a broad Plantingian spirit

Alvin Plantinga is famous for (among other things) his claim that if Christianity is true, then Christian belief is probably justified and warranted. What is interesting about Plantinga’s account of religious epistemology is the “move to metaphysics” (so named by Tyler Wunder), that is, that what it is rational to believe, or what we think is rational to believe, can be very much dependent on our metaphysics (or should be, if we understand the entailments between our beliefs correctly.) So the theist qua theist ought to have different beliefs or expectations when it comes to epistemology than the atheist qua atheist. To place the expectations of one’s own metaphysical camp on the other is to beg the question against them. I think he’s right and I want offer up a similar move myself.

It’s actually a simplification of Plantinga’s own argument for Christian belief enjoying warrant. I think we can reach Plantinga’s basic conclusion while bypassing most of the detail of his epistemological account. Doing so (hopefully) produces an argument which helps make the spirit of Plantinga’s project escape the confines of reformed epistemology. Here’s a stab at expressing what I have in mind:

1. If Christianity is true, then probably God has designed/orchestrated/prepared/enabled a way for at least some people to believe Christianity in a warranted manner.
2. Some people P believe in Christianity.
3. [1 and 2] Therefore, if Christianity is true then God has probably designed/orchestrated/prepared/enabled a way for at least some of the members of P to believe Christianity in a warranted manner.
4. There are quite typical reasons, motives, impulses, pushes, experiences etc. (call this package R) which produce Christian belief in the members of P.
5. [3 and 4] Therefore, if Christianity is true, then probably R produces warranted Christian belief for P.

It seems to me that the weakest premise is (4). It might be doubted that there really are discernible patterns to the believings of different people. But then both Christians and sceptics often act as though there are. Christians believe for emotional comfort, a sceptic might say, thus drawing up a common manner of believing for all Christians (or all the religious generally). People comes to Christ once they come to the end of themselves, Christians might say, again drawing up a general theory of how these believings are conducted. Of course, details may vary massively, and they’ll always be some bizarre cases but it doesn’t seem implausible to me that we could discern broad patterns.

Of course it’s open to the sceptic to argue that, in fact, Christian belief isn’t warranted, and that therefore Christianity isn’t true (a kind of reversal of the move). I grant that this move is open, but they’ll have to support their argument for this conclusion and I don’t think that will be easy to do (not that my reservations ought to stop anyone).

But really, I propose this more for Christian ears as a invitation to conduct religious epistemology in a certain way. It seems to me that certain apologetic methodologies construct their epistemological theories and wield those to support religious belief, all the while oblivious to the fact that the vast majority of believers find these theories utterly removed from their own experience of belief. The evidentialist insists that belief in God is rational because upon a disengaged calculation of the facts, theism comes up top. The presuppositionalist insists that belief in God is rational because we all reason in circles, and only Biblical theism can validly complete a circle while also holding on to the existence of the external world, of morality, logic, truth, and the like. Never mind that probably no ancient Israelite ever doubted the existence of the external world, or saw a need to ‘justify it’ or anything else on that list.

The argument above is that Christians should expect that the more typical influences toward Christian beliefs are those which probably have warrant. Maybe there are also other, more exotic modes of acquiring warrant, but if it’s apologetics that one is interested in, then surely one is concerned to defend the faith that most people actually have. Christians, then, should perform their religious epistemology first of all by a study of religious belief and its phenomenology. Why, actually, do most people believe in God (or not)? What is adopting religious belief like for most people? And in fact, this sort of study involves a honest reflection on what one’s own religious experience is like, which we are often quite deceived about, especially if we’re intellectuals (the tendency to rationalism). This I think is the manner in which Plantinga engaged his project. He often comments on what it is like to believe in God – that it isn’t similar to what it’s like to believe a scientific theory, for instance. (It is interest to note as well how humble is attitude towards his belief seems to be). Now I’ve recently come to believe that his theoretical account of what religious belief is like is in fact wrong (closer than most people’s account, but not fully there – Charles Taylor hits it, in my opinion), but his methodology is certainly on the right track. It’s that methodology which we need.


community as a subversion of modernity

I love Andrew Fellows and this lecture of his, I think, is a powerful vision for Christian mission, worship, and life in the modern world.


Stephen Law and Glenn Peoples revisit the “evil god” challenge

Since the Law vs Craig debate I’ve been interested in the “evil god” challenge and so I was very excited to hear that Stephen would be discussing the issue with Glenn Peoples on the Unbelievable? radio show. Having followed Peoples’ blog Say Hello To My Little Friend for a while, I was keen to hear his take on the matter. The podcast of the discussion has finally been released and having given it a listen, I can make some comments.

Many interesting issues were brought up by the thinkers, but it also seemed like there was a fair amount of talking past each other. I think this was largely because they thought they were in agreement over a core issue when in fact they weren’t.

As a very quick recap, the evil god challenge basically points out that the evidence of goodness in the world seems to discount the hypothesis that the creator god is maximally evil. But it also points out that most of the salvaging work that a believer in good God can do in defence against the evidence of evil can be flipped by the proponent of evil god to defend against the evidence of goodness. But this defence still obviously fails (so Law claims), and so, since the two cases are roughly even, so too do the defences of good God as a shield against the evidence of evil.

Now Peoples agreed that, roughly, good God fairs the same with the evidence of evil in the world as evil god fairs with the evidence of goodness in the world. However what failed to be made explicit in the discussion was that Peoples thought the two faired equally well in handling the alleged evidence against them, but Law thought the two handled the evidence equally poorly. Thus Glenn thought that there was no particular problem in relation to the empirical evidence of goodness and evil in the world for belief in either good God or evil god. But Law’s contention was that both hypotheses were equally made highly improbable by the empirical evidence and that it would take a large amount of counter-balancing evidence to believe either of them.

Because of this fundamental difference there was no agreement between the two on what role Peoples’ moral argument for good God’s existence was supposed to play in diffusing the evil god challenge. Peoples thought that all he had to do was use the moral argument to slightly tip the evidence in good God’s favour (though he would himself say the tipping from that argument would be more than slight), whereas Law required that the argument negate all the evidence against good God he supposes that the evidence of evil marshals against that belief, and indeed make the good God hypothesis sufficiently more probable than not to warrant the conviction that such a being exists.

