Category Archives: Philosophy

A Conversation with Christopher Watkin

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What do you call an interview where the interviewer and interviewee switch places halfway through? A ‘switcherview’ perhaps?

Whatever you call it, I recently did one with Christopher Watkin in which we talked for nearly two hours about P&R’s Great Thinkers series.  Chris has already contributed volumes on Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. He’s presently working on a third volume, this time on Gilles Deleuze. My own contribution to the series, a critical engagement with the thought of David Hume, will be published in early December (but I’ll take no offense if you feel led to pre-order it).

Chris and I had about as much fun as two Reformed philosophy geeks could have discussing Derrida, Foucault, and Hume. We talked about why these thinkers are important today, what challenges they present to Christians, and how Christians can interact critically but responsibly with their work.

Chris is a fellow Brit who is currently posted at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, where he teaches and researches in the field of French Studies. Not only has he written books on several great thinkers, he’s a gifted thinker himself with a wide range of philosophical and theological interests. Check out his personal website and his other website Thinking Through the Bible to find out more about his work. You can also follow him on Twitter if you’re that way inclined.

Here’s the full conversation:

You can also find some smaller snippets on Chris’s YouTube channel.

Determined to Come Most Freely

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A preprint version of the article I co-authored with Paul Manata, “Determined to Come Most Freely: Some Challenges for Libertarian Calvinism,” published a while ago in the Journal for Reformed Theology and summarized here, is now available here. Enjoy!

When Is a Baby a Baby?

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The post-Christian West is woefully confused and conflicted about the status of unborn human beings. Consider a striking illustration provided by two recent articles from the BBC News website (surely no friend of the pro-life cause).

The first article is entitled “What’s going on in the fight over US abortion rights?” and seeks to explain to non-Americans “what’s behind the push … for anti-abortion bills across the US.” (Note the terminology used in the article: “abortion rights,” “anti-abortion bills,” “reproductive health,” etc.) If you read through the article, you’ll find that the human being within the womb is consistently referred to as a ‘foetus’ (the British spelling of ‘fetus’). Nowhere in the article is the word ‘baby’ used.

BBC News Abortion Article

But the word ‘baby’ does appear elsewhere on the webpage — just once, in a link to another article in the ‘Features’ sidebar. This second article uses a paraphrased quote as its title: “They called my baby biowaste – it broke my heart in pieces.” It tells the heart-wrenching story of a woman who suffered nine miscarriages over a five-year period and how she and her husband created nine “spirit houses” in a landscaped garden to commemorate their lost children.

Read the whole thing, but here are some notable quotes from the article (bold added for emphasis):

“I lost Victoria at 21 weeks in 2013,” remembers Debbie.

Five of the babies were lost in the first trimester of pregnancy and four in the second.

What do you do with the remains of a child lost during pregnancy? How do you honour their memory?

[Debbie] visits her nine houses regularly. “I go on their birthdaystheir due dates – and the days that they passed. I go there for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter, Valentine’s Day. My husband and I need to connect with the children we would have otherwise celebrated with,” says Debbie.

Babies. Children. Victoria.

One word conspicuous by its absence, however, is ‘foetus’.

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Still Not Living in a Computer Simulation

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A couple of commentators on a previous post pointed me to an Arc Digital article by Thomas Metcalf which contends that the Simulation Argument (SA) ought to be taken more seriously. (Metcalf’s article wasn’t written in response to mine, although it appeared a week or so afterward: post hoc sed non propter hoc.)

I don’t think there’s anything in the article that poses any problems for the arguments I gave in my post. Rather than respond to every point, I’ll just quote a few sections and make some comments.

Brain in a Vat

Metcalf observes that the SA has two key premises:

The Empirical Premise: Most of the “people” who think they’re real, flesh-and-blood humans are actually conscious computer programs.

The Indifference Premise: If most people are simulated, then you are probably simulated.

As I explained in my earlier post, I think the first premise is false, and necessarily so. It’s not metaphysically possible for a computer program to be conscious, assuming that the computer in question is a purely physical mechanism. (I think Metcalf actually commits a category error in his statement of the Empirical Premise. A computer program is abstract in nature; it’s a set of instructions that can be run by one or more physical computers. So a computer program wouldn’t be conscious; it would be the computer running the program, if it were possible for a computer to be conscious.)

The second premise looks problematic too. Metcalf elaborates:

The idea behind the Indifference Premise is simple: If most people have some feature, then absent other evidence, you should guess that you probably have that feature.

