Review of Reason for the Hope Within (2005)
Review: Michael J. Murray, ed. 1999. Reason for the Hope Within. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. xvi+429 pp.
Foreword: Alvin Plantinga
Introduction: Michael J. Murray
Chapter 1: “Reason for Hope (in the Post-modern World)” by Michael J. Murray
Chapter 2: “Theistic Arguments” by William C. Davis
Chapter 3: “A Scientific Argument for the Existence of God: The Fine-Tuning Design Argument” by Robin Collins
Chapter 4: “God, Evil and Suffering” by Daniel Howard Snyder
Chapter 5: “Arguments for Atheism” by John O’Leary Hawthorne
Chapter 6: “Faith and Reason” by Caleb Miller
Chapter 7: “Religious Pluralism” by Timothy O’Connor
Chapter 8: “Eastern Religions” by Robin Collins
Chapter 9: “Divine Providence and Human Freedom” by Scott A. Davison
Chapter 10: “The Incarnation and the Trinity” by Thomas D. Senor
Chapter 11: “The Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting” by Trenton Merricks
Chapter 12: “Heaven and Hell” by Michael J. Murray
Chapter 13: “Religion and Science” by W. Christopher Stewart
Chapter 14: “Miracles and Christian Theism” by J. A. Cover
Chapter 15: “Christianity and Ethics” by Frances Howard-Snyder
Chapter 16: “The Authority of Scripture” by Douglas Blount
This book comes with glowing endorsements from a number of prominent Christian philosophers of religion, including a very enthusiastic foreword from Alvin Plantinga. While there are things to like about the book, I believe that the dust jacket hype is greatly overstated. In particular, while I think that some of the individual chapters are very good indeed, I do not think that the book as a whole does much towards advancing the standing of Christian apologetics.
The editor notes that the explicit aim of the book is to bring important recent work by Christian philosophers of religion to a wider public so as to further the ends of Christian apologetics. According to the editor, there are two different directions in which those ends might be furthered. First, the book might make advances in the field of “negative apologetics,” i.e., in the direction of “explaining to nonbelievers [and perhaps also to potentially wavering believers] how puzzling and paradoxical features of the Christian faith can be understood and reasonably maintained” (15). Second, the book might make advances in the field of “positive apologetics,” i.e., in the direction of “pointing out [to theists and nontheists alike] the uncomfortable fit unbelievers experience in their belief structure [because they do not accept Christianity]” (15). It is worth noting that, in either of these directions, the book aims to speak both to believers and to nonbelievers. In particular, in the case of target nonbelievers, the sections on “negative apologetics” aim to explain to nonbelievers how “puzzling and paradoxical features of the Christian faith can be understood and reasonably maintained”; and the sections on “positive apologetics” aim to contribute to the task of persuading nonbelievers of the truth of the sum of the core claims of Christianity.
It seems reasonable to take the book itself as a guide to what the sum of the core claims of Christianity amounts to. To paraphrase the consensus of the authors of the book, the vast majority of Christians believe that:
There is an immaterial, omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good creator (ex nihilo) and sustainer of all things who is three persons in one substance, with one of these three persons being numerically identical to a human being who died to atone for human sins; who exercises providential control over free human beings; who will bring about the bodily resurrection of all to eternal life; who allows some lives to lead to eternal bliss and other lives to lead to eternal torment; and who is the author of authoritative (and perhaps inerrant) scripture, viz. the Christian Bible.
Given that this is what Christians believe, and given that the book has the explicit aim of contributing to the task of persuading nonbelievers of either the reasonableness or truth of Christianity, it is fair to assess the book in terms of its success in giving nonbelievers—particularly atheists—good reasons to believe (or find reasonable) these core Christian claims. This is what I shall do in the present review.
As to whether the book contributes to persuading nonbelievers of the truth of Christianity, I will give the following summary (leaving the details below). None of the arguments presented in the book even conclude that the sum of the core claims of Christianity is true. True enough, there are some (unpersuasive) arguments which conclude that the existence of the universe has a cause and that some cosmological and/or biological features of the universe are the product of intelligent design (Davis, Collins): but those arguments are manifestly inadequate to the task of persuading nonbelievers that the sum of the core doctrines of Christianity is true. Moreover, all of the authors agree that the reasons to believe many of the core doctrines of Christianity ultimately reside in the deliverances of Scripture and revelation. Indeed, I take it that most of the authors would agree with Miller, who writes:
It would … be a serious mistake to insist that the Christian faith is defensible by arguments that would convince any intelligent person…. The Christian faith, moreover, does not give us any reason to think that there are any such arguments. In fact, it gives us reason to think that there are no such arguments precisely because of the truth of Christian beliefs about the direct and indirect noetic effects of sin, even on intelligent people (161).
In light of this kind of comment, it is not surprising that one simply cannot find arguments in this book that ought to persuade intelligent atheists (or nonbelievers more broadly) that the sum of the core claims of Christianity is true. But, since this is the task of “positive apologetics,” it is immediately evident that this book makes no serious contribution to “positive apologetics.”
Some readers of this review may worry about an apparent gap in the above argument. What Miller and the other authors of the book concede is that there are no arguments that will succeed in convincing atheists; but it hardly follows from this that they also concede that there are no arguments that ought to convince atheists. However, it is important to note that, when it comes to the task of “negative apologetics,” almost all of the authors are very keen to insist that if an argument appears to show that some part of Christian doctrine is incoherent, logically inconsistent, or at odds with well-known empirical facts, an adequate response is to contend that the argument has premises that Christians as a matter of fact reject. That is, they are all quick to insist that certain arguments from nonbelievers are plainly unsuccessful because they contain premises that, as a matter of fact, Christians fail to accept. Moreover, they are also keen to insist that nonbelievers should be prepared to agree that these arguments are unsuccessful because nonbelievers can see that they have premises which Christians do not accept. But as a mere matter of the proper regulation of debate, it can hardly be reasonable to suppose that nonbelievers should agree that arguments against Christianity fail if they have premises which are not accepted by Christians, unless it is also reasonable to suppose that Christians should agree that arguments against unbelievers fail if they have premises that are not accepted by nonbelievers. At the very least, there is a choice to be made here. On the one hand, the authors might give up the supposition that, for the purposes of “negative apologetics” directed towards nonbelievers, it suffices to point out that critics of Christianity begin with assumptions that Christians reject. But in that case the authors would surely have to concede that their attempts at “negative apologetics” are abject failures since they all rely on this assumption. On the other hand, the authors might endorse the assumption that, for the purposes of negative apologetics directed towards nonbelievers, it suffices to point out that critics of Christianity begin with assumptions that Christians reject. But in that case the authors are surely obliged to concede that almost all of their attempts at “positive apologetics” are abject failures since they almost all rely on the rejection of the corresponding assumption for nonbelievers).
Of course, a more cynical reviewer might suggest that the policy of this book (and of many other books of its ilk) is to hand the chapters on “positive apologetics” to one group of Christians, and the chapters on “negative apologetics” to another group of Christians. The Christians who are prepared (at least for the moment) to reject the assumption that nonbelievers can adequately respond to arguments of “positive apologetics” by pointing out that these arguments make assumptions that nonbelievers reject, will doubtless be prepared to claim “success” for arguments of “positive apologetics” in cases in which it is recognized on all sides that those arguments do make assumptions that nonbelievers reject. The other group of Christians—who are prepared (at least for the moment) to endorse the assumption that Christians can adequately fulfill the requirements of “negative apologetics”—can simply point out that nonbelievers’ counterarguments begin with assumptions that Christians reject. (A more cynical reviewer might also wonder how the workshopping that led to the production of this book failed to disclose the procedural conflict between the chapters on “positive apologetics” and those on “negative apologetics.” I can’t believe that Howard-Snyder, Hawthorne, Cover, Merricks, et al., really endorse the claim that the arguments presented in the chapter by Davis have a serious contribution to make to “positive apologetics,” i.e., to the task of constructing arguments that nonbelievers should agree give them persuasive reasons for concluding that the core claims of Christianity are true.)
