Monday, April 30, 2012

The Natural Moral Law Debut

My book with Cambridge University Press is available today.  It is titled "The Natural Moral Law: The Good After Modernity."

It can be ordered from amazon and other book sellers.  I noticed that it ranked #4 today on amazon on the list of jurisprudence books.

If it is ordered directly from Cambridge, and you use the code morallaw12, a 20% discount is offered.

In this book I argue that the good is the central idea for ethics and law.  I study classical and modern theories of the good, and answer postmodern skepticism about human nature and the good.  My argument is that we must be able to know what is good, and that the good is based on human nature, which is based on what is real.  I then give an argument for what is good and discuss how this would ground the moral law, and consider how it applies to some contemporary issues.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Warfield Explains Calvin and the Need for Natural Theology

B.B. Warfield, a selection from "Calvin and Calvinism":

"Drawn out a little more into detail, this teaching is as follows.  The knowledge of God is given in the very same act by which we know self.  For when we know self, we must know it as it is: and that means we must know it as dependent, deprived, imperfect, and responsible being.  To know self implies, therefore, the co-knowledge with self of that on which it is dependent, from which it derives, by the standard of which its imperfection is revealed, to which it is responsible.  Of course, such a knowledge of self postulates a knowledge of God, in contrast with whom alone do we ever truly know self: but this only the more emphasises the fact that we know God in knowing self, and the relative priority of our knowledge of two objects of knowledge which we are conscious only of knowing together may for the moment be left undetermined.  Meanwhile, it is clear than man has an instinctive and ineradicable knowledge of God, which, moreover, must produce appropriate reactions in his thought, feeling, and will, whence arises what we call religion.  But these reactions are conditioned by the state of the soul which reacts.  Although, then, man cannot avoid possessing a knowledge of God, and this innate knowledge of God is quickened and developed by the richest manifestations of God in nature and providence, which no man can escape either perceiving or so far apprehending, yet the actual knowledge of God which is framed in the human soul is affected by the subjective condition of the soul.  The soul, being corrupted by sin, is dulled in its instinctive apprehension of God; and God's manifestations in nature and history is deflected in it.  Accordingly the testimony of nature to God is insufficient that sinful man should know Him aright, and God has therefore supernaturally revealed Himself to His people and deposited this revelation of Himself in written scriptures. . . .

Calvin's ideas of the origin and nature of religion are set forth, if succinctly, yet with eminent clearness, in his second chapter.  Wherever any knowledge of God exists, he tells us, there religion exists.  He is not speaking here of a competent knowledge of God such as redeemed sinners have in Christ.  But much less is he speaking of that mere notion that there is such a being as God which is sometimes called a knowledge of God.  It may be possible to speculate on 'the essence' of God without being moved by it.  But certainly it is impossible to form any vital conception of God without some movement of the intellect, feeling and will towards Him; and any real knowledge of God is inseparable from movements of piety towards Him. . . .

The natural revelation of God failing thus to produce its legitimate effects of a sound knowledge of God, because of the corruption of men's hearts, we are thrown back for any adequate knowledge of God upon supernatural activities of God communicating His truth to men . . . It is noticeable that Calvin does not pretend that this supernatural provision of knowledge of God to meet men's sin-born ignorance is as universal in its reach as the natural revelation which it supplements and, so far as efficiency is concerned, supersedes.  On the contrary, he draws it expressly into a narrower circle.  That general revelation 'presented itself to all eyes' and 'is more than sufficient to deprive the ingratitude of men of every excuse, since,' in it, 'God, in order to involve all mankind in the same guilt, sets an exhibition of His majesty, delineated in the creatures, before them all without exception."

I've shared these selections for two reasons.  One is that some might see here what is today called "Reformed Epistemology."  The other is that I'd like to suggest Warfield provides a key to go in another direction.  I am not claiming that Warfield was clear about this other direction, but I am claiming that it is not clear he can be co-opted by Reformed Epistemology.

Reformed Epistemology says that all persons know God through the sensus divinitatis, an intuition of God that is innate and not inferred.  However, in sin, humans suppress this and do not acknowledge God.  Scripture is necessary for sinners to come to know God correctly.

By way of contrast, I'd like to suggest that the passages above say that the knowledge of God is inferred from the finite and temporal nature of man.  We recognize that we are temporal, and that something must be eternal.  However, rather than attributing eternality to God, humans attribute it to the material world, or finite deities, or the universe itself, or their own soul.  Therefore, while it is clear by inference that God exists, humans suppress this clarity by holding to false beliefs about what is eternal.

On this second view, the religions of the world are attempts to claim that something is eternal which is not eternal.  They reject the clear general revelation that is given in creation and providence.  This explains the original sin of believing that humans can be like God, and it explains all ongoing sins of failing to know God.  It leaves humans without excuse for their beliefs about what is eternal.

Scripture is necessary as redemptive revelation, to explain how God responds to the human failure to know what is clear from creation and providence.  Special revelation is not universal, but is given in relation to humans being called out of unbelief.

I do not believe Warfield explicitly articulated this second line of thought, but I don't think he was explicitly a forerunner to Reformed Epistemology either.  My claim is that this point has been ambiguous, and in a harmful way Reformed Epistemology continues this ambiguity.  Natural theology is necessary to show, by inference and argument, that eternality cannot be attributed to anything but God the creator.

Eternal Power and Divine Nature

I believe I'd be correct in stating that among philosophers today it is universally accepted that there are no arguments that show it is clear that God exists.  The opinion is either that there are arguments that show God does not exist, or that there are arguments that show it is possible/plausible that God exists, or that arguments are not needed for rational belief.  An example can be found here in lecture notes by Alvin Plantinga, the/a leading philosopher of religion, who says we don't need arguments, and there aren't any that would convince everyone, but he gives a number of examples he thinks are helpful.

By way of contrast, I'd like to suggest a way of proceeding in thinking about the existence of God.  My claim is that in asking if God exists, we are asking what has existed from eternity.  All worldviews assert that something has existed from eternity, and the worldviews besides theism attribute the eternal power of God to something else that theism claims was created by God.

When we ask "what is eternal?" we are asking what being or chain of beings has existed without beginning.  Worldviews divide about being, either asserting that the fundamental being is material (extended, non-conscious), or spirit (non-extended, conscious).  Therefore, what we find in non-theistic worldviews is the attribution of eternal being to matter, spirit, or matter and spirit.  We can call these material monism, spiritual monism, and dualism.  By way of contrast, theism says that God is an eternal spirit, but that the material world and human spirits are created.

What I'm suggesting is a kind of cumulative case argument.  However, I want to be careful with that term because as it is most commonly used, it means giving a handful of arguments, none of which establishes theism but all of which sound good to the theist, in the hopes that the audience will be overwhelmed by the sheer number.  Generally, all these do is argue for a first mover, a first cause, a highest being, a designer, or a moral law giver.  None of these is theism, and all are consistent with spiritual monism and dualism.

By way of contrast, what I mean by cumulative case argument is demonstrate one step at a time parts of theism.  First, that something has existed from eternity (a kind of ontological argument), that what has existed from eternity is not material and is not the self (in contrast to both material monism and spiritual monism) (a kind of cosmological argument), and that no combination of the material world and self are eternal (dualism).  I believe we can then argue that what we left with is theism (relying on a kind of teleological argument).  Taken by themselves none of these arguments gets to theism.  Taken as steps they each demonstrate something important and conclusive.

I've used generic terms for worldviews above, but I believe they cover in kind such views as Secular Humanism, Hinduism, Platonism, and others.  I'll give an example of how an argument would look that distinguishes between what is eternal and what is not.

Plato, in book 10 of the Republic, says that the human spirit is eternal.  However, whatever is eternal is also infinite (that than which there is no greater), yet Plato depicts the human spirit as finite and growing.  If the human spirit is finite and growing it is not eternal.