As I explained in my previous post on the evil god challenge, I think that evil does indeed count as evidence against the existence of good God (or more accurately, it renders other hypotheses more rational to believe, relative to evil alone). I think that Law probably sees evil as constituting greater evidence against good God than I do, but nonetheless we both agree that to be rational, the believer in good God needs some grounds for believing that God is in fact good that outweighs the evidence against that belief. Can the moral argument provide that basis?

Here is a recap of the moral argument:

1. If [good] God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties exist.
3. Therefore [good] God exists.

Stephen does not believe the first premise but he grants it for the sake of argument seeing as he thinks it doesn’t ultimately help the believer in good God, and I shall grant the same. He thinks the premise irrelevant because one can make the following argument with that same premise:

1. If [good] God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. [good] God does not exist.
3. Therefore objective moral values and duties do not exist.

The question, then, is whether there is greater support for the premise 2a “Objective moral values and duties exist” or 2b “[good] God does not exist”. Stephen argues that there is far greater support for 2b seeing as it enjoys large empirical support whereas 2a is derived from intuition only. He compares the relation between the two to the example of belief in a flat earth in times gone (it was either that or geocentrism – either way the point is the same); such a belief would have been considered obviously true, that is, until strong empirical evidence was stacked against it, which in fact was exactly what happened. So too, Law thinks, it is reasonable to believe 2a so long as there is no strong empirical evidence against it. But if the first premise of the moral argument is true, and evil is decent empirical evidence against good God, then 2b is better supported than 2a.

To further weaken 2a Law comments that evolution could explain how we have moral intuitions even if those intuitions didn’t produce true beliefs. In response I’d say that mere explanations are easy to come by. It is possible to give any ‘just-so’ story to explain anything, what matters is a powerful explanation. Perhaps if evolution predicted, or made probable the existence of false moral intuitions then Stephen would have a point, but he did not develop his case in this way.

At any rate that is a secondary considertation. I think his comparison between moral intuition and the past belief in a flat earth is the main point, although a comparison not quite justified. Still I shall argue that ultimately the point he wants to make goes through.

The disanalogy between the two is down to the fact that it is psychologically possible to believe that the earth, contrary to first impressions, is round, but it is not psychologically possible to abandon the belief that moral facts exist. It is perfectly possible for psychologically healthly adult human persons to believe that the earth is roughly spherical. But it seems that psychological healthy persons cannot help but believe that there are moral facts, at least deep down. A person may voice their philosophical commitment to some non-realist view of morality, but it seems that nobody can get by acting consistently with that belief. No sane human being really treats the question of whether we should rape small children like it is as open to preference as the question of whether we as a nation should drive on the left or right side of the road. Moral intuitions, then, are not exactly equivalent to the kind of intuitions that express false notions about science.

Can moral intuitions rationally be denied then? Yes, I think so, though it will be unpleasant.

Imagine the doctor tells you that you have a rare disease whereby your cognitive faculties often produce the belief that you are seeing pink elephants. When this happens you truly believe in these pink elephant apparitions and behave accordingly. But later, in a moment of philosophical reflection you remember your doctor’s instructions and acknowledge that your belief in pink elephants is false. The next day the beliefs return and it is again only in a time of reflection that you dismiss these beliefs.

Now it is true here that you are unable to live without (at least sometimes) believing and acting as if pink elephants exist. Yet when you enter the philosophy classroom (so to speak), you deny the existence of pink elephants. Would it be fair to accuse you of irrationality because of your denial? Would it be fair to say that you ought to always believe in pink elephants because you are unable to consistently deny it? I would think not.

Well is this situation not comparable to a person who believes, say, that her cognitive faculties evolved to produce moral beliefs which are pragmatically beneficial but are not actually true? This person denies moral realism and is unable to live consistently with that denial. But is she irrational in not accepting moral realism? I’m not convinced she is.

Therefore it is possible that the evidence for 2b outweighs that for 2a. I’m not exactly sure how much weight I’d put on each, but it certainly seems plausible that a person could rationally deny 2a because of 2b. So if a moral argument doesn’t necessarily help the good God hypothesis, what can be said?

It is possible that the Christian could bring in some uniquely Christian arguments such as the resurrection, and argue that the facts surrounding that event are best explained by a morally good God. But I’ll leave that aside for now and simply say that most believers in good God believe that his moral character is good not from some argument but in something like the manner that Plantinga describes, that is, in a properly basic way. Like the man in court who knows from his properly basic memory beliefs that he is innocent despite the publically accessible evidence in favour of his guilt, the theist, certainly the Christian theist, can rationally believe in good God in a properly basic way, even if there is some evidence against the belief.

how narratives ground human value

Most of us agree that human life has intrinsic value. But how are we to explain this fact? What is it about human beings that grant them greater worth than slugs, or rocks? And if this fact can be given a true explanation, would that explanation be able to fit with just any worldview?

Some people believe that naturalism has a hard time accounting for the intrinsic worth of human beings – that it lacks some important metaphysical resource for getting the job done. Indeed given that the ‘decline of religion’ is often cited as the cause of a widespread existential uncertainty in regards to one’s own value and purpose, it might be safe to say that this view of a dischord between naturalism and human value is intuitively felt on some level by many. But what is the lack in naturalism supposed to be?

Consider the following from William Lane Craig;

“If theism is false, why think that human beings have objective moral value? After all, on the naturalistic view, there’s nothing special about human beings. They’re just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time (Reasonable Faith, third edition, page 173).”

I’ll lay my cards on the table and say that I also think that naturalism cannot adequately account for the value of human beings, and that Craig has given the correct explanation as to why. That said, I’ve very sympathetic to the naturalist who is unconvinced that her worldview harbours such an unattractive failing. After all, Craig’s explanation is hardly a sustained and carefully laid out argument. There’s no clearly structured argument demonstrating this poverty within naturalism. Craig’s comments will ring true with those who share his intuitions on the matter, but he hasn’t given much to persuade anyone else. If we can more carefully explore the issue it will be good to do so.

