Theism


A new Harris Poll confirms that Christian beliefs are on the decline in this country.  There is a greater need for apologetic engagement with culture than ever before.
HT: CNS News

A or BIf you’re looking for an explanation of the universe, which is a collection of contingent beings, there are only two possibilities: 1) The explanation is found in a necessary being that transcends the universe; 2) There is no explanation.

Regarding 1), every physical entity is a contingent being. The “universe” simply refers to the whole collection of physical, contingent beings.  One cannot explain why the universe exists by appealing to another physical, contingent being because there can be no physical, contingent beings outside of the collection of all physical, contingent beings.  “But,” one might say, “perhaps it could be explained by a prior non-physical, contingent being.  Perhaps, but even if so, as a contingent being, that non-physical, contingent entity would also require an explanation for its existence.  To avoid an infinite regress, one must ultimately arrive at a necessary being that transcends the universe, and explains why the universe exists.

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Not scienceMany believe science has disproven God.  This is not possible, even in principle.[1]  The truth of the matter is that advances in science are providing more reasons to believe in God, not less.  While scientific discoveries cannot prove God’s existence, they can be used to support premises in arguments that have theistic conclusions/implications. For example, science has discovered that the universe began to exist.  Anything that begins to exist requires an external cause.  Since the universe encompasses all physical reality, the cause of the universe must transcend physical reality.  It cannot be a prior physical event or some natural law, because there was nothing physical prior to the first physical event, and natural laws only come into being once the natural world comes into being.  Whatever caused the universe to come into being must be transcendent, powerful, immaterial, spaceless, eternal, and personal, which is an apt description of God.

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religion_check_boxOver at Uncommon Descent, vjtorley reports on a recent survey of 996 adults conducted between October 17-18, 2013 regarding American religious beliefs.  Some of the more notable findings include:

  • 3 out of 4 adults believe in God: 76% believe in God, 14% don’t believe in God, and 10% are not sure.
  • Young adults aged 18-29 are the least likely to believe in God.  Only 63% believe in God.  A full 25% don’t believe in God, and 12% are not sure, for a total of 37% God doubters/deniers.  That’s 2 out of 5!  Compare this to other age groups:
    • 30-44 = 14% atheist
    • 45-64 = 9% atheist
    • 65+ = 6% atheist

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thinking manPhilosohpers David Bourget and David Chalmers recently surveyed 931 philosophy faculty members to determine their views on 30 different issues.  Here were some of the more interesting results:

God: atheism 72.8%; theism 14.6%; other 12.6%.
Metaphilosophy: naturalism 49.8%; non-naturalism 25.9%; other 24.3%.
Mind: physicalism 56.5%; non-physicalism 27.1%; other 16.4%.
Free will: compatibilism 59.1%; libertarianism 13.7%; no free will 12.2%; other 14.9%.
Meta-ethics: moral realism 56.4%; moral anti-realism 27.7%; other 15.9%.
Normative ethics: deontology 25.9%; consequentialism 23.6%; virtue ethics 18.2%; other 32.3%.
Science: scientific realism 75.1%; scientific anti-realism 11.6%; other 13.3%
Time: B-theory 26.3%; A-theory 15.5%; other 58.2%.
Truth: correspondence 50.8%; deflationary 24.8%; epistemic 6.9%; other 17.5%.

Notice that although 72.8% of respondents are atheists, 56.4% are moral realists. This goes to show the strength of our moral intuitions. While atheists do not have a sufficient ontological grounding for objective moral values, they still believe in them nonetheless.

I was surprised that only 13.7% believe in libertarian free will. I would expect it to be much higher.  Perhaps this correlates with the high rates of physicalism.

HT: Scot McKnight

ContingencyWhile in discussion with A. C. Grayling on the March 25 edition of the Unbelievable radio program, Peter S. Williams provided a nice, concise presentation of the cosmological argument from contingency:

Once you’ve made the distinction between things that have causes and…things that don’t have causes, if something exists it either is the kind of thing that requires something outside of itself to exist, or it’s not.  If it’s not possible for there to be an infinite regress of things that do require causes outside of themselves, and it is true that something exists which does require a cause outside itself [the universe, and everything in it]…,there can’t be an infinite regress of such causes, and therefore you have to have a termination of that regress.  [God is the best explanation for the termination of that regress.]

For those of you for whom this to be a bit too concise, let me flesh it out a bit.