A similar kind of argument can be given against the claim that matter is eternal.  If matter has existed from eternity, and is tending toward some final state, then it already would have reached that final state.  It has not reached the final state, therefore it has not existed from eternity.  By itself this does not demonstrate theism, but combined with: i) something is eternal, and ii) the human spirit is not eternal, we are left with a being that is an eternal spirit and from there can derive qualities such as knowledge, power and goodness.

To conclude, I'm arguing that all non-theistic worldviews attribute the eternal power of God to something that can be shown to be contrary to eternality and are therefore positing a contradiction.  I argue that these are "good" arguments in that they rely on premises all would accept, but I do not argue that all are persuaded by these arguments because persuasion depends on the use of reason.  Some persons are willing to embrace contradictions and abandon reason.

This brief overview is a teaser for my chapter in "Reason and Worldviews" on the necessity of natural theology, and for work I discuss in "The Clarity of God's Existence" and "The Natural Moral Law."  I will also be posting more about this topic.  This one entry is not intended to be comprehensive, only schematic and to begin discussion.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Nice But Not Necessary

I've been told that philosophy is only for a few, that it is too hard for the masses and to expect them to think philosophically is unrealistic.  Justification for this is given in a couple of ways.  Some think like Thomas Aquinas that the masses aren't smart enough.  Others think like John Locke that the masses are too busy. 

Because the word "philosophy" is ambiguous any reply must first give a specific definition.  For instance, I'd suggest that the persons who are claiming philosophy is only for a few are giving a philosophy.  The masses who defend themselves are also doing philosophy and living according to their beliefs.  I'm taking philosophy to refer to a person's worldview.  Since worldviews are constructed by answering certain basic questions and then drawing out implications into all areas of life, I'm also taking philosophy to mean the critical analysis of basic questions.

It is this last function of philosophy that people resist.  The idea that the masses, or the youngster, or the grandma, can critically analyze their basic beliefs appears to such persons incredible.  Such persons might say "it would be nice to prove that God exists, but it is not necessary in order to be a good [name of religion].  After all, my granny is a good [name of religion] and she can't prove that God exists."

My claim is: to the extent a person can answer basic questions that person can be asked to think about the meaning of their answers.  This is not the same as saying that a person must be up on the latest journal articles from obscure philosopher #5.  It means that if a person can believe "God exists" they can be asked to explain what that means, and deal with contradictions that might arise.  This includes the masses, the busy, the young, and the old.  It includes anyone who wants to have meaning.

My view is in contrast to saying that a true opinion is sufficient.  I've been told "well at least they believe in God."  If it turns out that God does indeed exist, then this person got it right on accident.  In fact, might it be that the person affirms "God exists" and this belief holds no meaning whatsoever?  To say this would be, or is, acceptable is to say meaningless beliefs are acceptable.  It becomes meaningless to say that God is perfectly fair/just, and condemns some for getting it wrong, but accept others for accidentally getting it right.

On the other hand, it might be that a person's opinion is false.  As humans we search for knowledge, and do not settle for opinion, because we do not want to believe what is false.  Do the young, or does granny, somehow not qualify and for them it is ok to believe what is false, or to accidentally be correct?

My claim develops further because I argue that if the highest good is to know the highest reality, then knowledge is not just nice but is necessary.  To accidentally believe true things about the highest reality is not sufficient to say one knows the highest reality.  Therefore, the nice but not necessary view is really saying that the young and granny do not need the highest good, they can settle for accidents in opinion.

I suspect the nice but not necessary view develops out of a focus on being saved to get to heaven.  Believing just enough to get a ticket to heaven is the goal, and anything else is nice but not necessary.  I don't accept this view of either the afterlife or the good.  It is a minimized view of the good consisting in other worldly pleasures in the next life, or a beatific vision where one directly sees God and this is the highest good.

By way of contrast I'd say that the highest good is knowing the highest reality, and this is not the same as going to heaven.  The good can be known now, and if the good is not known now it is not obvious that a person will have it later.

Finally, to reply that the masses don't think this way is simliar to saying that the masses do not live the examined life.  Socrates encountered this.  It may be true that the masses do not live the examined life, but that does not mean they should continue on that path.  I believe it is true that the highest good cannot be attained apart from living the examined life, and that both the young and old can live the examined life.

The Ethics of Belief

In his 1877 essay The Ethics of Belief, William Clifford argues that humans have a responsibility to inquire about the truth of their beliefs, not believe anything without sufficient proof, and consider the importance of their beliefs in possibly harming others.  He says "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence."

He gives the example of a ship owner who did not properly inspect a ship for safety, and believed the ship was seaworthy on insufficient evidence.  The ship ends up sinking and harming many.

One aim of Clifford's essay is the superstitious beliefs held by many with no evidence, and usually with evidence to the contrary.  He would include in this belief in God.

We can consider two parts of Clifford's essay.  One is the responsibility of humans to have evidence or justification for their beliefs.  The other is the particular kind of evidence that Clifford was thinking is sufficient.

Responsibility includes the community and the individual.  A person who does not take care in forming beliefs harms the self and is a potential harm to others (as in the example of the ship).  Clifford analyzes beliefs in terms of the potential for harm.  I'd like to suggest there is another dimension he did not consider, which is the role of the belief within a person's worldview.  Those beliefs that are assumed as basic by the rest of the worldview have the important role of holding the worldview together.  Since their truth is assumed, if in fact they are not true then this has implications throughout the system.

Since the basic beliefs of a worldview involve questions about the highest authority, what is real, and what is of highest value, mistakes about these will impact how the individual interprets his experiences, and create divisions between persons as their interpretations clash.

Clifford's idea of evidence needs to be analyzed.  It is one thing to give evidence about the safety of a ship.  How does one give evidence to answer the question "what is the highest authority?"?  The word "evidence" seems to indicate some kind of physical and empirical proof, such as "there are holes in the ship."  Many have taken this kind of evidence as needed to prove religious claims, and appeal to miracles, or an empty tomb, to support their beliefs.  The problem with this kind of evidence is that it must be interpreted, in each case we can ask "what does that mean?"

Giving evidence for basic beliefs is different than giving evidence that a ship is seaworthy.  Persons have already limited the kinds of evidence they consider when they answers the question "what is the highest authority."  At this level, what we're looking for is the meaning of a belief.  Some common examples of "highest authorities" are: the senses, an inner religious experience, tradition, scripture/testimony of others.  In each case a final appeal to such a source leaves questions unanswered.  Why that tradition, why that testimony, how do we interpret that inner experience?

And so while Clifford seems to make some important insights, we are left without any answers as to how we get sufficient evidence for our most basic and important beliefs.  In my earlier post on Externalism I suggested that questioning stops with reason because reason makes questioning possible.  What we can do is apply reason, for instance the law of non-contradiction, to Clifford's own basic beliefs, such as "only the material world exists, and the material world is eternal."  It is this kind of self-examination that Clifford should have done if he took seriously his own charge to inquire about the sufficiency of our beliefs.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Anderson Reply

In my last post I referenced an online article by James Anderson that had been brought to my attention by a friend.  I was already planning on writing a post about this kind of viewpoint and the article was a good link.  My friend then pointed out a reply by Anderson, which was more of a reference to another reply which can be read here.  I am very thankful to both Prof. Anderson and the pilgrim philosopher for their reply.  However, I do disagree that I didn't read Prof. Anderson's article carefully, and there is simliar rhetoric in the blog post that I dispute.

