduces the chapter’s theme by citing Van Til’s accusation that “the Roman Catholic nature-grace dualism compromises both the theological and the apologetic integrity of the scriptural teaching about epistemology” (p. 161). According to Van Til, this “nature-grace dualism is unscriptural, since it leaves a beachhead of autonomous reason, which makes fallen human beings the arbiters of truth” (p. 162). Indeed, Van Til thinks there is a deeper problem:

Van Til contends that Roman Catholic theology falls short of scriptural teaching because it rests on an Aristotelian starting point, a dualistic understanding of man. Hence, Christians must purge dualistic thought from their theology and begin from a pure scriptural starting point. (p. 162)

Similar criticisms come from Cornelius’s nephew, Henry Van Til, in his book The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, and from other “neo-Calvinist theologians and philosophers” such as James K. A. Smith, Albert Wolters, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Brian Walsh, and Richard Middleton. Dr. Fesko traces these criticisms to the influence of Abraham Kuyper, who argued that “since no area of life lies beyond the rule of Christ, all dualistic thought must be excised” (p. 163).

What does this have to do with Reformed apologetics? Fesko explains:

The dualism critique, therefore, plays an important role in debates over apologetic methodology and is one more hurdle to clear in order to recover the book of nature. (p. 163)

Fesko acknowledges that there are different versions of the “dualism critique,” but his aim in this chapter is to argue that the critique “rests on an inaccurate evaluation of the historical evidence.” Indeed, attempts to expose unbiblical dualisms in the natural theology tradition are guilty of a “fourfold failure”:

[T]hey separate what theologians merely distinguish, have little or no historical evidence to support them, ultimately rest on questionable philosophical claims rather than biblical exegesis, and employ the debunked hellenization thesis of Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930). (p. 164)

The chapter makes its case, first, by surveying three different types of dualism, and second, by analyzing and rebutting the charges of dualism leveled at Aquinas and some Reformed theologians.

A Conversation with Parker Settecase

In which we discuss the meaning and provenance of Parker’s tattoo, virtual-reality mannequins, two-dimensional people, the word ‘retorsive’, Stroudian objections to transcendental arguments, the ontological status of Bilbo Baggins, and sundry other topics of deep importance.

Audio here. Video (for full tattoo experience) here:

Greg Welty on the Problem of Evil

Why Is There Evil In The World?I posted previously about Greg Welty’s excellent book Why Is There Evil In The World (And So Much Of It)? when it was published a couple of years ago. In my (admittedly biased) opinion, it’s the best lay-level treatment of the problem of evil available today. I recommend it every chance I get.

If you want a taster, you can get it from this short article on the problem of evil, written by Greg for TGC’s Concise Theology series. It’s basically a much-distilled version of the argument Greg lays out in the book. If you like the article, you’ll appreciate the book even more!

Answering Some Questions on the Theological Foundations of Modern Science

Modern ScienceSome time ago I received “a few questions from an amateur philosopher” about my article “The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God: The Theological Foundations of Modern Science.” With his permission, I’m reproducing them here with some brief answers.

1) I agree that it seems unlikely for natural selection to actively select for higher order thinking, but isn’t it possible that the same logical reasoning that natural selection would select for to allow for higher probabilities of survival also provides the faculties that allow the higher order thinking, i.e. that the first being “truth-oriented” by necessity simply provided a general “truth” oriented system of thinking that we use in all our conscious thought? Are those things really so different? Relatedly, it seems strange to assume that natural selection only selects for physical traits – why wouldn’t it also select for cognitive advantages?

I’ll start with the last question. The reason that evolutionary processes would only select for physical traits is that, given naturalism and the causal closure of the physical world, only physical traits can causally influence behavior. Mental events would be epiphenomena at best: caused by underlying physical (brain) events, but not making any causal contribution to those events. There would be no “top down” causation from the mental to the physical. Thus, cognition (understood as mental processes, not merely brain processes) would be ‘invisible’ to natural selection and to evolutionary forces in general. I actually explained this at some length in the article (see the three paragraphs in section II beginning “In the first place…”).