Let me provide a couple of illustrations of the kind of conflict that I have just been describing. In his chapter on the fine-tuning argument, Collins argues that it is “uncontroversial that the existence of the fine-tuning is not improbable under theism.” His reason for this is that “since God is an all good being, and it is good for intelligent, conscious beings to exist, it is not surprising or improbable that God would create a world that could support intelligent life” (53-4). But, in his chapter on arguments from evil, Howard-Snyder claims that various kinds of considerations (about our cognitive limitations and the like) “together constitute a good reason to be in doubt about whether it is highly likely that we would see a reason that would justify God in permitting so much evil if there were a reason” (112). So, what’s it to be? Should we be confident that we can have insight into the reasons of the being described in the core claims of Christianity or not? If a nonbeliever is expected to accept that we have no idea whether it is likely that we’d see a reason justifying God in permitting horrendous evil, why on earth would you expect a nonbeliever to accept that we can see perfectly well that it is likely that we’d see a reason justifying God in creating a fine-tuned universe? Perhaps we nonbelievers might agree with Collins that the fact that it is good for intelligent, conscious beings to exist would provide God with a pro tanto (“to that extent”) reason to create a world that could support intelligent life, just as we can surely insist that the fact that certain actions and events are horrendous evils would provide God with a pro tanto reason to prevent them. But why should we nonbelievers think that there is reason to have confidence about the move to an all-things-considered judgment in only one of these cases?
In his chapter on theistic arguments, Davis argues that “when all of the features of the world calling for explanation are taken together … the compelling verdict is that the world is much more the way one would have expected it to be given God’s existence than it would have been if metaphysical naturalism were true” (41). But, again, if we are to follow Howard-Snyder in accepting that we have good reason to be in doubt about whether it is highly likely that we would see all-things-considered reason that justifies God in permitting so much evil, why should we be prepared to follow Davis in supposing that we have no good reason to be in doubt about whether it is highly likely that we would see all-things-considered reason that justifies God in making a world like ours? Howard-Snyder clearly thinks that nonbelievers should concede that they are not well-placed to make judgments about what an omniscient and perfectly good being would permit (by way of horrendous evil); and Davis clearly thinks that nonbelievers should allow that they are well-enough placed to make judgments about the kind of universe that an omniscient and perfectly good being would create. I do not think that any Christian apologists can reasonably expect to have it both ways here.
On the question of whether the book contributes to the task of persuading nonbelievers of the reasonableness of believing in Christianity, it seems to me that matters are less straightforward than on the question of whether the book contributes to the task of persuading nonbelievers of the truth of Christianity. Because I’ve long been happy to grant that there can be (and indeed are) reasonable Christians, I stand in no need of persuading on this score. However, I suspect that nonbelievers who already harbor strong doubts about the reasonableness of Christian belief are not very likely to have their minds altered by the material provided in this book (much as I fear that Christians who harbor strong doubts about the reasonableness of nonbelief are not very likely to have their minds swayed by the kinds of considerations adduced in the present review). Still, given a certain kind of view about reasonable belief and the amenability of belief to reasonable change by way of argument, it is very natural to suppose that there can be widespread disagreement between rational believers. (For an account of a view of rational belief of this kind, see my “Arguing about the Kalām Cosmological Argument” in Philo 5:1, 2002, 34-61.) In my view, Christians who want to persuade atheists to accept that there can be reasonable Christian belief would do better to argue for this conception of reasonable belief than to adopt “negative apologetics.” (I think that Howard-Snyder, Hawthorne, Cover and Merricks all exhibit some kind of sympathy for a view of reasonable belief of the kind in question, though doubtless they would not accept all of the details of the view of rational belief that I hold.)
With this preliminary discussion behind me, I turn now to a more detailed examination of the various contributions to the book. Here, I shall try to summarize the contents of the various chapters, and provide some critical assessment.
1. Murray discusses what he takes to be three important challenges to the “apologetic enterprise”: “scepticism,” “relativism,” and “anti-realism.”
“Scepticism” is the view that “we are duty bound to refrain from coming to hold beliefs on some matter or other” (4). (More exactly, though Murray doesn’t say this, he likely means that we are duty bound to refrain from coming to hold first-order beliefs on some matter or other. For example, even if I’m duty bound to refrain from forming any belief on whether there is extraterrestrial intelligence, I’m hardly duty bound to refrain from forming the belief that it’s my duty not to form a belief on whether there is extraterrestrial intelligence.) In particular, the question for Murray is whether “sceptics have any good reason for thinking the sorts of things discussed under the heading of apologetics are beyond our grasp?” (9). Murray says: “While any answer to this question would be controversial, I think we can safely answer ‘No!'” But, of course, we need to distinguish questions here. I don’t see why a “sceptic” couldn’t reasonably insist that she has no way of assigning any probability to the sum of the core claims of Christianity, since she has no way of assigning any probability to the claim that God would make a world like ours. Christians might reasonably suppose that the sorts of things discussed under the heading of apologetics are not beyond their grasp; but they shouldn’t suppose that they are able to speak for the rest of us.
“Relativism” is either the view that “which worldview one selects depends on the assumptions one makes in inferring the best explanation, [where] which assumptions one adopts is sometimes a matter of mere preference,” or the view that “which worldview is true depends on the assumptions one makes in inferring the best explanation, [where] which assumptions one adopts is sometimes a matter of mere preference” (16). Murray insists—correctly in my view—that, on the second conception, relativism is benighted, and that, on the first conception, relativism is benign, but not particularly interesting. (A natural lesson to draw—though not one that Murray himself draws—is that the prospects for “positive apologetics” are dim when seen in the light of benign relativism: since it is entirely proper for nonbelievers to rely on their own judgments about the goodness of explanations, it is unlikely that there are positive apologetic arguments that ought to persuade nonbelievers to give up their nonbelief on pain of conviction of irrationality.)
“Anti-realism” is the view that, while “the description of the world that we carry around with us is one that might be thoroughly adequate for our purposes … this description [does not] map onto ‘the way the world really is'” (6). Murray claims that there is a sense in which “anti-realism” has a place in Christian apologetics: “we can be anti-realist about … explanations for evil or the Trinity. [These explanations] provide good models for thinking about the Christian faith even if the models themselves turn out to be incorrect” (18). I think that it is a little odd to assimilate “anti-realism” to the kind of fictionalism that Murray recommends in the case of “models” of the Trinity and the like. The “models” that turn up in later chapters of the book are never said to be “thoroughly adequate for our purposes” (except insofar as that purpose is merely to convince unbelievers that certain beliefs are not self-evidently irrational). The Trinity is a clear example: it is just part of orthodox Christian belief that there are three divine persons in one substance. No Christian can be an antirealist about this claim, i.e., no Christian can contend that it fails to reflect “the way the world really is.” What a Christian can do is doubt that anyone can construct a sufficiently clear account of how it can be that there are three divine persons in one substance. But even so, it seems plausible to hold that commitments to the incomprehensibility of certain truths (the position which Murray calls antirealism) all tend to weigh against the claims of “positive apologetics”: how can nonbelievers reasonably come to accept claims whose content can’t be adequately explained to them by those who profess to espouse the claims in question?
Along with his reflections on “scepticism,” “relativism,” and “anti-realism,” Murray also provides some general thoughts about what apologetics can and can’t achieve. According to Murray, “sledgehammer apologetics”—i.e., the attempt to construct apologetic arguments that make it impossible for unbelievers presented with those arguments to continue in their unbelief (11)—faces a serious problem: because theories are always underdetermined by their data, no (consistent) theory can ever be decisively refuted, and hence nonbelievers can always “backtrack and readjust to avoid Christian conclusions” (14). There are two difficulties with Murray’s position here. On the one hand, it can be irrational to hold a theory even though that theory fits perfectly with one’s data: for there are other theoretical desiderata than fit with the evidence. In particular, a theory that is loaded up with too many ad hoc auxiliary hypotheses can die under the weight of its own complexity. Consistent theories are rationally rejectable on grounds other than lack of fit with evidence. So Murray hasn’t identified a good reason to think that “sledgehammer apologetics” faces a serious problem here. But “sledgehammer apologetics” does face other serious problems. In particular—as, for example, Cover allows (371)—it is just massively implausible to suppose that there are arguments for Christianity that every rational person must accept. Believers and nonbelievers disagree about a great many things, and it is almost beyond belief that one can find premises among those matters upon which they agree that will support the conclusion that Christianity is true.
