Monday, August 8, 2016

Some Positions I Hold on Issues

The following is a list, in no particular order, of various positions I hold within philosophy and theology. I don’t really explain these positions as follows. I also hold these positions to varying degrees ranging from “fairly certain” all the way down to “leaning this way,” and I don’t provide any way to distinguish these degrees in this list. I encourage you to comment on some of my positions, whether you want clarifying questions (I’m happy to explain both the question and the answer) or want to know the degree to which I hold these things. I am also willing to answer questions about positions I forgot to include!

Theism: Theistic personalism
Worldview: Christianity
Human constitution: Cartesian dualism, dichotomy
Modal actualism/modal realism: Modal actualism
Omniscience: Yes, full omniscience
Providence: Molinism (middle knowledge)
Soteriology: Corporate election and individual election
Eschatology: Premillennial, pre-tribulational
Dispensational/Covenant: Progressive dispensationalism
Sign gifts: Moderate cessationalist
Science, realism/anti-realism: Realism
A priori knowledge: Yes, intuitionism
Justification: Basic foundationalism
Epistemology: Reformed epistemology, proper functionalism
Perception: Direct realism (adverbial theory)
Abstract objects: Nominalism-Divine conceptualism (tie)
Internalism/Externalism: Externalism
Natural Theology: Yes
Ontological argument: Yes, including original and modal formulations
Apologetic method: Cumulative case
Free will: Soft libertarianism
Ethics: Objective morality, deontological, divine command theory
Coherence of moral law: non-conflicting absolutism
Truth: Correspondence theory
Knowledge: warranted true belief
Time: A-theory
Bible: Inspired, inerrant
Trinity: Trinity Monotheism model of Social Trinitarianism
Impeccability/Peccability of Christ: Impeccability
Original sin/Original guilt: Original sin
Atonement: Kaleidoscope theory
Eternal security: Yes
Creation/Evolution: Creation
Genesis 6, fallen angels or godly/ungodly lines: Lines
Rahab: sin/innocence: Innocence
Logical Problem of Evil: Free will defense
Probabilistic Problem of Evil: Skeptical theism

