Monday, April 29, 2013

Intellectual Barriers to Christianity

In my discussions with atheists, I am trying always to ask the question, “If all intellectual barriers were removed, would you become a Christian?” I’m not sure of the source of this question, but I am quite sure I didn’t invent it. Let’s examine the question itself, and then discuss some of the responses one may get. 

Intellectual barriers are necessarily involving person-specific circumstances. What may be rational for one to accept may not be rational for another (even if the basic criteria for rationality remain constant between both people). What this phrase means is that a barrier is something preventing one from accepting the truths of theism (and the essentials of Christianity). It is not the same as saying one is justified in refraining from belief in God and Christianity. Instead, it is something that, if true, would make belief in God irrational/untenable.

This point is extremely important. Too many times, atheists, agnostics, and skeptics, will not believe unless a certain criterion of evidence is met; in short, they will not believe unless compelled. The removal of intellectual barriers, on the other hand, is simply allowing the person to place his faith in Christ.

So, what are the answers one may receive? Well, it seems to me the answer is either yes or no. If she answers “yes,” then one may go about the task of apologetics. Now it’s certainly true that some people say “yes” and do not really mean it. That is, it will turn out they will not believe unless compelled, after all. However, there will be some who will realize belief in God is justified, and respond accordingly. In one case, I asked this question of someone, and she said “no.” In that case, the problem for her is not intellectual; it’s a problem of the will! How do I know that?

First, if one responds that they will not believe even in the case of removal of intellectual barriers, then it means that, even if justified in accepting the truths of Christianity, they would not choose to do so. In that case, so long as they maintain this position, they will never believe. Here’s an argument to that effect:

  1. If one will not believe Christianity even if intellectual barriers are removed, then it is because of his will.
  2. If one chooses not to believe, then one will not believe unless compelled to do so (whether rationally or otherwise).
  3. But if one believes under compulsion, it is not true faith.
  4. If one does not have true faith, then he is not saved (a Christian).
  5. Therefore, if one will not believe Christianity even if intellectual barriers are removed, then he does not have true faith.
  6. Therefore, if one will not believe Christianity even if intellectual barriers are removed, then he is not saved.

The antecedent of (2) is identical, analytically, to the consequent of (1). The consequent of (2) simply means that a choice not to believe can only be overcome by God violating free will or by rational compulsion (which may, by the way, be identical to violating free will). (3) should be agreed upon by nearly everyone familiar with Christianity. (4) is true under the umbrella of Christianity, and (5) and (6) are entailed conclusions, and hence cannot be denied.

So, the next time you ask and explain this question, listen carefully to the answer. You may be surprised at what you can learn!

Friday, April 26, 2013

God and Intrinsic Properties

Something to think about: if God possesses libertarian free will, and if an Anselmian picture of God is correct (one in which God inhabits every possible world as a necessary being), then, necessarily, we live in a libertarianly-free world. Now, certainly, it would not follow from this that mankind has LFW. However, it does frame the issue for those who would debate whether or not LFW is the type of faculty afforded to man. Either LFW’s existence is necessarily true or necessarily false. Just as with the modal ontological argument, if LFW is even possibly held by God, it is necessarily so; if it is not held by God, then LFW is impossible. Therefore, only in the case that LFW is not held by God is it impossible. So long as God has an indeterminate choice, the major criticism against LFW evaporates. Of course, this line of reasoning is nothing necessarily special; as it turns out, any intrinsic properties God possesses are possessed necessarily (in every possible world). Just something to think about!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Molinism is not Determinism

A frequent criticism of Molinism among laypeople is that it equates to causal determinism. “God chose to actualize the circumstances in which you do X, so that you could not have done any differently than you did. This means middle knowledge equals determinism.” My contention is that there are several misunderstandings within this type of critique.

First, and perhaps most fundamentally, middle knowledge cannot possibly entail determinism, by its very definition. This is because the knowledge is in between two other knowledge-moments. God’s free knowledge is everything known to God because he decreed it, including the actual world and its contents. God’s natural knowledge is his knowledge of all necessities and possibilities, including things that never come to pass. Middle knowledge, however, is distinct from free knowledge, because its content does not depend on the will of God (God’s will is logically posterior to the contents of middle knowledge); further, it is distinct from natural knowledge, because its contents are not necessary.[1] Thus, by definition, middle knowledge counterfactuals are not deterministic.

