Sunday, August 23, 2015

What Am I up to?

So what am I going to be up to this semester? Well, quite a bit, actually. First, this is hopefully my final semester of my Master of Arts in Philosophy of Religion from SEBTS. I am taking nine hours of coursework and six hours of thesis work. My topic is on Dean Zimmerman’s anti-Molinist argument, and I am excited to get to work on it. That goes on top of my 40-hours-per-week job of faculty support and instructional design in SEBTS’ Distance Learning office.

Next, I’m also trying to apply for various PhD programs. That involves, in some cases, preparing to take the MAT and GRE tests, procuring letters of reference, and obtaining transcripts; in others, it’s these things and/or a research proposal for a dissertation. Much prayer is requested for wisdom in my research for PhD programs.

I’m also slated to teach two classes online for Trinity Baptist College this Fall. One of them is on Johannine Writings, and the other is on Bible Doctrines 2. Both classes are fun, and have quite a few signed up. At church, I should be on the rotation for our life class to teach, and I enjoy that too.

I need to do some additional research and book reviews at some point, while possibly attending EPS in Atlanta this November. I say all this to say that as busy as I have been this past summer, it’s about to take off for the Fall. Please pray for me that I find time to conduct this ministry, both to believers and unbelievers alike. God bless!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Book Review: Miracles

Miracles is perhaps the deepest book of Lewis’ that I have yet read. This is because it challenges philosophical presuppositions and explains particulars of certain Christian doctrines in ways that both stay true to traditional teachings and, where possible, accord with the way we know things work in nature. In the first two chapters he sets the tone by explaining that he’s not attempting to prove the miracles of the Christian faith actually occurred; he is not attempting to assess the actual historical evidence. However, he does split the camps into naturalists and supernaturalists by defining a naturalist as one who believes that nature is all there is (305). Further, he defines a miracle as an “interference with Nature by supernatural power” (305). Thus, if Nature is all there is, then plainly miracles do not occur, whereas Lewis sets out to show that if it is possible that supernaturalism is true, then miracles cannot be ruled out as a possibility.
The next step in Lewis’ argument is to show that naturalism has a serious problem. This problem concerns the seed of what is closely related to the argument from reason (cf. Victor Reppert’s C.S. Lewis’ Dangerous Idea and Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism). First, he argues that all of human knowledge relies necessarily on reasoning being correct, or at least generally true (313). Here’s how he summarizes his thinking: “A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court” (313). Due to this, it seems naturalism cannot account for bringing rational thought from the sub-rational; it is always possible that naturalism should have made it to where we only reasoned to the pragmatic truth of survival rather than truth itself (318). If that is so, then naturalism undercuts the entire basis for reasoning, and thus is self-refuting.
Lewis then deals with a few red herrings to the whole argument, including that early Christians accepted miracles like the virgin birth because they simply did not scientifically know better—a thought which Lewis takes to be ludicrous (342). He then moves to more serious objections, including the idea that miracles are violations of the necessary laws of nature, and so cannot occur. His argument is that the laws describe what happens in nature—all else being equal. Of course, whether or not all things really are equal depend on whether or not something intervenes from the outside; essentially, it depends on whether or not miracles are possible (352). Thus, this objection does not succeed.
Lewis then moves to a couple of chapters where he argues that even if early Christians did not have perfect understanding of particular truths, it does not follow that the core truth of what they defended was inaccurate (370-71). Once having laid this foundation, he attempts to adjudicate between different types of religion (after all, if he only establishes that miracles are possible, but not which religion or type of religion is most plausible, the question does not fully resolve). In the end, he decides that we can at least know some of what God positively is, and if that is so, miracles cannot be ruled out (384).
Lewis then moves to a discussion on probability. If, after all, miracles are improbable, then they should not be believed (according to Lewis). But what is it that makes it improbable? If naturalism is true, then one cannot say that it is probable that nature is uniform (i.e., actually obeys laws and will not suddenly change in the future); this suggests that naturalism is not true (395)! He finishes the work with a few chapters on the important miracle of the Incarnation and Virgin Birth, and helpful appendices on the soul and providence.
Critical Evaluation
            Lewis, I think, accomplishes his stated goal when he establishes serious problems for naturalism and suggesting miracles are at least possible. His goal is not to show that the historic details of Christian miracle stories are true, but even still, he takes pains to show that the Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ are all quite interrelated and plausible. One may not leave the book convinced that the claims of Christianity are true, but neither can he honestly leave convinced miracles are impossible—not without dealing thoroughly with this work.
            There are many strengths to be found in this work, both on “offense” and on “defense.” On the offensive side, the argument from reason against naturalism is powerful. If any theory we think up results in the invalidity of thinking, then that theory counts as self-refuting (313). This important (and I think self-evident) principle guides Lewis in his argument. He showed, successfully, that materialistic versions of naturalism (which are the most prominent versions) entail this kind of self-refutation. This is because if everything is nothing but material, and this material obeys fixed laws, then reasoning is nothing more than how the material in our brains is acting and reacting, and is not true reasoning (312-13). But Lewis does not stop here, showing that even other forms of naturalism can suffer from this type of malady. Beliefs are merely “psychological events” (315), and simply because they are caused is no guarantee that they have any justification (we are asked to consider the madman whose mental condition surely has a cause, but his delusions are certainly ungrounded or unjustified). So these psychological events have causes, but seem to lack the ability to have sufficient grounds for thinking them to be rational.
            On another offensive move, Lewis takes pains to defend the idea that we have what Plantinga would later call “properly basic beliefs.” These beliefs cannot be justified by any further beliefs, and just seem to us to be true. Lewis uses the uniformity of nature and the problem of induction to talk about this, and thus solves this problem with properly basic beliefs. He writes, “In advance of experience, in the teeth of many experiences, we are already enlisted on the side of uniformity” (394). For Lewis, if these properly basic beliefs are trustworthy, it remains hard to see how so on naturalism (but quite easy on supernaturalism—we were designed to have such beliefs!).
            On the defensive side, Lewis defends the possibility of miracles against common objections. The first kind of objection has already been mentioned: that the early Christians were simply ignorant, and this is why they accepted the accounts of miracles. However, as Lewis points out, Joseph certainly knew the normal course of the births of babies, even if he could not articulate precisely why. As he writes, “St. Joseph obviously knew that” (342). The second kind of objection was the a priori ruling out of miracles due to the necessity of the physical laws. Interestingly, Lewis did not argue much against the necessity of the laws. This is a strength because it is the natural place to go. However, if one grants the contention of his opponent, but shows it does not entail the desired result, one has a much stronger position.

