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Category Archives: Philosophy
Tom Jump is an atheist who posts conversations with philosophers and theologians on his YouTube channel. I accepted his invitation to discuss whether there’s reason to believe in God, and here’s how it went:
The question “Is there reason to believe in God?” could be answered in many different ways, but I thought it would be interesting for us to discuss the argument for God from logic since I’ve published on that topic and have some expertise in it. I began by giving an overview of the argument as it appears in the 2011 paper I co-authored with Greg Welty:
- The laws of logic are truths (i.e., true propositions).
- The laws of logic are truths about truths.
- The laws of logic are necessary truths.
- The laws of logic really exist.
- The laws of logic necessarily exist.
- The laws of logic are nonphysical.
- The laws of logic are thoughts.
- The laws of logic are divine thoughts.
The plan was to go through these claims one by one and find out where Tom thinks the argument goes awry. Tom immediately took issue with 4, so we fell into a discussion about whether the laws of logic, and propositions in general, are real entities. Unfortunately, we ended up spending over an hour going around and around on that particular issue, and we never reached the later (arguably more interesting) parts of the argument! So we didn’t make much progress toward resolving the opening question.
In hindsight, it might have been more productive to discuss another argument. Still, the conversation was very cordial and worth having. The reason we didn’t get very far, I suggest, is because Tom seemed unable to articulate a consistent position on (1) whether propositions exist and (2) whether propositions are concrete or abstract in nature. Living up to his last name, Tom proved impossible to pin down on which of the following he wanted to endorse:
- Propositions don’t exist at all.
- Propositions exist as concrete (physical) entities.
- Propositions exist as abstract (non-physical) entities.
Watch the exchange and make your own assessment. What exactly is Tom’s position on the ontological status of propositions? I pointed out the problems with the first two positions. But the third is inconsistent with Tom’s professed physicalism. It’s too bad that we couldn’t move beyond the explanatory failures of physicalism and explore the explanatory virtues of theism. Perhaps another time?
The problem of induction may be viewed as a particular instance of a more general epistemological problem. Is there any rational order to the facts of the world, and, if so, how can we have epistemic access to that rational order? How can the multifarious facts of experience be rationally connected, so as to give us genuine knowledge of the world and its operations?
Hume’s answer, in effect, is that such knowledge is impossible. Given his starting point, his answer is correct. Kant considered this a philosophical scandal, even though he agreed with Hume that all factual knowledge of the world must come through sense experience. Kant’s innovative response to Hume’s skepticism was his “Copernican revolution” in epistemology: although we cannot know the world as it is in itself, we can know the world as it appears to us, because our minds impose rational order on the data of experience. Kant called his theory “transcendental idealism,” but we might just as well call it anthropocentric antirealism, for, on Kant’s view, the world of experience—the world we take ourselves to inhabit—isn’t a mind-independent reality, but rather a construction of the active human mind.
Kant’s system, while ingenious in its own way, fails to provide a satisfactory answer to the problems raised by Hume. Not only is it internally inconsistent (Kant couldn’t avoid making some positive claims about the unknowable noumenal world), but, like all forms of antirealism, it is haunted by the specter of epistemological relativism. If the world is a construction of the human mind, which human mind is doing the constructing? How can I be sure that the rational order I impose upon my experience is the same for everyone? Kant was the champion of intellectual autonomy—human reason must serve as the supreme judge—yet the existence of seven billion minds on earth implies seven billion independent and competing authorities.
Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile runs from the Queen’s residence at Holyrood Palace up to Edinburgh Castle. At the corner where the Royal Mile intersects with the Mound, there stands a statue of a seated man. Occasionally seen wearing a traffic cone on his head, courtesy of exuberant and inebriated students, he nevertheless sits in dignified fashion, clothed in a toga and with a book perched on his knee. Every day thousands of people pass by him, but only a small minority of them are aware of the impact that he—or rather, the historical figure he depicts—has had on the culture in which they live and breathe.
