The mind of God

HighKingRalof asks:

I recently came across an argument against God being the creator of the universe…The argument states that God is not needed for the universe to exist because the Quantum Vacuum and gravity can act as the unmoved mover needed to bring the universe into existence.

1. This argument assumes the quantum vacuum and gravity exist, but what caused these to exist? For example, the formula for the law of gravity is: F = GMm/r^2. Where did this formula come from? Is it an uncaused formula that has always existed? How is that possible?

2. Also, how do the laws of physics or mathematical formulas have causal power? They’re descriptive, but how are they creative? The formula for the law of gravity describes gravity, but it takes (say) planetary objects to see gravitational attraction in action.

3. The laws of physics or mathematical formulas seem to assume a dependence on intellectual activity. Intellectual activity would assume a mind. However, if there is no God nor other minds at this time, then how can the laws of physics or mathematical laws exist at all?

Advertisements

An interview with Wolterstorff on grief

Also be sure to read “False expectations” (Steve Hays).


Evan: I’m Evan Rosa, and you’re listening to The Table Audio, a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions. Philosophy is often associated with detached, neutral reasoning about the world, thinking objectively or abstractly about esoteric puzzles. It turns out that philosophers are people, too.

It’s a refreshing, and inviting, and inspiring experience when you meet in a person both a formidable and incisive philosophical clarity along with a presence of patience, and wisdom, and loving concern. That’s my guest for this interview.

Philosopher, Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff, split his career as professor of philosophy at Calvin College from 1959 to 1989 and then as Noah Porter professor of philosophical theology at Yale University from 1989 to 2001.

Even since then, he’s authored an incredible number of books on everything from metaphysics, the history of modern philosophical figures, like John Locke and Thomas Reid, justice, love, art and aesthetics, and his most recent foray into the metaphysics of sacrament and liturgical practices.

Not many scholars are so capable of saying something of such importance on such a broad variety of topics. I asked Nick about his only non‑philosophical published work, “Lament for a Son,” a work and expression of profound grief written in the wake of his son Eric’s untimely death in 1983. In it, you find a man unafraid to say what he really thinks, really feels, really fears, really loves.

There is no pious talk here, nothing Pollyanna‑ish. It is frank and spacious, and it will unravel the tightly‑wound bandages that cover your wounds of loss, but with the kind of sober consolation and gives hope and peace rather than despair and turmoil.

What emerges are reflections on the nature of grief as personal, discontinuous, and fragmentary, the conflicted relationship to public expression of lament in American society, the theological implications of suffering, and loss, and ultimately, love. For as he writes in the short preface of the book, ‘Every lament is a love song.”

In 2008, I was in a Barnes & Noble in North Carolina. I’d been aware of your work in philosophy. I just had this habit, as most young philosophers do, of pouring through bookstores ‑‑ used bookstores, new bookstores, whatever ‑‑ and I stumbled across your title, Lament for a Son.

At the time, it was just a purchase to have more in my Nicholas Wolterstorff collection.

Continue reading

On grief, and not theologizing about it

Also be sure to read “False expectations” (Steve Hays).


On grief, and not theologizing about it
Nicholas Wolterstorff
January 10, 2019

On Sunday afternoon, June 12, 1983, I received a phone call that shattered my comfortable life and divided it into before and after. The call was from our son Eric’s landlady in Munich, Germany, where Eric was doing research for his doctoral dissertation in architectural history.

“Mr. Wolterstorff, I must give you some bad news.”

“Yes.”

“Eric has been climbing in the mountains and has had an accident.”

“Yes.”

“Eric has had a serious accident.”

“Yes.”

“Mr. Wolterstorff, I must tell you, Eric is dead. Mr. Wolterstorff, are you there? You must come at once! Mr. Wolterstorff, Eric is dead.” It took a couple of seconds for the reality of what I had heard to sink in.

Continue reading

Books on the atonement

Myson91 asks:

One Stop Shop on the Atonement?

So, I’ve been listening to the Bible Project, and I like them, but each time they start venturing into the cross, they always get my head scratching in a way that says, “Yeah, I guess that’s true, but what about the rest?” Same with Wright, of whom I really really like, but still feel a little empty. I read about these images within the atonement, such as Second Adam, Ransom, Substitution, Propitiation, Christus Victor, Justification, New Creation, Adoption, Revelation, Exemplar, etc and they’re each right but I’m looking for a biblical-theological work on how they are all right and how they all fit together. Does such a book exist? Or books?