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ImperviousThe kalam cosmological argument (KCA) for God’s existence can be stated as follows:

(1) Anything that begins to exist requires a cause
(2) The universe began to exist
(3) Thus, the universe requires a cause

Additional logical inferences allow us to identify this cause as God.  Whatever caused space, time, and matter to begin to exist cannot itself be spatial, temporal, or material.  Furthermore, whatever caused our orderly, life-permitting universe to come into being a finite time ago must be immensely powerful, intelligent, conscious, and hence personal.  These are apt descriptions of a being theists have long identified as God.

Both premises have been challenged on scientific grounds.  Premise one is typically challenged on the basis of quantum mechanics, while premise two is challenged by new cosmological models that seek to restore an eternal universe.  I am going to argue that neither premise of the argument can be undermined by scientific evidence, and thus the argument itself is impervious to scientific refutation.  Only philosophical arguments are capable of undermining either premise of the argument.

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There’s a difference between how we know something to be true (epistemology), and what makes that something true (ontology).  Keeping this distinction in mind would illuminate many debates.  For example, atheists often claim that one doesn’t need God to know morality and act morally.  That’s true, but it misses the point.  Just because one can know moral truths and behave morally without believing in God does not mean God is not necessary to explain morality.  As Greg Koukl likes to say, that’s like saying because one is able to read books without believing in authors, authors are not necessary to explain the origin of books (author-of-the-gaps).  In the same way books need authors, moral laws need a moral-law giver.

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While I have already written an assessment of Stephen Law’s evil god challenge, after listening to Law engage in an informal debate on the topic with Glenn Peoples on Unbelievable, I have a few more observations to make. 

Law seems to take as his starting point the idea that people reject the existence of an evil God based on the empirical evidence: there is simply too much good in the world for an evil god to exist.  Then he reasons that if the presence of good in the world makes the existence of an evil God absurd, people should also recognize that the presence of evil in the world makes the existence of a good God equally absurd.  The success of his argument depends on three assumptions:

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The kalam cosmological argument (KCA) for God’s existence goes as follows: 

(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause
(2) The universe began to exist
(3) Therefore, the universe has a cause

When we consider what kind of cause would be necessary to bring the universe into being, we arrive at an immaterial, eternal, spaceless, personal, intelligent, and powerful being – an apt description of what theists identify as God.  Atheists commonly object and theists often wonder, “Well, then who made God?”  Theists rightly point out that the argument does not claim everything has a cause, but only those things that begin to exist.  As an eternal being, God never began to exist, and thus does not need a cause.  Indeed, the question itself is nonsensical given the kind of being God is. 

We apologists must be careful, however, not to think that the 1st premise of the KCA proves God does not have a cause.  The premise only pertains to things which begin to exist.  We cannot infer anything about the causal requirements or lack thereof for eternal beings from this premise.  While the 1st premise of the KCA does not require that God have a cause, to think it proves God does not have a cause is to commit the fallacy of denying the antecedent:

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Many atheists assert that an eternal universe is explanatorily equivalent to an eternal God.  For example, Sagan once asked, “If we say that God has always been, why not save a step and conclude that the universe has always been?”[1]  And just recently, two prominent atheists made the same claim.  In his new book, A Universe from Nothing, Lawrence Krauss writes, “[T]he declaration of a First Cause still leaves open the question, ‘Who created the Creator?’ After all, what is the difference between arguing in favor of an eternally existing creator versus an eternally existing universe without one?”[2]  Victor Stenger agrees with Krauss:

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In response to various cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of a creator God some atheists appeal to the principle of parsimony—often dubbed “Ockham’s Razor”—to argue that invoking God to explain our cosmic origins is both unnecessary and unhelpful.  Introducing a divine being to explain the origin of the universe is said to be less parsimonious than simply acknowledging that the universe popped into existence uncaused from absolutely nothing.

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During his debate with Arif Ahmed and Andrew Copson at the Cambridge Union Society, Peter S. Williams gave a lucid illustration for the argument for the existence of God based on the contingency of material reality.[1]

Imagine if I asked you to loan me a book.  You say you don’t have it, but you’ll ask your friend to loan you his, and in turn you’ll loan it to me.  When you ask your friend for the book, he says he does not have it, but he’ll ask his friend to borrow his copy, and in turn he’ll loan it to you, who will loan it to me.  If this process continues ad infinitum, I will never receive the book.  If I do receive the book it is because the process of requesting to borrow the book is not infinite, but temporally finite.  Somewhere down the chain of requests to borrow the book, someone actually had the book without having to borrow it from someone else.  