Rather than reply in a similar way, I'd like to set that aside and instead to focus on the claims made in this quote:

"So yes, we can prove the existence of God; but how exactly we prove the existence of God will depend on the particular person we're dealing with and what they're willing to grant.
There is, however, another question I think we should also ask: "Do we need to prove the existence of God?" My short answer: "No, but it's still important to be able to do so.""
In the first sentence Anderson affirms that we can prove that God existence, but in the second part of that sentence says how this works will depend on what a particular person is willing to grant. It is in this statement that I found the worldview dependency of which I spoke.  It is also in this statement that I found a confusion between proof and persuasion.  My focus is on the former.
In the second sentence, Anderson denies the need to prove that God exists.  This is why, in my post, I concluded by arguing that it is indeed necessary for the Christian to prove that God exists.  Appealing to the scripture is only meaningful if God does in fact exist.  By this I mean that if there is no God, then the Bible is not the Word of God, and if we are to believe the Bible is the Word of God then God must exist.  God's existence must be established apart from appeals to the Bible.  To appeal to the scripture to prove that everyone knows that God exists (the sensus divinitatis) is to beg the question.  I don't rely on the Bible to prove the need for natural theology, however we can notice that while the scriptures are not themselves a proof of God's existence, they do encourage us to know God from the works of creation and providence.  I take this to mean that not only is it important for the Christian to be able to show that there is a God (vs. other worldviews, one of which is materialism but of course there are others), it is also necessary if the Christian is to make sense of Biblical claims.
I'd like to discuss this directly with Dr. Anderson, rather than through an intermediary blog like the pilgrim philosopher.  Dr. Anderson, would you be interested in setting up our own page for a discussion, or holding a discussion in some other way?  My only qualification is that we leave aside personal attacks about how well the other person is reading and instead work on helping each other understand what is being said if we feel we've been misunderstood.

Addendum: for answers to Dr James Anderson's inquiry about whether knowledge as inference requires an infinite regress (his #4 and 5 below in replies) see my posts: the Reformed Objection to Natural Theology, Externalism, Knowledge: True, Justified Belief, The Gettier Problem, Faith and Meaning, Knowledge Part 1.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Meaning, Knowing, and Worldviews

In an article about whether or not we need to prove that God exists (linked here), James Anderson discusses whether or not Christians need to prove that God exists, and answers 'no,' although suggesting doing so might sometimes have benefits.  Although Anderson did not use the term "worldview," I'll use this to reference a given person's set of beliefs by which they interpret experience.  I'll also speak about "knowledge" as the aim or goal of giving an argument.  Anderson argues, we shouldn't expect absolute certainty, and we don't require it in life (he gives the example of proving your identity to get a social security card).  Rather, proof is person dependent, meaning that we can give proofs that persuade a given person depending on what they take for granted.  He concludes by saying:

"On this view, every human being possesses a natural knowledge of the living and true God, even though they sinfully distort and suppress that knowledge. It's precisely this fact that serves as the basis for God's universal judgment. People don't need to have the existence of God proven to them by us. Natural revelation, we might say, is proof itself and proof enough. It's as though God is continually showing his self-certified "documentation." Furthermore, I agree with the so-called Reformed epistemologists (Alvin Plantinga being the most well-known) that we hold many beliefs, including many beliefs about God, in a "basic" way; that is, not on the basis of proofs or arguments or inferences from observational evidence. So no one needs to be able to prove the existence of God in order to have a rational belief in God."

I've addressed the Reformed Objection to Natural Theology in an earlier post.  There are many aspects of thinking that depend on one's worldview.  Alasdair MacIntyre makes this point in his famous book "Whose Justice?  Which Rationality?"  However, I argue that there is also common ground that forms the basis of thought and worldview construction.  It is by reason as the laws of thought that we form concepts, judgements, and arguments, which are the forms of all thought and speech.  We use reason to find meaning; where there is a contradiction meaning is lost.  As we analyze a concept we can ask if it is involve a contradiction; when considering a judgment we can ask if concepts have been put together in a way that involves a contradiction, and in analyzing an argument we can use reason to test the inference that has been made.

Anderson discusses the role of persuasion and how this differs for people depending on various factors.  I do not believe that all sound arguments are persuasive, or that all persuasive argument are sound.  For a sound argument to persuade, the audience must be using reason to follow the argument.  I'll summarize it this way and say that what persuades a person is worldview dependent to the extent that their worldview is both shaped by, and shapes, their epistemology.  However, worldviews are constructed on basic beliefs, and not all basic beliefs are meaningful.  That is, some basic beliefs are contradictory.  The primary issue is, therefore, not knowledge but meaning.  What does it mean to say that matter (a primary feature of which is change) has existed from eternity?  If it can be shown that what is eternal is also unchangeable, then to affirm of matter that it has existed from eternity is to affirm a contradiction.  The worldview that rests on this contradiction, naturalism/materialism, infuses this meaninglessness throughout all of human life.

Anderson asks if we need certainty and gives an example of providing ID for a social security card.  In one sense, the level of proof we need is relative to what is at stake.  If Anderson was grabbed by agents and taken to a secret prison until he could provide proof of his ID then the stakes would be much higher and the level of proof required would be higher.  If Anderson is condemned to eternal punishment for failing to know God then the stakes are maximal, and maximal consequences require maximal clarity.

Reason is common ground, but it is not neutral.  By understanding the structure of a worldview and the role of basic beliefs, we can make progress through the critical use of reason to analyze basic beliefs for meaning.  This is not circular reasoning, and it can provide certainty.  The goal is not persuasion but to expose what is meaningless.  People will respond in one of two ways, increasing either in meaning or in the neglect of reason.

The sensus divinitatis, the claim that all persons know God but this original knowledge has been corrupted by the fall, is an assertion that needs proof.  Even if the Bible teaches this, the Bible assumes that God exists and therefore cannot be relied upon as proof for God's existence or in support of the sensus divinitatis.  All worldviews can say that their belief about highest reality is known by everyone.  All worldview can appeal to their special text for support.  Why believe one over another?

By way of contrast, I'd suggest we can make progress, and that if Christianity is true then it is incumbent on the Christian to be able to demonstrate the clarity of the basic beliefs assumed by Christianity.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Nietzsche and Hitchens

In my last post I linked an article from The Atlantic in which Lawrence Krauss is interviewed about his beliefs concerning something from nothing.  In that article he mentions having given a speech at the memorial service for Christopher Hitchens in New York.  One story he told involved a question that Krauss read in the paper while visiting Hitchens.  The question was whether students at university can keep their faith while being bombarded with Nietzsche, Hitchens, and beer-pong.  Krauss thought it quite an honor for Hitchens to be placed between Nietzsche and beer-pong.

This anecdote reminded me of an article Hitchens wrote toward the end of his life.  Here is the link.  In this article, Hitchens rejects a claim attributed to Nietzsche (whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger) which he had previously accepted.  The article looks at the problem of evil in the lives of both Hitchens and Nietzsche.  It is an honest and thought provoking account of the reality of pain and suffering that Hitchens was facing.  The human element is moving and should be read in his own words.  However, it does raise questions about the contraints of naturalism to answer some of the questions he is wrestling with.

Krauss Reponse

Lawrence Krauss gives a response to philosophers and theologians who critique his recent book in a review for The Atlantic (link here).  In it he says: "What's amazing to me is that we're now at a point where we can plausibly argue that a universe full of stuff came from a very simple beginning, the simplest of all beginnings: nothing" and then "That it's possible to create particles from no particles is remarkable---that you can do that with impunity, without violating the conservation of energy and all that, is a remarkable thing. The fact that "nothing," namely empty space, is unstable is amazing. But I'll be the first to say that empty space as I'm describing it isn't necessarily nothing."

However, he then says "When I talk about empty space, I am talking about a quantum vacuum, but when I'm talking about no space whatsoever, I don't see how you can call it a quantum vacuum. It's true that I'm applying the laws of quantum mechanics to it, but I'm applying it to nothing, to literally nothing. No space, no time, nothing. There may have been meta-laws that created it, but how you can call that universe that didn't exist "something" is beyond me. When you go to the level of creating space, you have to argue that if there was no space and no time, there wasn't any pre-existing quantum vacuum."