As it happens I think that given the standard philosophical methodology, anyone who wants to subject claims like Craig’s above to caferul critical scrunity will find that it’s very hard to pin-point where the alleged problem with naturalism is supposed to be. Or at least, it’s hard to pin-point why the problem is uniquely a problem for the naturalist. This is something I myself found; although I had a strong intuition that there was a problem, when I set about analysing what it was, I struggled to make sense of it. Now, however, I think I understand why it seems so hard to explain the problem with naturalism. It’s because we have been trained to approach the problem ontologically.

What advantage is Christianity supposed to have over naturalism? Our instinctive response is to compare the different accounts of what human beings are in terms of their composing substance on these two worldviews. Traditionally Christian theists have viewed human persons as embodied souls, whereas on naturalism humans are purely physical entities, or at least emergent on physical entities. Is this supposed to be where the significant difference lay? Certainly it would be easy to read that kind of thinking into the sorts of things Christians might say on the matter. After all it’s common to hear people say that the problem with naturalism is that humans “are just a bunch of chemicals.” But I think that would be the wrong way to read those sentiments.

It’s incredibly hard to make sense of human worth as a matter of what sort of stuff humans are made of. How exactly is it supposed to make a difference in terms of worth whether human persons are immaterial beings or material beings? Would a jellotine being be of more value than a being made of rock? There doesn’t seem to be any sensible way of judging things in this manner. Of course, some might argue that unless human beings are immaterial souls, then we could not possess rationality or freedom of the will. But that would be to argue that human worth is down to human capacities, and not really the substance of our existence after all.

To view the issue in terms of capacities is another tempting move, one that again thinks fundamentally in terms of the features of what humans are, or have, as features of their being. But this too is problematic. If we think that human worth boils down to our rationality, then how do we avoid saying that the worth of a person is determined by their IQ, or something equivalent? Humans are not equal in terms of their mental ability, but they are surely equal in terms of worth. Additionally, why would rationality of all things give humans worth? The brain is surely impressive, but why favour that organ over any other? On what grounds? Freedom of the will is just as inexplicable as a foundation of worth. How does the proposition “humans have freedom of the will” entail “humans have instrinsic moral worth”? That logical jump there is inexplicable. Moreover the intuitive sense of the problem with naturalism doesn’t seem to focus on these aspects. No doubt there are many folk who think that naturalism also struggles to explain human rationality and free will, but these are surely distinct topics from the question of value. Certainly I don’t think these factors feature in my intuition on the matter.

So then, what is the answer?


The advantage Christianity has over naturalism is that Christianity provides a narrative which gives human beings an important role. On Christian theism the world is created and given to humans to rule over, the creator takes a special interest in their affairs and even steps into their history to rescue them from their sin. On Christian theism creation is to a certain extent about human beings. The significance of being made in the image of God for human value is not in its signifying that humans have particular capacities, or are made from certain materials, but that humans have an important role in the great cosmic drama that God has penned. Caparably, on naturalism humans have no such special role. The universe isn’t about human beings in any sense. If anything, humans are a sort of after-thought of an unintentional process. Go back and read’s Craig’s quote again in these terms and see if it doesn’t make more sense.

This, then, is the first problem of human value for naturalists: naturalism cannot provide a plausible narrative which gives human beings any prominence. This I think correctly drives the intuition that naturalism is at odds with human value.

But there is also a second problem for the naturalist. Obviously, the fact that we can tell a narrative about human beings does not entail that such a narrative is true. And the second problem for the naturalist is that no naturalistic cosmic-narrative could ever be true, simply because on naturalism there is no cosmic story-teller. Sure, it’s possible that naturalism as a mere metaphysical doctrie could be true: it could be true that there are no supernatural beings or anything of the like. But it’s impossible for a naturalistic narrative of the universe to be true. Stories are about things, but a naturalistic universe cannot be about anything because there is no intentional narrator behind it.

Naturalism, then, doubly fails to account for human value. Human value requires a true cosmic narrative that is to a great degree about human beings, but naturalism cannot have any true cosmic narratives, and even the false ones we could make fail to give human beings any prominence.

the “evil god” argument

William Lane Craig has recently responded to the “evil god” argument put forward by Stephen Law in their debate, and Law has himself responded to that response.

I thought that now might be a good time to share my own thoughts on the argument, and where my agreements/disagreements with these two thinkers lay.

First of all, here’s a summary of a basic evidential argument from evil (as given in Philosophy of Religion by C. Stephen Evans & R. Zachary Manis):

1. If God exists he does not allow any pointless evil.
2. Probably, there is pointless evil in the world.
3. Therefore, God probably does not exist.

Craig’s response to this argument is to challenge the justification for (2) by noting our cognitive limitations in relation to God’s, employing what is known as the “skeptical theist” defence. The proponent of skeptical theism points out that the supposed justification for thinking that (2) is true is simply that it appears that it is. Sure, the skeptical theist says, we may utterly fail to discern any justifiable reason for, say, the agonising death of a deer whose legs are crushed beneath a fallen tree, but why think that our inability to discern such a reason is evidence that there is no reason? This failing on our part would only be evidence against there actually being such a reason if it’s likely that, were there a reason, we would be able to spot it. But why would we be likely to know the reasons why an all-intelligent being allows something horrible to occur? God’s cognitive capabilities far exceed our own, and thus it would hardly be surprising if God has reasons that we would fail to discern.

I think this a perfectly reasonable response to the argument. But here’s where Stephen Law’s “evil god” argument kicks in. He thinks we can run a parallel argument:

1. If evil god exists he does not allow any pointless good.
2. Probably, there is pointless good in the world.
3. Therefore, evil god probably does not exist.

In this argument, a particular good is pointless if it does not contribute to a greater evil. After all, evil god is perfectly bad, and entirely hate-filled, so he wouldn’t allow anything good unless it contributed to a greater evil. But it seems like there are goods that don’t contribute to any greater evil. What about some particularly beautiful yet undiscovered species of flower? What about the excessive cuteness of children? Aren’t these evidence against evil god?

