The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God

For those interested, the lecture I gave last October on the theological foundations of modern science has been published in the May 2019 issue of Reformed Faith & Practice. Go here to read it.

Two Countries Separated By a Common Signal

After 10 years of living and driving in the US, it’s finally dawned on me that, despite outward appearances, the British “indicator” and the American “turn signal” don’t mean the same thing at all.

Indicator / Turn SignalFor Brits, the flashing light basically means: “I’m terribly sorry to be a bother, but I just want to let you know that I’m about to make a turn any second now. Stand by…”

For Americans, on the other hand, the flashing light means something along these lines: “Hey! Check out this turn I’m already halfway through making! Woo-hoo! DON’T TREAD ON ME!”

At least, I think that’s how it works. I’m still trying to crack the code.

If I’m right though, I’m very thankful that my American friends occasionally make use of their “turn signals” to draw attention to partially completed vehicular maneuvers that I might otherwise have missed.

What’s Your Worldview? Kindle edition $2.99

Heads-up: the Kindle edition of What’s Your Worldview? is on sale at $2.99 this week (until Star Wars Day — if that’s your worldview).

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?

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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!

Vos and Van Til: How Wide the Divide?

I’ve been asked by several folk to share my thoughts on J. V. Fesko’s article, “The Scholastic Epistemology of Geerhardus Vos.” (Side note: I’m very pleased to welcome Dr. Fesko as a colleague following his recent appointment to the faculty at RTS Jackson! The following comments are offered respectfully and in the spirit of Proverbs 27:17. Semper reformanda!)

Geerhardus VosA great deal could be said in response to the various points Fesko raises in his essay, but I’ll restrict myself to some remarks on his core argument and a few other related matters. Fesko’s main target is the “Vosian Van Til thesis” which maintains that “Van Til and Vos had the same view of epistemology,” that there’s a “symbiotic relationship between Vos and Van Til,” and that “Van Til learned a unique epistemology from Vos.” Fesko readily concedes that Van Til was significantly influenced by Vos, but he wants to challenge the stronger claim that Van Til adopted a distinctive epistemology from Vos which served as a kind of course-correction for Reformed philosophy and apologetics.

Fesko’s central argument can be easily summarized:

  1. Vos (and the historic Reformed tradition) affirmed both natural theology and the traditional scholastic distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘mixed’ articles of faith.
  2. Van Til rejected both of the above.
  3. Therefore (contra the Vosian Van Til thesis) there’s significant discontinuity between Vos and Van Til. Vos stands in line with the historic Reformed tradition; Van Til does not.

There’s also a subsidiary argument, which I won’t assess here:

  1. Vos approved of Bavinck’s “moderate realism”.
  2. Van Til criticized Bavinck’s “moderate realism”.
  3. Therefore, Van Til’s epistemology isn’t in line with Vos’s.

Some comments:

1. It’s important to recognize the scope and nature of Fesko’s argument. It’s really an argument against the claims of certain Van Tilians. It isn’t a refutation of any distinctive element of Van Til’s thought. (I don’t mean to suggest it was intended to be, but some might fail to recognize what the argument, if sound, would actually prove.)

2. Along the same lines, we should acknowledge that the article is an exercise in historical theology: it concerns the intellectual relationship between two Reformed thinkers (and also their relationship to earlier Reformed theologians). Historical claims do not establish philosophical or theological theses. Fesko’s argument tells us little if anything about whether Vos’s position, Van Til’s position, or some other position is the right position to hold. The mere fact that Theologian A’s position aligns with Theologian B’s position, or stands in continuity with Tradition C, doesn’t as such give us any reason to agree with A, B, or C.

3. Some readers will take (and have taken) the article to provide support for Reformed scholasticism or Reformed Thomism. But again, I think that misses the scope of the argument. Nothing in the article constitutes a defense of scholasticism or Thomism as such. For example, there’s nothing here that vindicates the use of Aristotelian metaphysics or Aquinas’s nature-grace scheme.