Theodicy: Kaleidoscope theodicy approach

Saturday, August 6, 2016

My Favorite Apologetic Arguments

The following two arguments are currently my favorite apologetic arguments for the truth of theism, and by way of subsequent inference to the best explanation, Christianity. I have written about them many times, and enjoy both discussion and answering questions about them. I am going to discuss them both briefly and leave it for your consideration.
The first argument is the kalam cosmological argument (KCA). Cosmological arguments for God’s existence reason from the contingent facts of the universe to a transcendent cause of the universe. The kalam is a particular formulation of this idea. Thus, there is no one singular cosmological argument, only a family of arguments that share the basic foundation in common. There are two versions of the KCA that have been presented by its most prominent defender, William Lane Craig. I will give what I call Craig’s classical presentation, then his current presentation, and then discuss them both. Here is the classical presentation of the KCA:
1.      Whatever begins to exist had a cause.
2.      The universe began to exist.
3.      Therefore, the universe had a cause.
And here is the current presentation:
1*. If the universe began to exist, then the universe had a transcendent cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3*. Therefore, the universe had a transcendent cause.
The first thing to notice is that (2) appears in both arguments. This is a great premise because it enjoys both philosophical and scientific support. On the philosophical side, of the several arguments given, I like the argument against traversing an actually infinite amount of time. It doesn’t appear possible. Think about it this way: if you pick an infinitely distant “starting point” (any arbitrary point will do) in the past, an infinite number of moments would have to pass for you to arrive at the present moment. But before the present moment could arrive, the moment prior would have to arrive; and before that moment, the one prior to it would have to arrive, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. But then the present moment could not arrive, since the infinite series could never be traversed! It’s like encountering a man who claims he has just finished counting all the negative numbers from infinity down to zero; it doesn’t make any sense!
Further, there are scientific reasons to think the universe began to exist. In pop culture, even today, it is not uncommon to hear things like, “The universe is eternal and infinite.” But this is just scientifically outdated (by about a hundred years!). Scientists have discovered the universe is expanding. Extrapolating the rate of expansion backward into the past, they have postulated there is a point in the past where all matter is condensed into a single miniscule point. They further postulate that this point “burst” to spread out and form the universe over a long period of time. They call this the Big Bang Theory, and it implies a beginning to space. Regardless of what one thinks of this theory, you cannot have both the old model of endless, eternal space and the Big Bang. You must have one or the other, or neither. The point is just that current scientific models suggest one cannot avoid an absolute beginning to the universe.
(1)   is good, in that it is both intuitive and constantly confirmed by our experience. Some people have thought that a counterexample to (1) would be quantum events. However, this is confused. (1) does not say, “whatever event transpires has a cause,” but whatever begins to exist had a cause. The difference means that in order for quantum events to be a counterexample, the virtual particles would have to come from nothing. But they do not come from nothing; they come from a sea of energy.
However, Craig reformulated (1) into (1*) perhaps in part to avoid this whole confusion in the first place. (1*) seems eminently plausible; the alternative is to think that the universe both came into existence and had no cause whatsoever, which seems very, very counterintuitive, to say the least! But then it follows that the universe had a transcendent cause. This transcendent cause, then, must be timeless, spaceless, immaterial, extremely powerful, personal, beginningless, changeless, and uncaused! That sure sounds a lot like God—specifically, the God of the Abrahamic tradition.
Now here is the version of the moral argument that I prefer:
1.      If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2.      Evil exists.
3.      Therefore, objective moral values and duties do exist.
4.      Therefore, God exists.
I prefer the extra step (3) provides for reasons I shall explain in a moment. (1), I think, should be placed in probabilistic terms: probably, God is the best explanation for objective morality. Think about it this way: in the absence of God, why should we be good? To whom do we owe that obligation? It cannot be merely other humans, for humans did not always exist, and there could be other sentient moral agents that exist or could possibly have existed, and presumably morality could apply to them. So, without such a ground, it looks like moral obligations wouldn’t be around at all.
Now, as it turns out, all you need at this point is for someone to agree that objective moral values and duties do exist. However, some people resist this point initially. It is here I like to remind the objector of what his favorite (likely) argument against God is: the problem of evil. The problem of evil works only in cases where, in fact, there is evil. Beheading people for the faith, calculated genocide as ethnic cleansing, imprisonment for thought crimes—these people take to be evil deeds, not just deeds we happen not to like. You can provide myriad examples, and usually people grant that at least some things are objectively evil. If they do not, however, do not lose heart: you have shown a cost—a very, very great cost—of accepting their view: you must stand firm in the counterintuition that nothing is really wrong, deep down: it’s all preference.
In any case, once one accept (2), it entails (3), and (1) and (3) entail (4), that God exists. Now this God is plausibly a necessary being, since it looks like moral truths are necessary, and God grounds these.

So take these two arguments alone and combine their conclusions: there exists a being who is plausibly necessary, transcends the universe, brought it into existence, grounds objective morality, is omnibenevolent, beginningless, changeless, uncaused, timeless, spaceless, immaterial, enormously powerful, and personal. For a variety of reasons, I think this is best represented by the Christian God. What do you think?

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Showing the Cost of Philosophical Views

In philosophical apologetics, the aim is often either to defend Christianity from objections or else construct arguments either for Christianity’s truth or for the falsehood of other worldviews. These are worthy goals—goals which I attempt to do from time to time on this blog. However, we often find ourselves unable to push (or to be pushed) past a certain point; at some point, our interlocutors are simply unwilling to accept our premises, or instead are willing to face the consequences of the views they hold. Why is this?

