Friday, January 31, 2014

Mailbag: What about Modal Intuitions?

Question: Richard wrote me a while back asking about Peter van Inwagen’s critique of ontological arguments—specifically, his critique against modal versions of the ontological argument. Since I don’t have the text of Richard’s question, I am just summarizing the issue. Basically, van Inwagen states that the crucial step in modal ontological arguments (that it’s possible that a maximally great being [MGB] exists) trades on an ambiguity of premises. It is epistemically possible, for all we know, that MGB exists. However, what modal ontological arguments (MOA’s) need is for MGB to possibly exist in the metaphysical sense. Van Inwagen claims our modal intuitions simply aren’t of the sort needed to establish this metaphysical possibility, and so, as an argument, MOA’s can’t even get off the ground. What can be said about this?

Response: This is an interesting situation, since van Inwagen is a Christian theist. Thus, he has great sympathy for the overall situation in which the proponent of the MOA finds herself. As a result, this isn’t some atheistic philosopher looking for any excuse to avoid a God. Moreover, Peter van Inwagen is a highly respected philosopher, so it is also worthwhile to take what he says seriously. That being said, I do not think the case is so simple as he would have us believe.

The first, and primary, criticism that I would have of this criticism of MOA’s is best expressed by a paraphrase of what a professor once told me. “We use our modal intuitions all the time, in everyday circumstances. Why only now, at the question of God, do we abandon them, or say they are not reliable guides to truth?” Let me explain. The main and pivotal premise of the MOA is something like: “It is possible that a MGB exists.” The critic says he’s not sure how one can know this. The response is that we use our modal intuitions. What are those? An intuition, in this case, is not like a feeling or a sixth sense. Instead, it’s more like what we call “rational intuition,” or how one knows laws of logic and reasoning, mathematical truths, and even metaphysical and moral claims. What do I mean by “modal”? Modal logic and reasoning covers different modes of existence: necessary and possible (or contingent). When one claims that she has a modal intuition, then, she is claiming that she rationally perceives that something is metaphysically possible.

Let’s go through some examples. First, she can intuit that things are impossible. Consider the idea of a married bachelor. Her rational, modal intuition tells her that this is an impossible state of affairs. Then, consider the 50th President of the United States. Even though, if she is reflecting at this present time, there is no such referent, it is still metaphysically possible that there be one, eventually. Finally, consider something that never actually exists, like a unicorn, and she can have some kind of modal intuition about that, upon reflection.

The point is that these modal intuitions are not merely saying, “For all we know, this is the case.” They are rather purporting to be real guides to the possibilities of reality. And what reason do we have for saying that none of the examples above are justifiable? Perhaps it will be objected that God is not like any of those other examples. “For the MGB,” they may say, “is a necessarily existing thing. And how could you intuit a thing like that?!” It is true that an MGB entails the property of necessary existence. But why think that in order to modally intuit that something is possible one must know all properties of that thing? Most everyone agrees that every source of knowledge is at least potentially defeasible; that is to say, one’s rational or modal intuition is still subject to defeaters, so that if he has good enough reason to think that one of MGB’s entailments is impossible, he can go back and override his belief formed through modal intuition. Basically, I see only good reasons for accepting our modal intuitions.

But what if the skeptic decides that, although he intuits the modal possibility of MGB, he rejects the premise because he thinks MGB is impossible? This is fine, but he has to hold the impossibility of MGB stronger than he holds his modal intuition about MGB’s metaphysical possibility. Otherwise, he’s just engaging in question-begging against the argument. There seems to be quite good and normal reason to accept modal intuitions, and no good reason that would rule it out a priori.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Video: Holistic Apologetics

The video below is my five-minute attempt to convince you that we should be doing more than just pure intellectual apologetics. More than that, I think a balanced intellectual approach will evaluate people individually, and then apply apologetic approaches that might work better than others.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

What do We Make of this Mesopotamian Tablet?

Today's post is by Guest Author Zak Schmoll

Recently, there has been quite a bit of interest around Noah’s Ark, and that interest has only increased over the past few weeks. A 4000-year-old Mesopotamian tablet has been discovered with a similar flood story. Apparently, animals proceeded in a boat two by two, and this giant boat was supposed to be able to survive a catastrophic flood.

However, there is an interesting difference. The vessel described on the tablet is round. We are obviously used to the measurements prescribed in Genesis that create a giant box.
Of course, this has brought the skeptics out to play. The main reason for this is because the tablet is 4000 years old, which would obviously put the date around 2000 BC. It is traditionally believed that the Old Testament was written between 1400 BC and 400 BC, so when Genesis was written earlier in that time period, this tablet had already been in existence for perhaps 600 years.

The skeptics contend that this implies that the biblical record of Noah’s Ark was simply a later copy of an earlier legend. Obviously, this type of flood story was prevalent in Mesopotamia, so doesn’t it make sense that whichever one was written down first is most likely the base that was copied from?
I am not so worried about these concerns, and I actually think that this tablet helps affirm the reliability of the Biblical account.

