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!

A Conversation with Tom Jump

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:

  1. The laws of logic are truths (i.e., true propositions).
  2. The laws of logic are truths about truths.
  3. The laws of logic are necessary truths.
  4. The laws of logic really exist.
  5. The laws of logic necessarily exist.
  6. The laws of logic are nonphysical.
  7. The laws of logic are thoughts.
  8. 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:

  1. Propositions don’t exist at all.
  2. Propositions exist as concrete (physical) entities.
  3. 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?

Reforming Apologetics (Transcendental Arguments)

Previous posts:

Summary of Chapter 6

In this chapter, Dr. Fesko turns his attention to Van Til’s advocacy of the transcendental argument for the existence of God (hereafter, TAG). Fesko’s main concern is not that TAG is a bad argument in itself, but rather that many Van Tilians treat it as the be-all and end-all of Reformed apologetics, to the exclusion of other apologetic arguments (i.e., more traditional theistic arguments and historical evidential arguments). He writes:

This chapter argues that the TAG is a useful tool within the apologist’s toolbox but is neither a silver-bullet argument nor the most biblically pure form of Reformed apologetics. … The degree to which apologists employ the TAG apart from the book of nature is inversely proportional to the degree to which they depart from the historic Reformed faith. (p. 137)

This chapter’s thesis, therefore, is that the TAG can be a useful argument but not at the expense of the book of nature. Christians can employ the connection between the innate and acquired natural knowledge of God in the defense of the faith. (p. 137)

Dr. Fesko’s approach in the chapter is to review TAG’s origins in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, to expose its “idealist elements,” and to raise some concerns about the use of TAG in Van Tilian apologetics.

Origin of Transcendental Arguments

The use of transcendental arguments can be traced to Kant’s attempt to refute idealism (specifically, skepticism about the existence of a mind-independent material world). The basic aim of a transcendental argument is to refute a skeptical position by showing that the skeptic has to presuppose the very thing he professes to doubt. Drawing from Robert Stern’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fesko writes:

Stated in simpler terms, transcendental arguments make a specific claim, namely, that X is necessary for Y to exist. If Y exists, then it logically follows that X must also be true. In other words, a transcendental argument argues by way of presupposition. (p. 139)

Fesko immediately connects TAG with the “historic worldview theory” (HWT) critiqued in the preceding chapter. James Orr advocated HWT and also employed a transcendental method (so Robert Knudsen argues), with the consequence that Orr repudiated proofs or evidential arguments for the existence of God. Gordon Clark followed Orr in these convictions. Van Til, despite acknowledging the legitimacy of evidence, “sounds very much like Orr” at points.

Fesko notes that Van Til’s disciples have debated among themselves the extent to which evidential arguments are appropriate in apologetics. Greg Bahnsen appeared to repudiate them altogether, while John Frame and Thom Notaro have defended their use and their compatibility with Van Til’s method. Even so, Fesko remarks, “there is a tendency to discount or diminish the use of evidence among some of those who employ the TAG” (p. 141).

Atheist Delusions: A Review Rebooted

Ten years ago I wrote a review of David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions for the Discerning Reader website (which now appears to be on its last legs). Since I’ve seen Hart’s book recommended by evangelical pundits several times in recent weeks, I’m going to reproduce (and thereby reboot) the review here.

Atheist DelusionsAn informative, entertaining, and ultimately unsatisfying response to the historical revisionism of the New Atheists.

In generations past, atheists attacked Christianity by arguing that it simply wasn’t true. Some of their arguments against God were innovative, philosophically sophisticated, and deserved a response (which they duly received). Today’s atheists aren’t satisfied with that approach. They want to persuade us not merely that Christianity is false, but that it is wicked as well. Religion in general—and biblical religion in particular—is an overwhelming force for evil in the world, so they would have us believe. Hence the forthright title and subtitle of Christopher Hitchens’ recent polemic: God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

This two-pronged strategy of the New Atheists calls for a two-pronged response. The first is to argue (as Keith Ward has done) that there are good reasons to believe in God—or at least to contend (as Alister McGrath has done) that Hitchens and co haven’t given any good reasons not to believe in God. The second line of response is to refute the charge that Christianity has done more harm than good, by marshaling historical evidence to the contrary. This is the approach of David Bentley Hart’s new book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.