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Several months ago the Discovery Channel aired a television series featuring Stephen Hawking called Curiosity.  Whereas in his book The Grand Design Hawking claimed that God is not necessary to explain the origin of the universe given the existence of physical laws such as gravity, in Curiosity he argued that God could not have created the universe because there was no time in which God could have done so:

[D]o we need a God to set it all up so a Big Bang can bang? … Our everyday experience makes us convinced that everything that happens must be caused by something that occurred earlier in time.  So it’s natural for us to assume that something—perhaps God—must have caused the universe to come into existence.  But when we’re talking about the universe as a whole, that isn’t necessarily so.
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There’s been a lot of buzz in both theistic and atheistic camps regarding Stephen Law’s evil-god argument, and many think it poses a serious challenge to the theism. Edward Feser sums up the essence of the argument nicely when he writes:

Law claims that the evidence for the existence of a good God is no better than the evidence for the existence of an evil god, and that any theodicy a theist might put forward as a way of reconciling the fact of evil with the existence of a good God has a parallel in a reverse-theodicy a believer in an evil god could put forward to reconcile the presence of good in the world with the existence of an evil god.  Now, no one actually believes in an evil god.  Therefore, Law concludes, since (he claims) the evidence for a good God is no better than that for an evil God, no one should believe in a good God either.  That’s the “evil god challenge.”[1]

Perhaps I am missing something, but I don’t think the evil-God “argument” is actually an argument against God’s existence at all, yet alone a good argument. Consider the following three points:

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I often hear both non-theists and theists alike say it is impossible to disprove God’s existence because it is impossible to disprove a universal negative.  This conception, though popular, is mistaken.

While a universal negative cannot be proven empirically, it can be proven logically.  If something is logically contradictory, or incoherent, we can be sure it does not exist.  For example, I can prove there are no square circles.  I cannot, and need not do so empirically, but I can do so logically.  To prove that God does not exist, then, does not require omniscience so long as one can demonstrate that there is something in the very concept of God that is rationally incoherent.  Of course, that is difficult for atheists to do because there doesn’t seem to be anything about the idea of a divine, transcendent being that is internally incoherent or self-contradictory.  Nevertheless, if they could find one, they could disprove God’s existence.

Some of you may have seen a news article circulating every major news outlet.  With provocative titles such as “God did not create the universe, says Hawking,” and “Why God Did Not Create the Universe,” one would expect to find some new scientific discovery/argument proving that the universe is capable of creating itself – no God needed.  After reading the articles, however, that expectation will quickly turn into disappointment.

Stephen Hawking is probably the most famous physicist alive.  While he is clearly a brilliant man, his case for the sufficiency of natural processes to account for the origin of the universe is truly embarrassing.  Consider the following claim: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.  Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.  It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.”

Where to begin!  First, while Hawking is attempting to explain how something could come from nothing, he only explains how something (the universe) comes from something else (physical laws, namely gravity).  True nothingness is the absence of any and all existents, including physical laws.  So from whence come the physical laws?

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To say it is impossible to know anything about God is self-refuting, because it is itself a claim to know something about God: that he is unknowable.  How can one know that about an unknowable God?  To know He is unknowable is to know something true about Him, and thus He is no longer unknowable.

man in praiseSome have argued that a God whose essence is good is not worthy of our praise for doing good, since He cannot do otherwise.  Being praiseworthy entails merit, but there is no merit in doing what one must do of necessity; therefore, God, is not deserving of praise for doing good.

William Lane Craig offers three points in response (Question #114) to this argument:

(1)   While a good act must be free for it to be praiseworthy, this argument falsely assumes that since God cannot do evil, He is not free.  Freedom, however, does not require the ability to do otherwise (in this case, to commit evil).  It only requires that one’s choices are not causally determined by external factors.  In that sense, God’s freedom to do good is a free choice.  While God cannot do evil, He freely chooses to do good.

(2)   Strictly speaking, “moral praise” is inapplicable to God.  According to Craig, “Moral praise and blame have to do with duty fulfillment. Someone who fulfills his moral obligations is morally praiseworthy. But…I don’t think that God has any moral duties. For moral duties are constituted by God’s commands, and presumably God doesn’t issue commands to Himself. Therefore, He has no obligations to live up to. Borrowing a distinction from Kant, we can say that God acts in accordance with a duty but not from a duty. Because God is essentially loving, kind, impartial, fair, etc., He acts in ways that would for us be the fulfillment of our duties.”

