Tag Archives: apologetics
Part of the Arguing About Evil series.
The problem of evil, or argument from evil, comes in two conventionally recognized forms: logical problems of evil and evidential problems of evil.
Logical problems of evil aim to show that the presence of evil is logically inconsistent with the claim that there exists a being which is omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good. In other words, logical problems of evil argue that if evil exists, then the claim that God exists cannot be true, and vice versa. If a logical argument from evil succeeds, then theism is false. Theists respond to logical problems of evil by showing that there exists a possible reason for the existence of evil, which would show that God’s non-existence is not necessitated by the presence of evil. An example of this is Plantinga’s famous free-will defense, which we’ll look at in one of the posts in this series.
The evidential problem of evil, on the other hand, aims to show not that God’s existence given the existence of evil is impossible, but that it is very unlikely. In this case, pointing out a possible reason for the existence of evil would not work. Theists typically respond by trying to show, “with at least a fair degree of probability, what God’s actual reason for permitting evil is.” (Everitt, p. 229) Examples of these attempts include the free-will theodicy (the claim that a world with free will and evil is better than a world with no evil and no free will) and the soul-making theodicy (the claim that evil serves what can loosely be called a character-building function). A successful evidential argument from evil would not show that theism is certainly false, but only that it is implausible or improbable.
Furthermore, both kinds of the argument from evil can rely on more than just the plain fact that evil exists. According to Everitt, “Some authors… distinguish between different versions of the logical problem, and also different versions of the evidential problem according to whether the focus is on the existence of evil per se, or on the huge total amount, or on the distribution, or on the awfulness of the worst evils, etc.” (Everitt, p. 228) One can also distinguish the kinds of evil that these arguments rely on into two kinds: natural and moral evils. Moral evil typically consists of evil brought about by human activity, such as torture and other forms of cruelty, or deceit, or acting solely for personal gain. Natural evils cover the broad spectrum of evils brought about by the normal operation of the laws of nature, such as disease and natural disasters.
Next post, we’ll look at an example of a logical problem of evil.
Just as there are arguments for the existence of God (cosmological, teleological, ontological and so on), there are arguments against the existence of God. One of these is the famous ‘problem of evil’. You might have seen it evoked by a quotation attributed to Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher, which goes:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” – source
The challenge evil poses for theism is obvious and does not require a degree in philosophy to see. We are exposed to suffering and evil on an almost daily basis. Some of us probably have asked why God allows us to suffer, or why God allows such things as war, disease and natural disasters to occur. It is not surprising, given this, that the “argument from evil is an objection to theism as old as theism itself”. (Everitt, p. 227)
The argument from evil aims to show that there is an incompatibility between some of theism’s doctrines (which not all theists may endorse) and certain features of the world, namely the existence of natural and moral evils and the suffering they bring about. As old as the argument is, a great deal of discussion about is still taking place in contemporary philosophy of religion. This series, “Arguing About Evil”, is meant to offer readers a glimpse of the ongoing debate and the latest developments related to the problem of evil.
Links to all posts that are part of this series will be posted here:
- Arguing About Evil: An Introduction
- Arguing About Evil: Two Kinds of Arguments
Next post, we’ll consider two kinds of arguments from evil: logical and evidential.
Here are some more books I’ve read. Like the last time, not all of them will be included in the bibliography.
Who Was Jesus?: A Critique of the New Testament Record, George Albert Wells – As usual, Wells is comprehensive and informative, and the only reason I won’t recommend this book – which is probably not a good reason to not recommend it – is that it is too similar to the another book I’ve recommended by the same author.
The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, Paul Rhodes Eddy, Gregory A. Boyd – I’ve already written about this book (here and here), so it might not come as a surprise that I won’t be adding this book to the bibliography either. Aside from the issues I discussed before, it is indirect (never once addresses the historicity of a particular miracle), and I cannot be help entertain the suspicion that Eddy and Boyd made their argument by on quoting lots of favourable authorities and ignoring unfavourable ones. I’m not really qualified to judge if this is what really happened, but there were points – such as their brief discussion of the Papias tradition – when it was noticeable that the problematic aspects were left unaddressed and even unmentioned. I probably owe this book another read, but it’s not making it into the bibliography until I’m familiar enough with the arguments and debates to be sure that nothing was left out.