Law notes that the same theodicies open to the defender of God are open to evil god (one can have a reverse free will defence, or a soul-destroying theodicy etc). But also, Law claims that the tactics of skeptical theism are just as available to the evil god proponent too. What justifies us in thinking that, just because many goods seem ‘pointless’, then many goods are pointless? Evil god is omniscient and supremely intelligent, so we can say in regard to him too that we aren’t likely to know whether or not there are greater evils that justify the goods. The arguments against both God and evil god seem to be even, Law says. BUT, he claims, nobody takes skeptical theism seriously in regard to discounting all the evidence against evil god. Nobody thinks that, after pointing to the smile of a child, or a stunning sunset, that a defender of the belief in evil god would be rational in saying, “hold on, we can’t recklessly draw such an inference here – we simply aren’t likely to be able to discern evil god’s reasons for permitting all this gratuitous good.” But since there is parity between the evidential argument from evil and the evidential argument from goodness, if skeptical theism doesn’t bail evil god out, it doesn’t bail God out either.

Craig denies that the defender of evil god would be irrational to appeal to skeptical theism. He claims that one simply cannot confidently conclude what the character of the creator is like based on the evidence of evil and good in the world. Which of them is correct? Is skeptical theism in defence of evil god justified? Or is the existence of inscrutable goods evidence against evil god? I actually think they’re both right.

It is quite clear to me that it is not at all likely that we’d be able to discern all the underlying reasons for an omniscient good being or an omniscient evil being to run the world as he does. But that isn’t the whole story. The above isn’t the only form an evidential argument from evil/goodness can take. I think skeptical theism shows this form to be a weak one, but a stronger one can be made through a comparative case.

the comparative argument

In a comparative argument, the God hypothesis, or the evil god hypothesis, is pitted against another hypothesis and judged on its power to explain some data, in this case, the existence of certain quantities/kinds of evil/good. Following Paul Draper, we can call this hypothesis “the Hypothesis of Indifference”, though I will describe it in my own way as follows:

HI: the universe is not ordered or guided by any all-powerful intelligent being that has a primary preference for good things, or a primary preference for bad things, nor a primary preference for the well-being of creatures, or a primary preference for the suffering of creatures.

HI is consistent with naturalism, and also a deism whereby god’s character is morally indifferent, but it isn’t consistent with theism, nor belief in evil god. Now, what about the data which the hypotheses will be “fighting” over? Let’s call the following observation about the world ‘O’:

O: There is roughly the same amount of good in the world as there is evil, and there is roughly the same amount of inscrutable evil/good as there is “meaningful” evil/good.

The truth of O is no doubt contentious, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s true. It certainly doesn’t seem obviously false. Note: “meaningful evil/good” should here be understood as evil which, through an agent’s intention or not, contributes to a good, or good which, through an agent’s intention or not, contributes to an evil.

We can ask then, whether O is more surprising on theism/the evil god hypothesis, than on HI. For simplicity, we’ll keep to a comparison between HI and theism (the God hypothesis) – seeing as there is parity between the two, what counts for one will count for the other anyway. A comparative argument from evil might run like this then:

1. O is probable given HI.
2. O is improbable given theism.
3. Therefore, HI is a better explanation of O than theism.

Is (1) defensible? Well seeing as on HI there is no preference for either a wholly good, or wholly evil universe, it figures that, just by luck, the distribution of both would be about even. And since, on HI, there is no intelligent agent intending to bring about good or pleasurable states of affairs, there will likely be instances where evil or suffering fail to contribute to goods or pleasure, but also instances where such contributions occur via luck or incidentally, thus balancing out. So O is not all that surprising given HI. But is O surprising given theism?

I’d have to say that we can’t be sure. Again the considerations of skeptical theism (I think rightly) come into play. Can we really say with confidence that God couldn’t have achieved the amount of good there is (or will be) in the world without the amount of evil there is? I’d have to say that we can’t be so confident. I think the probability of O on theism is inscrutable. Thus (2) is a little strong and needs to be replaced by the following:

(2*): The probability of O on theism is inscrutable.

Does the conclusion still follow from (1) and (2*)? Yes, I think so. Put it this way; if you knew that one horse had a high chance of winning the race, but as for another, you had no clue as to their odds, you’d be a fool to pick the one you didn’t know about, even if in reality that horse had an even higher chance of winning. So yes, HI is a better explanation of O than theism. O is thus evidence against theism.

retaining rationality

Is HI’s explanatory power over theism in regards to O a problem for the theist? Does it make her theism irrational? I don’t think so. Perhaps relative to O theism is improbable, but theism is probable all things considered. Perhaps the theist’s being evidentially challenged here is no more significant than the kind of evidential challenge found in the following scenario:

Say (1) there is a pet store that I know is nearing the end of its transition from being an all-purpose pet store, to one that sells only cats and things relating to proper keeping of cats: the only non-cat left for sale is a solitary dog. Say also (2), I have a friend who is very familiar with the contents of this store, and is heading out to buy a single pet from there tomorrow. And (3) this friend has told me that she is going to buy that solitary dog. Now relative to (1) and (2), (4): “my friend is going to buy a cat” is much more probable than (3). (1) and (2) count as evidence against (3) in favour of (4). But surely I am rational in still believing that my friend is buying the dog. After all, I know that she is! But if I didn’t know (3), I would be much more justified in believing (4) over (3).

Similarly, O might not be a problem for the theist if she has good grounds for her theism! But if she didn’t know that theism were true, or didn’t have good grounds to so believe, she would be more justified in believing HI over theism. And by virtue of the symmetry of the circumstances, the same would be true of the evil god hypothesis. The evil god hypothesis isn’t the best explanation of O, but for someone who has good grounds for believing in evil god, this fact need not make the belief irrational.

So both Craig and Law are right. Skeptical theism is a perfectly legitimate move, but, nonetheless evil is evidence against God, and goodness is evidence against evil god. The agnostic, atheist and evil god proponent are justified in believing that evil counts against the existence of God. The agnostic, atheist and theist are justified in believing that good counts against the existence of evil god. But both the theist and evil god-believer need not be deterred when their own beliefs encounter this evidential challenge.

thoughts on two objections to Plantinga’s religious epistemology

Earlier today I listened to an episode of ‘Conversations From The Pale Blue Dot’ with Tyler Wunder on the topic of Alvin Plantinga’s religious epistemology.