But suppose that natural selection could select for cognitive advantages and thus for lower-order thinking. Isn’t higher-order thinking just a natural extension of lower-order thinking? I don’t think so. For example, our ability to do integral calculus isn’t merely an extension of our ability to count. It requires a grasp of concepts that go beyond simple addition and subtraction. Likewise, our ability to use language to express complex abstract ideas goes far beyond our ability to ‘name’ (i.e., attach labels to) the physical objects we experience with our senses. There’s simply no good reason to think that undirected evolutionary processes, driven by sheer biological efficiency, would select for these higher-order cognitive capabilities over time. (Remember that on the standard Darwinian gradualist view, it’s not enough for the “final product” to be advantageous; every incremental step of the development must be advantageous enough to become fixed in the population.)

Does Presuppositionalism Confuse Ontology and Epistemology?

Occasionally one hears classical apologists (especially those of a Thomist persuasion) claim that presuppositionalists are guilty of “confusing ontology and epistemology” or “confusing the order of being and the order of knowing.” R. C. Sproul, Norman Geisler, Richard Howe, and Steven Cowan are among those who have leveled this charge.1 In this post, I want to explain why I think the objection itself is confused.

  1. R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics (Zondervan, 1984), 229-230; Norman L. Geisler, Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal (Baker Book House, 1991), 17-18; Richard G. Howe, “Some Brief Critical Thoughts on Presuppositionalism” (2006); Steven B. Cowan, “Is the Bible the Word of God?” in Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder, eds., In Defense of the Bible (B&H Academic, 2013), 432.

Botching Bostock

Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, ruled in a 6-3 decision that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against their employees on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Neil GorsuchThe Court’s opinion was written by Justice Gorsuch and joined by Justices Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Alito wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Thomas. A second dissenting opinion was given by Justice Kavanaugh. All three opinions can be read in full here.

The relevant statute of Title VII reads as follows:

It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer … to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin…

The Court argued, in effect, that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity necessarily involves discrimination based on sex (properly understood as biological sex: male or female) and thus is prohibited by Title VII.

I’m neither a lawyer nor the son of a lawyer, but I know a thing or two about logic and argumentation, so I want to explain, as clearly and concisely as I can, why I think the Court’s central argument is horribly confused and specious.

If we’re going to criticize the Court’s opinion, however, it’s important to recognize how the Court argued. Some commentators have objected to the ruling on the basis of the harmful consequences it will have (undermining protections for women using bathrooms and locker rooms, destroying women’s sports, etc.) but that misses the proper role of the Court. The Court’s task is to interpret the law; in this case, the relevant clause of Title VII. If it turns out that the law has unforeseen or unintended consequences — harmful consequences — surely that’s a fault with the law, to be remedied by the legislative branch, not a fault with the judicial ruling.

Other commentators have argued that the original legislators couldn’t plausibly have understood Title VII to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, nor could they have foreseen that it would be applied in that way. However, Gorsuch directly addresses that objection in the opinion. His contention is that it’s a logical implication of the text of the statute, regardless of whether anyone at the time recognized it. His argument is simply that the text as it was written, reasonably interpreted according to standard dictionary definitions, protects against SOGI discrimination precisely because it protects against sexual discrimination. The latter logically demands the former, so he maintains. The complaint that no one in 1964 would have acknowledged such an implication is legally irrelevant. What’s relevant is that it is in fact an implication of the statute. (Gorsuch cites various precedents where a statute is later applied beyond its originally intended scope on the basis of its implications.)

Pick Your Worldview?

RTS Washington DCI’ve been having a lot of fun conversations recently. The latest was with my friends and colleagues at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington DC. In the most recent episode of their freshly-minted podcast, we had quite a wide-ranging discussion of topics such as analytic philosophy, the propriety of Reformed analytic theology, paradoxes in Christian theology, worldview apologetics, and my personal journey from electronic engineering to philosophical theology.

If you want to know why they titled this episode “Pick Your Worldview” rather than “Choose Your Own Worldview” — well, there’s a story behind it, but you’ll have to listen to find out!

While you’re at it, check out the other episodes in their podcast. Great stuff!