Philosophy: September 2007 Archives

I mentioned in this post the one place I've found something in D.A. Carson's writings that I disagree with, and I wanted to explain in detail what that is and why I disagree with him. I've summarized Alvin Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology in this post, so I refer you to that for the basics of the view. Carson discusses the view in Letters Along the Way, pp.151-156 and in The Gagging of God pp.186, 188. In the first book, some of his critique is from what he (or possibly Woodbridge) thinks Plantinga gets wrong about Calvin. I have little to say about that, since I haven't read Calvin on the issue and am not interested in what he said for the sake of getting him right, at least not with respect to this issue. I do think Carson (and Woodbridge) ought to get Plantinga right if they're going to critique him in print, and I don't think that actually happened in this case.

In Letters Along the Way, Plantinga comes off as if he denies the possibility of establishing the existence of God with evidence, as if he doesn't think there is any evidence whatsoever to support Christian belief. Nothing could be further from the truth. Plantinga thinks several arguments for the existence of God are convincing. He thinks there is good evidence to support belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I'm not sure where this understanding of Plantinga is coming from, but it doesn't fit with Plantinga's actual beliefs or his discussion in the piece Carson and Woodbridge cite ("Reason and Belief in God", in Faith and Rationality, ed. Plantinga and Wolterstorff).

What Plantinga does say is that evidentialism is false as a requirement on knowledge. Evidentialism takes knowledge to be impossible without either evidence or self-evident truths. He allows that people disagree on the value of the evidence, and so he doesn't think evidential arguments will be convincing enough to those with highly skeptical standards. I don't know of anywhere where he simply denies the possibility of gaining support for Christian beliefs with evidence, however. He just doesn't think you need evidence to have knowledge of God. Plantinga does recognize (rightly) that there are no standards agreed on by all sides that we can use as the basis of rational arguments for God. The atheist can just deny any premise necessary to get out of the argument. That's how philosophical arguments work, no matter what the conclusion is. But that's a far cry from thinking such arguments are inconclusive or unsound. To make that jump would require making it in every area of philosophy, making no argument successful or sound. This is simply not Plantinga.

The discussion continues with a number of claims that I find it hard to see as responsible Plantinga exegesis. Woodbridge and Carson compare Plantinga with Barth, with whom I see no comparison. Barth rejects the kind of natural theology that Plantinga has spent a good deal of time defending, even if he's recognized that atheists can deny a premise to any valid argument to get out of accepting the conclusion. Plantinga does discuss the objections he sees to natural theology in the works of Bavinck, Calvin, and Barth. But he does so in order to show that his rejection of evidentialism is in the general Reformed tradition, not to agree with everything in those thinkers' rejection of natural theology. He in fact says that the natural theologian can respond to some of their complaints, and he gives a defense of natural theology before going on to continue his critique of evidentialism and response to the no-evidence argument.

One of the arguments open theists give for the view that God doesn't know the future exhaustively is that several biblical passages seem to indicate God changing his mind. This is indeed how the text is worded in several places. In Genesis 18, God is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, but Abraham pleads with him to spare it even if there are ten righteous people there. As it turns out, there's just one, Abraham's nephew Lot. So God still destroys it, but he spares Lot. You might get the impression from the passage that God wasn't originally going to save Lot (although the text never says that).

Several times during the wilderness wanderings, you have similar events. After the golden calf incident in Exodus 32, Moses intercedes for Israel more than once within a few chapters. Each time, the text seems to say that God changes his plan about what he intends to do with Israel. First he intends to destroy all Israel and then make a new people out of Moses as he had done with Abraham before. Then God agrees to spare Israel, but he won't be with them in the same kind of manner as he had been (with the pillar of fire and cloud). Then he eventually agrees to be with them as he had before. There are a couple more shortened accounts of similar things with the rebellions in Numbers, and other examples appear throughout the Bible. 

Now there's always been a way to take these passages that's consistent with classical theism. God knew what he intended to do all along, and that never changed, but the language about God changing his mind is really not about God having one intent and then changing it. It's about God's policy during one time being one thing and then the policy during the next time being something else, and what someone does at some time in between is God's reason for having a different policy. So God's policy in Exodus 32 is that he's telling Moses a plan (one he never intends to carry out, because he knows how Moses will respond) and then by the end of Exodus 34 is telling Moses his real plan, but he frames it in language Moses can understand so that Moses can see that he's really interacting with God. Describing it in atemporal language or explaining the final result before Moses has been brought to where God wants him is counterproductive. It doesn't allow Moses to experience the succession of states that he needs to experience.

But I'm not interested here in arguing exegetically for the traditional interpretation, even though I think it's the best way to make sense of these texts, often because of signs within the texts but especially in the light of the wider scriptures. What prompted me to write about these passages is something that occurred to me as I was reading one of these kinds of passages in Numbers last week. Look at the examples of God changing his mind that open theists claim as evidence for open theism. It their interpretation is true, then God initially has some plan he wants to carry out, and Abraham, Moses, or some other righteous figure comes along to convince God that his plan is bad. It violates God's character in some of these instances, particularly in the case of God saying he'll go against his promises to Abraham and destroy Israel. That's Moses' very argument. So if the open theistic interpretation of these passages is correct, it isn't just the metaphysical status of God's nature that they're revising. It isn't just the issue of God's exhaustive foreknowledge that's at stake in this debate. If the open theistic interpretation is correct, then God has some pretty seriously immoral tendencies that these wonderful people like Abraham and Moses then come along and help God to overcome by standing up against God's evil.