            Despite the fact that I just praised Lewis for granting the discussion on the necessity of physical laws, it does seem that he should have pushed back more against it. For instance, why should any Christian (or even non-naturalist) grant that the physical laws are necessary (and hence any violation is “self-contradictory,” cf. 351)? There does not seem to be the same type of incoherence (if any) going on in the statement “Something exceeds the speed of light” as in the statement “There are married bachelors.” While Lewis’ approach can be applauded, the Christian need not grant a logical necessity condition attached to the natural laws. This is especially true when it is considered that the laws are empirically oriented (that is, they are not the result of pure, a priori reasoning with inescapable conclusions).
            Another potential weakness was in the area of historical investigation. While it is true Lewis was not concerned to investigate the historical claims of miracles (which was entirely correct, in my view), it seemed he overstated his case. He thought it impossible for history to adjudicate miracle claims, since in order to do so, one must decide “whether miracles are possible, and if so, how probable they are” (304). Incidentally, this is why his discussion of probability comes far too late in the book (his concept of probability plays such a crucial role in what follows that its absence at the beginning was notable).
            It is not clear to me that one must know (or, at any rate, be able to show) that miracles are possible in order to know that one has occurred. At least, one must know that miracles are not a priori ruled out, and to that extent Lewis is right. But it seems that Lewis also seems to think there is an intrinsic probability assigned to miraculous events, and that historical evidence does not serve to discuss probability with respect to miracle claims. It seems to me this is not correct. Mike Licona, for an example, maintains that one ought to adopt a stance of credulity with respect to historical claims, and then assess the evidence according to various criteria (cf. The Resurrection of Jesus). If this is right, and if one has done the spadework to defend against allegations of impossibility, then one can proceed even if for any given miraculous event E, E is highly improbable with respect to enumerative probability. For on the basis of historical evidence, one may find that E is not only probable, but the highest probable explanation of the facts of the matter there is!
            A final note is not necessarily a weakness, but an implicit bias that runs throughout that may affect how a reader views some of Lewis’ contentions. He seems to be writing from at least a partially Thomistic perspective. He speaks of the form of the body, how the body is needed for the human person, how God is timeless, and even discusses more extreme forms of Thomism that speak of knowing God only by what he is not (in a critical sense). Being aware of this Thomistic influence will help the reader better understand where Lewis is coming from, and allow him to take what he will from it based on his experiences with Thomism.

            This book comes recommended for both naturalists and supernaturalists, though I would not recommend it for the average layman. It is more difficult to follow the overall argument than Mere Christianity, and some readers who do not understand the connections may give up. However, for those facing challenges to their faith, this is a highly recommended read.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Skeptic's Not Knowing God Exists is not Necessarily an Excuse

I was thinking today about a common theme in discussing what skeptics and non-believers may say if confronted by God in the afterlife. A typical retort is that they did not have enough evidence or reason to believe in God, and so did not know God existed or of their need for repentance. This relies heavily on the traditional analysis of knowledge as “justified, true belief.”[1] The argument, then, would look like this:

1.     If one does not know he ought to do x, then it is not the case that he ought to do x.
2.     One does not know he ought to do x.
3.     Therefore, it is not the case that he ought to do x.