When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, Stanley Schachter – The first book to make it into the bibliography. When Prophecy Fails is a social and psychological study of a group that predicted the end of the world and the reaction of that group following the failure of their prophecy. The authors discuss the conditions under which, they argue, rationalization following disconfirmation occurs and a propensity to proselytize develops. In describing the beliefs of that group that was the object of its study, When Prophecy Fails also gives one a somewhat disturbing view of the things people can end up believing.
Historical Evidence and Argument, David Henige – Henige believes that skepticism and doubt should be prioritized when dealing with historical sources or when engaging in historiography, and provides hosts of examples in which he argues overconfidence in conclusions and interpretations of facts, and willingness to trust historical sources and other kinds of apparent facts, led to embarrassing problems for historians. Strongly recommended.
Readers of my last post will know that I am concerned that Christian apologists – a term that probably accurately describes Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd, authors of The Jesus Legend – may not give naturalism enough credit. Readers may remember that Eddy and Boyd believe that biblical historical criticism is not critical enough, that, in short, it takes its naturalistic assumptions for granted, and these, in turn, arbitrarily eliminate supernatural hypotheses and explanations as potential answers. I will eventually write more about naturalism’s relation to Christian apologetics. Today, I will focus on a second question raised by my reading of The Jesus Legend and the argument made in the book, one that relates to supernatural explanations. The question, to get straight to the point, is this:
- What informs the content of our supernatural explanations?
This might seem like a strange question, since questions about supernatural explanations usually involve the possibility of the supernatural or their explanatory power. This question was prompted by a specific example used by Eddy and Boyd in their book, and which I mentioned in my last post, “demonization” or “demon possession”. Eddy and Boyd write:
“To the thinking of most who witness phenomena like these – and the authors of this work count themselves among them – attempts to explain some of these phenomena in strictly natural terms are implausible, to say the least. The same could be said about a host of other supernatural phenomena that ‘present human experience’ includes – if we step outside the shallow pool of experience represented by the naturalistic Western worldview.” (Kindle Location, 1103)
I pointed out in my last post that, despite these events seeming supernatural to “most” people who witness them, Eddy and Boyd do not dispute that “some, if not the majority” of these reports of the supernatural can be explained in naturalistic terms. (Kindle Location, 1108). Indeed, they are careful to write only of “reports” and “claims” of the supernatural, rather than point to a specific example of the supernatural which refutes ontological naturalism as a true metaphysical description of reality. Nor do they disavow a preference for naturalistic explanations. They do, however, appear to believe that demon possession actually occurs.
I initially was only interested in why “demon possession”, (as in, a person becomes possessed by a malevolent spirit) is thought to be the best explanation for certain kinds of behavior. My interest became somewhat more nuanced as I read more of The Jesus Legend, seeing that Eddy and Boyd weren’t directly arguing that the resurrection was the best explanation for the evidence, but that the explanations used by legendary Jesus theorists didn’t adequately explain their presentations of the evidence, leaving only the explanation preferred by the Christian apologist to fill the gap. But that doesn’t mean that particular supernatural explanation is a good explanation, nor that it is better than other supernatural explanations one can think of.
There is no indication in The Jesus Legend that Eddy and Boyd have considered alternative supernatural theories that explain what they call demon possession (and the same applies to the resurrection, if am I remembering correctly), which leaves me wondering whether these explanations are dependent for their content on readily available examples of the supernatural. If reports of demon possession are as widespread as Eddy and Boyd claim they are, and if most of these reports can be explained in naturalistic way (as Eddy and Boyd also suggest), why should not one think that existing superstition is influencing the kinds of supernatural explanations we give for events that are difficult to explain? Would any of the symptoms of demon possession lead us to infer that a malevolent spirit had entered the victim’s body if there was not already an association between demon possession and those symptoms in our culture? What if those symptoms are equally well explained by the existence of a supernatural bacterium?
I don’t know, and I don’t expect I’ll have the answers soon. It’s not something The Jesus Legend covers, despite being a book that purportedly concerns itself with methodology. Perhaps, eventually, I’ll come across a work of apologetics that doesn’t take for granted the possibility of other supernatural explanations.
This week, I finished reading Paul R. Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd’s The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. In this book, Eddy and Boyd draw together many general observations to argue that skeptics who maintain that the Synoptic Gospels mostly or entirely consists of legendary elements are incorrect. One of these general observations involves what Eddy and Boyd regard as naturalistic presuppositions held by these skeptical scholars. According to Eddy and Boyd, these naturalistic presuppositions prevent these scholars from fairly assessing the texts, leading them to disqualify conclusions and explanations which invoke the supernatural not on the basis of evidence, but on the basis of prior belief.
