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.

A Hume-Inspired Transcendental Argument

The following excerpt is taken from David Hume by James N. Anderson (ISBN 978-1-62995-279-6) with permission from P&R Publishing Co, P.O. Box 817, Phillipsburg, NJ 08865 (www.prpbooks.com).

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?

David HumeHume’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.

Why Hume Matters

The following excerpt is taken from David Hume by James N. Anderson (ISBN 978-1-62995-279-6) with permission from P&R Publishing Co, P.O. Box 817, Phillipsburg, NJ 08865 (www.prpbooks.com).

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.

David HumeHume’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.