Preface

Unfortunately I don’t think there’s a “one stop shop” book on the atonement. The atonement has a biblical/exegetical basis as well as philosophical and theological ramifications. Hence, to do justice to the atonement as a full-orbed topic in a single book, you’d have to find a scholar who is well versed and up-to-date in the relevant biblical scholarship as well as philosophical theology. That’s exceedingly rare, and in fact I’m not sure if there is such a scholar today.

What’s more, the atonement can be framed in terms of additional categories or sub-categories like biblical theology, Pauline theology, Johannine theology, and so on. (By the way, Tom Schreiner, Simon Gathercole, and Jarvis Williams are good in discussing the atonement in Pauline theology.)

In short, the atonement is a massive topic.

One book

However, if I had to pick a single book on the atonement that gets as close as possible to this ideal (but ultimately falling short of it), I think I’d pick Pierced for Our Transgressions. The book has decent biblical/exegetical and theological (including historical theology) foundations. Not stellar in these categories, but not bad. Solid. However, it significantly lacks in philosophical theology. In any case, I think you’d have to supplement this book with other books. I’d add:

Biblical/Exegetical

  • Beilby, James and Eddy, Paul (eds.). The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views. This book is a debate between four scholars arguing for four different views on the atonement: Gregory Boyd argues for the Christus Victor view; Tom Schreiner argues for the penal substitutionary view; Bruce Reichenbach argues for the healing view; and Joel Green argues for a kaleidescopic view. In my view, Schreiner makes the best case, but read it for yourself to decide.
  • Morris, Leon. The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Either this book or its less technical and more popular but still strong treatment The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance. This is an older text, but it was and remains a landmark text. D.A. Carson still tells seminarians and ministers to “sell your shirt and buy” Morris’ book if they have to. Likewise see Morris’ brief essay “Theories of the Atonement“.

Theological

  • Murray, John. Redemption Accomplished and Applied. A classic Reformed text from a stalwart Reformed theologian.
  • Nicole, Roger. Our Sovereign Savior. A good chapter on the atonement by a world class theologian. Nicole was a Swiss Reformed theologian.
  • Nicole, Roger. Standing Forth: Collected Writings of Roger Nicole. Includes essays on the atonement and related matters.
  • Packer, J.I., Dever, Mark, and Duncan, Ligon. In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement. This book contains several essays on the atonement from J.I. Packer including Packer’s classic introduction to John Owen’s “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ”.
  • Warfield, B.B. “Atonement“. A brief article that gives an overview of five possible theories about the atonement. Warfield has other good material on the atonement, but I thought this would be a decent representative.

Philosophical

  • Craig, William Lane. The Atonement in the University of Cambridge’s Elements in the Philosophy of Religion series. A short but dense book. An overview of the philosophical issues. Cambridge Press did offer it for free as a downloadable pdf, which is how I obtained it, but I don’t know if that’s still the case now.
  • Helm, Paul. “John Calvin’s Position on the Atonement“. Free article from an astute Reformed philosopher. Helm has discussed the atonement in published books too (e.g. Calvin and the Calvinists).
  • Helm, Paul. “The Logic of Limited Atonement“. Another free article. Answering objections rather than making a positive case.

Bahnsen’s transcendental argument for God

An atheist redditor named hatsoff2 attempts to attack Greg Bahnsen’s transcendental argument for the existence of God (TAG) here.

My replies (with some light revision) are below. I won’t quote everything I wrote since a lot of it is repetitive or unnecessary.


1. You’re not dealing with the most sophisticated form of TAG. Like you said, Bahnsen deployed his version of TAG in the 1980s. If you want a more up-to-date and sophisticated form of TAG, then consider Prof. James Anderson at Reformed Theological Seminary (e.g. “No Dilemma for the Proponent of the Transcendental Argument: A Response to David Reiter“). Prof. Anderson also has a selection of presuppositional arguments on his website. Likewise Prof. Greg Welty has written on TAG, though it’s a bit dated. I presume Welty would make refinements today.