This is a criticism that appears to be fairly common among Christian apologists and writers. One example in the books I’ve covered before can be found in William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith. (For example, “If we begin by presupposing naturalism, then of course what we wind up with is a purely natural Jesus. This reconstructed, naturalistic Jesus is not based on evidence, but definition.” (Craig, p. 278)) Obviously, insofar as those scholars maintain what Eddy and Boyd dub an ‘unequivocal naturalism’ – which is a presupposed naturalism that continuously explains away evidence of the supernatural – I think they (and Craig) are correct to point out that such a presupposition could function as an impediment to the truth, so long as it actually skewing the conclusions of those scholars.
It is difficult for me to say if this is the case. Eddy and Boyd discuss many other points (such as the reliability of oral traditions) which have little to do with naturalistic presuppositions, and more with potential ignorance of other academic fields (assuming Eddy and Boyd accurately represent those fields).
In any case, Eddy and Boyd believe that if one allows “the Western naturalistic assumptions to be called into question, and thus if one remains open to the genuine historical possibility that the Synoptic portrait(s) of Jesus is substantially rooted in history, one will find there are compelling grounds for concluding that this portrait is historically plausible – that is more probable than not that this general portrait is rooted in history.” (Kindle Location 249-260). These naturalistic assumptions, Eddy and Boyd argue, are “to a large extent, what leads legendary-Jesus theorists to conclude that the Gospels’ portrait of Jesus is not rooted in history.” (Kindle Location 249).
It was not clear that these remarks would serve as a kind of introduction to the rest of the book, in which the authors would proceed to show how exactly these presuppositions were distorting the results of legendary-Jesus theorists, or if they were simply an expression of a potentially misguided optimism that thinks, just because miracles are admitted as possible explanations, most of the work is complete. I’ve encountered this attitude in Craig’s Reasonable Faith, when he wrote, “In my own case, the virgin birth was a stumbling block to my coming to faith – I simply could not believe such a thing. But when I reflected on the fact that God had created the entire Universe, it occurred to me that it wouldn’t be too difficult for him to create the genetic material necessary for a virgin birth!” (Craig, p. 280)
The obvious objection, in this case, is that a commitment to naturalism is not the only stumbling block for believing in the virgin birth, and the same may apply to other aspects of Eddy and Boyd’s case. Now, that I’m finished with the book, I’m still not entirely sure what to think about it. I don’t know if it should go into the bibliography. On one hand, it could act as a counterpoint to G. A. Wells’s Cutting Jesus Down to Size, but, on the other hand, its arguments feel too thin. For the most part, Eddy and Boyd stick to arguing about general features of the Gospels or their context (such as how resistant were the Jews to non-Jewish beliefs, how reliable oral tradition is, and so on), without touching upon any single episode – supernatural or otherwise – and arguing for its historicity. They usually do this by citing many authorities that agree with them, providing very brief summaries of the arguments they’re objecting to, and sometimes, I suspect, by ignoring objections to certain parts of their case. (For instance, they favorably adduce the Papias tradition, without considering problems that other scholars have pointed out. They merely delegate this to cited authorities.)
And, it seems that to some extent, they expect the miraculous to automatically and adequately explain what the claim cannot be explained naturally.
In any case, reading this book has prompted a few questions which I hope will be answered one way or another as I read more and more. Some of these questions might seem strange or stupid, but they are at least indicative of my current wonderings. The first question, which I will discuss in this post, is below.
- Do Eddy and Boyd (and Christian apologists in general) give naturalism enough credit?