2. Davis defends various theistic arguments for the existence of God. He claims that these arguments provide very good reasons (based on highly plausible premises) for belief in God, but that they are all capable of evasion by “a determined sceptic, [who] will always be able to find a reason—even if somewhat implausible—for persisting in unbelief” (21). Even disregarding the point that these are only arguments for theism (and not for Christianity), there are many reasons to question Davis’ evaluation of them.
First, Davis defends an argument from contingency:
There are contingent things (at least some things might not have existed).
All contingent things are dependent (at least for their coming into existence) on something else.
Not everything can be dependent on something else. (Even if the chain of dependence looped back on itself, the entire chain would still be dependent, and thus something outside the chain would be needed.)
Thus, a nondependent (necessary) thing exists (which explains dependent things). (And for those already familiar with God on the basis of revelation, it is not hard to give a name to this necessary thing.)
Davis says that this is a good argument, but that there are two loopholes for the unbeliever. First, the unbeliever might insist that the universe [= the sum of contingent things] is a necessary existent (thus denying the first premise); second, the unbeliever might insist that there is at least one contingent thing—the universe—that does not depend for its existence on anything else. (Davis adds, in a footnote, that one might think that a finitely powerful deistic god is “sufficient for the narrow task of initiating the sequence of causes” (25n5).
But, of course, there are other options.
A nonbeliever might be reasonably undecided between the claim that the universe is a necessary existent, and the claim that the universe is a nondependent contingent existent. Ex hypothesi, such an unbeliever would have independent reason to reject the conjunction of the premises of the argument. Moreover, it is clearly hopeless to insist that Davis’ argument is successful against such a nonbeliever; what is now required is some further argument against the (effectively) disjunctive belief held by the nontheist in question. (Of course, we could make the same points about any nonbeliever who denies any one of the premises of this argument. It is evident that this argument can play no role at all in showing that such a nonbeliever is irrational. But—for example—there are millions of nonbelievers who reject the second premise of the argument.)
A nonbeliever might deny that tacit mereological (part-whole) principle in the parenthetical remark appended to the third premise. Perhaps there are infinitely many things that are contingent, but no thing that is the mereological sum of those things. In that case, it could be true that every contingent thing is dependent upon some other contingent thing, but false that there is a nondependent necessary thing which explains the existence of contingent things. (Think of this as a “model” for explaining how it could be that there are only contingent things. It’s hardly worse than the “models” that later contributors use to defend beliefs in Christian doctrines such as the Trinity.)
A nonbeliever can surely insist that the remark in Davis’ footnote does not go nearly far enough. There are any number of competing conceptions of the nature of the nondependent thing that might be invoked (apart from the conception to be found in “standard theism” and “finite deism”). While Christians might be quite confident that they should prefer the conception of “standard theism,” it is quite unclear why nonbelievers should follow them in this matter. Nonbelievers might well be prepared to concede that the Humean panoply of alternative supernatural explanations does not give Christians a reason to revise their beliefs; but Christians should equally be prepared to concede that there is a serious obstacle to the project of “positive apologetics” here. It certainly seems to me that an evil or morally indifferent God is no less consonant with the evidence at my disposal than is a perfectly good God.
And so on. A full discussion of this argument would occupy us for a very long time. However, I think that most of the contributors would themselves agree that this argument has very little to contribute to the task of positive apologetics (conceived of as the task of constructing arguments that ought to persuade reasonable nonbelievers to change their minds).
Second, Davis defends a (fairly synoptic) argument that goes by inference to the best explanation. According to Davis, the following features of the world are all “better explained by God’s existence than by metaphysical naturalism” (36):
The fact that there is a universe of contingently existing things (25).
The fact that “the universe is orderly to a remarkable degree, and in more than one way” (36).
The fact that “[moral and aesthetic value] appears to be an objective feature of the world” (36-37).
The fact that human beings are conscious, intelligent, possessed of reliable cognitive faculties aimed at truth, appreciative of beauty, and possessed of a sense of humour (37, 40-41).
Indeed, Davis says, “When all of the features of the world calling for explanation are taken together … the compelling verdict is that the world is much more the way one would have expected it to be given God’s existence than it would have been if metaphysical naturalism were true” (41).
In making this assessment, Davis appeals to the overarching principle that the best explanation is the one that has the best fit to the evidence. He illustrates the principle by referring to a quasi-historical account of the justification of the belief that the earth is an oblate spheroid (flattened out at the poles and bulging at the equator), insisting that even now a “skillful arguer” can resist the conclusion that the earth is an oblate spheroid). He clearly means to suggest that the nonbeliever is in exactly the same boat as a contemporary figure who insists that the earth is flat: in each case it is possible to maintain the claim in question without accepting contradictions and hence, to this extent (but no further), it is possible to rationally maintain each claim.
In a footnote, Davis acknowledges that, strictly speaking, his overarching principle is false: “the strength of a hypothesis is a function of both its explanatory power and its simplicity” (29n7). However, “since it is difficult to assess the relative simplicity in a way which doesn’t seem to beg the question, I will be assuming that the simplicity of the pairs of hypotheses considered here are roughly equal.” So Davis simply assumes that Christianity and metaphysical naturalism are equally simple hypotheses. But no sensible nonbeliever will agree to this assumption (and thus, as argued above, we immediately conclude that this particular argument makes no contribution to “positive apologetics”).
Of course, there might be some other way in which a Christian could argue for the explanatory superiority of Christianity vis-à-vis metaphysical naturalism with respect to Davis’ menu of “facts.” But as soon as one starts to think about the details, one suspects that this is highly unlikely. Set aside the point that, before we begin, metaphysical naturalism has a huge advantage on the score of simplicity. Consider, for example, the first of Davis’ “facts.” According to Christians, the world is created by God as the result of a (libertarian) free choice. What does that mean? It means that if we compare two (ex hypothesi) possible worlds, one in which God creates, and the other in which God refrains from creating, there is no explanation of why God chooses to create in the one world, but refrains from choosing to create in the other. Here we have brute, inexplicable fact. On Christianity, why does God choose to create a universe of contingent existents (rather than choosing to refrain from doing so)? Ultimately, for no reason. Thus, upon closer examination, the alleged explanatory advantage of Christianity simply vanishes. (The lesson here is that—circles, infinite regresses, etc., aside—if there is contingency, then it must be brute unexplained contingency, and if there is contingent existence, it must be brute unexplained contingent existence.)
Let’s consider another of Davis’ “facts,” namely that moral and aesthetic values appear to be an objective feature of the world. If we suppose that such values actually are objective features of the world, then apparently Euthyphro considerations establish that Christians are in no better position than metaphysical naturalists to explain how this is so. On the other hand, if we suppose that these values merely appear to be an objective feature of the world, then it is quite unclear how Christians would explain this fact. (Davis claims that metaphysical naturalists are threatened by the fact that “the enterprises of morality and aesthetics are very common human activities which lack apparent survival value” [36n14]. But metaphysical naturalists needn’t be committed to crude evolutionary accounts of morality and aesthetics, nor much else for that matter.) It takes little insight to see that nonbelievers are unlikely to accept Davis’ claims about the alleged explanatory advantage of Christianity vis-à-vis this “fact.”