2.

Anderson and Welty are clearly inspired by Bahnsen and Van Til, and their “theistic conceptual realism” is interesting to be sure. But their approach is quite distinct from Bahnsen’s.

Anderson and Welty may have been “inspired” by Bahnsen and Van Til, not to mention John Frame, and probably others, but Anderson and Welty develop TAG in more sophisticated and robust forms that are quite independent from Bahnsen and Van Til. I think their TAG is a far better representation of TAG than Bahnsen.

Plus, Bahnsen passed away a long time ago and he isn’t available to respond to your criticisms of his TAG. However, if Bahnsen were alive today, his TAG would likely look different too.

3.

I guess I regard them as different camps. It’s true that Bahnsen is dead, but not Sye Ten Bruggencate, Matt Slick, and Eric Hovind.

If you’re trying to figure out what “cancer” is, you could look up the word “cancer” in a dictionary like Merriam-Webster or the Oxford English Dictionary. M-W and OED could have a useful definition of “cancer” for the average person. Nothing wrong with their definitions, per se. However, if you really want to dig into what “cancer” is, then you really would have to research what cancer is based on oncology papers and textbooks and speaking with oncologists and other cancer researchers.

Similarly, in apologetics, guys like Sye, Slick, and Hovind are popularizers rather than scholars. They’re more like M-W or OED than an oncology textbook like The Biology of Cancer. Nothing wrong with popularizers, per se, it’s sometimes useful to have popularizers, but guys like Anderson and Welty are more like oncologists and cancer researchers. So, if you really want to address TAG in its best and most sophisticated form, then it’d make much more sense to deal with guys like Anderson and Welty rather than guys like Sye, Slick, and Hovind.

4.

I’d like to know more about what you mean when you say Bahnsen’s argument is “outdated.” I don’t see that anything in his argument is date-sensitive. That is, if it was a good argument in 1985 or whenever it was, it should still be a good argument in 2019, right? But if it was a bad argument in 1985…

Philosophical arguments can evolve over time. For example, Bahnsen’s opponent Gordon Stein was widely said to have lost the debate with Bahnsen, but Stein later said he had come up with a rebuttal to Bahnsen’s argument. If that’s true, then Bahnsen would need to modify his argument in response to Stein. So even at this basic level, it’s a give and take between philosophical arguments and counterarguments.

5. As for modern TAGs, TAGs could be framed as a family of arguments with major and minor premises and so on, populated with different kinds of abstract objects (e.g. numbers, laws of logic, possible worlds), etc. It depends how somoene wishes to put the pieces together and develop their argument. Different people have different strategies.

6.

It sounds maybe like you agree it’s a bad argument but you don’t want to come out and say it outright because you’re sympathetic to it for some reason. Maybe it’s because you think it can inspire something worthwhile (like the Anderson/Welty theistic conceptual realism). And that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t change the fact that Bahnsen’s original formulation was a howler, as are its direct descendants.

Lol, wut. This is a string of assertions that fails to recognize anything I’ve said to you so far.

However, I guess if we’re psychoanalyzing motives now (despite all my clear words to you), I’d say you’d prefer to deal with low-hanging fruit and easy targets. You’d rather not deal with the most robust versions of TAG. Maybe it’s because you’re unable to deal with guys like Anderson and Welty. That’s perfectly fine, it’s your prerogative, and not everyone is as intellectually capable as guys like Anderson and Welty, so there’s no shame in knowing your intellectual limitations.

Still this doesn’t change the fact that transcendental arguments today are significantly different than in 1985. That’s also recognized by non-Christian philosophers if you peruse the relevant material on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Ironically, you have the same mentality as the caricature of the supposed ignorant fundamentalist Christian attacking Darwinism. This fundamentalist Christian purportedly attacks Darwinism based on Darwinism in the mid-1800s, not based on neo-Darwinism today, which has incorporated modern genetics, population genetics, advanced dating methods, and so on. You’re doing the same with Bahnsen’s TAG as the fundamentalist Christian allegedly does with mid-1800s Darwinism; you’re not dealing with contemporary versions of presuppositionalism and transcendental argumentation. Again, that’s your prerogative, and again not everyone is as intellectually dexterous as Anderson and Welty and therefore able to respond to their arguments, but you should know what you’re doing isn’t all that relevant to responding to the most sophisticated and robust forms of TAG.