I am excited when I see evidence that shows that the Hebrew Bible is not the only document that makes claims about a catastrophic flood. Sure, they all could have made up similar stories, or there could have been sharing among different tribal groups. However, that first concern is certainly not likely. If you and I each tried to create a fantastical story in our heads, what are the odds that we would each decide something as bizarre as animals being brought onto a giant boat in pairs? The facts are strikingly similar and incredibly unlikely based on random chance. I will not say it is impossible, but I would not place a bet on it.

The second one is obviously what is at stake here. Is it possible that there was sharing going on? Is it possible that the Hebrew people saw something that they liked in the Mesopotamian religion and decided to envelop it into their own belief system? That would certainly explain why key facts overlap that are far too similar to be a product of random chance.

However, I don’t know if this claim is satisfactory either. The first five books of the Bible are the basis of Hebrew Scripture, and as you read through them, you cannot help but notice that there is a lot of time spent discussing why the Jewish people are set apart. When Abraham was promised a great nation, you get the sense that this would not be an ordinary nation.

With all of this emphasis on being set apart, why then would you include something overtly stolen from another area religion? If you were creating a religion that spent so much time talking about how much different you are than the people around you, why would you start taking pieces of their stories? Everyone would recognize the similarities. Couldn’t you make your own and be much more differentiated if you just made up your own stories? What circumstance would drive you to not make up a story? What would you be forced to copy?

You would be forced to overlap in areas where the facts are true. If everyone at the time knew that there had been a flood, it certainly makes sense that if you are going to write any document about the history of the world, you would need to include what was known to have happened.
If you believe in Biblical inerrancy as I do, then you should not be surprised to see the world reflecting the reality outlined in the Bible. The fact that other cultures recognize that there was a global flood should be obvious.

However, even if you want to deny that and are skeptical of the Bible all together, you have a book that seems to desire to set apart with a group of people by establishing largely a religious difference. Judaism sets apart the Jewish people. However, you have this book sharing very similar claims with area religions that really could have been be avoided if the claims had no reason for belief. When Moses wrote Genesis, if nobody believed in the truth of any type of global flood, then why would he borrow from the religion he was trying to separate from? Even if that was some type of subjective belief without any type of legitimate evidence, he probably could have avoided it even if the majority accepted it. Perhaps he included it because everyone knew it was an objective fact, and it needed to be reconciled with the belief system he was creating.

Don’t be nervous about this if you are Christian. Multiple sources of evidence strengthen the case for the flood, and if there was a flood, that is a point in favor of the accuracy of the Bible and in favor of the Mesopotamian tablet. The next step would be to evaluate the relative claims of Mesopotamian religion at the time and the Bible and see which one holds up better to scrutiny. That way, we could see if the tablet or the Bible is more reliable. Either way, this is not a defeater for Christian belief in the Scriptures.

Zak Schmoll is a Christian blogger at “A Chapter Per Day” He is writing about one chapter of the Bible every day from beginning to end, and he has almost made it halfway!

If you want to submit to Possible Worlds, please see this page, or refer to the Submissions page in the main menu above. Possible Worlds does not necessarily agree with everything that a guest author writes.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Apologetic Tuesday: The Longing for Perfection

This is not a fully fleshed-out argument, so please bear with me on this one. I have noticed, as have many others, that we tend to require perfection of people to whom we look up. We want our politicians to be perfect, we want perfection from our sports heroes, and we want our favorite theologians, philosophers, and writers to be perfect. We don’t tolerate any mistakes, and, as a result, we defend everything our heroes do to the death.

What if that human longing for perfection is due to a recognition of something more—something that can only be divinely fulfilled? Perhaps we desire perfection so greatly because we recognize that perfection describes a state of affairs that is exactly the way things ought to be. That might be a strong modal intuition that we think such a thing is possible (misplaced as that belief may be toward our politicians). Perhaps instead of idealizing human persons, we should idealize the one who created us all. Perhaps the human longing for perfection is our innate desire for God Himself. In that case, the only ultimate hope we can have is God. Just something to think about!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Accepting Divine Command Theory and a Horn of Dilemma

Today's post is by Guest Author Kyle Hendricks.

There is a common objection to Divine Command Theory (DCT) that I wish to discuss here.  According to DCT, moral obligations are in some way tied to the commands of a good, loving, just, omniscient, and omnipotent God.  God’s commands constitute our moral obligations.

The Euthyphro Dilemma, which is derived from an argument given in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue, asks “Is something morally right because God commands it, or does God command it because it is morally right?”  Both horns of the dilemma are supposedly problematic for the theist, especially the Christian theist, because they both have entailments that a theist would not want to accept.  If something is right because God commands it, then morality is arbitrary, because God can command just anything and it would be morally right to do, including rape and torture.  If something is commanded by God because it’s right, then moral rightness is independent of God so he is, in a sense, superfluous for explaining moral ontology and knowledge.  I will not focus on the second horn here.  In this post I will argue that the first horn of the dilemma does not have the negative entailments that people claim it does.