However, let us suppose that the objector really means something like, “There cannot be any such thing as middle knowledge, since God’s actualization of a world means an agent cannot act any differently than he does act.” This is also problematic. What has happened is that the objector has failed to tease out precise meanings for these terms. What happens in God’s decree (on Molinism)? God decrees that the world be actual. This decree is based on a) necessary truths (which must be a part of any world God creates, by definition), b) truths of how God will act (which are entirely and completely up to God, encompassing the physical truths of nature and any actions of God with and for his creatures), and c) counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (which are, again by definition, not up to God [though whether or not God created a world with free creatures is, of course, entirely up to God—free will is God’s gift]). Since the truth or falsehood of the counterfactual is so logically prior to God’s actualization of a world, God’s decree is only that the counterfactual be actual (rather than merely abstract).

What is impossible, therefore, is not that the subject acts any differently. What is impossible is the composite state of affairs of “In C, X would freely do S at T; C &T are actual; X would not freely do S [or X would freely not-S].” It is the all-too-common modal fallacy to distribute the necessity over the entire composite to its individual conjuncts. Middle knowledge, and Molinism, are very difficult concepts. I am hoping that by this article some confusion may be avoided.

[1] Although the contents of middle knowledge appear in natural knowledge, they are only necessarily possible, not necessary in themselves.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Kant's Criticism of the Ontological Argument

One of the most famous (and supposedly devastating) criticisms of Anselm’s ontological argument comes from Immanuel Kant. It is virtually undisputed by those who mention the argument. One hears this criticism even on the Internet. In nearly every instance in which I have encountered this objection, an explanation is never provided. What is this criticism, and what does it mean? 

Kant claimed that “existence is not a predicate.” To illustrate what this means, consider an apple (or a horse, or a pencil, or any other object). One may describe it as “red,” and “sweet,” and any number of things. All of these are in the predicate position in a sentence. They translate into properties of the object like being red or being sweet. Kant held that in order for something to count as a property, it had to tell us something about the object that added to its description. Kant’s argument is that two apples will be identical where they have all of the same properties, even if we stipulate that one of them exists. If that is correct, then existence is not a property after all. But if existence is not a property, then Anselm cannot be correct when he says it is greater for God to exist in reality than merely in the intellect (since the difference between the two would be only in existence). So, is Kant right?

It seems that there is good reason to doubt that he was. First, Stephen T. Davis points out that actually-existing things do have properties, by virtue of their existence (although they are accidental ones), that they would not have were they not to exist.[1] For example, the concept of a hundred dollars does not possess the accidental property of having purchasing power in the real world. [2] So, there are, or at least can be, relevant differences between identical concepts brought about by existence. Therefore, existence does, in at least some cases, add something to a concept.

Second, Davis gives an example of the perfect chancellor. [3] The idea can be extrapolated to the perfect person, or ruler, or whatnot. Take two conceptual persons who embody this perfect X. Suppose one person, A, satisfies all of the criteria for being a perfect X. However, A is a fictional character in a story. B has an identical list of attributes, but as it turns out, lives in northwestern Montana. What sense does it make to say there is no difference between fictional A and actually-existing B? But then it follows existence can be a real property or predicate.

“But wait!” I hear an objector say. “That doesn’t show that the concept of God is such a concept that allows for the predication of existence!” Perhaps, perhaps not. However, at the very least, it has been shown that existence can function in some instances as a predicate, so that doubt upon Kant’s criticism has been cast. It will no longer do merely to quote Kant. One will have to show that the concept of God is such that existence cannot be properly predicated of it.

Many have abandoned Anselm’s formulation of the argument for this criticism. I do not see the need to do so. While there are other ontological arguments I prefer (such as Plantinga’s modal ontological argument), Kant’s criticism does not damage Anselm’s nearly as much as many think.

1 Stephen T. Davis, God, Reason, and Theistic Proofs (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), 35.

2 It just does not matter that the conceptual hundred dollars has the counterfactual property of having purchasing power in the real world, where we would say “If this hundred dollars were actual, then it would possess the property of having purchasing power in the real world.” This is because, whatever the grounding for counterfactual properties, it nonetheless remains that the concept does not, in fact, possess this actual property.

