Philosophy

David Hume (Great Thinkers)

David Hume (Great Thinkers)My contribution to P&R’s Great Thinkers series has now been published. You can find more details on P&R’s website, including a sample chapter.

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
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Why Hume Matters
  • Abbreviations
  • 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
    • Utilitarianism
    • 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
  • Glossary
  • Recommended Reading
  • Index of Subjects and Names

Calvinism and the Problem of Contrition

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!

The Repentant St. Peter (Goya)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.


  1. For a robust exegetical defense of the distinction, see this classic article by John Piper.
  2. It’s true that some Calvinists have taken a necessitarian position with respect to God’s decree, but that isn’t an essential tenet of Calvinism simpliciter.

A Conversation with Christopher Watkin

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

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?

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’.

Still Not Living in a Computer Simulation

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.

Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?

(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?

Grudem’s Christian Ethics and Other Themeliana

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

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.)