Hart’s thesis, in a nutshell, is that the New Atheists (among whom Hitchens seems to be the primary target) have grossly misrepresented the history of Christianity and its positive cultural impact on the world. Part 1 surveys the new “gospel of unbelief” and its apologists, before raising questions about its central tenet, namely, that the world is a better place for the rise of modernity and will become an ever better place if only the modernist creed—absolute human autonomy—is embraced with greater consistency.

Part 2 directly challenges “modernity’s rewriting of the Christian past” with a survey of the cultural battle between the fledgling Christian faith and its pagan rivals. Hart is particularly concerned here to debunk the modern myth that Christianity represented the forces of superstition, irrationalism, intolerance, and violence, whereas ancient paganism represented its polar opposite: love, peace, and a “live and let live” attitude toward minorities. The historical reality is that pagan culture was anti-intellectual, corrupt, oppressive, and bloodthirsty. Against this dark and depraved backdrop, Christianity was a welcome breath of fresh air. Optimistic, liberating, and anti-elitist, it preached the highest standards of moral integrity and generated a cultural environment in which philosophy and science would flourish for many centuries. In short, the greatest benefits of the world we inhabit today can be credited to Christianity’s account.

Unfortunately in Part 3 of the book Hart’s case begins to lose steam, and, in my judgment, to come off the rails. As best I can tell (because it isn’t altogether clear) these six chapters develop the case that our modern conception of ‘humanity’ is “the positive invention of Christianity”; and if this is so, it follows that as our culture abandons its Christianity, it will also thereby abandon its humanity. This would be a powerful conclusion, but Hart’s argument is problematic in several respects. First, it’s hard to distill from the 100 pages of discussion exactly what the argument comes to; what its premises are and how the conclusion follows from them. The burden of the final chapter of Part 3 (“Divine Humanity”) is to show that the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation elevated our conception of humanity to the level of divinity, thus infusing humanity with the highest dignity and destiny. This claim, however, turns on a very questionable interpretation of the Incarnation (one that goes well beyond the ecumenical church creeds) and demands rather more precision and argumentation than Hart supplies. Perhaps the argument is more profound and subtle than I’ve grasped; if so, its profundity and subtlety are obscured by Hart’s flowery and meandering prose.

The final two chapters of the book draw matters to a close by casting a pessimistic vision of the society that chooses to pursue Enlightenment values over Christian values and of the ethics and science that would characterize such a society.

While I agree with Hart’s overall thesis—that Western civilization owes a far greater debt to Christianity than its secularist despisers can bear to admit—I must express a number of serious reservations about the book as a whole. As I noted above, Atheist Delusions seeks to expose the crass historical revisionism of Hitchens and his comrades-in-arms. It largely succeeds in this goal. Its author, however, seems surprisingly reluctant take matters any further. Surely it’s not enough to say that Christianity has been good for the world; we also want to say that Christianity has been good for the world because it’s true. Yet one looks in vain for any clear indication that Hart believes the claims of Christianity to be factual claims. If he does, he nowhere shares the reasons for his beliefs. And in the final sentences of the book, Hart speaks of Christians in the third person—an odd grammatical choice for one who dons the mantle of a Christian apologist.

There are other problems that will cause concern for evangelical readers. Hart makes some very questionable claims about Gnostic influences on John’s Gospel (p. 137).  He expresses doubts about the traditional doctrine of hell (pp. 154-55). He mistranslates John 1:1 and makes demonstrably false claims about the New Testament usage of the Greek word for ‘God’ (p. 204). Most worrying of all, however, is that a biblical understanding of the gospel is almost entirely absent from the book. I confess I knew nothing about David Bentley Hart before reading his book, but by the end of the book all the evidence pointed to his being Eastern Orthodox: too low a view of the Bible and too high a view of the Church Fathers; an understanding of salvation as ‘divinization’; all emphasis on the Incarnation and none on the Atonement; the gospel as metaphysical and moral transformation, with justification by faith nowhere to be seen. (A few minutes’ research on the internet confirmed my suspicions.)

For all these reasons, I cannot recommend this book as a tool for evangelism or even for pre-evangelism. That’s a shame, because much of the book is both informative and a delight to read. But taken as a whole, it does not make a case for Christianity that any informed evangelical could endorse.