And so on. That Davis’ catalog of “facts” should give nonbelievers reason to trade in the simpler hypothesis of metaphysical naturalism for the questionably greater explanatory power of the far more complex hypothesis of Christianity is hardly plausible under examination. Of course, by their lights, Christians may well be entitled to suppose that Christianity offers the better explanation of this menu of alleged “facts.” But Christians really ought to concede that nonbelievers are not necessarily on a doxastic par with those benighted souls who currently believe that the earth is flat.
Interestingly, Davis goes on to complain that nonbelievers give Christians offense—and cause them annoyance and frustration—–by refusing to accept the testimony of those who have had experiences of God’s presence (42). Yet nonbelievers would be no less justified in complaining that Davis gives them offense–—and causes them annoyance and frustration—by claiming that their nonbelief is on a doxastic par with the beliefs of flat-earthers. The main point here is not—as Davis seems to suppose—that nonbelievers are unwilling to be swayed by evidence that falls short of proof. Like reasonable Christians, reasonable nonbelievers make an “inference to the best explanation” on the basis of all of the evidence that is available to them. Moreover, there is an interesting symmetry in the role that claims about “damaged faculties” can play in these two views. Davis writes that “The crucial question is whether the Christian practice of trusting one’s experience of God’s presence … involves a strong suspicion of compromised faculties or an independent reason to think their report false. Critics of theism … have all but given up thinking that God’s existence can be disproved, so their case must depend upon showing that the experience of God’s presence depends upon compromised faculties” (44). Of course, nonbelievers have not given up on the idea that Christians are mistaken in thinking that God exists, and inevitably this means that they suppose that there is some kind of mismatch between Christian cognitive faculties and reality. But in no smaller measure Christians believe that there is some kind of mismatch between nonbelievers’ cognitive faculties and reality–they hold that the inner life of nonbelievers is not illumined by the Holy Spirit, for instance. At this point perhaps Davis should reconsider the beam in his own eye…
There is so much more with which to disagree in Davis’ essay that I have barely begun to scratch the surface. But it is time to move on.
(Prime Principle of Confirmation): Whenever we are considering two competing hypotheses, an observation counts as evidence in favor of the hypothesis under which the observation has the highest probability (or is the least improbable) (51).
The existence of fine-tuning is not improbable under theism.
The existence of fine-tuning is very improbable under the atheistic single-universe hypothesis.
(Hence) the fine-tuning data provide strong evidence favoring the design hypothesis over the atheistic single-universe hypothesis.
To support premise 3, Collins appeals to a “qualified principle of indifference” which holds that if we have no reason to prefer any one value of a parameter over another, then we should assign equal probabilities to equal, real physical ranges, areas, or values (68-71).
Collins claims that we can be very confident that the Prime Principle of Confirmation is true because: (i) it can be derived from the probability calculus; (ii) there is no case of recognizably good reasoning that violates this principle; and (iii) the principle has a wide range of applicability and undergirds much of our reasoning in science and everyday life (53). I think that Collins is wrong about all of this. Whenever we consider competing hypotheses in light of the evidence, we have to trade off the simplicity of a hypothesis with how well it fits the data. If all we care about is how well a hypothesis fits the data (as Collins claims), then we will almost always end up committed to maximally complicated hypotheses. (For example, suppose that you are plotting points on a graph. You can always draw a highly complicated line where all of the data points fall on the curve and the data will be more probable, relative to such a curve, than it is to any curve on which some data points do not fall. Yet we often (quite rightly) suppose that there are simpler curves with worse fit to the data that are nevertheless more likely to represent the truth. To suppose otherwise is to forget about the prevalence of noise and error in our data.)
Collins cites the “odds form of Bayes’ Theorem” in a footnote: Pr(H1/E)/Pr(H2/E) = [Pr(H1)/Pr(H2)] x [Pr(E/H1)/Pr(E/H2)]. Interestingly, he then goes on to say that his Prime Principle of Confirmation “does not require the applicability or truth of Bayes’ Theorem” (52n10). While this is true, I think that the odds form of Bayes’ Theorem illustrates the flaws in Collins’ claims about his Prime Principle of Confirmation. Essentially, his principle says that if Pr(E/H1) > Pr(E/H2), then the evidence E confirms H1 over H2. But in order for E to confirm H1 over H2, Bayesians will insist that we need Pr(H1/E) > Pr(H2/E). That means that the values of the prior probabilities Pr(H1) and Pr(H2) cannot be ignored. Even a non-Bayesian should agree that considerations about simplicity have to make an impact somewhere in the assessment of how evidence bears on the probability that a hypothesis is true.
Since Collins’ second and third premises are claims of the form Pr(E/H)—not claims of the form Pr(H/E)—it is clear that his argument fails because the Prime Principle of Confirmation is false. But the argument could still fail even assuming the truth of this principle, depending upon how the claim that Pr(fine-tuning/theism) > Pr(fine-tuning/atheism) is assessed. I have already given reasons for thinking that we should not assume that Pr(fine-tuning/theism) is very high; indeed, if we follow the lead of skeptical theist discussions of the evidential argument from evil, we should be hesitant to assign any value to this probability. Moreover, I suspect that there are good reasons for refusing to assign any value to Pr(fine-tuning/atheism) as well. (See, for example, McGrew et al. , “Probabilities and the Fine-Tuning Argument: A Sceptical View” in Mind 110, 1027-38, for an argument to this conclusion.) Thus there would be good reason for nonbelievers to resist Collins’ argument even if the Prime Principle of Confirmation were true.
As noted above, Collins argues that the claim that Pr(fine-tuning/atheism) is very low is supported by his “qualified principle of indifference.” However, it is important to note that Collins himself acknowledges that this “qualified principle of indifference” is false. As he concedes at 71n29, in 1889 Joseph Bertrand showed that “sometimes there are two equally good and conflicting parameters that directly correspond to a physical quantity and to which the principle of indifference applies.” In response to this difficulty, Collins says: “In these cases, at best we can say that the probability is somewhere between that given by the two conflicting parameters. This problem, however, typically does not seem to arise for most cases of fine-tuning.” But first, the suggested patch doesn’t work: in some cases there are many equally good and conflicting parameters that directly correspond to a physical quantity. And second, the claim that the problem doesn’t arise in cases of alleged fine-tuning appears to be false. (Again, see the paper by McGrew et al. cited above.)
Apart from arguing for the superiority of theism to the atheistic single-universe hypothesis, Collins also argues for the superiority of theism to the atheistic multiple-universe hypothesis. As expected, in this case Collins does not frame his argument in terms of the Prime Principle of Confirmation. Given his assumptions, it seems plausible to suppose that Pr(fine-tuning/multiple universes) will be higher than Pr(fine-tuning/theism); but then atheists could insist that the following argument is sound:
(Prime Principle of Confirmation): Whenever we are considering two competing hypotheses, an observation counts as evidence in favor of the hypothesis under which the observation has the highest probability (or is the least improbable) (51).
The existence of fine-tuning is (perhaps) moderately probable under theism.
The existence of fine-tuning is very probable under the atheistic multiple-universe hypothesis.
(Hence) the fine-tuning data strongly favor the atheistic multiple-universe hypothesis over theism.
But, inter alia, Collins launches a series of objections against this argument. First, “everything else being equal, we should prefer hypotheses for which we have independent evidence or that are natural extrapolations from what we already know” (60). Second, “the ‘many-universes generator’ seems like it would need to be designed” (61). Third, “the ‘many-universes generator’ would need to select the laws of physics” (62). Fourth, there are other features of the universe—e.g., the beauty, elegance, and ingenuity of the basic laws of physics—that cannot be explained on the atheistic multiple-universe hypothesis.