The argument seems straightforward enough. The unbeliever does not, by definition, believe in God’s existence and so does not, by definition, believe he must repent. If he does not believe these things, then by the traditional analysis, he does not know these things (since belief is a necessary condition). Thus, the unbeliever is not actually obligated to respond to the Gospel, for one can hardly know what he thinks is untrue, and so he’s off the hook!

The typical Christian response is to accept (1) and deny (2). Romans 1 and 10, Psalm 19, and other passages suggest strongly that everyone knows there is a God. Thus, there really are no such things as atheists, in the strict sense—everyone believes or knows, deep down, even if it is suppressed to the point of the subconscious. While I think this response, if carefully nuanced, can get to the truth of the matter (that is, I agree with the Bible), it’s not always helpful to tell the atheist what he “really believes.” Rather, I intend to attack (1).

While initially plausible, I think (1) is not impervious to objection. Consider a person who is responsible for being in his current predicament, even though he cannot now alter his current state. That person, if in circumstances in which he ought to refrain from performing some action, still ought to refrain from performing that action, if he was responsible for being in the particular state he is in now. Take a drug addict, and assume one ought not to abuse drugs. Suppose further, as has been argued, that there is at least possibly some circumstance such that, were a drug addict sufficiently addicted, he could not now refrain from shooting up with heroin (without some external intervention). In this case the drug addict, if he chose to use drugs of his own volition and became addicted through that free choice or series of free choices, is responsible for his current predicament. Additionally, it is plausible that he is morally responsible—not just for the initial acts, but for the subsequent acts, and the act within the situation that now confronts him. In other words, even though the drug addict fails to have now a necessary condition for being such that he ought to refrain from abusing drugs, he nonetheless still ought to refrain from abusing drugs—because he is completely responsible for being in the situation in which he finds himself.[2]

So how can we apply this to our situation with the unbeliever? It seems we could say that if an atheist is responsible for his initial state of unbelief,[3] then he is responsible for his current state as well. So, if we have someone who decides to walk away from Christianity, or will not accept it, and they chose that state, then even if they do not now believe (or even find themselves unable to believe!), it was within their power to believe and so are still obligated to trust and repent. Now it’s obvious that a non-believer can dispute our account here; but this is not the point. The point is that (1) is not nearly as obvious as a first glance may suggest, and is even plausibly false.

Plausibly, we can capture the intuitive force of (1) as:

1’. If one is not responsible for his current state of not knowing he ought to do x, then it is not the case that he ought to do x.

2’. One is not responsible for his current state of not knowing he ought to do x.

3.     Therefore, it is not the case that he ought to do x.

(1’) and plausible instances of (2’) seem right. But now notice that this is not the state most non-believers we’ve been discussing find themselves in. They usually are responsible for not believing the Gospel. While some may claim that no beliefs are chosen, I find this hard to believe (and if they’re right, I couldn’t have chosen to believe it anyway). I think at least some beliefs are chosen, and even if they aren’t, the argument plausibly needs only that sense of responsibility that anyone would have about anything anyone has concerning their current states and/or formation of character. But again, a skeptic need not accept this alternative account in order for us to show that the original account, and hence the original excuse, fails.

[1] Let’s leave to one side Gettier cases or attempted counterexamples for the sake of argument.

[2] This has some interesting implications for “ought-implies-can” which I will, for now, leave to the reader to work out.

[3] Here we may want to distinguish between states of infants and states of what I shall call “responsible knowers,” which will coincide with a state of moral responsibility. I will appeal to this latter state, though I will not endeavor here to figure out when that begins.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Oxford Trip Summary, Part 2

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Today was an interesting day. After breakfast (cereal again; no one get excited), I headed out to find the Oxford train station. I got a little turned around, but eventually got there OK. I picked up my tickets both for my journey into London tomorrow and Monday’s journey to Birmingham (where I’ll hopefully meet up with Joshua Brown). The people were all friendly and understanding of my ignorance of how to do any of this. Right after this, I wandered into the admissions office at Oxford, and they were both knowledgeable and helpful with questions about their doctoral program in philosophy.

After a very brief lunch, we headed off to the bus to go to the Kilns and the home of C. S. Lewis. We had to eat so quickly and leave that we accidentally left Dr. Eccher behind (as he was not present when we started to leave—in his words, “I was gone for 90 seconds, and it was like the Rapture happened!”).