I find it somewhat irksome that the most of the apologetic works I’ve read so far evoke naturalism as a presupposition on the part of the skeptics, destroy it, and then move on, never mentioning it again. I’ve yet to find one serious defense of ontological naturalism in these works, even as part of an attempt to demonstrate its failures. One might charge me with looking for defenses of naturalism in the wrong places, but I’m almost always struck by the ease with which it is set aside in these works. The most I’ve seen from Eddy and Boyd is this little paragraph:
“Given the empirical observation that the world generally operates by natural laws of cause and effect, it is reasonable when investigating history to first look for natural explanations for events and to exercise caution when entertaining explanations that involve appeals to the supernatural. And, given this empirical observation, it is certainly reasonable to prefer natural explanations over supernatural explanations, all other things being equal.” (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location, 770-782)
I have no quarrel with this and it is gratifying to see. But the possibility that the world does not only generally operate naturally, but rather, that it always does so, warrants a more serious consideration (at least in my unqualified opinion). One can easily see the above empirical observation Eddy and Boyd point out being used as a confirmatory piece of a posteriori evidence for naturalism, refreshingly represented as a hypothesis, rather than a presupposition. I have no idea how good a justification this would be, and I’m sure I’ll find this argument being discussed as I read more and more, but, at first glance, it seems far stronger a position (and thus more charitable) than the mere presupposition of naturalism. It also has important implications for Eddy and Boyd’s entire book as well as the assumptions they bring to it. (These, in their own words, include a belief in a “personal Creator God” and his supernatural interventions or acts in the world and are not tackled in any way in the book. (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location, 256-267)) I think such an approach would entail seriously engaging with ontological naturalism as a potentially true metaphysical description of the world, with all its concomitant implications.
At one point, in order to bring out the shortsightedness of those who would use absence of miracles in the present-day world to argue for the absence of miracles in the world in the past, Eddy and Boyd adduce the example of “demonization”, or demon possession. It is, in their words, a “commonly reported cross-cultural, supernatural phenomenon”, both in the past and present. (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location 1084). I’m not entirely clear if they find it problematic for those who only presuppose naturalism, or if they also believe it poses difficulties for those who also argue for it. Either way, they point out that the demonized exhibit traits which “are hard to explain on a strictly naturalistic terms.” (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location 1084). The implication of this and the commonness of the phenomenon are meant to make naturalists pause and reconsider. As Eddy and Boyd write, “To the thinking of most who witness phenomena like these – and the authors of this work count themselves among them – attempts to explain some of these phenomena in strictly natural terms are implausible, to say the least.” (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location 1908). This is, as I see it, Eddy and Boyd wedging a foot in the door to stop naturalists from closing it on them without considering them. Insofar as this is their only intention, I think they have succeeded.
But they add, “We do not wish to dispute that some, if not the majority, of these reports may be explained in naturalistic terms.” (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location 1108). In making this necessary concession, I think that Eddy and Boyd have also stopped the door from being closed on naturalism. The problem that faces them is that they do not have a single undisputed example of a supernatural event; they can only refer to reports of them, many of which they admit can be explained naturally. And thus, the possibility remains open that all of the purportedly miraculous events one adduces are not, in fact, miraculous events. In some cases, there may be no events (and the reports we have are false or legendary), and the others may be class of events that are consistently or systematically misinterpreted by human beings (owing to any number of factors and their combinations). When we concede that the majority of these kinds of events are actually natural events, we are enforcing the idea the all of them are natural events. Eddy and Boyd rhetorically ask:
“But what justification is there for assuming that all such reports of the supernatural can be reductively explained in naturalistic terms?” (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location 1119).
There is none, at least for the kind of assumption that would not be dropped when shown certain kinds of evidence. But I think the above concession is more than enough to justify adopting naturalism as a useful working hypothesis and a potentially true one. The knowledge that most of these experiences are not, in fact, taken as supernatural experiences by believers and non-believers alike, would, at the very least, undermine my confidence even in my personal experiences of what I take to be supernatural.
I haven’t posted anything for over a month, but that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten about this blog. I’ve been reading philosophy of religion and biblical historical criticism (more of this than the former, as will soon be evident). Some of the books I’ve read have made it into the bibliography, because I consider them potentially worthwhile reading for others. They’re not all layman-friendly, but some (like Richard Swinburne’s The Existence of God) have versions intended for less scholarly audiences. I tend not to read these, so I can’t honestly recommend them, but it might be advisable to pick these up if their longer counterparts seem to be too difficult.
Here are the books I’ve finished and some others I’m still reading. It’s difficult to sum up everything about the books, but I’ll try to explain why they made the bibliography (or not).
Theism and Explanation, Gregory W. Dawes – The most accessible book-length work in philosophy of religion I’ve looked at. It deals with questions related to supernatural explanations (such as the one argued for in Letters to a Doubting Thomas), questions like whether these kind of explanations can be good explanation and the requirements for good explanations. I strongly recommend it (along with Swinburne’s The Existence of God.)