Strategically, it seems dangerous for Collins to raise these objections at this point. After all, we might imagine a nonbelieving objector to his original argument making the following objections. First, everything else being equal, we should prefer hypotheses for which we have independent evidence or that are natural extrapolations from what we already know—and hence we should greatly prefer the atheistic single-universe hypothesis to the theistic hypothesis. (Of course, this point is just one way of registering the need to take account of simplicity in our assessment of evidence; that Collins feels the need to make this kind of point illustrates that he isn’t really strongly committed to his Prime Principle of Confirmation.) Second, it seems that God would need to be designed (else there would be complexity emerging from simplicity). Third, it seems that there would need to be an independent mechanism that caused God to adopt his plan for creation (else there would be brute complexity). Fourth, there are other features of the universe—e.g., the nature and distribution of horrendous evil—that simply cannot be explained on the theistic hypothesis.
While there are further moves to be made on each side (in assessing the objections raised against the two arguments now on the table), it seems to me that we are already in a position to conclude that Christians should be loath to embrace the conclusion that Collins’ argument makes a significant contribution to “positive apologetics.” (Again, there is much more in Collins’ article that deserves discussion, and with which nonbelievers will almost certainly wish to dissent. Readers interested in pursuing this route should look at Collins’ subsequent publications on the same topic, many of which replicate the flaws to be found in the chapter presently under discussion.)
There is no reason that would justify God in permitting so much evil rather than a lot less.
If God exists, then there must be such a reason.
(So) God does not exist.
He concedes that we cannot see how any reason that we know of, or the combination of all of the reasons that we know of, could justify God in permitting the large amount of horrific evil found in the world. However, he argues that attempts to justify the following inference fail:
P: There is no reason that we know of that would justify God in permitting so much evil rather than a lot less.
1: Thus there is no reason that would justify God in permitting so much evil rather than a lot less.
And, secondly, he claims that there are good reasons to think that this is a bad inference.
Howard-Snyder observes that the justification of the inference from P to 1 depends upon Rowe’s noseeum assumption, namely that if there are reasons that justify God in permitting so much evil, then we will very likely see or comprehend those reasons. If we have reason to doubt this assumption we have reason to reject the inference from P to 1. Here I shall focus on Howard-Snyder’s grounds for claiming that there are good reasons for everyone—theist and nontheist alike—to doubt Rowe’s noseeum assumption.
First, Howard-Snyder claims that there are two quite direct reasons for being skeptical about Rowe’s noseeum assumption. On the one hand, “it takes the insights attainable by finite, fallible human beings as an adequate indication of what is available in the way of reasons to an omniscient, omnipotent being.” And, on the other hand, “it involves trying to determine whether there is a so-and-so in a territory the extent and composition of which is largely unknown to us.” (Both quotes are due to William Alston, but are fully endorsed by Howard-Snyder.) Various analogies with cases in which there are limitations on expertise or extent of view seem to support the suggestion that God might very well have reasons beyond our comprehension for permitting so much evil in the world.
Second, Howard-Snyder claims that it would not be surprising if there has been periodic progress in the discovery of intrinsic goods by human beings, and hence that it would not be surprising if there are intrinsic goods that human beings have not yet discovered. But then it should not be surprising that there are goods of which we are ignorant, but of which God is not ignorant.
Third, Howard-Snyder claims that it seems plausible to suppose that the complexity involved in certain states of affairs plainly makes it extraordinarily difficult for us to assess the intrinsic goodness of those states of affairs. But if there are reasons justifying God in permitting so much evil, then it seems plausible that those reasons concern matters of extraordinary complexity. If this is right then (once again) it should not be surprising that there are reasons we cannot discern justifying God’s allowance of so much evil.
I’m inclined to think that these arguments can make a significant contribution to “negative apologetics”—they can help nonbelievers see how Christians might reasonably respond to the amount of horrendous evil found in the world. If you are strongly committed to the claim that God exists and can’t find any reason justifying God’s allowance of the amounts and kinds of horrendous evils found in the world, then it may well be reasonable for you to appeal to these kinds of considerations. (Of course, many nonbelievers will disagree with me here. Since this response would be available to believers no matter how much evil there was in the world, it may not be entirely respectable. But I won’t pursue these considerations here.)
But as I indicated earlier, it also seems to me that a nonbeliever who can’t find any reason justifying God in permitting the amounts and kinds of evils found in the world will have further grounds for supposing that there are no good reasons for her to embrace Christian beliefs (particularly if she supposes that Christians are rationally required to fall back on the kinds of considerations to which Howard-Snyder appeals). If we accept that people are not likely to have insights into the reasons, motives, or values of God, and that reality is too complex (and our knowledge of intrinsic value too limited) to provide a proper accounting of its value, then it is hard to see how we nonbelievers could have any reason to think that the hypothesis that the Christian God exists is even weakly supported by the available evidence. Revelation and Scripture apart, if we have no good way of determining what God would do, or what the value of the universe really is, then the prospects for “positive apologetics” are surely very dim indeed.
5. Hawthorne—formerly “O’Leary-Hawthorne” (not as misspelled in the work under review)—discusses two core arguments for atheism.
The first core argument runs as follows:
If theism is worth taking seriously, this is either because theism is knowable a priori or else because there is good evidence–direct perceptual evidence or explanatory evidence–for theism.
Theism is not knowable a priori.
There is no good evidence–direct perceptual evidence or explanatory evidence–for theism.
(Therefore) theism is not worth taking seriously.
Perhaps surprisingly, Hawthorne responds to this argument by challenging the second premise. His key idea is that faith is a gift that transforms people into beings for whom the sum of the core claims of Christianity is primitively and immediately compelling. Given this idea, “it is relatively clear that the reasonableness of theism requires neither evidence nor accessibility by the natural light of reason according to human beings” (128). Of course, as Hawthorne acknowledges, one would hardly expect nonbelievers to be satisfied with this response:
The atheist may complain at this point: “But how do I know that your faith is a gift as opposed to an illusion?” That is precisely a complaint that one should expect from someone who lacks the gift of faith…. Our inability to pacify a group of atheists who lack the gift of faith need not oblige us to become less convinced of theism (128).
Hawthorne also challenges the third premise of the above argument, at least up to a point. He insists that many Christians will quite properly claim that they have had religious experiences that provide them with good reasons (“direct perceptual evidence”) for their beliefs. But, of course, even if this claim is allowed to stand, nonbelievers will insist that this is not good evidence that is available to them. Perhaps, then, Christians might try to claim that the doctrines of Christianity have some kind of explanatory power, even for nonbelievers. But Hawthorne is skeptical of this tack:
Many contemporary philosophers—including Christian philosophers—are pretty convinced that one cannot reasonably expect people to come to believe Christian doctrine on the basis of its explanatory power…. Those who agree with me that [the standard theistic arguments] do not, on their own, make belief in Christianity reasonable will hold that if someone has no compelling religious experiences and lacks the gift of faith then he is indeed poorly placed to reasonably treat anything as evidence for theism (129).
So on Hawthorne’s own account the needs of “negative apologetics” are best served by conceding that the prospects for “positive apologetics” are extremely dim: the core evidential argument for atheism is defeated in a way that makes it clear that no argument for Christianity ought to persuade nonbelievers to become Christians on pain of conviction of some kind of irrationality.
The second core argument that Hawthorne considers is not set out explicitly. I think that it runs something like this:
If Christianity is worth taking seriously, then there should be clear markers of its superiority to other belief systems.
But clear markers of the superiority of Christianity to other belief systems are manifestly absent: Christianity is merely one of many wildly different religious belief systems grounded in things (such as fear of death) that are irrelevant to what those beliefs are about, and these belief systems make substantial contributions to the evil found on our planet.
So Christianity is not worth taking seriously.
Hawthorne responds to this argument by noting that (among other things) nonbelievers subscribe to belief systems that are merely one among many wildly different belief systems often grounded in things that are irrelevant to what those beliefs are about, and these belief systems make substantial contributions to the evil found on our planet. As Hawthorne observes, “the category of arguments that we are considering run some considerable risk of committing the genetic fallacy” (134).
So far, so good: I don’t see much to complain about in this discussion. Hawthorne concludes his discussion as follows:
It is no surprise to anyone to learn that atheism is widespread in the contemporary academic community. What is surprising is to see how tenuous the arguments that favour atheism are…. [W]e have taken a brief look at some of the ones more commonly offered and shown why they are, on the whole, something far less than rationally compelling.