During the interview Tyler raised a number of objections to Plantinga’s project, but there were two in particular that he concentrated on. I happen to think that Plantinga is basically on the right track with his approach, and that Tyler’s objections aren’t anything for the reformed epistemologist to fear. So let’s have a look at what Tyler took issue with…

universal sanction

Tyler correctly points out that classical foundationalism need not be the only epistemological position that can support evidentialism in regard to theistic belief. That is, perhaps there are other criteria for proper basicality that aren’t given by classical foundationalism, and which don’t suffer from the same setbacks, yet still exclude theism. Tyler thinks there is such an alternate principle for identifying proper basicality, one which relies on the notion of universal sanction.

Essentially the idea of universal sanction is that a certain kind of belief can be properly basic only if sincere skepticism in regard to all beliefs of that kind would render human life unmanageable. Thus perceptual beliefs are properly basic because, if we truly took seriously the idea that we cannot trust our senses, our lives would be impossible to sanely live out. The same goes, on this view, for belief-kinds that served as counter-examples to the criteria of proper basicality given by classical foundationalism. Memory beliefs, for instance, are the kind of beliefs such that, were we to sincerely entertain the idea that we couldn’t trust any of them, we just couldn’t function. And the same goes for beliefs about other minds, and the existence of the external world. True, we might sensibly doubt particular instances of these beliefs – I might come to doubt that a particular memory of my childhood is veridical – but I cannot sensibly doubt all my memory beliefs.

In favour of this view is that all the belief-kinds that are non-controversially accepted as properly basic seem to meet this condition. At least, I can’t think of any that don’t. So we have a prima facie plausible principle for proper basicality. The trouble for the theist is that it seems like beliefs about God, or gods, can be sincerely doubted without rendering human living unmanageable. There might be emotional or existential difficulties in living without belief in God, but these are surely nothing like the kind of practical impossibility posed by denying the reliablity of our sensory perceptions, or memory beliefs. So the principle of universal sanction excludes theistic belief, thus supporting evidentialism.

Without some non-controversial counter-example, what can the reformed epistemologist say in response? Well clearly universal sanction does not meet its own criteria for proper basicality. It can be denied easily without rendering human living practically impossible. For it to be coherent, then, it must be supported by argument. An a priori argument for its truth doesn’t seem to be available, so presumably the argument is inductive and looks something like this:

1. Total sincere skepticism in regard to all non-controversial properly basic belief-kinds cannot be held without rendering human living practically impossible.
2. Most, if not all, non-controversial non-basic belief-kinds can be regarded with total sincere skepticism without rendering human living practically impossible.
3. Therefore, probably a belief-kind is not properly basic unless regarding it with total sincere skepticism renders human living practically impossible.

But this argument can easily be handled with the resources of reformed epistemology. If Plantinga’s A/C Model is viable, or something like it is, then if Christian theism is true, belief in Christian theism probably can be a properly basic. So if Plantinga is correct, and Christian theism is true, any full inductive survey of basic beliefs will include Christian theism, and thus no such survey will imply that universal sanction is a necessary condition for proper basicality. In other words, universal sanction can only be inferred as a result of such a survey if it is presupposed that Christian theism is false. And this is perfectly in accord with the aim of Plantinga’s project, which is to show that there is no de jure objection without a de facto objection. Nothing here overturns that conclusion. Sure, one could restrict the survey to only non-controversial beliefs, but if one believes that there are more basic beliefs than those that are non-controversial, then such a survey will be arbitrary, or question-begging. Why should the convinced proponent of Plantinga’s model take the dispute about it as evidence of it being flawed? I conclude, then, that Tyler has to show that Plantinga’s model is incoherent, or in some sense faulty – that is, he would have to show that, actually, if Christian theism is true it isn’t likely that Christian theism is properly basic – in order for the argument to work.

the retreat to metaphysics

Now Tyler doesn’t (at least here) seem to dispute the coherence of Plantinga’s model so much as argue that the tactics it employs can be equally utilised by belief-systems that are clearly unwarranted. The effect of this argument, then, is to say that since clearly unwarranted beliefs can make use of Plantinga’s strategy, this strategy cannot be epistemically useful – we can’t use it as a measure of a belief’s warrant, or as a shield against de jure objections to that belief. Remember that Plantinga’s strategy is to argue that if Christian theism is true, then probably Christian theism is properly basic. That is because (in summary form), if Christian theism is true, there is a God who wants us to know him, and his salvation, and does not want us to have to be intellectually elite or lucky in order to do so. Moreover, there seem to be teachings in the Christian scriptures and theological traditions that imply or give support to the idea that belief in God is generated by an innate sense of God, or by certain experiences, or the activity of the Holy Spirit, or something similar. Thus, if Christian theism is true, probably Christian theism is a properly basic belief, and there is no way to make a purely epistemic objection to Christianity without objecting to its truth. This strategy is what Tyler calls ‘the retreat to metaphysics’.

Plantinga concedes that the same move to metaphysics can probably be used by other relevantly similar belief-systems, like Islam, or Judaism, or maybe Hinduism and some others, but insofar as one strays away from some sort of theism, the prospects of successfully making such a move are poor. Tyler thinks that Plantinga is far too quick in thinking that the retreat to metaphysics is so restricted. He thinks that such a move is available to all sorts of dubious beliefs, like the belief in a flat earth, or voodooism.

I think Tyler’s approach here is flawed. Obviously, for pretty much any belief, we could give an account consistent with that belief of how that belief could be properly basic. But that does nothing to show that the proper basicality of that belief is probable given its truth. It isn’t enough to show that it is possible that on, say, naturalism, that naturalism is a basic belief. One must show that it is probable, given naturalism, that naturalism would be a basic belief. It isn’t enough to say that is possible that, if voodooism is true, then voodooism is a properly basic belief. It has to probable for it to be analogous to Plantinga’s A/C model! Without doing that, one cannot show that Plantinga’s model lends itself to such unwelcome allies. Tyler did not consider these sorts of probabilities in this interview, though perhaps he does in his dissertation on the topic.