The Existence of God, Richard Swinburne – I remember reading somewhere that Swinburne is responsible for the strongest case made for the God. I don’t know if that is true, being in no position to evaluate this book, but I find this kind of argumentation (which posits God as the best explanation for an observed fact/s) to be appealing. It’s less accessible than Theism and Explanation, and requires careful reading.
The Evidence for Jesus, James D. G. Dunn – This didn’t make the bibliography. It is one of those books aimed at popular audiences, which I probably shouldn’t have bothered with in the first place. I was put off repeatedly by assertions on the part of the author (example: “Clearly it is the same story in each case, and in each case we have no reason to doubt that the story derives from memories of Jesus’s ministry” (p. 13)) which I thought needed to be fleshed out.
Jesus is Dead, Robert M. Price – This is another book that didn’t make it into the bibliography. Price takes the time in this book to deal with various apologetic arguments related to the resurrection. Two things I like about Price is his style – which is often amusing – and how willing to experiment and speculate he seems. Unfortunately, the book lacks citations and makes it somewhat difficult to follow-up on its arguments.
The Case Against the Case for Christ, Robert M. Price – Like Strobel’s Case for Christ, this book is aimed at a popular audience. Unlike Strobel’s Case for Christ, Price’s book is more interested in showing us the breadth of scholarship (whereas Strobel seems to stack the deck with the authorities he likes) and using it to show how selective and unquestioning Strobel was. Although this book isn’t going to be in the list, I’d recommend it to anyone who has read Strobel’s Case for Christ and is looking for a critique of it (or needs to know that one exists, at leasts).
Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, Clarke W. Owens – This was more of an impulse buy for me, since I’d been seeing references to literary criticism of the New Testament and the Bible, and coming from that background, I was really curious about the form it takes when it engages with the Bible. Although Owens makes a number of interesting points, I won’t be recommending this book, not at least until I’ve reread it (and who knows when that might be).
Cutting Jesus Down to Size: What Higher Criticism Has Achieved and Where It Leaves Christianity, G. A. Wells – This is the third book to earn a place in the bibliography. It is difficult to sum up n a couple of sentences, as it is rather long and covers so much ground in so much detail. (But it is because of those features that it is highly recommended by me.)
This post, unlike all the previous ones, covers four chapters of Reasonable Faith, and will be akin to a quick review rather than an analysis. The reason for this is that there’s a lot of material to read before one can make a proper analysis of these chapters, so instead, I’ll make a few general comments about each one.
The Existence of God
Chapters 3 and 4 provide a series of arguments which support the existence of God. These arguments come in various categories:
- Cosmological arguments
- Teleological arguments
- Ontological arguments
- Moral arguments
I don’t claim to be able to provide a rebuttal to any of them, nor will I try, but I plan to eventually make available the literature I find and read about each of these arguments.
I guess the important question is whether I find any of these convincing. Right now, I can only say “no”, even though I probably can’t rebut the majority of them. That might seem a little inconsistent, but I think there is some merit in not being convinced too quickly.
First, I have questions about their premises which I can’t answer and that Reasonable Faith doesn’t cover. Second, I don’t enough about the science that relates to one of the cosmological arguments and to the teleological arguments. In the former case, I purposefully avoided reading Craig’s dealing with cosmology, simply because he is not a cosmologist. This might seem lazy and unfair, but so far, I’ve always been disappointed by non-expert theists and atheists who engage with cosmology (though, to be fair, Craig does seem more knowledgeable about it than most people). In any case, I might return to it once I have a better picture of the models Craig discusses and the state of current cosmology. Currently, I have no way to tell if Craig’s presentation of the science is correct, and it seems a bad idea to get my first exposure to the science through a nonscientist. Third, and finally, I know that laymen often underestimate how complicated arguments like these are, and until I have read more about them, I won’t be confident about accepting or not accepting the argument.
History and Miracles
Chapters 5 and 6 deal with history and miracles respectively. The former argues that it is possible for us to know history with some confidence, and deals with various objections to this argument, while the latter argues that miracles are possible and that it is possible for there to be enough evidence for us to believe one has occurred. I disagree with a few minor points in these chapters, but these points are not relevant to the conclusions of these chapters, which I agree with. I won’t go into detail here, because I don’t think the conclusions of these chapters are controversial or require further reading to accept. That said, I’ll probably have a post sometime next week about of these minor points I disagree with, which relates to the slogan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. I’m not entirely sure that Craig gives this the treatment it deserves, so I’ll look into it in my next post.