We are still dealing with semantic problems here.  In the second quote above (my first paragraph) Krauss accepts that he is using the term "nothing" to refer to something.  In the third quote (my second paragraph) he seems to change this and refer instead to "no physical thing, including space."  Since naturalists believe that only material beings exist (where "material being" means being that has extension, like space, particles, quantum foam, etc) then if there is no material cause the naturalist must say there is no cause.  However, if naturalism is false and there is non-material being then while there may be no material cause there can still be a cause.  

Krauss' claim that philosophy doesn't make advances is partly true.  Philosophy as a discipline is badly divided about its own contribution.  However, "making advances" has a practical ring to it.  Philosophy does make advances by identifying the foundational questions on which all other disciplines rest, and in critically analyzing the answers given by those disciplines.  Krauss says that philosophers of science are irrelevant and not read by scientists; however, they are doing two different kinds of work.  Philosophy of science as a field is dealing with interpretive and critical questions, whereas science it collecting empirical data.  Much of the work done by Krauss falls into interpretive work, not into physics itself.

Krauss claims that philosophers are not specialized enough to know what he is talking about, and use terms without understanding their actual meaning.  While this might be true sometimes, it is also true that the attempt to say one's field is so highly specialized no one else can understand is a standard move to avoid critical analysis.  Appealing to higher mathematics understood by only a handful does not avoid the problems of relying on an uncaused event to save naturalism.  Anyone of thinking age can identify uncaused events as impossible, even if they can't do higher math.  Appealing to the unknown by relying on obscure or undefined terms is also a common way of avoiding critical analysis.  

Krauss sees that his naturalism is logically opposed to theism.  Formally, they are answering the same questions and Krauss sees this.  He appeals to an infinite regress of material causes, or the multiverse, and says: "I don't ever claim to resolve that infinite regress of why-why-why-why-why; as far as I'm concerned it's turtles all the way down. The multiverse could explain it by being eternal, in the same way that God explains it by being eternal, but there's a huge difference: the multiverse is well motivated and God is just an invention of lazy minds."  This is not an empirical claim, but a statement of his interpretive philosophy.  The problem is whether there can be an infinite regress of matter.

The tone of the interview reveals the seriousness of the worldview conflict at hand.  Naturalists will respond fiercely to critical analysis of their worldview assumptions.  This includes deriding the other, appealing to the authority of science, appealing to unknown terms, and generally beginning the question.  Any response to naturalism that relies on these, or on fideism, is simply repeating the same mistakes.  If progress is to be made it will be through philosophical identification of the most basic questions that can be asked, and learning how to interpret empirical data in relation to the answers to these questions.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology

Michael Sudduth's book "The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology" traces noted thinkers in the Reformed Tradition and how they've responded to natural theology.  It is a helpful book that can be read with benefit.  In the book Sudduth considers various ways Reformed thinkers have sought to argue against the necessity of natural theology.  Interestingly, Michael Sudduth recently posted an open letter explaining his conversion from Protestant Christianity to Hinduism and the worship of Krishna.  This worldview makes more sense to Sudduth than what he had been presented in the Protestant world.  I should note that Michael Sudduth read my manuscript for "Reason and Worldviews" and gave me feedback about my chapter on Alvin Plantinga.

Alvin Plantinga is perhaps the best known contemporary thinker who has written in support of the Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (most philosopher of religion readers contain an essay by Plantinga with that title).  The so called "Reformed Objection to Natural Theology" is the claim that natural theology is at best helpful although unneeded, and at worst a distraction and elevation of "human reason" against the Bible.  Natural theology gives argument for God's existence, but these arguments are circular (assuming Biblical revelation) and often simply unsound.  By way of contrast, all humans are given the "sensus divinitatis" which is an inner sense of God.  In their sinful condition, humans suppress this sense and live in unbelief.

Before we can even begin to discuss what Biblical revelation says about natural theology, we need to ask why there is a need for Biblical revelation?  Why believe that all persons have a "sensus divinitatis" that they are suppressing?   If the answer involves an argument that does not assume the Bible then it is a natural theology argument and the need for natural theology is affirmed.  If the argument assumes the Bible then it is circular and fallacious.  I'll call this the "dilemma of natural theology."

To support this "Reformed Objection," proponents will appeal to theologians like Calvin or Hodge.  While these thinkers did have a high regard for theistic proofs, they also said these are insufficient.  However, their insufficiency is in respect to salvation, not with respect to the culpability of unbelief.  As one reads these thinkers one often finds that they affirm the culpability of unbelief with regards to the general revelation of God's existence.

The claim is that the Bible teaches there is a sensus divinitatis, a sense of the divine, in all persons.  People reject this sense and are therefore guilty.  Let's say the Bible does teach this, how would we know we should believe the Bible?  Inevitably we will end up having to give a proof for God's existence besides the appeal to the sensus divinitatis.  If we simply appeal to the sensus divinitatis to support the Bible, and then prove the validity of the Bible by appealing to the sensus divinitatis, we are arguing in a circle.  To avoid the circule, we must rely on natural theology.

Furthermore, what is the content of the sensus divinitatis?  A mere sense of the other?  Could this other be Zeus or Krishna?  Is it actual theism?  Biblical theism?  Since the claim is that there is a rejection of the God of the Bible, it must be Biblical theism.  Yet, people aren't actually able to give an account of this sense with that content.  It generally stays at "higher power" or "sense of the other."  This is not theism, and not enough to hold persons accountable for rejecting theism.  Conceivably, persons could have this sense and consistently adopt any number of views of the divine, and yet the Bible calls these incorrect.

For the sake of argument, let's say notable Reformed thinkers deny that general revelation revelas God.  We can nevertheless appeal to the Westminster Confession which affirms in Chapter 1.1 that the light of nature, and works of creation and providence, do so clearly reveal the existence of God that unbelief is without excuse.  It takes the focus away from soteriology and instead places it on the glory of God, affirming in the Shorter Catechism that man's chief end is to glorify God.

Apart from the question of "what counts as THE Reformed view," we are faced as individuals with the question of meaning.  What is the meaningful view?  Any view which assumes its own truth is begging the question and offering circular reasoning.  Any worldview can do this.  Why should we accept such a worldview?

Returning to Michael Sudduth, can humans know whether Christianity or Hinduism is true?  Those in the "Reformed Objection" camp will fall back on soteriology to make their case.  They will argue that those who are elect will respond to the true message.  Again, this simply begs the question.  Why believe this account?  It seems to me that Sudduth can give a mirror argument about a sensus divinitatis for his version of Hinduism.  Similarly, he can give a mirror argument about feeling conviction while reading the Bhagavad Gita.  My point is simply that natural theology, beginning with the critical analysis of basic beliefs, is necessary.

Soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, assumes that humans are fallen and need to be saved.  To be fallen means that humans are culpable of something.  The Reformed Objection must explain what humans are culpable of and why this requires salvation.  If they appeal to the Bible, which is redemptive revelation, they have given us circular reasoning.  Any sound argument must be in the realm of "natural theology" by showing the clarity of general revelation.

The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology should encourage us to avoid circular reasoning and instead ask whether unbelief is culpable, and if so can this be shown.

God's Foreknowledge

In an earlier post I discussed the free will defense to the problem of evil.  The most popular form of this defense today is called Molinism, which is named for the 16th century Jesuit priest Luis de Molina.  This view says that God's middle knowledge, the knowledge God has in looking into the future to consider the best world, resolves the problem of evil.  Some rely on middle knowledge to say that God made the best possible world given the existence of libertarian free will.  Others rely on it to explain election and predestination, saying God foresaw who would choose him.  

