Philosophy


Materialists will tell you they don’t believe anything other than the material world exists, but seem oblivious to the fact that propositions – such as the proposition that only the material world exists – are not material.  That means materialism is falsified the moment you think about it. Pun intended.

“I don’t think, I know.”  We’ve all heard this, and most of us have probably uttered this phrase ourselves a time or two.  But when you think about it (no pun intended), this phrase represents a misuse of language.  It sets up a contrast between thinking and knowing, wherein “thinking” denotes uncertainty and “knowing” denotes certainty.  While this may reflect a popular connotation of these words, denotatively speaking, neither has anything to do with certainty.

“Think” is a description of what the mind does.  It describes the mind’s activity.  Knowledge is “justified, true belief.”  Certainty is not part of the definition, and thus certainty is not required for knowledge.  To know something only requires that we have adequate justification.

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Lack of FaithHe who makes a claim bears a burden to demonstrate the truth of his claim.  Theists have a burden to demonstrate their claim that God exists, and atheists have a burden to demonstrate their claim that God does not exist.  Nowadays, however, it’s common for atheists to claim that the theist alone bears a burden of justification.  They try to escape their own burden of justification by redefining atheism from a “belief that God does not exist” to “the absence of belief in God.”  Since only positive beliefs can be defended, they are off the hook.  All the pressure lies with the theist.

While I think their attempt to redefine atheism is intellectually dishonest, let’s grant the validity of their redefinition for a moment.  Greg Koukl observed that while it’s certainly true atheists lack a belief in God, they don’t lack beliefs about God.  When it comes to the truth of any given proposition, one only has three logical options: affirm it, deny it, withhold judgment (due to ignorance or the inability to weigh competing evidences).  As applied to the proposition “God exists,” those who affirm the truth of this proposition are called theists, those who deny it are called atheists, and those who withhold judgment are called agnostics. Only agnostics, who have not formed a belief, lack a burden to demonstrate the truth of their position.

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science defies common senseI’ve heard science types like Lawrence Krauss claim that science has shown us over and over again that we can’t trust our common sense, and by extension, philosophical reasoning.  One of the go-to illustrations is our solar system.  It’s said that common sense tells us the sun revolves around the Earth, and yet Copernicus, through science, showed common sense was unreliable as a guide to truth.  Only science can tell us what is true.

I think this is a misconstrual of the issue.  Daniel N. Robinson said it best: “What Copernicus said was not hostile to common sense but was inconsistent with common experience.”[1]  Indeed.  While science has discovered physical phenomenon which is weird, to say the least, it does not defy common sense, but our common experience.  Rationality is not at odds with science, and cannot be disproven by science.  Indeed, the task of science presupposes rationality from start to finish.


[1]Daniel N. Robinson, “Neuroscience and the Soul,” Philosophia Christi, Vol. 15, Number 1, 2013, 17.

EmpiricismThose who subscribe to empiricism believe that we should not believe the truth of some X based on a competent authority.  We are only justified in believing some X if we have empirically verifiable evidence supporting the truth of X.  It goes without notice that this principle itself is not empirically verifiable, and thus empiricism is self-refuting as a complete theory of knowledge.  But let’s ignore the man behind the curtain for a moment, and explore other deficiencies in an empirical epistemology.

In his book, A Universe from Nothing, physicist and empiricist Lawrence Krauss describes the state of the cosmos in the distant future.  Due to cosmic expansion, in two trillion years all of the evidence for the Big Bang (cosmic microwave background, redshift of distant objects/the Hubble expansion, and the measurement of light elements in the cosmos), and all 400 billion galaxies visible to us now, will no longer be detectable via empirical methods.  Worse yet, all of the evidence for the dark energy that caused the cosmic expansion will be gone as well.  For scientists living in that day, all of the empirical evidence will point to a static universe inhabited by a single galaxy that is no more than a trillion years old (based on the ratio of light elements at the time).

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Apologetics DefenseSome Christians think that if we appeal to reason and evidences to demonstrate that the Bible is truly God’s Word, then we are elevating reason and evidence to a place of authority over God’s Word.  I think this conclusion is misguided for several reasons.  First, I don’t think it is legitimate to consider reason an “authority.”  Reason is merely a tool for assessing reality.  It is basic to all human thought.  Indeed, one cannot even understand God’s revelation apart from reasoning.  It would be a mistake, then, to pit reason against revelation as if they are two competing authorities.  As Greg Koukl has argued, using reason to assess whether or not the Bible is God’s revelation to man no more puts reason above the Bible than using grammar to understand God’s revelation puts grammar above the Bible.

Secondly, this confuses the order of being (ontology) with the order of knowing (epistemology). While the Bible is first in terms of authority, it is not first in terms of the order of knowing. Knowledge of the divine origin and revelatory status of the Bible is not innate. We must acquire this knowledge.  Knowledge of a proposition requires three elements: (1) belief that the proposition is true; (2) justification for the belief that the proposition is true; (3) the proposition must actually be true.  Put another way, knowledge is justified true belief.  Given the fact that knowledge requires justification, it cannot be wrong to require justification for believing the Bible is God’s Word.  We could not know the Bible is God’s Word apart from such justification.  As Kelly Clark has pointed out, reason is not autonomous as the standard of truth, but it is the best tool for discovering the truth. 