That said, there is another approach one could take to try and make Tyler’s objection stick. One could just forge an account of the proper basicality of a belief, into the belief itself. For the sake of argument, let’s concede that on voodooism simpliciter, it is not probable that, if voodooism is true, then voodooism is a properly basic belief. But now consider voodooism+ which is the belief that voodooism is true, and that, through some supernatural power, belief in voodooism can be properly basic. Clearly, if voodooism+ is true, the probablity that voodooism can be a properly basic belief is 1, because voodooism+ by definition includes the claim that voodooism can be a properly basic belief. Voodooism+ seems to be able to take advantage of the retreat to metaphysics. Is this, then, analogous to Plantinga’s A/C model? I think not because voodooism+ is entirely ad hoc. It is posited just to provide justification for making the move to metaphysics. But the same is not true for Christian theism. The components of Christian theism that lend themselves to the move to metaphysics can’t sensibly be said to have been invented just for the purpose of allowing that move.

So again, Plantinga’s model meets with no serious objection.

Bill Craig loses a debate! (and all sorts of goodies are revealed)

William Lane Craig recently debated Stephen Law on the question “Does God Exist?” (the audio is available here)

I’ve listened/watched/read loads of Craig’s debates and I think he’s comfortably won every encounter. However, I think that Stephen Law actually got the best of him in this excellent debate, and provided better arguments for the claim that “God does not exist” than Craig did for the claim that “God does exist”, at least so long as “God” is defined with philosophical rigour. In fact, the brilliance of Law’s approach to the debate is that it completely concentrated on disproving (or providing evidence against) one of God’s attributes, not ALL of them; in particular, he attacked the good character of God. He employed an argument involving the notion of an “Evil God” and Craig in fact let out an admission which gave Law’s strategy great power, which is that the definition of God necessarily implies God’s goodness. And indeed that is the philosophically correct way to understand God. But that means that, so long as Law could successfully argue against God’s goodness, Law would, by virtue of doing that, be arguing against the existence of God. So long as one attribute of God is shown to be rationally untenable, God full stop is shown to be rationally untenable. I think he pulled off his strategy brilliantly.

Craig opened with only three of his usual arguments for God’s existence, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Moral Argument and a (very) minimal facts case for the resurrection of Jesus. Craig normally brings 5 arguments and I think his dropping two actually suited Law well. Law didn’t touch the KCA since his strategy was to target only God’s goodness and that argument doesn’t say anything about the character of the first cause of the universe. Craig didn’t go into nearly enough detail with the resurrection argument for it to be at all dialectically useful. I can’t imagine any non-Christian being persuaded from that extremely bare bones presentation. He reduced the standard 4 or 5 facts to a mere 3 and relied solely on authority to uphold them, rather than delve into the reasons why they are generally conceded as facts. As such, Law didn’t have to do much to shake the audience’s confidence in the case except point out some general worries that “supernatural” theories have when appealed to as the best explanation. Because of this the debate was entirely focussed on the moral argument and Law’s rather novel and intriguing argument from “Evil God”, or “Anti-God” as Craig re-named him.

Craig didn’t help himself in that he actually misunderstood the argument. He thought that the argument was trying to show that, on an inductive survey of the evidence, an evil creator god is as likely as a good creator god. But that wasn’t the argument. It was actually something like this:

1. There is just as much evidence from the goodness/evil of the world that the creator god is evil, as there is that the creator god is good.
2. We are justified in believing that evidence of goodness in the world demonstrates that there is not an evil creator god.
3. Therefore, we are equally justified in believing that the evidence of evil in the world demonstrates that there is not a good creator god.

The argument was thus designed to support the general evidential argument from evil, and undercut the attempts to soften the argument by appeals to “skeptical theism”. After all, Law contended, nobody takes considerations of sceptical theism seriously in dismissing evil god, so why good god? Craig did implicitly counter the argument by incidentally denying the second premise, but his misunderstanding meant that he didn’t make it explicit and so Law’s argument appeared unchallenged.

As for the moral argument, again Law took the upper hand and made similar criticisms that I myself made in a post here. That is, Craig didn’t show that, necessarily, atheism cannot account for objective moral values and duties. Now perhaps Law, and myself, have misunderstood the argument. Even granted that, Craig didn’t clarify it to make an adequate response and so failed to defend it. Craig also revealed something interesting about the moral argument; in the Q&A he spoke of it in terms of induction and “best explanation”. So perhaps it shouldn’t be formulated deductively, as it leads to confusion.

Moreover, although this wasn’t discussed as a feature of the debate, I wonder if Craig’s moral argument could be twisted to support the existence of “Anti-God”? Perhaps there is a transcendent being with all the attributes of God except necessary existence and moral goodness (to concede that maximal greatness entails moral goodness). We’ll give him moral badness instead and call him “Anti-God” as Craig does. What makes this argument any more or less compelling than the standard moral argument?

1. If Anti-God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties exist.
3. Therefore, Anti-God exists.

After all, what’s required for objective moral values and duties is a transcendent source of moral values and duties. But what stops that source being an inherent evil being, rather than an inherently good being? Either way, objective values find a source. Craig could say such a being can’t exist because God necessarily exists, but at that point he’s forced to use the ontological argument, and the moral argument ceases to be dialectically useful.

Again that argument wasn’t made, but I do find it interesting. I conclude that Stephen Law won because he provided a better case for the non-existence of God (who is necessarily good) than Craig did for the existence of God. However, I imagine that Craig might take the moral victory. After all, with the KCA untouched he did put forward an unchallenged case for an immaterial, all-powerful, spaceless, timeless, unchanging, personal being. Although not technically theism, it is theism in spirit. So perhaps both debaters can walk away happy. Law had a narrow and focussed objective, which he succeeded in achieving, but it may not have been broad enough to satisfy his fellow atheists.

Overall it’s a wonderful and refreshing debate that I highly recommend listening to. It was nice not to see Craig’s opponent make the same typical blunders and misunderstandings. Law clearly has a sharp mind and I’m keen to look into his work; I was smiling all throughout his inventive “Evil God” argument. Craig was by no means white-washed, but his opening hand set him up for a difficult time given Law’s tactics.

If it seems I’m being harsh on Craig, I should balance this with the fact that I’m extremely excited to hear him talk (and hopefully to meet him) at the be-thinking.org apologetics day conference this Saturday! Can’t wait!

