Materialism and Mysteries

Bart EhrmanA friend brought this recent blog post by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman to my attention. Since it intersects with several areas of interest to me, I thought it would be fun to write some commentary on it.

Dr. Ehrman makes four basic points in his post:

  1. He is a metaphysical materialist. He believes that everything that exists is material in nature.
  2. Materialism faces some “enormous conceptual problems.”
  3. Even so, that’s no reason for him to abandon materialism, because every belief-system has its mysteries. Every belief-system has conceptual problems that seem to defy explanation, but it doesn’t follow that it’s unreasonable to hold on to that belief-system.
  4. Moreover, while every belief-system has its mysteries, it can still be the case that some belief-systems are more reasonable than others.

Let’s consider each point in turn.

1. Materialism

After some throat-clearing about not trying to “impose” one’s views on others, Dr. Ehrman writes:

Anyway, as probably fewer members know, I have been more-or-less a complete materialist for about twenty years. I do not believe there is such a thing as a non-material, supernatural realm. There’s the material realm, and that’s it, all the way down.

I used to think that we are (I am) made up of two things: a body and a mind/soul/spirit/whatever you want to call it. I don’t think that anymore.

But for now, I think I am made up of one thing. Matter. I’ve got (by my count) one body, eleven organ systems, 79 organs, roughly 37 trillion (count them!) cells, and god knows how many molecules. And nothing else. If some of those cells die – well they die all the time. If enough of them die in one place at one time, it could be a problem. If one of the organs goes kaput, it could be a very big problem. If one of the vital organs goes, as we used to say in high school, it’s cookies.

So Ehrman is clearly rejecting any version of dualism in favor of a clear-eyed, straight-talking, unabashed materialism. Everything that exists is entirely material in nature, including you and me. There is no soul distinct from the body. There is no mind distinct from the brain.

As I’ll explain shortly, I think this materialist position is demonstrably false, but I have to give Ehrman credit for being so direct and explicit about his position. No mincing words here! No side-stepping or fencing-sitting. I’ve encountered many unbelievers who are eager to criticize other people’s views without ever committing to any specific position themselves. They’re very eager to declare what they don’t believe (and why they don’t believe it) but very reluctant to tell us what they do believe (and why they believe it).

Bart Ehrman is not one of those unbelievers. Kudos to him for nailing his materialist colors firmly to the mast!

A Conversation with Parker Settecase

In which we discuss the meaning and provenance of Parker’s tattoo, virtual-reality mannequins, two-dimensional people, the word ‘retorsive’, Stroudian objections to transcendental arguments, the ontological status of Bilbo Baggins, and sundry other topics of deep importance.

Audio here. Video (for full tattoo experience) here:

Anderson and Beall on Theological Paradoxes

Anyone interested in the topic of theological paradoxes will probably enjoy these two episodes from the freshly-minted Furthering Christendom podcast. In the first, I chat with Tyler McNabb and Mike DeVito about the model I develop and defend in my book Paradox in Christian Theology. In the second episode (recorded the very next day!) Tyler and Mike talk with philosopher JC Beall about his preferred approach to theological paradox.

Dr. Beall has some very kind things to say about my work, even though he ends up taking a different position. I want to preserve classical logic (specifically, the law of non-contradiction) and my model aims to do just that. Thus, on my view, theological paradoxes are merely apparent (not real) contradictions. Beall, on the other hand, wants to bite the bullet (or as he puts it, “knock on the door”!) and say that orthodox Christology is both true and contradictory, which requires one to accept a non-classical logic. (I should add that he thinks there are other, non-theological reasons for questioning classical logic.)

In my conversation with Tyler and Mike, I briefly explained why I prefer my approach over Beall’s, even though we largely agree on the parameters of the problem we’re both seeking to address. Although I didn’t know in advance that Dr. Beall would feature in the immediately following episode, it’s quite interesting to compare my motivations for preserving classical logic with his motivations for rejecting it.

I also found intriguing Dr. Beall’s comments on identity relations within the Trinity toward the end of the video (around the 57-minute mark). Beall expresses his view that logic as such doesn’t contain “an identity predicate” and “identity is not part of logical vocabulary.” I’m inclined to agree with him. I think identity is a substantive metaphysical concept rather than a purely logical one; what’s more, there are different kinds of identity and it’s not obvious which kind holds between the divine substance and each of the divine persons. I’ve suggested that it’s a sui generis kind of identity that has no analogue in the creation. (I’ve discussed this in my book and a few other places.)

Anyway, I enjoyed the conversation and I look forward to reading Dr. Beall’s forthcoming book on the subject.


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!

Further Thoughts on Tuggy’s Challenge

Dale Tuggy has replied to my brief response to his challenge to “Jesus is God” apologists. In this follow-up post I’ll clarify the thrust of my earlier response and add some further thoughts.

Dale’s original challenge presented an argument, with premises he thinks orthodox Christians should accept, to the conclusion that Jesus “is not a god.”

I offered a parallel argument as a means of indicating where I think Dale’s challenge goes awry. Dale seems to think that I was arguing along these lines: Michael Rea’s view of material constitution is correct, therefore premise 4 in the parallel argument is false, and hence premise 4 in Dale’s original argument is false. To be fair, I can understand why he might have interpreted my response that way, but that wasn’t quite my point.

As it happens, I don’t endorse Rea’s position on material constitution. I think it’s plausible and defensible, but I recognize that there are some serious arguments against it. I have an open mind on the issue, because it’s a difficult one to resolve. There are competing metaphysics of material objects, each with its own virtues, and it’s a tough debate to adjudicate. And that’s my point — or at least part of it.

Paradox in Theology

IVP’s New Dictionary of Theology is an outstanding reference work. (Just look at the original editorial team and you’ll see why!) So I was delighted not only to learn that a second edition is in the works but also to be invited to contribute an updated entry for ‘Paradox in Theology’. The editors of the new edition have kindly granted me permission to reproduce the article here.

The Most Important Question

Question Mark

What is the most important question of all?

On the face of it, that question seems like a sensible one, even an important one. We ask many questions in life, and some are clearly more important than others. For example, the question “Where are my car keys?” is more important than the question “How many ducks are there in Belgium right now?” It’s possible, in principle, to rank questions in order of importance.

Positive Mysterianism Undefeated

“Positive Mysterianism Undefeated: A Response to Dale Tuggy” is the paper I presented at the EPS Annual Meeting last November. It’s too long as it stands, and some of the arguments need further development (perhaps in separate papers), but I’m posting it online because a number of people have asked about it and I’d like to get more feedback on it. I’ve already received some valuable critical comments from several folk, including Dale. Comments welcome below or via email (contact details here).

Interview with Christ the Center

I was recently interviewed for the Christ the Center program by the good folk at Reformed Forum, and they’ve just posted the audio on their website. I’ve enjoyed and benefited from listening to a number of their podcasts over the last couple of years, so I was honored to be invited to contribute to one of them. Among other things we discussed presuppositional apologetics, John Frame’s perspectivalism, and my book on theological paradox.