Molinism itself does not establish how God elects.  Within the Roman Catholic tradition some argue that God predetermines who to elect, and then foresees in which world those persons will respond and repent. Others, including Molina, argue that God foresees who will respond with libertarian free will to the offer of grace and then actualizes the best world.  Whichever of these ones takes, the idea of foresees is a limited view of the sovereignty of God, and is a focus on soteriology rather than doxology.

One of the standard objections to Molinism is called the grounding objection.  This asks how counterfactuals about the future are "grounded" so that their truth value can be determined.  

While this is an interesting question, more relevant is affirming the sovereignty of God against views that are inconsistent with theism.  Charles Hodge, in the first volume of his "Systematic Theology," discusses the will of God and contrasts the Augustinian/Calvinist view with the Luther/Remonstrance view (this latter corresponding to Molinism).  The Lutherans and Remonstrance view says that God by an antecedent will determined to save all men, but upon seeing that not all would repent, by a subsequent will determined to save those he foresaw would repent and believe.

The Augustinian/Calvinist view says that God by an antecedent will determined the revelation of his glory, and by a consequent will determined on the creation of the world to that end.  Some are elect and others not as part of the manifestation of God's glory, and not due to anything foreseen in the person.

It is important to notice that this is not simply a difference about election, but about the purpose of God in creating.  In the Molinist/Lutheran/Remonstrance view God's purpose is focused on salvation.  In the Augustianian/Calvinist view God's purpoe is the revelation of his glory.

The focus on soteriology (theory of salvation) is an important division left over from the Reformation.  However, the cumulated wisdom of the Reformation, stated in the Westminster Confession, affirms that the purpose of God is the revelation of his glory, and this includes permitting the fall and election but is not limited to these.

What must be answered by the Molinist is why humans need to be saved in the first place. God looks into the future to see who will choose him. However, what is the basis for choosing God?  Is there a clear revelation of God?  Or is the person offered muddled and fallacious arguments in favor of God?  If the latter then unbelief cannot be culpable.  If the former, then the Molinist needs to show the rest of us (rhyme unintended) that it is indeed clear that God exists. 

Uniformity and Paradigms

In his famous book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," Thomas Kuhn explained how empirical data is interpreted through pre-empirical assumptions about how the world works and how explanations should look.  He analyzed the change from an Aristotelian framework to the Copernican framework.

Currently, the "hard sciences" tend to ignore his work, and the social sciences often claim that Kuhn's work proves all is relative.  By way of contrast, I believe he helped identify how interpretation works, and at the very least pointed us in the direction of identifying contemporary pre-empirical assumptions that are taken as "hard fact."

Simply stated, Kuhn argued that a paradigm is in place that tells the scientific community what an acceptable interpretation of the world looks like.  In the Medieval Age this was Aristotle's understanding of potentiality/actuality, the four causes, and the eternal circular motion of the planets, sun and stars around the earth.  The change brought about by thinkers like Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler was not due to more empirical data.  What Kuhn called "anomalies" already existed.  Anomalies are empirical data that is contrary to the existing paradigm.  The reigning thinkers ignore these.  However, as they build they provide alternative systems an opportunity to suggest another interpretation.

What caused the change from the Aristotelian system to the Copernicus/Galileo/Kepler system was a change in belief about causation and eternal being.  These later thinkers, notably Kepler, argued that the sun was created by God and therefore not in eternal (beginning-less) motion.  This is not an empirical observation, but the diference between Greek Dualism and Christian Theism.  The Medieval Age saw numerous attempts by Christians to wed Greek Dualism with Christian Theism, and the scientific revolution was a move toward greater consistency as these were separated.

I believe we can apply these insights to our current age.  The paradigm that has reigned since the 19th century is called naturalism.  Naturalism argues that only material causes can be used to explain the universe as we now see it (in contrast to Aristotle's 4 causes, and in contrast to Theism and God as a cause).  Like Aristotelianism, this is a paradigm that is pre-empirical.  The empirical sciences are limited to measuring the material world, and therefore the empirical sciences cannot disvoer that only the material world exists without begging the question (circular reasoning).

Uniformity is the belief that the world as we now see it was formed by physical causes currently seen operating and at the same magnitude observed today.  Therefore, when considering how the surface of the earth was formed, current weather patterns are projected into the past to get large amounts of time; when considering how the earth and solar system were formed, current changes in the system are projected backwards in time to get significant amounts of time; when considering how stars and galaxies were formed, currently observable changes are projected backwards.  The same is true in accounting for the universe itself.

Common examples of this are "dating mechanisms" that rely on the half-life of a particle like Carbon 14 or Uranian 236.  Measuring the current amount of the particle in a bone or rock, and knowing the half-life decay of the particle (the number of years it takes for the amount to decay in half), and assuming the original amount, an easy equation can be used to argue about the age of a bone or rock.  However, there are two naturalistic assumptions operating: that we know the original amount, and that the decay has occurred as is now observed.  Changes in either of these dramatically change the equation.

The naturalism of the 19th century became the controlling paradigms for a number of reasons, including that appeals to non-material causes appear arbitrary, it offered unity in a worldview in contrast to the great divisions in theism, and it boasted technological advances.

It is true that if appeals to non-material causes are required there must be a non-arbitrary way to do this.  Similarly, divisions among theists are disastrous if theism, and Christianity more specifically, is to be taken seriously.  The claim that naturalism has given the world technology is far from true in that the basis for technological advances came from thinkers during the early part of the scientific revolution who were motivated by Christian theism and sought to understand the world in order to understand God.

There are significant anomalies building up against naturalism.  As Kuhn predicted, naturalists generally ignore these.  However, the paradigm itself is open to change as it is seen that naturalism and uniformity are not empirical conclusions, but rather are philosophical assumptions used to limit how data can be interpreted.

I'd like to conclude by suggesting a few areas where naturalism has shaped the interpretation of empirical data, and this interpretation has become the reigning model of "scientific knowledge."  These are the origin of the material universe, the formation of the sun and stars, the formation of earth, the geological and geographical features of the earth, the origin of life, the origin of species, and the origin of humanity and human civilization.  Finally, I'd like to point out that naturalism takes for granted that there has always been natural evil (old age, sickness, death, toil, strife, famine, war, plague).  Naturalism says that natural evil is "just how the world is."  This, of course, cannot be discovered empirically, but is an assumption.

By way of contrast, if God created the world very good then there has not always been natural evil.  The change from no natural evil to natural evil is a change in the world that cannot be accounted for through material causes.  This is a central example of how naturalism and theism differ in their understanding and interpretation of the world.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Context (Part 2)

Reliabilism is a theory of knowledge that responds to the skeptic and to Gettier problems by asking if a knowledge claim was formed in a reliable way.  Its focus is on method of belief formation.  A belief such as "here is my hand" amounts to knowledge if it was formed in the proper lighting, without any hindrances to sight or other impediments.  Here is a link to an article by Richard Feldman advocating such a view.

Like other contemporary theories of knowledge, reliabilism focuses on beliefs about the world based on sense data.  I believe this is because reliabilists have already conceded skepticism about answers to basic questions, and they think that if humans have knowledge it must be about "ordinary things."  However, the judgment about what is "ordinary" or "common" is itself reflective of a kind of epistemological value system, which as I said above reflects skepticism about basic things.

Problematically, reliabilism begs the question.  To say that a method of belief formation is reliable is to say we know the mechanism that produces knowledge, and we can compare various instances to that mechanism.  The skeptic will ask "how do you know this standard is accurate and produces knowledge?"  If the reliabilist provides a further standard then this only steps the problem back and the skeptic will repeat his question.  If the reliabilist appeals to common sense this again just pushes the problem back one step since common sense often errs.  If the reliablist says it is probably accurate the skeptic will ask how this probability was determined, what is the denominator in the fraction of probability (3 out of 5 times this produces knowledge)?  How was this determined?