First, let’s look at the definition of “arbitrary.”
[ahr-bi-trer-ee] Show IPA adjective, noun, plural ar·bi·trar·ies.
1. subject to individual will or judgment without restriction; contingent solely upon one’s discretion: an arbitrary decision.
2. decided by a judge or arbiter rather than by a law or statute.
3. having unlimited power; uncontrolled or unrestricted by law; despotic; tyrannical: an arbitrary government.
4. capricious; unreasonable; unsupported: an arbitrary demand for payment.
5. Mathematics . undetermined; not assigned a specific value: an arbitrary constant.

If something is “arbitrary,” then it’s subject to an individual’s will “without restriction.”  It is “uncontrolled” or “unrestricted.”  It is “unreasonable” and “unsupported.” How does it follow that if God’s commands make something morally right, then morality is arbitrary?  It doesn’t seem clear.  Just because God’s commands constitute the rightness or wrongness of the action does not mean that He doesn’t have reasons for commanding as He does.  First, if God is, as I say above, good, loving, just, omniscient, etc., then that will restrict what kind of things God would command.  For example, it seems unlikely, if not impossible, for a good being to command rape, but it seems pretty likely that He’d command us to be kind to one another.  Also, let’s say God, being good, loving, just, and the like, loves human beings and wants what’s good (I’m thinking of “good” in a descriptive sense here) for us.  Human flourishing is good for us, so God commands us to seek human flourishing and it becomes a moral obligation for us to do so.  So even though the obligation is brought about by God’s command in some way, it is not arbitrary because He commands it for certain reasons.

Therefore, I don’t see a clear reason to think that moral rightness would be arbitrary if it is based on God’s commands.

Kyle Hendricks is a bondservant of Christ, philosophy grad student at Biola, and a Mizzou alumni. His hobbies include reading and looking younger than he really is. He blogs at

If you want to submit to Possible Worlds, please see this page, or refer to the Submissions page in the main menu above. Possible Worlds does not necessarily agree with everything that a guest author writes.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Want to Write for Possible Worlds?

I'm looking for occasional posts written by someone other than myself. Your name will be credited at the very beginning, and I will only edit for spelling issues. Each post must be concerned directly with Christian theology, philosophy, or apologetics. Submit potential articles to Here are some additional basic submission guidelines:

1. Each post should be anywhere from 300-1500 words.
2. No profanity or vulgarity, please.
3. Please include a brief, one or two sentence description of you or autobiographical statement at the end.
4. In all things, exemplify charity.
5. Try to keep your post as focused as possible (e.g., you don't want to write about the history of the problem of evil. Try instead: the problem of evil as it relates to a specific cultural event).
6. Your post can be an argument, or raise questions, or just frame a particular issue.
7. It cannot be a dogmatic polemic for a minor point of doctrine or theology (with some exceptions).

Have fun! As always, I reserve the right not to publish, even if it conforms to all guidelines above. If I choose not to publish your article, however, I will provide a reason to you personally. I look forward to your submission to Possible Worlds!

Randy Everist

Friday, January 24, 2014

Mailbag: Why didn't Jesus' Followers Understand, but His Enemies Did?

James asks, “Hi Randy, Regarding Matt's gospel and its mention of the guard at the tomb, one thing that I don't quite get is why it is that the disciples didn't understand that Jesus was predicting His own resurrection but yet His enemies did understand what He was predicting. What's the best way of tackling that "problem"?”

Randy responds:

Hi James. :) I do agree that, on first surface-level look, that it appears to be a problem. However, I actually think such a detail counts for its historicity. Why? Well, because it's an embarrassing detail. That the heroes/leaders of Christianity (the apostles) would be shown as utterly ignorant as to what was going on paints them nearly as fools! On the other hand, the villains of the story, the ones who, if the story were invented, likely would have been portrayed as bumbling idiots, instead understood precisely what was being claimed. How embarrassing!

As to why this was the case, consider the respective backgrounds of the two camps involved. The Sanhedrin, made fools by Jesus on more than one occasion, did not believe he was the Messiah, yet understood he claimed to be Messiah. The disciples, on the other hand, readily embraced his being Messiah. There was no concept, in first-century Judaism, of a dying and rising Messiah. Jesus often spoke in parables or sayings hard to be understood, given the Judaic, hyper-legalistic background of the culture. The disciples expected their Messiah to take down Rome and rule in his kingdom. Thus, whatever Messiah's predictions may have been, they assumed it would result only in triumph, not death; it would result in a kingdom, not a cross. On the other hand, the Sanhedrin, looking to get Jesus on charges of blasphemy, was all too happy to take Jesus at his word, believing he wasn't the Messiah. Of course, they didn't believe he was going to rise, but they definitely had incentive to understand him plainly.