A proper use of reason is not an exercise of subjecting God’s Word to a higher authority, but an examination of the Bible to determine if it is truly what it claims to be.  We use our God-given reason to discover the truth that the Bible is a product of divine revelation.

coyne_jerry-209x300Scientists say the darndest things.  Last January I blogged on an article Jerry Coyne wrote in USA Today regarding free will.  At one point he said, “So if we don’t have free will, what can we do? One possibility is to give in to a despairing nihilism and just stop doing anything. But that’s impossible, for our feeling of personal agency is so overwhelming that we have no choice but to pretend that we do choose and get on with our lives.”

Coyne is still spinning the same gobbledygook.  Recently, on Coyne’s own blog, a commentator took Coyne to task for acting as though humans have freedom, while being adamant that they do not.  Coyne responded:

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Subjective ObjectWhen talking about subjective and objective truths, I’ve heard it claimed that every truth claim is “subjective” since humans are subjects.  On this view, there can be no such thing as objective truth since all truth claims are made by subjects.

This is often applied in the context of the moral argument.  Theists argue that morality is objective, and finds its ontological grounding in the character of God.  In response, some will argue that since God is a subject, His moral commands are subjective, and hence even theistic ethics cannot provide an objective basis for morality.

This is a gross misunderstanding of the terms.  Subjective and objective tell you what a statement is about – not where it comes from.  To say a truth is “subjective” is to say it is about the subject himself; to say a truth is “objective” is to say it is about a mind-independent object in the world.

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

Burden of ProofIn philosophy, a burden of proof refers to one’s epistemic duty to provide reasons in support his assertion/claim/position.  While listening to a debate recently, I noticed that one of the participants spoke of a “burden of justification” rather than “burden of proof.”  I thought this terminological shift was helpful since when most people hear the word “proof” they think “certainty.”  Clearly, no one has the burden to demonstrate their position with apodictic certainty.  “Justification,” on the other hand, makes it clear that one only has a burden to back up their claims with good reasons.  I am going to be intentional about adopting this terminology in the future.

Reasonable FaithDr. William Lane Craig is my favorite Christian apologist.  I’ve read countless articles he has authored and several of his books, listened to virtually every debate he has participated in as well as his podcasts and Defenders lectures, and even read his weekly Q&A on reasonablefaith.org.  I could rightly be called a Craigite, and yet I had never read his signature book, Reasonable Faith, which is now in its third edition.

I finally purchased the book and read through it with slobbering delight.  I must confess that having followed Craig for so long, there wasn’t much in the book that I had not encountered before.  But that is more of a personal commentary, and does nothing to detract from the wealth of information contained in this book.

Craig begins the book by answering the question, How can one know Christianity is true?  After surveying what important past and present thinkers have to say on the matter, Craig adopts a Plantingian-based model in which we can know Christianity is true in virtue of the witness of the Spirit in our hearts.  Craig makes an important distinction, however, between how we personally know Christianity to be true, and how we demonstrate to others the truth of Christianity.  While the witness of the Holy Spirit is sufficient for the believer to be persuaded of the truth of Christianity, we demonstrate the truth of Christianity to unbelievers through evidence and rational argumentation.

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New Scientist has a short video discussing the proper understanding of reality.  It’s a 2:30 philosophical mess!  It’s almost as bad as their video on how the universe came from nothing, but I won’t go there.

They present two definitions of reality.  Their first definition is that “reality is everything that would still be here if there was no one around to experience it.”  But they find this view problematic because “as far as we know, we humans actually do exist, and a lot of the things that we can all agree are real, like language, or war, or consciousness, wouldn’t exist without us.”  What?

This objection is irrelevant.  Yes, humans exist, but how does that count against this definition of reality?  The definition doesn’t assume or require that people do not exist.  It merely holds that some X is real if and only if X would still obtain in the absence of a mind to think about it.  While it goes without saying that those things germane to humans would not exist if humans did not exist, what does that have to do with everything else non-human?  The question is whether anything else would exist if we didn’t exist, not whether things unique to humans would exist if humans did not exist.

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How should we define “reality”?  We can’t say “reality is what exists” because that is tautologous.  To say something exists is just to say that it is real.  

Neither can we define reality as “any X that has the property of being rather than non-being”?  “Being,” like “exists,” is just another way of referring to what is real, and thus this too is tautologous.  

Neither can we say that “reality is that which is mind-independent” because this definition excludes the mind from the realm of reality.  Surely the mind is real.  If it weren’t, it couldn’t be contemplating the proper definition of reality! 

How do we define reality in a way that avoids tautologies or excludes certain things we know to be real?  