The skeptic is asking if we are certain or if we are mistaken about our certainty.  A pragmatic response by the reliabilist to the effect that no one doubts "here is my hand" misses the point.  Epistemology is not first and primarily a practical problem.  It is a problem of meaning.  What do I mean when I say "here is my hand" and how do I know this?

What the skeptic is asking for is an authority.  "By what authority do you say these things?"  The contemporary move to common sense and ordinary language is not sufficient to avoid skepticism.  Claims about my hand, or the table in front of me, are contextualized in a worldview (materialism, theism, dualism, idealism) and the skeptic will ask about that worldview framework.

If there is only an infinite regress of authorities to which we appeal then knowledge is not possible.  If we end in our regress with an authority that could be mistaken then we end without certainty and in skepticism.  What we are looking for is the highest authority which ends the regress and which cannot be doubted because it makes doubting possible.  People rely on authorities such as tradition, testimony, scripture, common sense, intuition, science, and constructive reasoning.  However, none of these is the highest authority; all of these can be (and are) questioned.

By way of contrast, I argue that the only authority that cannot be questioned is the laws of thought.  The laws of thought, called reason, explain what thought is, therefore make thought possible, and hence cannot be questioned since any question assumes the laws of thought.  The laws of thought are: identity (a is a), excluded middle (either 'a' or 'non-a') and non-contradiction (not both 'a' and 'non-a').

The reliabilist will ask how the laws of thought help us in knowing "here is my hand."  I gave the response earlier.  This belief is contextualized in a worldview, and so we must first examine the basic beliefs of the given worldview.  If that worldview is materialism (as is often the case today among philosophers), then please see my post "something from nothing" for an example of how to examine the claims that either matter has always existed or that matter came into being by an uncaused event.  If the materialist is wrong about this basic belief, then the truth value of "here is my hand" is the least of his problems.

Interestingly, we can conclude this post as reliabilists.  Knowledge is the result of belief formation in a reliable way.  Reliable belief formation is belief formation that begins with the most basic questions that can be asked (assumed by all other questions) and examines the various worldview answers for consistency.  We are not seeking "belief forming mechanism aimed at truth," but rather "belief forming mechanism aimed at meaning" since when there is a contradiction meaning is lost.  If a worldview assumes that matter is eternal, and upon examination we find this to be a contradiction, what we are finding is that the belief "matter is eternal" is without meaning.

And that is how I'd like to conclude.  The skeptic should press us to ask not only how we know, but what do our beliefs mean.  What is the worldview context of my supposedly "ordinary beliefs" and is this worldview meaningful?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Zombies - The Walking Dead

When I was an undergraduate philosophy major, I entered my department's student writing contest.  I took second place to an essay about zombies.  I was troubled by this and couldn't understand how a paper about zombies was taken seriously enough to win.  The best I could determine was that it was a kind of thought experiment to test our intuitions about the mind/soul and body distinction.

Recently I encountered zombies again.  This time I brought them up in a class where I was making the distinction between physical death and spiritual death.  Physical death is when the body stops working to such a degree that it completely shuts down.  Analogously, spiritual death is when the mind (or soul, spirit, self, I use these interchangeably here) stops working in such a way that it shuts down.  I should reverse the analogy, and say that physical death is a sign of spiritual death, the latter being a more immediate concern.  Spiritual death is reported by persons when they say that they feel dead inside, or that life is dull and boring, devoid of meaning.  It is accompanied by a general confusion about why life is like this.

Giving the distinction between physical and spiritual death, a zombie is someone who is alive physically but dead spiritually.  Since zombies cannot self-identify (someone who is a zombie does not know they are a zombie), we need a test to identify zombies.  This is particularly true because, unlike the movies, we are not looking for grotesque outward appearance, but instead an inward spiritual state.

Assuming what I've written in an earlier post titled "Context Part 1," I think we can construct a zombie test.  If the function of the mind is to understand, and if we understand by building from what is basic to what is more complex, then a mind that is alive will understand basic things.  So we can construct this argument:

1.  If a person is spiritually alive then that person understands what is basic
2.  Person X does not understand what is basic
3.  Therefore, person X is not spiritually alive

In this case, person X is a zombie.  Again referring to my earlier post titled "Context Part 1" the reader can identify what is basic.  Premise 2 above is determined through discussion with person X.  Whereas fictional zombies do not hold discussions, real life zombies can make an effort at some discussion.  However, it can quickly be determined if person X really knows, or only thinks he knows, what is basic.  Skepticism and/or fideism quickly emerge.

Before concluding, it should be noted that spiritual death can come in degrees, just like a person can be dying in stages.  However, at the basic level, one is either in spiritual death or not.  A person could have understanding of basic things, mixed with misunderstanding and need for further growth.  Or, a person could have misunderstandings of basic things, mixed with some understanding.  It is this second condition that is indicative of zombie-hood.

I'd like to suggest that the zombie apocalypse movies have one thing correct in that the zombie condition is widespread, if not universal then dangerously close.  Indeed, it may be that all persons begin as zombies and then are cured.  It does not seem to be the reverse of this (people begin as non-zombies and then become zombies at some stage in development).  This can be empirically verified through the test given above.

This raises the pressing question of a cure, which I'll need to leave for another post.  I do believe there is a cure, and that I've indicated what it is by identifying the essence of zombie-hood in the failure to understand what is clear at the basic level.  However, more needs to be said.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Something From Nothing

Physicist Lawrence Krauss has recently written a book titled "Something From Nothing."  Here is a link to a video of Krauss explaining his book.  A review of this book from the New York Times can be read here.

In the video linked above, Krauss argues that the study of "nothing" is not for philosophy, but is a matter for empirical science.  He is suggesting a theory that the material universe originated from nothing, which is not actually non-being, but more like potential energy, or what Alan Guth calls quantum foam.  Others have called this chaos, and in another review of his book Krauss discusses how in his view the "eternal multiverse" is perhaps simply chaos where everything that is possible actually happens somewhere.  Krauss argues that empirical science has now shown that God is not necessary.

Is the study of "nothing" a subject for the empirical sciences?  I'd like to argue "no."  My claim is that the empirical sciences study: 1) what is observable, 2) what is repeatable, and 3) laws not origins.

In making claims about "nothing," it quickly becomes evident that Krauss is talking about "something," and not about "non-being."  He talks about dark matter and dark energy, which are clearly something, and not "nothing."  The term "matter" refers to being that is extended (as opposed to something non-extended like consciousness).  "Energy" and "matter" are interchangeable terms in that for physics they both refer to extended being.

The perspective offered by Krauss falls squarely into standard materialist philosophy.  Although some of the words he uses are new, some are not, and all of the concepts can be found in the Ancient Greek Materialists.  The idea of order coming out of chaos is standard Greek theory.  So why is this theory able to be presented as if it is the high-point of human empirical research?

One obvious answer is that empirical sciences have confused my first point above with an ontological claim about existence.  In other words, since the empirical sciences only study the observable, only the observable exists.  Obviously this is a fallacy.  Existence is not limited by what the empirical sciences can study.  Furthermore, Krauss's own materialist assumptions are not themselves the object of empirical study (we cannot observe whether or not all being is material).  The materialist says that only material being exists, and has always existed in some form.  Why accept this belief?  Why use it to interpret scientific and personal experience?

Another part of the answer is that "naturalism" and "uniformitarianism" have been combined with mathematics to make claims about the supposedly distant past.  Naturalism assumes that only the material world exists, and uniformitarianism says that the forces we now see operating have always operated and at the same magnitude observed today.  Combining these means that cosmologists like Krauss are constrained by their assumptions to explain origins by projecting current forces backwards in time.  This results in significant timeframes being discussed.  The authority of daily experience and mathematics can be appealed to for support of "something from nothing."  This results in a kind of rationalism, where mathematics and unproven assumptions are used to make proclamations about existence.