Most people have the following feature: not being me. Should I therefore guess that I’m probably not me too? Perhaps the “absent other evidence” clause is supposed to foreclose such trivial counterexamples. But what kind of evidence is in view here? Observational evidence? Surely that’s not the kind of evidence that would confirm my self-identity. Self-identity is known a priori. Couldn’t I also know a priori that I’m not a computer simulation? Well, if I can know a priori that no purely material object can be conscious, then I can know a priori that I’m not a computer simulation. All this to say, both premises of Metcalf’s SA seem to hang on the controversial notion that a computer can be conscious.

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The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God

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For those interested, the lecture I gave last October on the theological foundations of modern science has been published in the May 2019 issue of Reformed Faith & Practice. Go here to read it.

Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?

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(Spoiler: Betteridge’s law applies.)

I’ve been asked several times recently how I would respond to the claim that we are (or might well be) living inside a computer simulation. I don’t think the folk who pose the question to me are themselves worried the claim might be true; rather, they recognize it as a new kind of skeptical challenge and they’re curious to know how Christians might respond to it. Also, I suspect they’ve encountered some unbelievers who use the simulation hypothesis as a kind of nuclear option to derail serious discussions about the evidence for Christian claims. (“How do you know you haven’t been brainwashed into believing Christianity? How do you know you’re not being deceived by a malevolent demon? How do you know you’re not in a dream right now? How do you know the entire universe isn’t just an elaborate computer simulation? Huh? Huh?”)

As it happens, there are some smart people who take the simulation hypothesis seriously: Nick Bostrom, Elon Musk, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Scott Adams, among others. They don’t necessarily believe it, but they don’t think it’s implausible. So what can be said in response? Can the hypothesis be refuted?

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Grudem’s Christian Ethics and Other Themeliana

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My review of Wayne Grudem’s Christian Ethics appears in the latest issue of Themelios. (In case you’re left wondering: yes, I actually used a set of scales.)

The April 2019 issue is quite a treat. Some highlights:

Something for everyone!

Iron-Man Dualism

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One common argument against substance (mind-body) dualism runs as follows. We know that consciousness is dependent on the brain, because when the brain is damaged it adversely affects consciousness and mental function. (You can prove this point to yourself experimentally by hitting yourself hard on the head with a brick.) Furthermore, it is argued, when brain function ceases altogether, consciousness disappears. (Don’t try to prove this latter point to yourself experimentally; just take it on trust.) Therefore, contra substance dualism, the mind — if it’s a real entity at all — must be ontologically dependent on the physical structures of the brain. We should be physicalists of some kind.

I come across this argument all the time in the writings of naturalists, but it strikes me as a blatant non sequitur. At most it shows that there’s a causal relationship between the mind and the body, which substance dualists insist upon anyway. (The so-called “interaction problem,” which is concerned with how there can be causation between physical and non-physical substances, is a different challenge to dualism, one I don’t propose to address here.) The fact that increasing damage to the brain leads to increasing mental impairment doesn’t at all imply that the mind cannot exist apart from the brain.

Here’s an analogy to elucidate why that’s so. Imagine a spaceship of the kind familiar from sci-fi movies. In this spaceship, the cockpit doubles up as an escape pod. In normal operation, the cockpit is attached to the main ship; whenever the ship moves, the cockpit moves with it, just as it should. If the ship is attacked with (say) photon torpedoes, the cockpit is buffeted about along with the rest of the spacecraft. When the ship is damaged, all of its systems can be affected; thus the operation of the cockpit can be impaired by damage to the ship in which it is housed.

If the ship becomes so badly damaged that it can’t move at all, the cockpit is stuck along with it, since it’s fixed to the ship. But if the spaceship is completely blown apart, the cockpit functions as an escape pod: it can detach from the doomed ship, and once detached, it can move freely again. (In line with a Christian eschatology, we could even extend the analogy such that if the parts of the ship are recovered and reassembled, the cockpit can be reattached — but that’s not necessary for the point I’m making here.)

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Blaming Sinners and Exculpating God

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Some time ago I plugged Guillaume Bignon’s Excusing Sinners and Blaming God. Kevin Timpe wrote a critical review of the book in the journal Faith and Philosophy, and Bignon has now posted a response to the review on his website. His response is useful because it not only rebuts Timpe’s criticisms, but also takes the discussion further in some respects. Check it out.

Faith and Philosophy Journal Now Open-Access

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Splendid news: Faith and Philosophy, the journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers, is now open-access. Kudos to the SCP Executive Committee for that decision and its execution. All articles and book reviews from all past issues (dating back to 1984) are freely available for PDF download.

Faith and Philosophy

The journal archive includes many classic articles by luminaries such as William Alston, Robert Adams, Marilyn McCord Adams, Alvin Plantinga, George Mavrodes, Eleanore Stump, Richard Swinburne, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Peter van Inwagen, and William Wainwright, to name but a handful. Happy reading!