Philosophy

Bavinck on the Use of Philosophy

Herman Bavinck on the use of non-Christian philosophy in the service of Christian theology:

Initially the Reformation assumed a hostile posture toward scholasticism and philosophy. But it soon changed its mind. Because it was not, nor wanted to be, a sect, it could not do without theology. Even Luther and Melanchthon, therefore, already resumed the use of philosophy and recognized its usefulness. Calvin assumed this high position from the start, saw in philosophy an “outstanding gift of God,” and was followed in this assessment by all Reformed theologians. The question here is not whether theology should make use of a specific philosophical system. Christian theology has never taken over any philosophical system without criticism and given it the stamp of approval. Neither Plato’s nor Aristotle’s philosophy has been held to be the true one by any theologian. That theologians nevertheless preferred these two philosophical systems was due to the fact that these systems best lent themselves to the development and defense of the truth. Present also was the idea that the Greeks and Romans had been accorded a special calling and gift for the life of culture. Still to this day, in fact, our whole civilization is built upon that of Greece and Rome. And Christianity has not destroyed but Christianized and thus consecrated those cultures. Still, theology is not in need of a specific philosophy. It is not per se hostile to any philosophical system and does not, a priori and without criticism, give priority to the philosophy of Plato or of Kant, or vice versa. But it brings along its own criteria, tests all philosophy by them, and takes over what it deems true and useful. What it needs is philosophy in general. In other words, it arrives at scientific theology only by thinking. The only internal principle of knowledge, therefore, is not faith as such, but believing thought, Christian rationality. Faith is self-conscious and sure. It rests in revelation. It includes cognition, but that cognition is completely practical in nature, a knowing (γιγνώσκειν) in the sense of Holy Scripture. Theology, accordingly, does not arise from believers as such; it is not a product of the church as institution; it does not have its origin in the official ministry Christ has given his church. But believers have still another, fuller life than that which comes to expression in the church as institution. They also live as Christians in the family, the state, and society, and pursue the practice of science and art. Many more gifts than are operative in the offices are granted them, gifts of knowledge and wisdom and prophecy. Among them, too, there are those who feel a strong impulse toward study and knowledge, who have received gifts for apprehending and systematizing the truth of God. Thus theology arises in the church of Christ; its subject is not the institutional church but the church as organism, the body of Christ. It is a product of Christian thinking.

Source: Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1: Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Baker Academic, 2003), pp. 608-9.

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!

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:

Anderson and Beall on Theological Paradoxes

Anyone interested in the topic of theological paradoxes will probably enjoy these two episodes from the freshly-minted Furthering Christendom podcast. In the first, I chat with Tyler McNabb and Mike DeVito about the model I develop and defend in my book Paradox in Christian Theology. In the second episode (recorded the very next day!) Tyler and Mike talk with philosopher JC Beall about his preferred approach to theological paradox.

Dr. Beall has some very kind things to say about my work, even though he ends up taking a different position. I want to preserve classical logic (specifically, the law of non-contradiction) and my model aims to do just that. Thus, on my view, theological paradoxes are merely apparent (not real) contradictions. Beall, on the other hand, wants to bite the bullet (or as he puts it, “knock on the door”!) and say that orthodox Christology is both true and contradictory, which requires one to accept a non-classical logic. (I should add that he thinks there are other, non-theological reasons for questioning classical logic.)

In my conversation with Tyler and Mike, I briefly explained why I prefer my approach over Beall’s, even though we largely agree on the parameters of the problem we’re both seeking to address. Although I didn’t know in advance that Dr. Beall would feature in the immediately following episode, it’s quite interesting to compare my motivations for preserving classical logic with his motivations for rejecting it.

I also found intriguing Dr. Beall’s comments on identity relations within the Trinity toward the end of the video (around the 57-minute mark). Beall expresses his view that logic as such doesn’t contain “an identity predicate” and “identity is not part of logical vocabulary.” I’m inclined to agree with him. I think identity is a substantive metaphysical concept rather than a purely logical one; what’s more, there are different kinds of identity and it’s not obvious which kind holds between the divine substance and each of the divine persons. I’ve suggested that it’s a sui generis kind of identity that has no analogue in the creation. (I’ve discussed this in my book and a few other places.)

Anyway, I enjoyed the conversation and I look forward to reading Dr. Beall’s forthcoming book on the subject.

 

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.)

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!