Finally, it is interesting there doesn't seem to be much doubt among physicists about this universe having had a beginning.  Stephen Hawking and other materialists seem to now agree that the material universe had a beginning from nothing.  However, upon closer inspection, Krauss, Guth and Hawking describe this "nothing" as something material.  Whether it is quantum foam, dark energy, or the law of gravity, these are material beings or the relationship between material beings.  Talk about "multiverses" does not change the problem in that these too are material.  The term "universe" applies to the sum total of material being, and so these other "universes" are simply part of that sum total.  Krauss and other materialists might assert that this material being is eternal, like their ancient counterparts.  The philosophical problem is: why should we believe this?

When I teach lectures on science and religion, I tell my students that the issue is not one of protecting religion, but of protecting science.  We need to be able to distinguish between the empirical sciences and a given philosophy's interpretation of empirical science.  In this case that philosophy is the worldview of materialism.  Critical analysis of basic beliefs, such as "all is material," is in the realm of philosophical inquiry.

Islamic Philosophy

One of my graduate professors was Mark Woodward, a leading scholar of Islam.  He is co-author of a World Religion text from Pearson that I regularly use, and co-author of a book "Defenders of Reason in Islam" which partly informs this post.

I'd like to consider three of the main thinkers in Medieval Islamic Philosophy, how the most influential of the three embraced mysticism, and parallels between this and the Medieval Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas.

The Persian philosopher, Avicenna, lived from c980-1037.  Having a remarkable intellect, he studied various subjects such as medicine, logic, and philosophy.  Having memorized the Quran, he also worked to memorize Aristotle's Metaphysics, but struggled to understand its meaning.  Happening upon a copy of Al-Farabi's commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics, Avicenna said this work illuminated the subject for him.

Although he is considered the first great Islamic philosopher, it is important to note that his philosophy contrasts with Islamic teaching.  Beginning with the assumption that Aristotle represents "the height of human rationality," Avicenna sought to reconcile Aristotle and Islamic theology.  This led to emanation theology sometimes compared to Neo-Platonism.  This view denies creation ex nihilo and instead argues that all being has existed from eternity, and distinctions in being are due to their proximity to the first cause.

By way of contrast, Al-Ghazali (1055-1111) began as a philosopher and ended by rejecting philosophy and embracing mysticism.  He has been called the second most important person in Islamic history (the first is Muhammad).  His book, "The Incoherence of the Philosophers," argues against the possibility of knowledge of the world through reason, and instead affirms the viewpoint of Occassionalism, or Nominalism, which argues that only particulars exist, causation only appears to exist, and each moment is created and upheld by God.

If we are to know anything, it must be revealed to us by God.  It was through a particularly strong mystical experience that Al-Ghazali turned from his "rationalist philosophy" and became a Sufi mystic and joined the Ash'arite school of theology.  Of particular concern to Al-Ghazali is the claim by philosophers that the material world is eternal, and the denial of creation ex nihilo.  This doctrine must be accepted on authority of the prophets, and Al-Ghazali supports this claim by arguing that human reason cannot come to know this truth.

Averroes (1126-1198), born in Cordova, Spain, lived after Al-Ghazali and therefore during the decline of Islamic Philosophy.  His book, "The Incoherence of the Incoherence," is an argument is support of the Aristotelian/Islamic synthesis of earlier philosophers.  One of the ways he supports philosophical inquiry is by pointing out the diversity of opinion about how to understand verses from the Quran.

He accepted the eternality of the material world, and even argued in support of this from Quranic verses that seem to indicate pre-creation material objects.  His philosophical argument relies on Aristotelean ideas of causation, and refuting Al-Ghazali's Ash'arite theology of occasionalism.

The history of these three philosophers demonstrates an important pattern that occurred in other theistic religions.  The background assumption is that Greek philosophers like Plato, but especially Aristotle, represent the height of human rationality.  There is then an attempt to combine this with theology both for apologetic purpose and for systematic unity in human thought.  When Aristotle is seen to conflict with theism, as Al-Ghazali saw with respect to the doctrine of creation, then either Aristotle (representing human reason) is embraced or human reason is rejected in favor of mysticism.

Something very simliar happened in the life of the Christian philosopher/theology Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).  Known as the great systematizer of Medieval Christian thought, Aquinas sought to reconcile Roman Catholic theology with Aristotle.  He relied on Islamic thinkers like Avicenna and Averroes.  However, toward the end of his life he reported a mystical vision through which he concluded that all his previous work was insufficient.

By way of conclusion I'd like to suggest two lines of thought.  One has to do with the identification of Aristotle with "human rationality."  Aristotle, and various kinds of Aristotelianism, is one worldview (let's call it a kind of Greek Dualism).  It doesn't get a privileged place nor can it be said to be "the height of human reason" unless it can prove the basic beliefs on which it rests.  Specifically, that the material world has existed from eternity.

Finally, each of these thinkers (Plato, Aristotle, Avicenna, Al-Ghazali, Averroes, Aquinas) said that knowing God is the good.  Nevertheless, each of them defines "God" differently, and claim that this knowledge is attained through direct perception/contemplation of God.  These different definitions have been quickly skimmed over in the philosophy of religion, and attempts are made by theists to say that Plato or Aristotle basically "got it right."  For instance, when a contemporary skeptic, Anthony Flew, converted to Aristotelianism, theists hailed this as a move to belief in God.  I'd like to suggest that dualistic beliefs about the nature of God are logically contrary to the beliefs about God held by theists so that both cannot be correct.  If human reason cannot help us decide between theism and Greek dualism, then it also cannot help us decide between competing mystical visions or competing revelations from prophets, and we are left to skepticism.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Good Part 2

Formally, the idea of the good is the end in itself that is sought for its own sake.  When we begin to identify  what this end is, the good quickly becomes worldview relative.  This means that what a given person believes to be the good assumes a number of other beliefs which form a way of thinking about the world and interpreting experiences.

Discussions about what is good will quickly reach an impasse if this greater worldview context is not taken into consideration.  This is partly what Alasdiar MacIntyre is getting at in his book "Whose Justice? Which Rationality?" (for a review of MacIntyre's work here is a link to an article in "First Things" by Stanley Hauerwas).  What a person believes about the good contains assumptions about what it means to be a human, the reality in which humans live, and the basis of authority for justifying these beliefs.

I'd like to consider a couple examples here, with the ability to add more in the future.  There has been an emphasis in the Modern West on the goods of this world.  Sometimes this becomes a denial that anything exists besides the material world.  Secular Humanism is the worldview which claims that only the material world exists.  Human nature is only physical, and human welfare only for this life.  Secular humanism defines this welfare in terms of happiness, while making the standard qualification that happiness cannot be sought in a way that harms anyone else.

Secular Humanism claims experience as its highest authority.  However, this means experience interpreted in light of the basic beliefs that only the material world exists, and that humans are completely reducible to the body.  Sometimes called "naturalism," this interpretive lens affects how experience is understood and how scientific claims are extended into non-observable areas, such as origins.

For instance, one cannot prove from experience that only the material world exists, or that humans are simply their body and nothing more.  We can call these "pre-empirical" in that such beliefs are used to interpret the empirical data, but are not themselves derived from the empirical data.

Secular Humanists argue that the good is the increase of happiness in this life.  With respect to this view of the good, Secular Humanism faces the same dilemma as their ancient counterparts, the Epicureans and the Stoics.  Caught in materialist assumptions, and agreeing that the good is happiness, these groups argued about whether the best life is the life of pleasure or virtue.  Given materialist assumptions I suspect the Epicureans have an edge, although I also argue that this dilemma cannot be rationally resolved if materialism is assumed to be true.  Today this is a dilemma between ethical egoists and utilitarians.

In contrast to Secular Humanism is something I will call Western Dualism.  This view, found in Plato and Platonic interpretations of Judaism and Christianity, assumes that both the material world and the soul exist.  These are not created by God, rather God is the power that forms the world.  The material world and the soul are co-eternal with God.  Socrates discusses some of this in Book X of The Republic.  In Plato, the soul is eternal but forgets this truth when born into a body.