Why shouldn’t Hawthorne be surprised by the fact that atheism is widespread in the contemporary academic community? After all, on his own account, the distribution of atheism is determined by the distribution of the gift of faith from a being whose reasons and intentions we cannot even begin to fathom. On this account, it is hard to see why one should expect less—or more—incidence of Christian belief in the contemporary academic community than in any other community whose membership is not determined by facts about religious belief.
Moreover, why should Hawthorne—or anyone else—be surprised by the tenuous nature of arguments that favor atheism, given the demanding standard that is set for these arguments? It seems to me that, where there are perennially contested propositions—e.g., that people have libertarian free will, or that only the present moment exists, or that there are objective values—one should be quite confident before one turns to the details of these debates that there are no extant persuasive arguments for or against these propositions, i.e., arguments capable of persuading the brightest and best-informed of those who take the contrary view to change their minds on pain of conviction of irrationality.
6. Miller discusses a range of questions about the connections between Christian faith and human reason. In particular, he considers (i) whether Christian faith is or must be opposed to human reason; (ii) how “faith” and “reason” should be understood; and (iii) what the implications of the Christian doctrines of creation, fall, and redemption are for Christian accounts of what it is possible for human beings to know and rationally believe
Under the first head, Miller particularly wants to address Christians who hold that faith and reason are opposed to one another, and Christians who think that the truth of theism or the Christian faith can be proven by rational arguments based on incontrovertible evidence. Miller follows Plantinga here in claiming that belief in God is or can be rational even though it is not (and perhaps cannot be) the conclusion of reasoning that should convince virtually any competent, adequately informed and intellectually honest person (such reasoning would require premises and rules of inference accepted by all parties). Furthermore, Miller follows Plantinga in claiming that rational Christian belief can be grounded in the right kinds of experiences—e.g., encounter with God’s love, forgiveness, guidance, disapproval, etc., Miller writes:
There is not, as I see it, nearly as much rational support for theistic beliefs, especially for distinctively Christian beliefs, in objective reasoning as there is in experience. There are, I suspect, no beliefs which virtually every rational person would accept and from which virtually every rational person would infer the truth of Christianity (144).
He later adds:
Arguments have premises. To prove something to someone by way of argument requires that it follows from premises accepted by that person. If sin has left people without a belief in God, why should we assume that they have retained beliefs which they regard as certain and from which it obviously follows that there is a God? (149)
As this second quotation makes clear, Miller also follows Plantinga in supposing that while it is natural for people to hold Christian beliefs, this natural tendency can be defeated by the impact of sin on human belief-forming structures. (In short, Miller holds that there is no conflict between faith and reason, but that Christians have good grounds for thinking that unaided reason cannot provide compelling reasons for Christian belief. Again, it is worth pointing out here that nonbelievers prepared to accept that Plantinga’s reformed epistemology has a role to play in “negative apologetics” are surely entitled to conclude that the prospects for “positive apologetics” are correspondingly dimmed.)
Under the second head, Miller distinguishes three different meanings of “faith”: (1) “a set of beliefs that Christians have typically held to be true and central to Christianity”; (2) “believing that some important set of [Christian] claims or doctrines is true … [and] having some sort of personal relationship with God”; and (3) “a specific way of acquiring knowledge and justifying belief … by way of divine revelation” (150-151). He also distinguishes three different meanings of “reason”: (1) “the proper use of human cognitive faculties”; (2) “the proper use of natural human faculties in interactions with the natural world”; and (3) “aligning beliefs with the truth by thinking carefully about what is implied by those beliefs” (152).
Under the third head, Miller claims that: (i) Christians do not have good reason to think that God has designed us in such a way that—even prior to the Fall—our honest truth-seeking is infallible, though they do have good reason to think that relying on reason will enhance rather than diminish the likelihood that they believe the truth and avoid error (154); (ii) Christians have good reason to hold that the function of cognitive faculties is impaired by sin in such a way that awareness of God is particularly subject to impairment, and in such a way that the noetic effects of sin are most pronounced in moral and religious matters (155); and (iii) the best way to understand how Christians can receive revelations from the Holy Spirit is to suppose that experience directly grounds the truly basic confidence that God is at work in a very special way in the Christian community and church (157).
7. O’Connor examines religious pluralism, which is roughly the claim that all religions are true, or that all religions are paths to the same Ultimate Reality. In particular, O’Connor argues that (i) the main pluralist arguments against “exclusivist” Christian belief fail and (ii) the main arguments in favor of (the strongest formulation of) religious pluralism also fail. While it may be that facts about religious diversity can provide grounds for nonbelief, it is clear that atheistic nonbelievers need have no stake in the outcome of this dispute between exclusivists and pluralists: if there are no supernatural entities, then theistic religions are all mistaken, whether or not they are all paths to the same Ultimate Reality.
O’Connor examines three pluralist arguments against exclusivist Christian belief.
First, there is John Hick’s claim that one must embrace pluralism in order to “avoid the implausibly arbitrary dogma that religious experience is all delusory with the single exception of the particular form enjoyed by the one who is speaking” (168, citing Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion, 1989, 235). Since all religions appear to be roughly equal with respect to moving from self-centeredness to Ultimate-Reality-centeredness (the common goal of religions according to Hick and other pluralists), one might be tempted to say that there can be no nonarbitrary reason for supposing that only Christian experiences of Ultimate Reality are reliable (and thus that experiences of it in other religious traditions are illusory). But against this “no difference in spiritual fruits” objection, O’Connor roughly says that it is open to Christians to hold that there are nonillusory experiences of God in other religious traditions that are misdescribed under the influence of false religious teachings. Moreover, O’Conner adds:
None of us can say to what extent our supposed experiences of God are the result of self-delusion or of some unreliable source. Christians themselves are taught to look on their religious experiences with some degree of caution and to test whether any content they have (purporting to reveal something about God’s nature or his purposes) are consistent with authoritative teaching (170).
It is interesting to consider how this claim sits with Hawthorne’s strategy for resisting the core atheistic argument from lack of evidence. According to Hawthorne, the pillars of reasonable Christian belief are compelling religious experience and the gift of faith. But there is at least some reason to read O’Connor as claiming that the real pillar of reasonable Christian belief is authoritative teaching: for faith and religious experience are to be found in all of the world’s religions, and Christians ought not to say that this faith and religious experience is wholly illusory in the case of all of the religions apart from Christianity.
Second, there is the “arrogance” objection based on the claim that “for any belief of yours, once you become aware (a) that others disagree with it and (b) that you have no argument on its behalf that is likely to convince all or most of the reasonable, good-intentioned people who disagree with you, then it would be arrogant of you to continue holding that belief” (171). And third, there is the “irrationality” objection based on the claim that “[f]or any belief of yours, once you become aware both that others disagree with it and that you have no argument on its behalf that is likely to convince all or most of those dissenters that are relevantly informed, and of good will, it would be irrational of you to continue holding that belief” (173). As O’Connor points out, it is plausible that both of these objections are self-defeating or at least incapable of serious intellectual defense. For instance, how can you consistently endorse either of these claims knowing that not everyone accepts them?
O’Connor plausibly suggests that attempts to make the doctrine of religious pluralism more precise typically take the following form:
Religious beliefs that have formed within major religious traditions such as Christianity are culturally conditioned responses to Ultimate Reality. In itself, [Ultimate Reality] is beyond all of the categories religious believers apply to it. Many devout persons of every established faith experience [Ultimate Reality], but never as it really is (something which is unknowable), but only through one or another of its many manifestations, all of which are conditioned by religious tradition. This is an inevitable consequence of the gulf between this Ultimate Reality and our finite minds…. We cannot worship [Ultimate Reality] ‘as it really is’ since we are intellectually incapable of grasping it this way. None of the distinctions which structure our religious experience can apply to it, not even as an approximation or by analogy. ‘As it really is,’ [Ultimate Reality] is neither personal nor impersonal, one nor many, good nor evil (176).