My next post on Reasonable Faith should deal with the last two chapters, after which I’ll start reading another book set by the Ultimate Truth Seeker Challenge.
Last week, I wrote about Chapter 1 of Reasonable Faith. I described how, according to William Lane Craig, we can know Christianity is true by virtue of our self-authenticating experience of God, and I also discussed some of the problems I had with that chapter. In this post, I will focus on Chapter 2, which called “The Absurdity of Life without God”, and write more generally about some of the traits shared by Chapters 1 and 2.
We have already seen that Chapter 1 consists of an attempt to insulate oneself from all evidence and arguments that contravene the truth of Christianity. In a sense, it is as if the witness of the Holy Spirit should function as damage control for those Christians who come across arguments they can’t deal with. They, according to Craig, already have reasons to believe and believe with confidence that Christianity is true, independently of the arguments and evidence. The latter only provide additional reasons to believe. I won’t repeat my objections to this here. My only point is to say that this chapter feels entirely superfluous to the case Craig makes starting on Chapter 3. I think that if Christianity is true, then we should expect the arguments and evidence to reflect that, and if they don’t, then we should consider what this failure of expectation means, and not simply assume that there must be better arguments to make or stronger evidence to find. It’s hard to think that this chapter isn’t there as a sort of safety net for readers of Craig and budding apologists who are unconvinced by apologetic arguments.
Chapter 2 is similarly superfluous. Craig, after having explained that we already know Christianity is true in Chapter 1, and before describing the arguments for the existence of God in Chapter 3, strives to show that life without God is undesirable, meaningless and purposeless. It’s not an appeal to consequence, because he doesn’t argue that Christianity is true in this chapter (which is what I’m actually interested in). In this sense, it’s unnecessary, since it has no bearing on the question of Christianity’s truth. It’s also unnecessary in another sense. Since, according to Craig, we already know God exists, what is the point of elaborating the implications of God’s nonexistence? The only purpose this chapter seems to serve is give readers something terrifying to tell nonbelievers about their worldview, which might be more effective than the arguments they might reject. Cynically, we might say that this chapter could, in the same way, be more effective on its readers than the ones that follow it. And there’s a good chance of this, because it’s a well-written chapter, with effective rhetoric and several beautifully chosen quotations. At the same, there appears to be very little argumentation. This could be because of the way Craig presents them, which is a bit uncharacteristic in this chapter.
Craig starts, as usual, by giving the topic of the chapter a bit of historical background. After that, he proceeds to talk about the death of human beings and the universe, in rhetorical passages like this one:
“And the universe, too, faces a death of its own. Scientists tell us that the universe is expanding, and the galaxies are growing farther and farther apart. As it does so, it grows colder and colder, and its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out, and all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes. There will be no light at all; there will be no heat; there will be no life; only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies, ever expanding into the endless darkness and the cold recesses of space—a universe in ruins. This is not science fiction. The entire universe marches irreversibly toward its grave. So not only is the life of each individual person doomed; the entire human race is doomed. The universe is plunging toward inevitable extinction—death is written throughout its structure. There is no escape. There is no hope.” (p. 72)
In a section titled “No Ultimate Meaning without God and Immortality”, Craig begins his argument:
“If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life? Does it really matter whether he ever existed at all? It might be said that his life was important because it influenced others or affected the course of history. But this shows only a relative significance to his life, not an ultimate significance. His life may be important relative to certain other events, but what is the ultimate significance of any of those events? If all the events are meaningless, then what can be the ultimate significance of influencing any of them? Ultimately it makes no difference.” (p. 72)
I’m not sure what Craig means here by “ultimate”, so I’m very likely to misread him here. In the context of the words used in this section, it seems that he’s talking about something being important, something really mattering. At the same time, what makes something really matter is in this section tied to what happens to that thing in the future, and it’s not clear to me why this is the case. Why should we think our lives are meaningless if we knew that a billion years from now the human race would be extinct? Furthermore, not having the sort of significance Craig is talking about doesn’t entail that life is meaningless. Consider what Craig writes here:
“And the same is true of each individual person. The contributions of the scientist to the advance of human knowledge, the researches of the doctor to alleviate pain and suffering, the efforts of the diplomat to secure peace in the world, the sacrifices of good people everywhere to better the lot of the human race—all these come to nothing. In the end they don’t make one bit of difference, not one bit.” (p. 73)
If Craig is right, then, after the human race is extinct, it won’t matter ultimately if the human race spends its brief lifetime in a constant state of suffering or progressed to the point where happiness was reached for all. But does that mean that it doesn’t matter at all, at no point in time? Craig continues:
“Each person’s life is therefore without ultimate significance. And because our lives are ultimately meaningless, the activities we fill our lives with are also meaningless. The long hours spent in study at the university, our jobs, our interests, our friendships—all these are, in the final analysis, utterly meaningless.” (p. 73)
Again, this conclusion does not seem to be entailed by what Craig is arguing. Having no ultimate meaning does not preclude having a non-ultimate meaning. I hesitate to formalize the argument in this part, because it’s not easy to discern Craig’s thought process or his definitions in all of this, but the argument may look something like this:
1) Each person’s life has no ultimate meaning.