In this view, the highest good is a blessed afterlife once a person is no longer restricted by the contraints and pains of the physical body.  The body is said to be limited, and this limitations is interpreted as the source of suffering and evil.  Appetites led to moral evil.  In contrast, once the soul is released from the body and the chains of the senses, it can gaze directly on the highest reality (the beatific vision).

In the West, these two views have become a kind of false antinomy both in popular thought and in philosophy.  The unproven assertions of Plato led to the "Academic Skepticism" of his school, the Academy.  This, in turn, led to the more practical views held by the Epicureans and Stoics, who were also locked in skepticism.

In both cases, Secular Human and Platonic Dualism, the truth of basic beliefs is assumed.  This is called fideism (blind belief).  The rest of the worldview, including beliefs about the good, is affected by this skepticism and rather than give rational arguments there is a turn to more personal kinds of proof.  An example of this can be found in Cicero's "On Moral Ends", in which Cicero, the Academic Skeptic, provides us with a dialogue about the best life.

The implication is that if we are going to make progress in knowing the good, we must first make progress with the basic beliefs assumed by the good.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Context (Part 1)

One of my graduate professors, Stewart Cohen, has written about a view called contextualism.  This view says that statements about what a person knows are context sensitive.  This means that it could be true in one context that S knows P, and true in a different context that S does not know P, where S and P stand for the same subject and proposition.  Generally, the kinds of examples discussed in the philosophical literature (such as Prof. Cohen's linked article above) are "common sense" claims about daily life that take for a granted a worldview.  I'd like to look at the larger worldview context in my consideration of contextualism.

I think this idea about context is an important insight.  For instance, most of the time people use the word "know" it is used in a very weak sense which allows that the knower might be mistaken.  Such claims take for granted the worldview of the speaker and audience, and make judgments about the world that are consistent with that worldview.  In this context "S knows P" means something more like "S feels strongly about P and P is consistent with S's worldview framework."  Similarly, a person might be said to know when what is really happening is an appeal to culturally specific common sense or tradition.  Or, a person is relying on intuition to say that he knows.  Troublingly, many claims about what is "known" by science fall into this category as mere speculation that will soon be reversed.  Or, a person might be said to be using "reason" or "logic" to know where what is actually happening is minimal use of reason or the development of beliefs on a false starting point.

In any of these cases (tradition, common sense, intuition, science, insufficient use of reason), people use the word "know" in a way that is more akin to "strongly felt opinion."

I'd like to suggest a few layers of context that can be used to assess whether knowledge, in the strong sense, is possible.  The first layer of context is about whether or not anything is clear.  If nothing is clear then no distinctions can be made, including true/false, known/unknown, meaningful/meaningless.  Consistently held, this kind of skepticism becomes nihilism.  Therefore, I'd suggest the first layer of context is that some things are clear.  A speaker should be able to identify this before asking us to listen any further.

The second layer of context is that the basic things are clear.  Since thinking involves assumptions, with more complex subjects assuming that we have mastered the basic subjects they assume (for instance, calculus assumes arithmetic, literature assumes the ability to read), if anything is clear it must be the basic things that are clear.  Again, a speaker should be able to identify what he takes to be basic before asking us to listen any further.

The third layer of context is that the basic things are about the most basic questions which can be asked.  These are questions about how we know (what is authoritative), what is real (what is eternal, what is temporal), and what is of highest value (the good).  If anything is clear then the answers to these basic questions are clear.  If a given speaker asks us to listen to his theory but is not able to show what is clear at the basic level about knowledge, reality, and the good, then it makes sense for us to ask this speaker why we should listen.

I believe there are further layers of context that I plan to discuss in a further post.  These first three are sufficient to establish the context of knowledge claims, and placing knowledge claims into the appropriate context.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Good Part 1

The idea of the good has come up in a few different ways recently.  It is the organizing idea for my blog.  It is the central part of the problem of evil.  And it is of personal importance as each of us tries to find meaning in life.

The good is that which we seek for itself, and not for the sake of something else.  It is the highest end.  There are some things we choose for the sake of another goal, and there are also effects of our goals which we seek indirectly by achieving our goals.  The idea of the good is therefore present in each of our choices, however far removed or mundane we consider a given choice to be.

When we make a choice, we choose what we consider at the time to be best.  Therefore, we can distinguish between what we believe to be good, and what is actually good.  The failure to know what is actually good results in our thinking we are choosing what is good but not actually choosing the good.  There are inherent consequences in this, specifically, that we live without the good and the meaning it brings.

The failure to know the good is culpable because it is clear what can and cannot be sought as an end in itself.  I'd like to end this post by considering some common but mistaken views of the good.  The good is said by some to be:  happiness, virtue, duty, excellence, money, praise of men, comfort, pleasure, relationships.  There are more, but these cover most kinds.

There is one I left off that list so that it could have a place of its own.  Among many religious persons, the good is said to be heaven where the greatest blessing is achieved in the beatific vision.  There is a non-Christian version of this in Plato's Republic Book 7.  This view of the good says that the summum bonum is the direct vision of highest reality once the soul is released from the body.  Many religious people continue to promote this view and shape their lives around it.

This relies on the idea that the good can be achieved through direct percept, apart from the need to interpret our perceptions.  It also implies that the good is not achievable in this life, but only after death, and that the body/material world is not necessary and is indeed a hindrance to attaining the good.

I'd like to suggest nothing can be known directly.  God is not revealed immediately, but mediately through his works.  One obvious reason for this is that God is a spirit whom no man has seen or can see.  Whatever "vision" one gets is not the essence of God as a spirit.  I've been told that this vision is being with Jesus in heaven.  However, many people were with Jesus on earth and did not understand/know him.  So "being with" is only as valuable as the understanding that is present, and this understanding can be there whether one is physically "with" or "not with."  It is the knowledge that is of value.

What is the implication if the most common definitions of the good are clearly not ends in themselves?  This raises the problem of culpable ignorance about the good which I'll take up in another post.

Friday, April 13, 2012


I was told this morning  by the Dean of my college that I've been given tenure with a promotion to associate professor.  Given how long this process has taken it feels like a real weight is lifted.  I am so thankful because I know that I've only been able to get here through the help of so many others.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Faith and Meaning

Anselm said "I believe so that I may understand," and "faith seeking understanding."  This was an idea borrowed from Augustine who said "believe so that you may understand." 

Can we believe a judgment that we do not understand?  For instance, could I believe that "bliks are grue" if I don't know what these words mean?  And is this what "mysteries of the faith" require of persons?  If so, which logical contradiction or absurdity should we believe?

In contrast to this, I argue that we can only believe a judgment to the extent that we understand it.  Knowing what a judgment means is a prerequisite to knowing if it is true.  In this sense, we cannot believe to understand, nor can faith be seeking understanding.  Rather, we have faith to the extent that we understand, and any challenge to a person's faith is a challenge to that person's understanding.

This means that blind faith, sometimes heralded as a virtue, is the acceptance of a judgment without understanding meaning.  This should be labeled fideism, and not confused with faith, which can be understood as the evidence of things not seen.  In that sense faith is not in contrast to reason, it is in contrast to sight.

A mystery is an unfolding story where greater information is given as the story progresses.  A mystery is not a logical contradiction or a judgment empty of meaning.  Imagine coming to the end of a mystery novel and finding out that the riddles are solved by the introduction of a square-circle.  One would consider the story a waste of time.  The "mysteries of the faith" are not paradoxes, where these are self-contradictory judgments.  Rather, they are growth in understanding as more revelation is given.

Keeping these distinctions in mind can keep us from confusing fideism with faith, or contrasting reason and faith, or heralding self-referential absurdity and contradiction as virtuous.