Instead of examining psychological factors, I plan to discuss one of the purposes of philosophy and accepting a particular position. Philosophy is about evaluating the various options on a given problem or question and seeing what problems are present. There are, inevitably, problems that arise with any philosophical position of any real consequence or involved in any controversy. Philosophy is about finding your favorite set of problems. That is, philosophy is about being able to live with some set of problems over another.

This leads to an interesting corollary: philosophy that attempts to critique a view also should not be primarily about proving, beyond any reasonable doubt, that you are correct and the other person’s view is wrong. Instead, it should be about setting the cost that one must pay in order to accept a view.

Here is an example: if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist. That is to say, if there is no God, then we have no objective moral obligations. We may have things we like and don’t like, and we may have things society likes and doesn’t like, but in the end, nothing is really right or wrong. Now an atheist may shrug his shoulders and simply say, “Well, that’s why I say nothing is really wrong.” You may not convince him to believe in God, but you’ve shown the cost of accepting his view: it is not wrong to kill babies for fun, or to beat one’s spouse or significant other, or taunt someone for being different, etc.

And in philosophy, showing the costs and being willing to live with problems can be some of the best and most powerful tools in the apologist’s arsenal.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Ethics of Not Voting

This November, for the first time in my adult life, I likely will not be voting Republican in the presidential election. But neither can I support the Democratic nominee for president. Thus, I find myself in an interesting position: do I find the nearest nominee of a third party with whom I align on “must-have” issues? Or, since this is a principled stand for me, do I simply relax and look for ideological purity, and if I find none, refrain from voting? Often, our culture simply takes it as a presupposition that you have an ethical or patriotic obligation to vote. It is more assumed than defended, and usually comes in the form of the statement “If you don’t vote, then you can’t complain.” But is that really true? In this article, I seek to show that there is a particular ethic to not voting, and in some cases, it can be not only permissible to refrain from voting, but even obligatory.

Let’s start with the obligatory cases, since if these succeed, then it follows as a matter of logic that there are at least some permissible cases. Suppose a potential voter has done no research and knows virtually nothing about a referendum issue (say, about a measure to shift funding from one place to another). Should she vote yes or no? Given what she knows, she has no way of reasonably preferring one to the other. Given that the vote at issue can have repercussions that are good or bad, one can make the case that, ethically, if she does not have a clue, she should refrain from voting. That is, not only is it permissible for her to refrain from voting, but she plausibly has an obligation to do so. This is because it is reckless to so vote.

Consider another case, where you face a referendum with two choices, A and B. If you vote “A,” then all homosexuals will be rounded up, tried, and killed. If you vote “B,” this will happen, but only for homosexuals whose last names begin with “C,” and only once per year. It seems that either choice is unacceptable. Notice it wouldn’t help to have an objector tell you, “But a non-vote is just a vote for whichever one would win!,” or “B is the lesser of two evils!,” or “If you don’t vote, you don’t have a right to complain.” Actually, in these cases, you have an obligation not to vote for either one, and you absolutely do retain your right to complain about it.

So what is the lesson here? We have an obligation to refrain from voting in cases of extreme ignorance, or in cases of two or more exhaustive choices that we can or should reasonably believe violate our principles.

Now consider the current case. I think the principles of the situation prohibit me from voting for either the Republican or Democrat. Thus, I have two major choices: I either refrain from voting at all, or I can embrace a third-party candidate. Now I think we should notice we may not necessarily have either condition in place in order to constitute an obligation not to vote, for me. Why, then, would I not vote?

First, I might refrain from voting as what is itself a protest vote. Contrary to popular belief, I neither cast a vote for Hillary/Donald nor lose my right to protest by not voting. It may be the case that I wish to voice my displeasure in one of the only ways I can: by refusing to play the game at all. This lack of voting isn’t voter apathy; it’s precisely the opposite. It’s precisely because I care that I am even considering this move. I think, then, this move might need to be accompanied by vocal action (whether by letter or in person). It is because I am involved that I retain a moral right to speak to what happens politically. Further, when the votes are tallied, none would be counted from me to a particular candidate; that’s just not how voting works. Neither could my lack of participation be interpreted as support for whomever wins. The hard-core Trump supporters told us he didn’t need us to win; if that’s true, then my position is a “no-harm, no-foul” thing. If it’s not true, as many have said, then we can always say, “we told you so.”