And is there a difference between the definition of reality (kind-defining) and the way we determine what is real?  For example, I think William Lane Craig defines existence as any X that exemplifies at least one property.  That is definitely a good test for determining if some X is real, but does that really tell me what it means to say some X is real?

Some people want to reject the testimony of the NT evangelists on the basis that they are biased.  I have written on the problems of this claim before, but here is a brief summary of my argument (with some added insight offered by Greg Koukl in his September 10, 2012 podcast):

  • This is an example of the genetic fallacy – dismissing one’s arguments because of its origin, rather than addressing it on its own merits.
  • Having a bias is irrelevant to the legitimacy of one’s testimony and/or arguments.  One must grapple with the evidence rather than dismiss it because it comes from a biased source.
  • Everyone has a bias, including those who reject Jesus.  The only people without a bias are those who are ignorant of the matter.
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Theists often use the basic metaphysical principle that something only comes from something as evidence for God’s existence.  We reason that if the universe (something) came into being, then it must have been caused to come into being by something else – it could not have simply materialized out of nothing without a cause because out of nothing, nothing comes.  The something that brought the universe into being must itself be immaterial, spaceless, and eternal, which are some of the basic properties of a theistic being. 

I have heard a few atheists object to this argument by questioning the veracity of the basic metaphysical principle that something can only come from something on the grounds that we have never experienced nothing to know whether or not it is possible for something to come from nothing, and thus we cannot know that it’s impossible for something to come from nothing.  While we may not have any direct experience of something that comes into being from nothing, it does not mean it’s not possible.  Indeed, in the case of the universe it was not only possible, but it actually happened.

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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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I have a question for my non-theist readers: Why is it that I can chop up a tomato and eat it, but I cannot do the same to a human being?

During his recent dialogue with Archbishop Rowan Williams, Richard Dawkins invoked the anthropic principle to say that even if the origin of life is improbable, it “had to” happen at least once on this planet since we are here.[1]  At that point the moderator, Anthony Kenny, an agnostic philosopher, asked Dawkins what kind of necessity he had in mind when he said life “had to” originate here.  Kenny noted that there are two kinds of necessity: metaphysical necessity and epistemic necessity.  Metaphysical necessity means it is impossible that some X not exist, whereas epistemic necessity means it is impossible not to know that some X is true.  He went on to explain that epistemic necessity does not entail metaphysical necessity, so while it may be epistemically necessary that we exist (we cannot not know that we exist), it does not mean we had to exist.  Our existence may be contingent, even if knowledge of our existence is not.  As expected, Dawkins clarified that he was not saying our existence was necessary, but only that it there can be no doubt that life did arise at least on this planet since we are alive.  

What struck me about Dawkins’ response was not his answer to the question, but what he said immediately before his answer: “I don’t know the words ‘epistemic’ and so on, so I’m not going to use that.”  Really?  That is a term so basic to the study of philosophy that no student could pass an intro-to-philosophy course without knowing it.  It leads me to believe that Dawkins does not know the first thing about philosophy (which should not be surprising to anyone who is familiar with Dawkins’ arguments).  

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Those who reject dualism (the view that man is made up of two kinds of substances: physical and immaterial) often cite the “interaction problem” as an argument against the view.  Stated simplistically, the interaction problem is to explain how an immaterial entity such as a mind/soul could causally interact with material entities.  One envisions the Hollywood movies in which a ghost is desperately trying to pick up a beverage or kiss someone to no avail.  Try as he might, he cannot connect his immaterial self to the material world to affect it in any way (unless you are Patrick Swayze!).  Many monists think the interaction problem alone is sufficient to dismiss dualism as a possibility.

Such an approach to the question seems wrongheaded, however.  One should not look at the queerness of mind-body interaction and immediately conclude that the mind cannot exist independent of the brain.  One must first evaluate the evidence for the existence of such an entity.  If there are good, independent reasons to think the mind is not an immaterial entity—but can be reduced to the brain or arise from material processes—then the interaction problem could serve as further confirmation that there is no soul.  But if there are good reasons to think the mind is an immaterial entity separate from the brain, then the interaction problem—while difficult or even impossible to explain—is insufficient to overturn the evidence that the mind is immaterial.  While we may not know how the mind interacts with the material world, we know the two entities do exist, and do interact with each other.  One need not explain how something occurs to know that it occurs.  We may forever be ignorant of how the mind and body relate to each other, but we have direct awareness and experience of the fact that they do.

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During his dialogue-debate with Rowen Williams (the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Church under the Queen of England), Richard Dawkins was asked by the moderator why, if he admits that He cannot disprove God’s existence, he doesn’t just call himself an agnostic.  Dawkins response was, “I do.”

This is interesting, particularly in light of his past identification as an atheist, as well as his remarks that on a scale of 1 to 7, with one being “I know God exists” and seven being “I know God doesn’t exist,”  he ranks himself a 6.9.  He is only 0.1 away from being absolutely certain God does not exist, and yet he thinks that is good reason to adopt the agnostic label.  I disagree.

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