Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Parody Objections to the Ontological Argument

I’m revisiting the modal ontological argument today (not that there is only one, mind you). This will be a brief post discussing a lot of the parodies of Anselm’s argument that are out there. The idea of a parody, in these instances, is to show that an argument proves too much: if we accept the reasoning behind the argument, so the objection goes, it will commit us to various absurd entities existing out there, which surely we all want to reject (or at the very least, have no reason to accept and have countervailing intuitions about these things). These types of objections are the “perfect island,” or “perfect girlfriend,” or whatnot. Call these “Perfect X” objections.

In his dissertation, John Birmingham deals with these types of objections quite nicely.[1] He writes, “The problem with this line of reasoning [Perfect X objections] is that it relativizes the word ‘perfect’ to a sortal expression. . . . In each case, the property of perfection would be attributed to a sort of being, not to a being simpliciter.”[2] (emphasis in original)

The issue with Perfect X objections is that they are asymmetrical with Perfect Being Theology. In English, certainly, “perfect” modifies “being,” but in metaphysics and ontology, there is clearly a difference between a sort of being and being itself. And so, to say something against the Perfect X being instantiated is to say nothing of the kind against the Perfect Being. If that is the case, the modal ontological argument remains untouched, at least by parody objections of the Perfect X kind.

[1] I recognize that virtually nothing in philosophy is dealt with in a couple of sentences with absolutely no rebuttals from the other side. I don’t have any delusions that no one has ever had anything to say about this. My only point is that I think Birmingham has hit upon the fundamental distinction, and he’s not the only one to ever do so.

[2] Birmingham, 102.

Monday, April 21, 2014

How Do I Defeat Objections to Christianity?

My fellow Christians who are interested in apologetics, we have a problem. What is it?, you may ask. Well, we are quite zealous to defend the faith. And that is good. When we see a problem, or an objection, or an argument against the truth of God or Christianity, we want to prove it wrong. But almost every day, I see Christians chasing rabbit trails, or responding in odd or unhelpful ways. So I want to offer what I think will be some helpful, but possibly random, tips. This list is not meant to be exhaustive; feel free to comment what you think in the section below!

1.     Don’t feel you have to prove everything wrong.

An interesting fact about those of us who love apologetics and are zealous to defend the faith is that we are all too quick to shoulder the “burden of disproof.” It happens so much that skeptics have become quite used to it. They come in, fire off a string of barely related assertions and demand that their charges be addressed. Let me tell you, Christian, you don’t have to disprove a single thing. Why should you believe anything without any reasons to believe it? Only once a clear argument is made should you discuss it. This leads us to my next tip.

2.     Focus on one argument at a time.

This may come about by simply requesting that you only talk about one thing at a time with an objector, or both of you agree to one central topic. Things will get plenty complicated in a good debate as it is. Trying to have several at once will lead to mind-numbing confusion, frustration, weak or missed arguments/objections, or all of the above.

3.     Figure out precisely what is being claimed by the argument/objection.

Sometimes arguments are hopelessly ambiguous. That is, the way a proposition or premise is worded could mean two or more things, and you have no way of knowing which is meant. Usually, it makes a big difference. So you can do one of three things here: you can guess which one is meant, and then try to show the entailments based on those guesses. This is by far the most work, and I don’t recommend it, because, usually, you will have wasted your time on everything but the right meaning. Next, you could lay out the meanings, and ask which one is meant. This is better, but the objector can always backtrack and claim he meant something else entirely. Third, you could simply say that you don’t know what is meant, and could he clarify. The only danger in this is if the objector doesn’t seem to know how to clarify this; then it might look like you’re just engaging in sophistry. Here’s a recent real life example, paraphrased: “An all-good God is incompatible with millions of years of suffering that is not logically necessary.” Well, what does this mean? Does this mean logical compatibility, where we think the two premises involved in the claim engender some kind of logical contradiction? Does this mean how God would act, given some contingent suffering, is not to allow it? Does this mean some third thing? It’s difficult to know, and you could go down various roads depending on the answer.

4.     You must either: attack the validity of the argument, show one of the claims in a valid argument is unjustified or false, or else show that it is irrelevant.

If the skeptic has clearly defined his terms, you unambiguously know what the argument is asserting, he’s focusing on one argument, and he has provided reasons to think that argument is successful, then it is only at this point you are forced to deal with it. Here you have three options. The first is simple enough, but it’s relatively uncommon that people make this mistake (at least on non-complex arguments or objections). It’s still worth testing out. Check if an argument is logically valid. Without going into too much here (since you can get a good working knowledge of validity from so many other places), an argument is deductively valid if it is impossible that its premises are true and its conclusion false. I’ve seen too many Christians try to jump in and defeat arguments that just aren’t logically valid. Something like “There are many religions, it is arrogant to assume that any one of them is true; therefore, God does not exist.”[1] Challenge them to re-work their argument to make it valid before continuing.

If it is valid, or after they have fixed it, check to see if the argument is relevant. It won’t matter if they have a valid and sound argument but it doesn’t impact what they think it does. This actually happens more often than you think. “God requires faith; faith is belief without evidence; therefore, you believe without evidence!” And how, precisely, would this invalidate God? I’m not ecstatic about saying we believe without evidence, mind you, but this argument certainly doesn’t show that God does not exist or that Christianity is false. It doesn’t even show that Christianity is irrational. I should write a post about why that is so. The point is, however, that merely having a valid and sound argument isn’t even good enough—the argument has to be relevant.