My next moves are to investigate third-party candidates. Currently, I am not sold on any one of them—but it’s only July. And pragmatics are mostly out the window (none of these third-party candidates are going to win the presidential race in 2016). Thus, I can afford to be principled.

Finally, I don’t trust in governments; that’s not where my hope lies. Instead, my hope is in Jesus Christ. I can trust in a God who is in control. This doesn’t mean I won’t vote at all (or even that I won’t vote for someone for president in 2016); I will do my due diligence and vote on issues and down-ticket candidates. Nonetheless, I think I am done with being a registered member of one of the two major parties for a while. The ethics of not voting seem to be relevant.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Advice about the PhD

This post will both talk about what I am doing now and what lessons I learned (positive and negative) in applying to PhD programs. First, I have been accepted into (and in turn I have accepted) the PhD philosophy program at the University of Birmingham (UK). It’s an excellent program in which I will be in the UK for two weeks at a time, once per year. The British model of the PhD is one in which you do not take courses (this is due to particulars of the British education system going back to their high school curriculum), but rather write up a dissertation. I am beginning this program under the supervision of Yujin Nagasawa, starting this September, and I am very excited! My purpose in getting this PhD is to be able to work within the professoriate, where I will try to be a professor on mission, engaging the culture around me and attempting to shape its future for Christ. If you are interested in supporting me in prayer or financially, please follow this link.

What follows is a hodgepodge of lessons I’ve learned, in no particular order; please don’t use only me as a resource in applying for PhD programs.

1.     Apply early

This almost cannot be overemphasized. Because I was quite busy during application season, I honestly didn’t really begin applying at most programs until the week after Christmas. This was a mistake, for two reasons: a) several programs either had their deadlines quickly approaching (by Jan. 1), or else already passed (ahem, Indiana); and b) some schools had financial aid opportunities or partnerships that had deadlines pass, some as early as the end of September! My failure to move quickly may have cost me a place at one of these schools, or financial aid.

2.     Don’t swing for the fences too much

Here’s what I mean by that. I applied to eleven programs, eight of which rejected me. However, these were programs such as FSU, Virginia, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Oklahoma. These kinds of programs often receive record numbers of applications (sometimes over 250!), and often have anywhere from 4-8 spaces available. I’ve often heard that virtually nothing separates the top 20 or so applicants in these situations; it’s a virtual lottery. Perhaps I should have played the lottery a little less often, and went for an “easier” fully funded program. It’s not all luck, however…

3.     Be sure the program is a good fit

By this I mean a couple of different things. First, be sure the program is known for your preferred area of specialization (AOS) within philosophy. If you are really into the philosophy of art, but the school doesn’t talk about that being one of their strengths, that may be a sign the school isn’t a good fit for you. Second, you’ll want to peruse the faculty page to see if there are any professors whose AOS matches yours. If you haven’t already, try to read and become familiar with these professors and their work. Then, politely contact them via their preferred method (often email), referencing their work and your interest in it. Further, in a few succinct sentences, describe the direction of your research (in terms of dissertation, if you have it) or the specific questions you are currently interested in, and ask the professor if he thinks this might be interesting, or if you should apply, etc. Be sure to thank him for even reading your email. Preserve all email etiquette! This all assumes you find a prof with a match. When you do not contact a professor (which I did not do for some schools, since I had so little time), you really don’t know if you’re a match for the school. The hard truth is that if there is not a prof willing to work with you on your questions/project, then you will be rejected. This is especially true in British programs, where your entire application rises and falls, more or less, on whether there is a prof willing to work with you. It is telling that of the three acceptances I received, I had contacted and received some form of feedback from three professors.