7.

If you’d like to create a separate thread about Anderson and Welty’s argument, I’d be happy to discuss it. But this thread is about Bahnsen’s argument, which first appeared in the 1980s and continues to be used today by people like Slick, Sye, and Hovind.

Like I’ve repeatedly said to you, you’re picking off low-hanging fruit.

It was a bad argument in the 1980s, and it’s still a bad argument today.

It was a good enough argument to defeat Gordon Stein at the time, according to people present at the debate (e.g. see John Frame’s comments).

If it’s such a bad argument, then it’s interesting so many atheists are still talking about it, debating it, posting about it, even obsessing about it. After all, it’s been nearly 35 years! You’d think if it was such a bad argument, atheists wouldn’t care so much. Instead atheists would easily dismiss it and be done with it if it was such a bad argument. So, even though I think Bahnsen’s argument had its weaknesses, it’s telling that his argument is still being debated today, and debated not only by a handful of atheists, but generations of atheists. Nearly 35 years is a long time to discuss such a “bad argument”.

Anderson and Welty’s argument is also deeply flawed, but its flaws are different since it’s a different argument.

You’re welcome to present a paper at a conference or publish a paper in response to Anderson or Welty, as other critics have done.

8.

I’m not sure why you have such an attitude all of a sudden. You didn’t before, until two posts ago. What changed? Did I say something that offended you?

On the contrary, perhaps you have a tin ear or another sort of reading deficiency if you think I “have such an attitude all of a sudden”. I was more direct with you, yes, because (I could say) you had become quite direct yourself “all of a sudden”. However, directness doesn’t imply “attitude” in the way you mean.

You’ve said that about low-hanging fruit before. But what does that metaphor mean, exactly, if not that Bahnsen’s is an obviously bad argument that’s easy to criticize? I would definitely agree that Bahnsen’s argument, since it’s so obviously terrible, is much easier to criticize than Anderson and Welty’s argument. But it seems like you want to say that Bahnsen’s argument is a good one—or at least it used to be a good one when it originally appeared in the 1980s.

I think you answered your own question. I gave you an analogy with Darwin and neo-Darwinism. Assuming Darwinism is true for the sake of argument, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with Darwin’s argument for his time. However, significant improvements have been made since Darwinism came on the scene in the mid-1800s (e.g. Mendelian genetics, population genetics). So much so that modern Darwinism is typically termed neo-Darwinism for example. Likewise, there was nothing necessarily wrong with Bahnsen’s argument for his time against Stein, but significant improvements have been made since then.

And you think Stein’s criticisms don’t hold up, despite Bahnsen being unable to answer them. And I guess you think that my additional criticism doesn’t hold up either, even though you’ve declined to explain why.

No, I never told you what I think, in fact I was quite clear about my reasons for that, but I cited John Frame’s comments. Frame was present at the debate.

You pointed to the comments by Frame, but Frame didn’t offer any response to Stein either. What does it even mean to say that Bahnsen “won” the debate? Was anyone in attendance persuaded from atheism to theism? Presumably not. I think all Frame is saying is that Bahnsen was more polished in his presentation and exuded more confidence than Stein. Of course I disagree—I thought Stein looked far more professional and was far more impressive than Bahnsen. Maybe if I was physically present I’d have felt differently; I don’t know. But regardless I’m discussing Bahnsen’s argument, not his public speaking skills.

I suspect you’re failing to be objective about Frame’s remarks due to your strong (if not borderline irrational) bias against Bahnsen’s TAG (whereas I see strengths and weaknesses in Bahnsen, at least based on my memory of the debate from years ago, but obviously I’d have to re-visit his argument for a detailed assessment).

In any case, as for Frame, Frame didn’t need to re-present arguments against Stein’s arguments, for the obvious reason that, if it’s true Bahnsen “won” the debate (by which it’s obvious to any fair-minded reader after reading Frame that Frame meant Bahnsen had the better argument), then Bahnsen himself would have done a sufficient job against Stein at the time – at least in Frame’s opinion.