Philosophy students at the University of Edinburgh are more aware of his significance, not least because their lectures are held in a building named in his honor: the David Hume Tower. In many ways, Hume is viewed as a heroic figure, not only for the School of Philosophy, but also for the university as a whole—both the humanities and the sciences—representing, as he does, the legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume’s significance was confirmed by a poll conducted by the Sunday Times in 1999, which awarded him the title “Greatest Scot of the Millennium,” edging out his close friend, the economist Adam Smith.
Hume’s impact on Western civilization can scarcely be overstated. Traces of his thought can be detected in almost every aspect of our culture today. It was Hume’s writings that famously roused Immanuel Kant from his “dogmatic slumber” and motivated his “Copernican revolution,” which in large measure set the epistemological agenda for the next two centuries. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that without Hume, there would have been no Kant; and without Kant, no Hegel; and without Hegel, no Marx. Friedrich Schleiermacher, the pioneer of Protestant liberalism, propounded his new understanding of Christianity as grounded in religious experience, rather than verbal divine revelation, in response to the critiques put forward by Hume and Kant. Hume’s influential objections to natural theology (arguments for the existence and attributes of God based on natural reason) and to claims of miracles (such as the apostolic testimony to the resurrection of Jesus) may have been more responsible for the subsequent decline of orthodox Christianity in the English-speaking world than anything else. One often encounters today the received wisdom that revealed religion has never recovered from the “double hammer blow” of Hume and Kant.
You can also read (or listen to) an interview about the book with Fred Zaspel at Books At a Glance.
I’ll be posting some excerpts from the book on my blog later this week, but for now here’s the publisher’s blurb and the table of contents:
David Hume (1711–1776)
Through his pursuit of a naturalistic grounding for morality and his forceful critique of supernaturalism, Scottish philosopher David Hume significantly undermined confidence in orthodox Christianity.
Professor, minister, and philosopher James Anderson summarizes the major points of Hume’s thought and offers a critical assessment from a distinctively Reformed perspective. He shows that Hume’s arguments, far from refuting the Christian worldview, indirectly support that worldview by exposing the self-defeating implications of naturalism. Deepen your understanding of this immensely influential thinker, and you will be better able to engage with today’s secular challenges to faith.
- Series Introduction
- Foreword by W. Andrew Hoffecker
- Introduction: Why Hume Matters
- 1. Hume’s Life and Works
- 2. Hume’s Philosophical Project
- Three Distinctives of the Project
- A Two-Phase Project
- Hume’s Theory of the Mind
- A New Account of Causation
- Philosophy Psychologized
- 3. Hume’s Naturalistic Ethics
- Against Moral Rationalism
- Against Self-Interest Theories
- Hume’s Moral Theory
- A New Account of Justice
- 4. Hume’s Religious Skepticism
- Religion Naturalized
- Hume’s Critique of Natural Theology
- Hume’s Argument against Miracles
- Was Hume an Atheist?
- 5. Hume’s Continuing Relevance
- The Kantian Turn
- Logical Positivism and Scientism
- Naturalized Epistemology
- The Evidentialist Challenge
- 6. A Reformed Assessment of Hume’s Thought
- Was Hume a Great Thinker?
- The Presumption of Naturalism
- The Presumption of Autonomy
- Internal Problems
- The Specter of Solipsism
- A Matter of Taste
- 7. A Reformed Response to Hume’s Religious Skepticism
- Defusing the Evidentialist Challenge
- Natural Theology Ex-Humed
- In Defense of Miracles
- 8. Hume and Christian Apologetics
- The Skeptical Sinkhole of Empiricism
- The Problem of Induction
- A Hume-Inspired Transcendental Argument
- Epilogue: The Humean Predicament
- Recommended Reading
- Index of Subjects and Names
I recently received the following inquiry about an alleged problem for Calvinism:
This problem is explained in a new book I’ve been reading, The Challenges of Divine Determinism, by Peter Furlong (a theist who’s agnostic about the reality of divine determinism). Furlong calls this problem the problem of contrition, which lies in the observation that (to put the basic point briefly and crudely) in order to repent for one’s sins in the fullest way, one must wish to have never sinned in the first place–but if divine determinism is true, and so God willed one to sin, this means that one must wish that God had not willed what He did, and so one’s will must be in some sense aligned against God’s to repent. Of course no Christian wants his will to oppose God’s.