EDIT: I now have some further comments on the evil god argument over here, and thoughts on Law’s discussion with Glenn Peoples on the argument over here.

Craig’s moral argument for the existence of God

For a while now I’ve been dissatisfied with William Lane Craig’s moral argument for the existence of God. Or more to the point, (seeing as I suspect that the argument is actually sound), I’m dissatisfied with how he normally defends the argument. I want to use this space to explain what I see as his method’s shortcomings. However, a caveat I give is that I’ll be critiquing Craig’s defence as I’ve come across it in his debates and online material. Craig is no fool and charity requires acknowledging the possibility that he does things differently in his scholarly published works, or that I’ve simply misunderstood the argument. At any rate, for what they’re worth, here are my thoughts on the matter.

The form of the argument he typically gives is this:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.

The first premise is the one I want to concentrate on. As a material conditional, it is false if and only if the antecedent is true and the consequent is false. That is, the premise is false if God does not exist and moral values and duties do exist.

Presumably there are a number of atheists who think that is precisely how things are. They think that atheism is true and that this fact does not affect the existence of moral duties and values whatsoever. Not every atheist is a “subjectivist” about moral values and duties. So how does Craig aim to convince these atheists, or other folk who think this atheist position is not absurd?

From what I’ve seen, Craig defends the first premise by examining various naturalistic accounts of ethics (naturalistic as in non-supernatural, not naturalistic in the more technical sense used in metaethics) showing that they fail to account for, or “ground”, objective moral values and duties. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Craig’s critiques of these accounts are on the money. We’ll ignore any problems we might have with his criticisms or any quibbles we might have with his understanding of “objective” etc. If we’ve successfully put such worries aside then, we’ll be willing to explore the thought that, as Craig claims, there are no plausible naturalistic accounts of how it is that objective moral values and duties can exist.

The question that springs to my mind at this moment is “so what?” Perhaps there is no successful naturalistic account of these important ethical features to hand. Are we to think that a plausible naturalistic account could never be formulated? What stops the atheist from saying, “that’s right I don’t have a plausible naturalistic metaethical account, but I know intuitively that there are objective moral values and duties. I don’t need to explain how something is so to know that it is so. Perhaps we will know how it all fits together in the future.” As far as I can tell an atheist would be perfectly within their rights to say that. Showing that there is no adequate naturalistic account of values and duties available is not the same as showing that objective values and duties can’t exist given naturalism.

As such it seems to me that Craig either needs to do more to defend the first premise, or argue for a weaker conclusion, such as “theism is the best explanation of objective moral values and duties.” To adequately defend the first premise he needs to, by my understanding, give an analysis of the necessary conditions for the existence of objective moral values and duties, and demonstrate that, necessarily, atheism cannot meet those conditions.

does the new testament disagree about whether James was faithful?

Still reading The Empty Tomb

The post originally entitled ‘was James always a good guy? (part 1)’ has been deleted – its contents are distributed among this post and the previous one, with material that reflects a corrected understanding of the relevant arguments.

We’re looking now at whether Price can provide any evidence that, even in the NT, there is a growing legendary tradition that venerated James. If there isn’t, his theory won’t be able to ease the pressure against it from the lack of manuscript evidence.

What does he offer us? Only two passages.

“Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.” But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it [Luke 8:19-21].”

“All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers [Acts 1:14].”

Now perhaps he didn’t intend this to be an exhaustive case, but still, if these are the best two he can find, I wonder how weak the other examples must be.

Price is possibly reading Jesus’ words in Luke 8:19-20 as an affirmation like “you see my mother and my brothers over there? They hear the word of God and do it!” …but is that really Jesus’ intent in this passage? I think obviously not. Jesus is saying something more to the effect of “my real mother and my real brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

This meaning is explicitly conveyed in the extended parallel accounts in the other synoptics (Mark 3:31-5, Matthew 12:46-50) which are frank enough to make Jesus appear even disrespectful to his family. Since it’s generally believed that Luke used Mark as a source for his gospel, it is unlikely that Luke would be unaware of this. It certainly wouldn’t have been on his mind to use the very material which, if anything, puts James in a bad light, to vindicate him.

What of the Acts passage? The passage occurs in the post-resurrection narrative. So it is not at all useful for showing that there was a competing ‘pro-James’ tradition in the gospels that posited him as ever faithful.

His case looks very weak. There is no reason at all to suppose that James’ resurrection encounter was merely invented, and the lack of manuscript evidence is as pressing as ever. Next we’ll look at his argument for why the Corinthians tradition is a composite of rival traditions, one backing Peter, the other James.

More to come…

was James’ resurrection experience invented for credentials?

Still reading The Empty Tomb

The post originally entitled ‘was James always a good guy? (part 1)’ has been deleted – its contents are distributed among the next couple posts, with material that reflects a corrected understanding of the relevant arguments.

After Price’s argument that 1 Corinthians 15ff contradicts Galatians 1:11-12, his next major argument that the Corinthians tradition is an interpolation is a complicated one involving the claim that verse 7 – James’ encounter with the risen Christ – must be a late fictitious tradition, later than Paul’s writings. Because Price sees the 3-11 tradition as itself a composite tradition of two earlier traditions, one backing James, one backing Peter, Price thus sees the whole of 3-11 as a late post-Pauline work (oh and he thinks the 500 witnesses are an even later add-on!) In my opinion the more convoluted his theory becomes the more speculative it sounds, but let’s see why he thinks verse 7 must be a late fiction.

His case seems to rest on arguments that throw doubt on the historicity of James having a resurrection experience that prompted his conversion. He thinks if he can cast doubt on this then his own alternative theory for James’ conversion (discussed below) becomes plausible, and in turn, the resurrection encounter attributed to James is best understood as an invention created to bolster James’ credentials as a leader among some late pro-James movement.

The logic of his argument, from what he makes explicit, isn’t valid as it stands. After all, even if there is good reason to doubt that a resurrection encounter prompted James’ conversion, that isn’t itself good reason to doubt that James had a resurrection encounter at all, which is only what verse 7 claims anyway. It is (logically) possible that James converted prior to a resurrection encounter.