(3)   God is to be praised, not for choosing to do good, but for being good.  As Craig writes, “I think that our praise of God for His goodness is…to be properly understood in terms of adoration. God is the paradigm and source of infinite goodness, and therefore we adore Him for who He is. We don’t offer Him moral praise in the sense of commending Him for living up to His moral obligations; rather we love Him because He is goodness itself.”

Philosopher and theologian, William Lane Craig, has frequently made reference to the turn of events in philosophy over the past 40 years.  What was once a very secularized field has been “invaded” by theists.  As evidence of this phenomenon, consider what atheist philosopher, Quentin Smith, had to say in the journal Philo:

By the second half of the twentieth century, universities and colleges had been become in the main secularized. … Analytic philosophers (in the mainstream of analytic philosophy) treated theism as an antirealist or non-cognitivist world-view, requiring the reality, not of a deity, but merely of emotive expressions…. The secularization of mainstream academia began to quickly unravel upon the publication of [Alvin] Plantinga’s influential book on realist theism, God and Other Minds, in 1967. It became apparent to the philosophical profession that this book displayed that realist theists were not outmatched by naturalists in terms of the most valued standards of analytic philosophy: conceptual precision, rigor of argumentation, technical erudition, and an in-depth defense of an original world-view. … [T]oday perhaps one-quarter or one-third of philosophy professors are theists, with most being orthodox Christians. … God is not “dead” in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments.[1]

In other words, the intellectual respectability of theism was resurrected.  Theism was rational after all (even if [as Quentin thinks] it is ultimately false), and formed a beachhead against secularism in university philosophy departments.  What I find interesting, however, is the response of naturalists.  According to Smith

the great majority of naturalist philosophers react by publicly ignoring the increasing desecularizing of philosophy (while privately disparaging theism, without really knowing anything about contemporary analytic philosophy of religion) and proceeding to work in their own area of specialization as if theism, the view of approximately one-quarter or one-third of their field, did not exist. … [N]aturalist scientists…are so innocent of any understanding of the philosophy of religion that they do not even know that they are innocent of this understanding, as it witnessed by their popular writings on science and religion.[2]

And again,

If each naturalist who does not specialize in the philosophy of religion (i.e., over ninety-nine percent of naturalists) were locked in a room with theists who do specialize in the philosophy of religion, and if the ensuing debates were refereed by a naturalist who had a specialization in the philosophy of religion, the naturalist referee could at most hope the outcome would be that “no definite conclusion can be drawn regarding the rationality of faith,” although I expect the most probable outcome is that the naturalist, wanting to be a fair and objective referee, would have to conclude that the theists definitely had the upper hand in every single argument or debate.[3]

Be sure, this is not because Smith thinks theists have the better arguments.  On the contrary, he is persuaded that naturalism is the true ontology.  But he recognizes that 99% of naturalists are so ignorant of the philosophy of religion that they would not be able to refute the arguments.  I have found this to be true of many naturalists.  They continue to speak as if theism requires an irrational, blind leap of faith into the dark, and continue to present tired-old arguments against theism as if those arguments have not been answered by theists both past and present.  They are unaware of those responses, because they do not engage the philosophy of religion with the same rigor that theists engage philosophical naturalism.

Furthermore, because most naturalists ignore philosophers of religion, they are also unaware of the fact that theistic philosophers have defeated their arguments for naturalism, and thus ignorant of the fact that their belief in naturalism is not justified (at least until they are able to undercut or rebut those defeaters).  As Smith notes, “They may have a true belief in naturalism, but they have no knowledge that naturalism is true since they do not have an undefeated justification for their belief.”[4]

While Smith is concerned about the recent turn of events in philosophy, I find it reason to rejoice.  It is a testimony to the intellectual credibility of the Christian faith.  Religious faith does not require a commitment of the will in the absence (or in spite of the) evidence, but rather is a persuasion based on reasonable knowledge.  Christians need not fear philosophy; we need only avoid the false philosophies of men (Colossians 2:8).  As C.S. Lewis once said, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”


[1]Quentin Smith, “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism,” Philo, 4:2 (2001); available from http://www.philoonline.org/library/smith_4_2.htm; Internet; accessed 07 January 2009.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid.

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