A very interesting challenge! Some thoughts in response (bearing in mind that I haven’t read Furlong’s book):
1. Calvinists routinely distinguish between God’s decretive will and his preceptive will.1 The first concerns God’s eternal decree, which infallibly comes to pass, while the second reflects God’s commands for mankind as an expression of his holiness. Thus, God willed preceptively that Joseph’s brothers would not sin against him, but he willed decretively that they would do so (hence Gen. 50:20). As such, we should clarify that when we say “and so God willed one to sin,” we’re speaking specifically of God’s decretive will. There’s no opposition to God’s preceptive will implied here; on the contrary, the reason we wish we hadn’t sinned is precisely because our sins are contrary to God’s preceptive will!
2. Having drawn this distinction, we can be more precise about the challenge posed. The alleged problem is that in order to be truly contrite, one must wish that God had decreed otherwise than he did in fact decree. But why exactly is this problematic? Would so wishing imply that God made some kind of mistake in decreeing as he did? Would it imply that God shouldn’t have decreed what he did? That doesn’t follow at all, as far as I can see. Presumably God could have decreed otherwise than he did (i.e., God had alternatives open to him; nothing necessitated what he actually decreed) and if God had decreed otherwise, he wouldn’t have been wrong to do so.2 Wishing that God had decreed otherwise needn’t imply any deficiency on God’s part (e.g., that God could have decreed something better than what he actually decreed).
3. It strikes me that if there is a problem here, it isn’t a problem merely for contrition but for any counterfactual wishing. Suppose my favored candidate loses the election and I think to myself, “I really wish Jones had won.” If God decreed that Jones would lose, my wishing that Jones had won implies that I wish God had decreed otherwise! So if there really is a problem, I don’t think it has anything to do with contrition per se.
4. What’s more, if this is a problem, it isn’t a problem for divine determinists alone. Molinists also hold that God has an infallible decree, albeit one conditioned by God’s middle knowledge. So if a Molinist truly wishes that he hadn’t sinned, he is also wishing that God had decreed otherwise (specifically, that God had “weakly actualized” some other “feasible world,” some possible world in which he doesn’t commit the sin in question).
5. Christ’s wrestling in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36-44) may be instructive here. Surely in some sense Jesus wished that his Father’s will were otherwise, otherwise his prayers in the garden make little sense. Jesus knew perfectly well that it was his Father’s settled will for him to go to the cross, but he still desired that things be otherwise. Was this a wrongful desire on Jesus’s part? Surely not! (Note that one doesn’t have to be a Calvinist to appreciate this point.)
Obviously I don’t offer this as an example of contrition, only as a case of someone non-sinfully wishing that God had willed otherwise. Of course, Christ obediently subordinated his (entirely understandable) desire not to drink the cup of God’s wrath to the will of his Father. In the end, Christ’s overriding wish was to do his Father’s will. (Praise God!) But that doesn’t mean his other desires weren’t genuine desires.
6. Reflecting on it further, I’m not sure this is even a strictly theological problem, because one can formulate non-theological versions of the problem of contrition. Suppose a young man has premarital sex with his girlfriend. She becomes pregnant and has a daughter whom the man loves dearly. In fact, the couple decide to get married and raise the girl together. Later on, the man experiences a religious conversion and becomes convicted that premarital sex is morally wrong. Should he sincerely wish that he hadn’t engaged in premarital sex? In some sense, yes. But if he hadn’t done what he did, his daughter would never have been born. So is he implicitly wishing that his daughter had never been born? Presumably not!
This raises the question of whether it’s possible to have wishes with logically inconsistent implications (or alternatively, to coherently wish for what isn’t possible). I think it is, although a defense of that claim will have to wait for another occasion. The only point I’m making is that the problem of contrition, if a problem at all, isn’t a problem for divine determinists alone. It can be turned into a problem for everyone. Conversely, if it isn’t really a problem in general, there’s no reason to think it’s a problem for Calvinists in particular.
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.
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!
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.
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 birthdays – their 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’.
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.
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.