Finally, you suggested that skeptics wouldn’t still be talking about the argument if it really was so terrible. But that’s not true at all. Many bad arguments have long lives, for various reasons. I’m sure you can think of some arguments you regard as terrible, which just won’t go away. Well, this one is like that. Calvinists continue to bring it up, and so skeptics like myself continue to knock it down.

Some of that may be due to Christians discussing it, sure, but surely not all of it, for it happens even among certain atheist circles on their own. Not to mention atheists themselves have deployed transcendental arguments for the non-existence of God which interact with Bahnsen though in principle they need not have if Bahnsen had given such a “bad argument”, a “howler”, and so on.

One last thing. You asked why I haven’t published a response to Anderson and Welty.

No, I never “asked” why you haven’t published a response. I said you’re welcome to present a paper at a conference or publish a paper in response to Anderson or Welty.

(I would be the first since nobody else has yet done so.) The thing is, there isn’t enough interesting to say about it that would justify an entire paper. Keep in mind, the part of their argument posing the main problem is only two or three sentences long, and it doesn’t take much more than that to critique it.

The problem is you’re forgetting or ignoring that presuppositionalism is the broader backdrop for TAGs. At least they’re significantly intertwined. I’ve already alluded to this to you earlier including in my very first comment to you. So you’re failing to consider Anderson’s presuppositionalism in general.

What needs to happen, then, is to get a dialogue going with Anderson and Welty so that we’d have more to say. In that case I could submit a blog post to the Philosophia Christi website. I’ve already spoken a bit to Anderson but he wants to wait until Alex Malpass makes his critique public, because Malpass’s critique is similar to mine. I might email Welty before then but it’s unlikely he’ll have much to say either.

Sounds fine.

“No mind, no person”

I got into an impromptu debate with a redditor named lannister80. The broader context is Alabama passing an abortion ban. However, specifically, lannister80 argues abortion is morally acceptable because the embryo is a human organism but not a “person”. He argues personhood is conferred when the mind exists. Hence, he argues, if the embryo doesn’t have a mind, then the embryo is not a person, and so it’s fine to abort the embryo. My response (reorganized and revised) is below.

Continue reading

Me, myself, and I

Paradoxically the most important oversight of the new atheists is the most obvious datum of all: themselves. The ultimate supraphysical/physical reality that we know from experience is the experiencer itself, namely, ourselves. Once we acknowledge the fact that there is a first-person perspective, “I,” “me,” “mine,” and the like, we encounter the greatest and yet the most exhilarating mystery of all. I exist. To reverse Descartes, “I am, therefore I think, perceive, intend, mean, interact.” Who is this “I”? “Where” is it? How did it come to be? Your self is obviously not just something physical, just as it is not just something supraphysical. It is an embodied self, an ensouled body; “you” are not in a particular brain cell or in some part of your body. The cells in your body keep changing and yet “you” remain the same. If you study your neurons, you will find that none of them have the property of being an “I.” Of course your body is integral to who you are, but it is a “body” because it constituted as such by the self. To be human is to be embodied and ensouled.

In a famous passage in his A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume declares, “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself…I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.”14 Here Hume denies the existence of a self simply by arguing that he (meaning “I”!) can’t find “myself.” But what is it that unifies his various experiences, that enables him to be aware of the external world, and that remains the same throughout? Who’s asking these questions? He assumes that “myself” is an observable state like his thoughts and feelings. But the self is not something that can be thus observed. It is a constant fact of experience and, in fact, the ground of all experience.

Indeed, of all the truths available to us, the self is at the same time the most obvious and unassailable and the most lethal for all forms of physicalism. To begin with, it must be said that a denial of the self cannot even be claimed without contradiction. To the question, “How do I know I exist?” a professor famously replied, “And who’s asking?” The self is what we are and not what we have. It is the “I” from which arises our first-person perspective. We cannot analyze the self, because it is not a mental state that can be observed or described.

The most fundamental reality of which we are all aware, then, is the human self, and an understanding of the self inevitably sheds insights on all the origin questions and makes sense of reality as a whole. We realize that the self cannot be described, let alone explained, in terms of physics or chemistry: science does not discover the self; the self discovers science. We realize that no account of the history of the universe is coherent if it cannot account for the existence of the self.

(Roy Abraham Varghese, There Is a God, pp 180-182.)