But as O’Connor points out, it is highly doubtful that this kind of religious pluralism is coherent. If we say that Ultimate Reality is one and that it is not one, then we simply contradict ourselves. Moreover, we cannot avoid the contradiction by claiming that the predicate “is one” is vague. Indeed, unless we maintain that all religions agree on all claims of the form “Ultimate Reality is F,” where the predicate “F” is not vague, it seems that religious pluralism cannot avoid incoherence. Yet the worlds religions do disagree on claims of the form “Ultimate Reality is F,” where “F” is not vague. (O’Connor’s argument against religious pluralism bears on the theological claim that all predicative sentences of the form “God is F” are false, while all predicative sentences of the form “God is not F” are true. Similar argumentative strategies could easily show that “negative theology” is incoherent.)
8. Collins addresses the suggestion that the major Eastern religions—Hinduism and Buddhism—offer a viable alternative worldview to Western theism, i.e., to the doctrinal core that is shared by Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. He defends the following three claims: (i) to the extent that the Sankara school of Hinduism and the Mahayana school of Buddhism make positive claims about reality, these claims are incoherent; (ii) Theravada Buddhism is plainly less plausible than the doctrinal core of Christian theism; and (iii) at least superficially, the theistic schools of Hinduism—the Ramanuja and Madhva schools—do offer philosophically viable alternatives to Western theism. Moreover, given these three claims, he concludes that “the primary apologetic challenge the major world religions present Christianity is not that of challenging the belief in a personal, omnipotent, all good God, but rather that of providing alternative conceptions of God’s relation to the world and of how God has acted in human history” (216).
This final conclusion may be false, even if one grants Collins’ three preliminary claims. As he notes, key elements of many Eastern religions include claims about reincarnation, karma, and other universes and realities, and are committed to the idea that salvation consists in liberation from the cycle of rebirths and its associated karma. But it is not clear why nonbelievers should suppose that the doctrinal core of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism is evidently more plausible than alternative views which reject key components of that core and incorporate elements of Eastern religions instead. For example, consider the view that a knowledgeable and powerful but evil God created a multiverse in which there is a cycle of rebirth and associated karma involving cross-universe recycling, where all sentient creatures begin their first cycle in the universe that we currently occupy. On what grounds should I (and other similarly placed nonbelievers) think that this view suffers by comparison to the doctrinal core of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism? Christians may well have good reasons to think that this view is not on equal footing with the doctrinal core of Western theism; but the two views may be on a doxastic par to nonbelievers.
9. Davison discusses questions about the compatibility of human freedom with the exercise of divine power and providence, and with the existence of divine knowledge. His aim is to set out the range of reasonable belief on these questions, and he concludes with the observation that:
Probably the controversies surrounding these issues will never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction because the issues are so complicated, deep, and hard to assess. This doesn’t mean that we should stop thinking about these issues or that we should never make up our own minds about them, but it does mean that we should be tolerant of those who hold contrary views (237).
Two questions prompt Davison’s inquiry. The first is the the power question: How can human beings have any control over anything if God has total providential control over the universe? The second is the knowledge question: How can human beings have any freedom of choice if God has complete knowledge of the future?
In order to set out the range of possible answers to these questions, Davison provides a number of preliminary clarifications and distinctions. First, he notes that Christianity is committed to the claim that there are three aspects of God’s providence for the created universe, namely: (i) God brought the world into being from nothing at the first instant of time (creation ex nihilo); (ii) God sustains the world in being from moment to moment (conservation); and (iii) God cooperates with the activities of every created thing (concurrence).
Second, he adverts to the standard philosophical distinction between compatibilist and libertarian conceptions of human freedom. Here Davison notes that he endorses the libertarian conception of free will since it makes more sense of moral responsibility, absolves God of responsibility for moral evil, and is needed for plausible accounts of eternal punishment. However, he also acknowledges that the dispute between compatibilists and libertarians—even amongst Christians—is hardly one that can be settled once and for all.
Third, Davison distinguishes between three different conceptions of control: (i) an agent controls an event in the strong sense iff (if and only if) the agent brings about the event without the independent contribution of any other agents, and could have prevented the occurrence of the event; (ii) an agent controls an event in the middle sense iff the agent cooperates with another agent in bringing about the event, and could have prevented the occurrence of the event; and (iii) an agent controls an event in the weak sense iff the agent did not bring about the event (at all) but could have prevented the occurrence of the event.
Fourth, using this taxonomy of conceptions of agent control, Davison distinguishes three different theories of divine providence: (i) God controls every event in the strong sense (strong providence); (ii) God controls some events in the strong sense, but all other events—particularly those that involve free human choices—in the middle sense (middle providence); (iii) God only exercises weak control over free human choices (weak providence). Of course, there are other possible conceptions of divine providence which Davison ignores.
Fifth, Davison distinguishes three views about God’s knowledge of the future: (i) God doesn’t know the future because there is nothing to know (open future); (ii) God doesn’t know the future because God is not in time (timeless eternity); and (iii) God knows what free agents will do because God has “middle knowledge” of counterfactuals of (libertarian) freedom, i.e., of what people with libertarian freedom would freely do if placed in given possible situations (molinism).
Davison’s preferred answer to the questions that prompt his inquiry are given by the package of middle knowledge, middle providence, and libertarianism. I am not at all convinced that this package of views is consistent. (See my “Arguments from Moral Evil,” International Journal of Philosophy of Religion, forthcoming, for the details.) But even if I am right about this, there is clearly a large range of views requiring detailed examination here. Nonbelievers might be tempted to conclude (if they were not already so persuaded) that “negative apologetics” is certainly no easy task, even in this much-discussed area.
10. Senor takes on the difficult task of defending the coherence of the central Christological claims that God became incarnate in Jesus, and that the Godhead is triune. More exactly, Senor offers responses to arguments that seek to convince Christians that the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are simply incoherent.
Senor begins with the dispute about Incarnation. Christians claim that the human being Jesus Christ is identical to God the Son. But if Jesus is “fully God,” then he must be an uncreated creator. And if he is “fully human,” then he must be created. So the Christian doctrine of Incarnation directly leads to contradiction.
Senor responds to this argument by denying that Jesus must be created in order to be “fully human.” If you suppose that being (fully) human requires that one is limited in power, then you will hold that Jesus must be created to be fully human. But if you suppose that it is merely “rather common” for (fully) human creatures to be limited in power, then Jesus could be (fully) human and yet unlimited in power.
Even if this strategy avoids the charge of logical incoherence, it raises other concerns. Orthodox Christian belief contends that Jesus shared in the human condition; but it is hard to see how any omnipotent and omniscient being could do that. Moreover, there is scriptural evidence that Jesus was not omniscient (e.g., Matthew 24:36). In the face of these worries, there are several standard responses. One response is kenoticism, which holds that God the Son gave up divine features in order to take on a human existence. (But as Senor points out, this only helps fulfill the “fully human” requirement at the expense of imperiling the “fully God” requirement.) A second standard response—the two minds view—holds that the Incarnate God has two minds, one human and one divine (or, perhaps, that the Incarnate God has a conscious mind that is human, and a subconscious mind that is divine). On this response, though, it seems that God the Son is a fusion of three distinct beings, one of which is a human body, another of which is a human mind, and the third of which is a divine mind. A third standard response—a variant of the second—holds that, while the Incarnate God has only one mind, it has two wills, one human and one divine. While this response overcomes the worry about the distinctness of the divine and human individuals, it does so at the expense of intelligibility: for how could there be two wills in a single mind?
Senor claims that his discussion shows how we might conceive of the Incarnation, even though we have no way of telling whether his “model” is true:
I have set out a model which shows us how we might conceive of the Incarnation. I don’t claim to know that this model is true. I do claim, however, that (i) it is consistent with our general strategy for dealing with the logical problems the doctrine of the Incarnation allegedly possesses, (ii) it is consistent with the full humanity of Christ and the biblical record, and (iii) we have no good reason to think it is false (252).