4.     Be sure you’re OK with the location

This is a bigger deal than you might think. This is where you’re going to be spending 3-7 years of your life, depending on your situation and school. That’s a long time to be in a miserable location you hate. Your home (both town and place in which you live) needs to be a somewhat safe space for you to relax. If you’re bored to death or stressed out, that’s not going to help you complete your program and be healthy. One school to which I applied, had I been accepted (I wasn’t, so there’s that), would have required a significant adjustment in what I was used to. In some cases, that can be easy to accept; in others, it can be intolerable. With one of my other acceptances, I would have needed to move to the UK full-time. While I would love to do that, I have a family, and I would have needed to be sure they could handle the situation (they probably could). For two concrete examples, being in the middle of Manhattan for some people could be stress-torture, while living in a tiny college town with nothing for miles can give people a cabin fever. The key is to know your location, know yourself (and any family), and be honest about these prospects. If possible, visit the campus and check out area activities. I myself went to the UK this time last summer, and took a train to Birmingham one of those days (that part of the trip didn’t go well for a variety of interesting reasons, but at least I went!).

5.     Know your end goal

Part of what can help you make your decision is knowing what you want to do with your PhD. Overwhelmingly, people who get PhDs in the humanities want to teach. There’s nothing wrong with that; I certainly do! However, it does not always have to be that. You could be in a thinktank, or a consultant, or work for an academic publishing house, or any number of things! Although you cannot guarantee the future, it’s wise to work toward your end goal. For instance, I decided I wanted to be able to work in either a secular or a Christian collegiate environment. Unfortunately, I cannot do that with a PhD from a Christian school or seminary. Further, there are some American schools that don’t like to hire from British schools, either. Nonetheless, I would be comfortable at either type of school with respect to teaching, so I followed Birmingham’s offer. Just know what you’re getting into. There is not much worse in this area than getting a degree only to find out it’s worthless with respect to what you want to do!

6.     Count the cost

This cost-counting is in terms of time, money, and job prospects. We’ve already spoken a little about job prospects, but I should be honest here: if the sole or overwhelming reason you’re considering a PhD is a full-time, tenure-track position at a major research university, you should not do a PhD. Much like getting into the “best” PhD programs, these positions are a lottery amongst even the top candidates. I myself had to disabuse myself of this notion. I am pursuing a PhD because I believe that is what God would have me to do; I want a full-time position, but even if I do get one, it likely will not be tenured, may not be permanent, or may be in a context I didn’t envision. You may have to be willing to go international (I am, at least in principle!), or be willing to look outside of the university (other academic jobs, like publishing, for example). The point here is know that job prospects in the humanities for the dream job are dim. Be sure you understand that and can live with it.

I mentioned time as well earlier. You will likely lose 3-7 years’ worth of job experience (you likely will not have a career-style full-time job during this time) and earnings. Beyond that, you will be making a major investment whose final emotional payout won’t occur for years. Think about that for a minute. Can you go years in delayed gratification for this? Or are you likely to become very frustrated and mentally exhausted, in an unhealthy place? Don’t gloss over this question.

Finally, count the cost in terms of money. Most reputable American programs in the humanities offer full tuition remission and a stipend in exchange for TA-ing and eventually teaching undergraduate intro courses. With few exceptions, if it is an American program that doesn’t offer this, watch out.[1] However, many stipends are very low—some as low as $12,000. If you get involved with this, you need to do a thorough inventory of what this school is going to cost you and for how long. How much will you need to live there? How much will you take home? Are there fees to pay? If single, will finding roommates be easy? How much am I willing to take out in loans? This final question is huge. Student loan debt does not go away, and it’s worth it to evaluate carefully how much total debt of all kinds you have currently before answering that question.