2) Therefore, each person’s life is meaningless.
This is only logically valid if all meaning relevant to the meaningfulness of our lives is ultimate meaning or is somehow dependent on us having ultimate meaning. In other words, there might be a suppressed premise which Craig didn’t mention or defend. (It’s possible that Craig is only talking about ultimate meaning and that I have misread what he meant by “utterly meaningless” and “also meaningless” in the context. He later switches to talking about “objective” and “subjective” meanings, and I’m not really sure if these correspond to “ultimate” and “non-ultimate”). Craig, in the section, focuses for the most part on the finitude of life. Without immortality, life wouldn’t be meaningful. But he goes on to argue that life wouldn’t be meaningful without God even if we had immortality. Unfortunately, to support this, Craig for the most part asks us to read Waiting for Godot, references other literary works and fails to provide any additional arguments.
He proceeds to make similar arguments about value (what is right and wrong) and purpose in life, and argues that atheism cannot provide a consistent or happy life, given that life cannot have meaning, value or purpose without God. (This chapter seems to take it for granted that all of these are available if God exists. This may be true, but it doesn’t really bother to argue this.) I won’t discuss purpose or value in this post. Both closely parallel the argument about meaning, and I’ll probably be writing about value when I write about Craig’s moral argument.
I’m not sure what the next post will be about. Since I’ve done all previous chapters in order, I might move on to Chapters 3 and 4, in which Craig argues for the existence of God. But I’m tempted to skip ahead to Chapters 5 and 6, because Chapters 3 and 4 are far more complicated than anything I’ve dealt with so far and I’ll probably need several posts for each. (I would like to treat each argument independently and find the papers that relate to them, but this will take time.) The later chapters are also closer to Christianity than Chapters 3 and 4, which simply argue for the existence of a God, but not necessarily the Christian god.
As of last week, I’ve been reading William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith, as part of the Ultimate Truth Seeker Challenge. William Lane Craig is an American philosopher, theologian and Christian apologist, who has published a number of popular books and academic works related to Christian apologetics. He is also known for his many formal debates with atheists and Muslims.
Reasonable Faith is a book aimed at a Christian audience. It is geared towards teaching its readers how to argue that Christianity is true and does not give the impression that the author is going to do his best to objectively determine the facts. Rather, the book’s operative assumptions are that Christianity is true, and that non-Christians are wrong. This might seem trivially obvious when said about this kind of book, and one might say there’s nothing significant about it, given that one might think Christianity is true because of the arguments supporting it. Unfortunately, the first two chapters of the book enforce the impressions obtained by reading the introduction. As I’m writing this, I’m halfway through the third chapter, so I’ll preface my criticisms in this post by saying that Reasonable Faith gets much better after the first two chapters. The beginning, especially the first chapter, left me quite disappointed.