Presumably then, Price thinks that there are only two possible reasons for James’ conversion, the traditional answer, or his own theory, which excludes the possibility of a resurrection encounter. What is his own theory?

“If James was not “turned around” by an appearance of the Risen Jesus, how else can we account for his assumption of an early leadership role in the church? The answer is not far to seek. He was the eldest brother of King Messiah. Once honored for this accident of birth, he did not see fit to decline it. One might well remain aloof to a movement in which one’s brother was the leader yet soon warm to it once the leadership role was offered to oneself (page 83).”

There you have it – James was lured in by the prospect of leadership. I agree that probably there had to be a strong motivation for James to convert. But before we look at Price’s reasons to doubt the traditional explanation, we should think about whether this alternative is viable.

Implicit in his suggestion is the view that being a leader in the early Christian movement would have been a cushy vocation that James would have motivation to pursue. But this is utterly false. The movement was intrinsically linked to a man who died a shameful criminal’s death – leadership in the movement wouldn’t have earned admiration, but scorn. James would have endured great social pressure to deny Jesus, and be at risk of physical violence. He also would have been knowingly blaspheming Yahweh by preaching a false messiah. These are the same obstacles that make “the disciples lied” a poor explanation for Christianity’s survival post-Jesus’ crucifixion. Price’s explanation is most unrealistic.

But what about his reasons to doubt the traditional answer? He doesn’t give much by way of argument. He observes that nowhere in the NT is it explicitly stated that James converted through a resurrection appearance. This is true, but by Price’s own logic, James’ conversion required some cause (especially since the crucifixion would have cemented any doubt James had about Jesus’ ministry.) The resurrection experience mentioned in verse 7 is a powerful explanation for his conversion (and bear in mind we are not arguing here that James’ experience really was of the risen Jesus, only that he thought it was – for the sake of argument, one could assume the hallucination hypothesis here.)

Price wonders why the NT never describes James’ resurrection appearance as a conversion story like Paul’s. But where should we expect to find such detail? We know about Paul’s experience in detail through his own letters and from Acts, the author of which travelled with Paul and had access to his story. By contrast we have one letter from James (none if one wants to questions its authorship), and no pastoral need expressed in the letter that would warrant talking about his conversion. Price also can’t complain about the lack of detail in verse 7 compared to Paul’s resurrection encounter without begging the question against Pauline authorship. For if Paul authored that segment it is quite likely he expanded upon the raw tradition material with his own personal thoughts about the experience.

Why don’t the Gospels’ resurrection narratives include James’ conversion? The burden is on Price to argue why they should have, which he doesn’t do, but we can make some general comments like the authors perhaps not having access to the conversion traditions (even while still knowing the basic fact that James had converted, as implied by Acts 1:14), or their focussing on the disciple’s experiences, in regard to which James’ may have been a tangent. While I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt the historicity of the event from this observation, I will note it down for further enquiry.

So far then, we have no strong reasons to doubt the historicity of the traditionally understood cause of James’ conversion, and strong reasons to doubt the plausibility of Price’s own theory. Now we must see how this links to why Price thinks the resurrection appearance in verse 7 is the fabrication of a late pro-James faction used to boost his credentials.

Price muses, “the sheer fact of James’ blood relation to Jesus is by itself so powerful, so sufficient a credential that when we find another, a resurrection appearance, placed alongside it in the tradition, we must immediately expect a secondary layer of tradition (page 83).” Must we? Why? Price doesn’t give us any reason except what is essentially his gut feeling toward the matter. Moreover it isn’t like, if Jesus actually had been raised from the dead, his family would be the last people he’d want to appear to. Family would be a natural choice. There’s nothing odd about this.

Price goes on to show an example from the history of Islam where after the death of the movement’s great leader, a blood relation is turned to, and as time passes, legend venerates them further and further. But this example is useless; as already discussed, Price’s explanation for James’ conversion fails. It is unlikely he would have converted unless he had come to honestly believe that Jesus had been vindicated from his shameful death. So even if one accepts that later traditions became excessively gracious toward James (as they seem to have done), one still must account for James’ conversion, and a resurrection experience is still the best candidate seeing as Price’s own explanation is implausible. So one cannot merely suggest that a resurrection appearance was granted to James as the result of a growing legendary tradition that favoured him, as Price wants to do.

As an aside, it is interesting that N.T. Wright notes that in actual fact there is something curiously anomalous about how James was regarded in the early church:

“Again, even a small amount of disciplined historical imagination will paint the scene. Jesus of Nazareth had been a great leader. Most considered him a prophet, many the Messiah. But the Romans caught him and killed him, the way they did with so many would-be prophets and Messiahs. Just as John the Baptist’s movement faded into comparative obscurity with John’s imprisonment and death, with the speculation about John’s role within various eschatological scenarios being transferred to his slightly younger cousin, so one can easily imagine Jesus’ movement fading into comparative obscurity after his execution, with the spotlight now turning on his somewhat younger brother. The younger brother turns out to be a great leader: devout, a fine teacher, well respected by other devout Jews. What more could one want? But nobody ever dreamed of saying that James was the Messiah. He was simply known as the brother of ‘Jesus the Messiah’. At this point the argument runs in parallel with the famous Sherlock Holmes story that hinges on the dog doing something remarkable in the night – or rather on the fact that the dog did not do anything in the night, though it had every reason to do so, thus revealing the fact that the dog must have recognised the intruder. If we suppose that Jesus of Nazareth had simply been executed as a messianic pretender, and that his younger brother had become a strong and powerful leader among his former followers over the next thirty years, someone would have been bound, given the climate of the times, to suggest that James himself was the Messiah. But nobody ever did (The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg.561-2).”

It seems that Price’s theory doesn’t seem to have a leg a stand on. But it gets worse for him. As he is quite aware, there is no manuscript evidence that suggests that the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition is an interpolation. This alone is a blow, but it becomes more and more of a problem for him the later he has to posit the interpolation, seeing as the later the interpolation, the more chance we’d have of possessing an unaltered manuscript tradition. Price tries to ease the strain by suggesting that there is already evidence of pro-James polemic in the NT tradition. It’s to these arguments we’ll turn next time.

More to come…