I myself am trying a combination of my own personal funds (jobs), student loans, and fundraising to finance my PhD. We had to set a limit on what we wanted to take out in loans total. Most of all, in this area, be honest with yourself: you’re not going to buy dollar meals in boxes for five years. Having realistic numbers helps paint a picture to help you decide what to do.

7.     Speak to current students

I only did this a few times, and I wish I had done more. Why? First, because if you get in, these are the students who will become your colleagues. What are they like? Are they interested in the same AOS as you? Are they believers also? Second, because current students rarely put on a show. They’re not trying to sell you on the school. They’ll let you know the good, the bad, and the ugly. How long it really takes to get through, whether or not you can work an outside job, how accessible the profs are as supervisors, any nightmare stories, and any positive stories as well. If a student wants to warn me against going to a school for some reason, I am very likely to take it seriously. On the other hand, if a student goes out of her way to tell me her supervisor is excellent and should be considered, I am very likely to respond favorably to that as well.

8.     Know there are biases, Part 1 (Academic Background)

Unfortunately, there are definitely biases that admissions committees have. Your school could have the best accreditation and be well known in your subfield of philosophy. If the admissions committee doesn’t like it, though, it won’t matter. Here’s what I mean: there are some schools that, if you attended any school with the word “seminary” in its name, will not give you the time of day. This is not necessarily an unfounded bias, and isn’t necessarily malicious. I finally asked one school to which I was going to apply if having a philosophy degree from a seminary ruled me out of the PhD program: short story was, yes, it did. I appreciated their candor, and it saved me some time. It did make me wonder, however, if I should have found a tactful way to ask each school before I applied, and see which ones responded that there was such a bias. Bottom line: if you went to a seminary for your qualifying degree, and you want to apply to a secular school, it’s worth asking. You may receive a response ranging from “it doesn’t matter” to “you won’t be admitted here” to “you would need to do a secular master’s first.” Again, it’s just worth knowing before you dive in.

9.     Know there are biases, Part 2 (AOS)

Another mistake I made concerns the AOS. I went into it believing it should be philosophy of religion. I applied the advice given in (3), and searched. If a school had neither the strength of philosophy of religion nor a philosophy of religion professor, I just didn’t apply. Now, what I didn’t quite realize was that philosophy of religion, as an AOS, is extremely minor. That is, it doesn’t tend to get you admitted or to get you jobs. It’s best to pick one of the four major branches of philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics), or a popular or major area of focus that the school is involved in (such as philosophy of science or philosophy of math). I may have unwittingly eliminated myself from schools I should not have, either by listing philosophy of religion as my AOS or by not applying because I assumed that would be. I have an MA in that area. Thus, I believe I have the strength to have that be a second AOS, while focusing on metaphysics as my primary AOS.

10.  Follow up, but don’t be annoying

Often, schools will tell you around the time you should be receiving notification (but not always). I was fortunate, in that most schools informed us around the timeframe they said they would. Do not contact the school to check on your status before the time they have given you. They are extremely busy, and it’s the academic equivalent of “Are we there yet?” However, if the school has not given you either a date or a timeframe, it’s completely acceptable to call (trust me, email can take days or even a week to be returned) and speak with someone about it. If you’re polite, and thank them for taking the time to help you, they will usually be happy to give you something.

However, some schools just keep telling you that it will be a few more weeks, and when that happens, there is still no decision. I had two such situations out of eleven, and my only advice is to be polite, patient, and persistent. Don’t be annoying, but an occasional email mentioning that you’re “just checking in to see if there has been any decision) is OK—when the timeframe the school has given you has passed. It is OK to let them know that you have other decisions riding on theirs; if they tell you, however, that it will be another week, then give them another week.

Have any other questions about my experience? Have any comments or stories you’d like to share? Do so in the comments below!

[1] I give an exception for my own Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and others like it. This is because their programs are designed to allow you to remain in your context, and thus you can work a full-time job to support your family.