The first chapter is entitled “How Do I Know Christianity Is True?” The answer to the question posed by the title is quite simple, and Craig opens with it after giving some historical background about faith. As he writes, “the way we know Christianity to be true is by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit.” He clarifies, adding, “the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) for him who has it.” A person who has this experience “does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God”. Further, “such an experience provides one not only with subjective assurance of Christianity’s truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth; and… arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit.” (p. 43)
Craig spends most of the chapter fleshing out the implications of this (before moving on to explain how we can show Christianity to be true, even though we know it is.) In a section titled “The Unbeliever”, Craig claims that unbelievers also have this experience, which confirms God’s existence to them, their guilt before God, and so on. (p. 46) (It’s not clear how Craig knows this; the only evidence in this chapter consists of quotes from the Bible.) A page later, he adds that:
“when a person refuses to come to Christ, it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God’s Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves the darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God.” (p. 47)
He also argues that because of our experience of God, “the only role left for argument and evidence to play is a subsidiary role”. (p. 47) Craig refers to Martin Luther’s distinction between the magisterial and ministerial uses of reason. Craig writes, “The magisterial use of reason occurs when reason stands over and above the Gospel like a magistrate and judges it on the basis of argument and evidence. The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the Gospel.” Given the witness of the Holy Spirit, “only the ministerial use of reason is legitimate.” (p. 47) Furthermore, “Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa.” (p. 48) This is one of the main problems I have with this chapter; I’ll discuss it below.
Craig adds a few comments about the similarly self-authenticating experiences claimed by adherents of other religions. Regarding this, he makes three points:
- “The existence of an authentic and unique witness of the Spirit does not exclude the existence of false claims to such a witness. How, then, does the existence of false claims to the Spirit’s witness to the truth of a non-Christian religion do anything to logically undermine the fact that the Christian believer does possess the genuine witness of the Spirit?” (p. 48)
- When asked “how do you know that your experience isn’t also spurious?”, Craig replies with “the experience of the Spirit’s witness is self-authenticating for him who really has it.” (p. 48)
- He also addresses one possible objection, the idea that similar, false claims ought to undermine his “confidence in the reliability of the cognitive faculties which form religious beliefs, since those faculties apparently so often mislead people”. To do this, he says that one needn’t believe that these claims are false (meaning adherents of other religions also enjoy such an experience of God) and that this objection “unjustifiably assumes that the witness of the Holy Spirit is a product of human cognitive faculties or is indistinguishable from their outputs.” (p. 49) He writes that he sees “no reason to think that non-veridical religious experiences are indistinguishable from the witness of the Holy Spirit.” He adds that “one way to get empirical evidence for this would be simply to ask ex-Mormons or Muslims who have become Christians if their experience of God in Christianity is identical to what they had before their conversion.”
There are a number of problems with this chapter. I’ll deal with these four:
- There is no reason to believe that anyone knows Christianity is true because of a self-authenticating experience, or to believe someone who claims to know Christianity is true because of such an experience.
- There is no reason given in this chapter to think that people who claim not to have such an experience are mistaken or lying.
- Craig’s objections in regards to the diversity of religious experience ignore or overlook the lack of such an experience claimed by unbelievers.
- Craig is attempting to insulate himself from anything that contradicts the truth of Christianity.
Earlier this week I wrote that I would be taking the Ultimate Truth Seeker Challenge made back in 2010 by Luke Muelhauser of commonsenseatheism. Now, I’m halfway through Bart D. Ehrman’s Jesus Interrupted. Ehrman is an agnostic and an author of several popular works about early Christianity and the New Testament. Jesus Interrupted is not a book that sets out to debunk Christianity. Rather, its aim is to present an accessible overview of the scholarly consensus in biblical studies about a number of issues, including Biblical authorship, the reliability of the books found in the Bible and the historical Jesus. Ehrman’s aim, as he explains in the first chapter, is to make known to the churchgoing public what is established and uncontroversial to Biblical scholars. He explains that there is a huge difference between what the public learns from their pastors (at least in the United States) and what academics know about the Bible. This point has particular resonance for me, because it parallels my experience with Christianity. Almost none of this basic information about the Bible was, to my recollection, discussed or explained in the hundreds of sermons I’ve heard or the numerous catechism classes I attended. (I was vaguely aware of the New Testament Apocrypha, which were referred to once and twice in a positive way.)
Ehrman, in the first four chapters, makes three important points, which you can read as a quick summary of the rest of this post.
- We don’t know who wrote most of the books in the New Testament. The Gospels were probably not written by eyewitnesses, and there are books or letters whose authenticity is disputed in the New Testament canon.
- The authors of these books had different opinions about who Jesus was, and did not necessarily agree with each other about his teachings. They interpreted and presented them differently, leading to discrepancies between them.
- These books are not inerrant. There are mistakes, later additions by editors and contradictory claims.