I think, then, that most classical theists who complain about open theism's biblical revisionism are missing the most revisionary aspect of open theism. It's not that open theists' view of God contradicts the plain statements of scripture (although I think it does) in order to take narrative passages told from a phenomenological perspective as if they are reporting the most basic metaphysical reality in careful, philosophical language. (If we did that with another passage, we'd end up with the view that the sun goes around the earth.) It's that open theistic interpretation of the very passages most commonly used to argue for open theism make God out to be thoroughly immoral in a way that it requires human righteousness to temper God's passions. Doesn't this get the Christian gospel upside-down?

Beckwith on Abortion

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Scott Klusendorf reviews Frank Beckwith's Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice.

I've seen some of Beckwith's arguments in some Right Reason posts as he was writing the book. This is the first book-length defense of a pro-life position from a philosophical review ever, as far as I know, and it's from a major university publisher, who wouldn't be publishing it if it were second-rate. I haven't bought the book yet, but I'm very much looking forward to reading it, and I might (if I get the chance) try to teach through it (or at the very least teach excerpts from it) in an applied ethics course, up against David Boonin's recent pro-choice defense, which Beckwith interacts with heavily.

Scott intends to blog through the whole book. I'll be keeping my eye out.

Richard Dawkins is often accused of being a fundamentalist atheist. He dismisses theism almost without argument. The arguments he gives are often straw men or miss the point in some other way. He shows little familiarity with the best philosophical representatives of theism, and since his work on atheism is actually philosophy he's really dropped the ball in backing up his views. It ends up looking like mere dogmatism without much allowance for dialogue with the other side, i.e. fundamentalism.

Dawkins' response:

The answer to the familiar accusation of atheist fundamentalism is plain enough. The onus is not on the atheist to demonstrate the non-existence of the invisible unicorn in the room, and we cannot be accused of undue confidence in our disbelief. The devout churchgoer recites the Nicene Creed weekly, enumerating a detailed and precise list of things he positively believes, with no more evidence than supports the unicorn. Now that’s overconfidence. By contrast, the atheist says the humble thing: of all the millions of possible entities that one might imagine, I believe only in those for which there is evidence – trombones, pelicans and electrons, say, but not unicorns or leprechauns, not Thor with his hammer, not Ganesh the elephant god, not the Holy Ghost. 

Macht at Prosthesis offers a reply, and I think he's right. What atheists are rejecting when they reject theism is not mere theism. They reject a whole set of beliefs and values, a way of life, a kind of community, a view on the meaning and purpose of life, and so on. They reject the fundamental conception of how most people in the world today and throughout history have seen the significance of their lives and how they live. That does seem to me to be disanalogous with merely not believing in an invisible unicorn that someone else tells you is in the room.

Plato the Non-Totalitarian

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It's pretty common to hear that Plato was a totalitarian who thought that philosopher-kings ought to be given the decision-making power in government (e.g. here, for a pretty prominent mention at a top blog), so that the ordinary joes who don't know any better won't be doing what's bad for everyone, including themselves. No laws should restrict these benevolent tyrants, since laws just get in the way of allowing them to make the best decisions. Laws are too sweeping and won't apply as well in every case, and philosopher-kings would be wise enough to see when a given principle does or doesn't apply.  As I said, this is a common mistake. This isn't actually Plato's view, even though someone reading only the Republic might be excused for thinking Plato did hold to something like this (although I think you do have to ignore some clear signs even in the Republic if you want to take Plato to be advocating the model of the city he sets up there).

In Plato's careful political philosophy (e.g. in the Statesman and the Laws), he distances himself from this view. He does think an ideal government would function something like that, but he acknowledges that this is only the ideal government. If you really had an expert who not only knew all the relevant information and could predict exactly which policies would be best but also had the best interests of everyone involved and were willing to do what's right all the time, then the best form of government would be to let that person rule, and those who resisted would be revealing that they don't know what's best for them.

Many will still bristle at this, but I think they ought to do so only if they recognize that Plato was highly skeptical about whether anyone could possibly be like this. Even if there were such experts no one could ever be shown to be such an expert, because the masses who aren't experts of that sort won't be able to recognize that the expert's views are correct (because they're not themselves experts). Therefore, most people wouldn't be able to tell the expert from the corrupt imposter. Therefore, to guard against that eventuality, it's best to have the inferior form of rule, which is rule by many who are not experts. Plato outright admits this in the Statesman, quite plainly repudiating the view that so many attribute to him because of their misreading of the Republic.

As I said, many will still disagree with him about what the ideal state would be like, but they ought to do so not in terms of his faux view put forward in the Republic, which is mostly intended to be a model that serves as an analogy for what he thinks the just person will be like. They ought to take his mature presentation of political discussion in his later dialogues, which are unambiguously about politics as a own subject of its own rather than the moral philosophy and exploration of human nature that the Republic carries out.

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