OK, so suppose it checks out as valid and relevant, then what? Then, and only then, do you undermine support for the premises. Notice this is not the same thing as proving them wrong! When you remove justification for holding a belief, the belief could still be true, but you’ve just removed the reason for holding it. Obviously, showing that a particular belief is false accomplishes the same thing, with more force, but it’s not necessary to take on that burden (see above).

In most of my conversations with skeptics, I’ve noticed that they have a very naïve view of epistemology—and many Christians fall into the same trap. What do you guys think? Have any comments or stories? Share them below!

[1] Arguments like these can usually be rescued with an additional premise or a re-wording, and then you can continue.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ancient Comments on Easter

“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James, then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as one born out of due time . . . Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection from the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain . . . And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive . . . O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.”

Paul, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, 15: 3-8, 12-14, 17-22, 55-58.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Some Resources for Easter

Resurrection Sunday is upon us this week, otherwise more commonly known as Easter. This Easter, take some time to read up on some of the reasons we have for thinking that Jesus of Nazareth was really raised from the dead by God.

"The Empty Tomb Revisited" - This post discusses reasons we have for thinking that the tomb of the Lord Jesus Christ was really found empty by a group of his female followers on the morning of the first day of the week.

"Barabbas and Jesus" - Why would people want Barabbas over Jesus? What were they thinking? This post explores this tragic part of the story.

"The Crowd" - Have you ever heard someone say that the same crowd who hailed Jesus in his coming into Jerusalem would call for his crucifixion seven days later? That's probably not true, and we'll see why in this post!

"Unlikely Story of the Women" - Do we have contradictory accounts of the discovery of Jesus by a group of his women followers? Are there any plausible answers?

"Was Jesus Crucified on a Friday?" - Or was it on Thursday? Or even Wednesday? How should "three days and three nights" be taken? Read up and decide for yourself!

"Significance of the Resurrection" - What does it all mean? The Resurrection is, in fact, the most important event in all of human history. Every Christian must understand this.

Feel free to comment here or on the individual posts. He is risen!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Presuppositionalism and the Method Wars

I rarely get involved in the so-called “method wars” of Christian apologetics. I think it’s largely unproductive to insist that our fellow brothers and sisters use a particular way of sharing the Gospel while we could be doing just that ourselves. I also think that, so long as the argument is valid and sound, that any Christian argument for God that brings someone to think about and consider Christianity is worthwhile. This is why I find value in the basic reasoning of presuppositional apologetic arguments. However, most of my readers will note that I tend to use a lot of evidential and classical arguments here. I’ve heard, more than one time, presuppositionalists insist that evidential arguments are detrimental to Christianity. The mission of this post is to suggest this is mistaken.

The argument goes like this: if presuppositional arguments are true, then evidential arguments for God are false. Why should we think a thing like that? Because, the reasoning goes, evidential/classical arguments only establish that the conclusion (namely, God exists) is only probable with respect to the evidence, not necessarily existent. Yet presuppositional arguments entail a necessarily existent God. Therefore, we have two fundamental types of claims that differ from one another in a major way. If God is necessary, it’s impossible for him to be contingent, and vice versa.

The problem in the reasoning in the above paragraph is one that runs rampant in the presuppositional community. I say what I am about to say not to attack, but to help. If we can help each other think clearer, it will be all the better for Christian apologetics! So what are the problems? I’ll try to tackle them from least important to most important.

First, in deductive arguments (and even some abductive ones), the conclusion is entailed by the premises. This means that if the premises are true, it is impossible that the conclusion is false. It’s somewhat of a category error to say the conclusion is “only probable.” However, this is considered the least important objection because we can still say that we are uncertain of the conclusion because we are not wholly (in a Cartesian way or something) certain of the premises’ truth. Second, in some cases (at least one) classical arguments do require that God be necessarily existent. The ontological family of arguments entails this, and some conceptions of the moral argument family do as well.[1] Of course, the claim would still remain for all other types of arguments of whose premises we are not entirely certain.

Finally, the most important problem, and the one that runs rampant, is the confusion between ontology and epistemology. I attended an apologetics conference last year where a panel discussion took place on this idea, and the presuppositionalists were plagued with this issue. Ontology refers to being, or something’s existence. Epistemology refers to knowing, or knowledge/truth.

When the presuppositionalist complains that the conclusion of evidential/classical arguments is only probable, this is an epistemic category. It’s about knowledge, and degrees of certainty (in this case, not very certain). Necessary existence, which is established through presuppositional (and some classical) arguments, is an ontological category. The two are not exclusive. What is necessarily true is so independently of anyone’s even knowing it, much less anyone knowing it for certain. In fact, there are examples where we know that some proposition is actually necessarily true or necessarily false, but no one has any idea which. The point is that something can be necessarily true ontologically, but only probably true (or probably false, or even inscrutable) epistemologically. These evidential and classical arguments say nothing (most of the time) about the modality of the existence of God (contingent or necessary), and so it is an error to presume that they do.

Again, I’m still not interested in the method wars, where I insist that presuppositional reasoning be abandoned and only evidential/classical arguments used. I’m not interested in having a huge argument with my brothers. I’m just trying to sharpen our thinking, so that Christ’s Kingdom can be built, and he might have the preeminence.

[1] I speak of argument families here in recognition of the fact that there is no one, singular ontological or moral argument. The same goes for virtually every other type of theistic argument.