3 Davis, 35.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Anti-Intellectualism and Fundamentalism

The rise of liberalism in mainstream American Christianity in the early twentieth century caused a number of reactions. One of them was called “fundamentalism.” While there were several ideas behind fundamentalism (several of them good), one was inherently destructive. It was the attitude of anti-intellectualism.
Anti-intellectualism, as it pertains to Christianity, is the idea that “all you need is God,” and “let the Holy Spirit guide you,” etc. These phrases are not inherently bad or necessarily untrue, but they lack rigor and nuance. In fact, when one investigates the philosophy behind these phrases and anti-intellectualism, one sees that the idea of “we don’t need no fancy book learnin” is pervasive. They perceived the liberalism (quite correctly) as stemming from the colleges and seminaries. However, their solution was to reject the institution altogether.
This rejection of intellectualism and scholarly circles had disastrous results for the next few generations. First, while the founders of the movement knew how to exegete properly the Scriptures and form a coherent theological worldview, increasing numbers of their descendants did not. Second, the members of this movement were wholly or mostly unaware of work done prior to their own movement. Third, this led to entirely new (and in some cases heretical) beliefs, many of which were completely avoidable.
After 30 or 40 years of this, something interesting happened. The fundamentalist movement started the Bible College movement. The purpose was to train pastors and ministers (just like seminary) in fundamentalist doctrine (unlike seminary). However, the people who were starting and running these often (originally) had little-to-no formal training, or had already been steeped in these odd teachings. These Bible colleges were still anti-intellectual, but only in the establishment sense. That is, they were still against the seminaries. However, they espoused their own form of intellectualism. This is pseudo-intellectualism.
Pseudo-intellectualism is characterized by individuals forming their own codified doctrines and teachings, without any outside sources (or at least, without any sources outside of the fundamentalist movement). These people awarded degrees, taught courses, and conferred upon each other the title of “honorary doctorate.” Instead of interacting with current scholarship, they often taught popular-level criticisms of the original problems of liberalism. Essentially, they presented weak-to-middling unoriginal critiques of outdated issues. All the while, they were concerned to pretend they were in the midst of true scholarship by calling everyone doctor, which bolstered their own internal credibility. After all, if a doctor is teaching this stuff, it must be good, right?
What’s the point of all of this? Several Bible colleges are now returning to true scholarship, and they are finding they can do it while avoiding theological liberalism (like J. Gresham Machen). While we may not be able to avoid jettisoning some beliefs we acquired in the anti-intellectual and pseudo-intellectual stages, we nonetheless can be top-notch scholars while remaining conservative. The lie we should never have accepted was that the best scholarship belongs to the liberals. “But wait!” one may cry, “Won’t this lead to compromise?” It is true that whenever a large group of people is freed to follow their conscience, some will take it too far. But I would much rather see a large group of people engaging in relevant scholarship in a conservative way, with a few errant people, than see an overwhelming, monolithic throng ignorant of God’s truth.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Is Teaching Children about God a Form of Indoctrination?

A popular criticism of Christianity among New Atheist-types is to lament the “indoctrination of children,” where “indoctrination” is taken to be roughly synonymous with “brainwashing.” The argument goes something like this: 1. Teaching children to believe in God is indoctrination. 2. Indoctrination is wrong. 3. Therefore, teaching children to believe in God is wrong.

However, one should be able to see the problem when confronted with a parody argument. 1. Teaching children to look both ways before they cross the street is indoctrination. 2. Indoctrination is wrong. 3. Therefore, teaching children to look both ways before they cross the street is wrong. Now if we want to avoid the conclusion, we must reject one of the premises. Where do the arguments go wrong?

It seems to me that we must pin down precisely what is meant by “indoctrination.” It seems to be used in an equivocal sense, where in (1) it means “teaching” and in (2) it means “indoctrination.” But if this is the case, the conclusion clearly does not follow.

So perhaps it is the case that the interlocutor intends a univocal sense. Well, there are two options here. First, he could mean “teaching.” If that is the case, however, (2) seems obviously false (if not flatly self-incriminating). The second option is that he could mean “brainwashing.” But then it’s not immediately clear that (1) applies to Christians on an inherent basis. That is, it seems perfectly possible to teach children to believe in God and love God without brainwashing. So then it seems without serious qualification and explanation, the argument just doesn’t get off the ground.

On a positive note, the Christian may reply that she teaches her children to believe in and love God because it is a) true, and b) beneficial for the child. So the entire case of “indoctrinating children” depends on these two conditions. Unless or until the skeptic can show these two conditions do not obtain, no one has any reason to condemn teaching children about God.