While we were waiting for the bus, an older gentleman asked where we were going. When Dr. Keathley responded that it was to the Kilns, he responded “Oh, I live out there. Why are you going there with such a large group?” When Dr. Keathley answered that it was to see the home of C. S. Lewis, the man replied, “I do not like C. S. Lewis!” and turned away. Later, he would describe our group as a “disgrace” for “filling the coach” before it actually happened. Some people are insistent on being angry about something or other. Dr. Keathley happened to remark to us: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country…”!

The Kilns was an excellent place. It was not a large house; in fact, one could be in and out in a few minutes. But it was fun to hear the history that surrounded it and how an American couple bought it (who now live there). After dinner, we walked around town, just taking it all in (there was a group of five altogether). After I headed back to my room, eventually four of us guys found our way into my room, where we sat around drinking soda or water and talking philosophy, theology, and distance learning at SEBTS. These guys have a desire to serve God, and to do it with their minds. It was a fun time!

Friday, July 10, 2015

London is truly one of the world’s great cities. With people coming from around the world to see it, you can’t help but notice all of the different types of people and languages around you. Today was one of my London days (this time I was on my own). I first arrived at Paddington station, where I got an all-day tube pass and hopped on. It’s pretty easy to navigate, which is good for a person like me. I got off at Marylebone station and walked the five minutes or so over to Baker Street, where I was one of the first that morning to enter the Sherlock Holmes Museum! Located at 239 Baker St. (since Baker St. ends just another two or so shops away), they are recognized as the official museum for the great detective. The whole thing cost £15 and I got through it all in 30 minutes at most, but it was still worth it. The employees were dressed in Victorian-era clothing, and the house almost seemed to be “preserved” from the stories, as if he really did live and these were artifacts of his time in London.

I had received some advice to head to Regent’s Park across the street, so right after the museum I did so. It’s like London’s version of Central Park, and it is large and beautiful. After asking a local for directions, I made my way to Primrose Hill. From this hill, you can view the entire city in the distance. It was a warm and clear day, and so that only added to the atmosphere. From there, I wandered until I got to a bus stop and travelled to another tube station, looking for lunch. I found this nice Italian place—for those who say there is no good food in England, I suggest they haven’t been there in a while! The pasta and sauce was good, and they seemed to be Italian people making the food, so good enough!

From here I needed to get around to the London Eye pier. I was walking on a bridge area to see what I could when I noticed a Jehovah’s Witness. I couldn’t pass it up. I introduced myself to him, and asked if I could ask him some questions. Now unfortunately, JW’s tend to go into “rote-memory mode” when you ask them questions. I pressed him on whether Jesus is God, and while at first he did not answer, he agreed that if God is the most excellent and powerful being there is, then Jesus is not God (since Jesus is “a god” in a lesser sense of being a spirit). I told him that was a major sticking point for me (I try to put the onus on them to convince me). He responded with a question for me: When Jesus died, who ran the universe? That seemed easy enough: it would have to be God. “But,” I added quickly, “I don’t think this is a problem for me, because, after all, it wasn’t like Jesus ceased to exist—they killed his body, not his spirit.” Add to that the fact that Jesus and the Father aren’t the same person, and I don’t see this as being much of an objection. At that, he was polite, but just shut down. There was no rote response for him for this situation. I thanked him for his time, made a book recommendation, and moved on. He seemed very confused, and I felt bad for him.

I went to the river cruise where I was joined by many British schoolchildren. We went up and down parts of the Thames receiving very interesting facts about the city and buildings (for instance, London was established by the Romans, and they called the city “Londinium” and the river “Tamesis.”). It was about 45 minutes long or so, and well worth it. I went straight from this to the London Eye itself, where I had a guide with my group of disparate individuals. This was amazing, with the great views of the city at every point.

I grabbed dinner at a pub, where the bartender (this is from whom you order your food in a pub), upon finding out I was American and new to London, couldn’t wait to pour me a British beer. She was a little disappointed when I said I was refraining from alcohol, but would love a Coke (it felt a bit like having a child proudly ask you to look at her school art project and slapping it away instead!). I had a fish-and-chips sandwich, where they had mushy peas on it. This is not nearly as bad as it sounds and looks. Basically, if you’re OK with peas, you’ll be OK with this. I met an Irishman who was down on his luck. I’ve lived in places with plenty of homelessness before, so I also know when you’re being “sold,” and I wasn’t quite fooled. However, I did want to share the Gospel with him, so I did give him a few pounds. He seemed dismissive of the Gospel (“Yeah, I’m a Christian”), and once he figured out I wasn’t going to give him any more (or my tube pass), he quickly exited the pub.

That was about it for my day; I hopped on a train home to Oxford, where upon arrival, I was hanging out with Danny on the night scene (just observing from the outside, mind you). It was a cool evening and a great way to end the day. Stay tuned for the next day in London!