4. The article refers to “Van Tillians” as though that’s a homogeneous group partly defined by a commitment to the Vosian Van Til thesis. But there have been considerable disagreements among self-described Van Tilians about how to interpret Van Til’s claims and implement his apologetic program. Van Tilians are no more a homogeneous group than Thomists. Fesko takes the claims of William Dennison and Lane Tipton to be representative of all Van Tilians. But on what grounds? Why think they speak for everyone who endorses a Van Tilian approach to apologetics (especially with respect to historical theses about lines of intellectual influence)?

Moving to matters of more substance:

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The Soft Bigotry of Leftist Exclusions

A splendid article by Nigel Biggar on Cambridge University’s shoddy treatment of Jordan Peterson. Drawing lessons from the Peterson incident and his own experience at the hands of intolerant progressive academics, Biggar argues that the Cambridge administration is guilty of rank hypocrisy.

Excerpt:

When one puts Cambridge University’s serial inaction in the case of Dr Gopal alongside its precipitate action in the case of Professor Peterson, what is revealed is this: the University does in fact discriminate on the unjustifiable grounds of race, gender, and above all morals and politics. If you’re non-white, female, and aggressively ‘woke’, then you’ll be accorded maximal benefit of doubt, given a pass on official norms of civility, let free to spit hatred and contempt on social media, and permitted (probably) to malform and intimidate students. However, if you’re white, male, culturally conservative, and given to expressing reasoned doubt about prevailing mores, you’ll be given no benefit of doubt at all. And, should you do so much as appear to transgress ill-conceived norms of inclusiveness, you’ll be summarily and rudely excluded.

The implications are grim. Students or academics who are thinking of applying to Cambridge for a place on a course, a teaching or research post, or just a visiting fellowship, should either scrub their records clean of anything that might appear transgressive of the reigning orthodoxy, or turn elsewhere. And if they do get to be included, then they should take care to suppress their doubts, bite their critical tongues, and go into Inner Exile.

Read the whole thing.

Sad to see that great British institution heading the way of Trescott University.

The Most Reluctant Convert

I recently had the opportunity to attend a performance of C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert here in the Queen City. Having read some reviews, and knowing a little about the Fellowship for Performing Arts, I had high expectations beforehand. I was in for a surprise, though: it was even better than I expected.

C.S. Lewis OnstageMax McLean’s performance as Lewis was exceptional. The script (written by McLean, drawing mainly from Lewis’s autobiography, letters, and books) was also superb, seamlessly weaving some of Lewis’s best-known apologetic arguments into the (long) story of his conversion. Like its subject, it manages to be both intellectually serious and (at times) irreverently humorous. Fans of Lewis’s writings will be delighted to hear many famous passages spoken from the horse’s mouth, as it were. Indeed, McLean’s “Jack” is so convincing and the narrative so engaging that several times I caught myself forgetting that this was ‘only’ a performance and not an audience with the Oxford don himself. (I guess that’s one of the highest compliments an actor can receive.)

Anyway, all this to say, I highly recommend The Most Reluctant Convert. The tour continues through August, and if it’s coming to a city near you, please do yourself a favor and attend a performance. Take a friend too. Although the show unashamedly represents a Christian perspective, it isn’t preachy, cringey, or intellectually superficial. It presents exactly what it purports to: the fascinating intellectual and spiritual journey of one of the most influential Christian thinkers of the twentieth century.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of the show (and one in short supply these days) was summed up nicely by the usher who saw us out of the auditorium:

“Makes you think, doesn’t it?”

Yes, it does.

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.)

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Blaming Sinners and Exculpating God

Some time ago I plugged Guillaume Bignon’s Excusing Sinners and Blaming God. Kevin Timpe wrote a critical review of the book in the journal Faith and Philosophy, and Bignon has now posted a response to the review on his website. His response is useful because it not only rebuts Timpe’s criticisms, but also takes the discussion further in some respects. Check it out.