However, I doubt that many nonbelievers would say that Senor’s “model” shows them that a clear and consistent conception of the Incarnation is possible. For one, I do not think that Senor’s response to the argument for incoherence really cuts to the heart of the matter. What does it mean to say that something is “fully human” or “fully divine”? Moreover, even setting that question aside, aren’t there other properties—apart from omnipotence and omniscience—that raise prima facie challenges to the coherence of the doctrine of the Incarnation? Can a human being be omnipresent? Can a human being be located outside of time? Can a human being be the creator and sustainer of all things? At the same time, there is good reason to doubt that Senor has provided even one fully intelligible model of the Incarnation. There certainly is no reason to suppose that these models ought to persuade nonbelievers that there is a coherent doctrine in the offing here.
As already indicated, Senor also takes on the dispute over the doctrine of the Trinity. Christians claim that the Godhead is three persons and yet a single substance. That is, while God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are not identical, they are nonetheless one.
Senor rejects two accounts of the Trinity as unorthodox: modalism, the claim that there are three modes or manifestations of a single divine being, and tritheism, the claim that there are three distinct divine persons closely related to one another in some way. Senor’s middle way between these two “extremes” is “social trinitarianism”: the Godhead consists of three centers of will and cognition that are necessarily aligned in such a way that there is no possibility of conflict between them.
I doubt that nonbelievers should think that this account makes the doctrine of the Trinity intelligible to them. If there are really three centers of will (not one) and we suppose that the Godhead possesses libertarian freedom (as many Christians do), then it is very hard to understand how those centers of will could be necessarily aligned such that there is no possibility of conflict between them. After all, on the libertarian conception of freedom, the essential property of wills is that they have libertarian freedom. But then there is no way that they can be necessarily aligned. If the Godhead possesses libertarian freedom and has subparts that are necessarily aligned to avoid conflict between them, then it seems to me that we ought to say that the Godhead possesses only one will. Again, the discussion here reinforces the implausibility of a successful positive apologetics: how could anyone reasonably suppose that there are arguments that, on pain of conviction of irrationality, ought to persuade nonbelievers (particularly atheists) that Christianity is true when it is unclear that Christians even have the means to persuade them that the central claims of Christianity are so much as intelligible?
11. Merricks‘ goal is to defend Christian doctrines about resurrection and eternal life against certain kinds of objections. He does not claim to be able to show that these doctrines are true; indeed, he says that he thinks that Christians only know that these doctrines are true by way of Scripture.
According to Christian doctrine, all will have a bodily resurrection at an appropriate time in the future. This doctrine raises various puzzles. How are bodies resurrected? Do we have the very same bodies when we are resurrected? Does it even make sense to suppose that we have the very same bodies when we are resurrected? (Particularly if we add that resurrection bodies are “changed” and “glorified”!) And what does resurrection of the body have to do with eternal life? (After all, according to many Christians, we are souls—nonphysical, spiritual entities—so why do we need a bodily resurrection?)
On the question of how bodies might be resurrected, Merricks offers a vigorous critique of the “reassembly of parts” view, the view that at the resurrection bodies are reassembled from their scattered smallest parts. (Perhaps some things are smallest parts of more than one body. Perhaps some smallest parts are destroyed, and hence unavailable at the time of resurrection. And given the constant turnover in the matter composing living bodies, surely there is no nonarbitrary collection of smallest parts that cries out for reassembly in the resurrection of any given person. He then states that, so far, no one has proposed any better alternative. At the same time, he concedes that his own view doesn’t explain how bodily resurrection is possible: “But the fact that we cannot see how resurrection is supposed to go, that we cannot explain what God does to bring an annihilated body back into existence, does not imply that God’s doing that is impossible; it implies only that we are ignorant” (276).
On the question of what the resurrection of the body has to do with eternal life, Merricks speculatively endorses Christian physicalism, i.e., the view that human beings do not have nonphysical souls, but rather are the identical to their physical bodies. While this view is unorthodox, Merricks makes a pretty good case that it sits better with some passages of Scripture than Christian dualism, and makes a plausible case that his view is much better placed to explain why the Christian hope for eternal life is tied to a future bodily resurrection.
Merrick’s defense of Christian physicalism has interesting consequences for “positive apologetics.” For instance, it seems to undermine arguments for the existence of God from consciousness and the nature of mind recently defended by Christian dualists such as Richard Swinburne. Moreover, it raises interesting questions about free will and the supervenience of the mental on the physical. But I will not explore these considerations further here.
12. Murray tries to respond to the charge that, on the traditional Christian view of Hell, God is either unjust or unloving. First, he offers three “models” for understanding the traditional doctrine of Hell. Second, he canvasses the annihilationist and universalist alternatives to that traditional doctrine. And third, he uses his last “model” to respond to the allegations that are his central concern.
On the “penalty” model, sinners incur the penalty of “spiritual death”—separation from God for all eternity. However, those (and only those) who are willing to allow this penalty to be paid on their behalf by Christ—“by repenting of their former ways and placing their faith in Christ’s work on the cross and his victory in resurrection” (291)—can escape the torments of Hell. A natural objection is that finite beings could not commit any offense in a finite amount of time which would merit an infinite amount of punishment, and thus the “penalty” model is manifestly unjust. Murray offers two replies. First, he says that initially sinners might only receive a finite sentence which becomes extended to eternity for further offenses committed while in Hell. Second, he argues that all sin has infinite weight because it involves transgression against an infinite being. (Here Murray responds to the obvious objection that some sins are worse than others by insisting that although even the most minor sin merits infinite punishment, many sins merit more punishment—say, ten times as much. But on plausible accounts of instantiated infinities, this response is incoherent: 10.Ào = Ào. So it seems that the second reply won’t do. But the first reply is also problematic: if reprobate sinners have libertarian freedom, then it is certainly possible for some of them not to reoffend no matter how long they spend in Hell. So it might be unjustifiable to extend a finite sentence to all eternity.) While Murray asserts that the “penalty” model is “completely defensible” (295), I doubt that many nonbelievers will concur. (Indeed, many of them will surely find Murray’s endorsement of the model morally abhorrent; but I won’t pursue that consideration here).
On the “natural consequences” model, God intends earthly life to act as a time of soul-making, when people have powers to make free choices to be a person of one sort or another. Those who become “God-lovers” naturally end up entering into the divine presence, to love and enjoy God forever; those who become “God-haters” naturally end up eternally separated from God (since accepting them into God’s presence would be detestable to them and would rob them of the only thing that makes their lives significant–the freedom of self-determination). An important consequence of this view is that those in Heaven and Hell are maximally set in their ways–that is, are disposed to love or hate God without fail (298). Moreover, it is only by God’s gift of grace that “God-lovers” naturally end up entering into the divine presence: one cannot become a “God-lover” who is maximally set in her ways without divine assistance. Murray says that a natural objection to this view concerns those who die prematurely and those who convert late in life, as these sorts of people don’t get the chance to become “God-lovers” who are maximally set in their ways. His response suggests that God can transform these people in accordance with the decisions that they would have made (about whether or not to turn to God). But if God has this kind of middle knowledge, the “natural consequences” model risks lapsing into incoherence. If—as Murray insists—God has the aim that all will see that being a “God-lover” is something to value over all else, then surely God cannot know in advance that particular people will not be “God-lovers.” Moreover, even if it is coherent to suppose that a fully rational being might aim for something that she knows with certainty she will not attain, one could argue that it is not even remotely psychologically plausible to suppose that people are disposed to act in certain ways without fail when they die.
As Murray notes, the “natural consequences” model seems to leave no role for the Atonement. So Murray proposes amending the model to include the claim that sin also carries a penalty that we cannot pay on our own: “the atonement on the cross is a necessary condition for receiving divine grace, which in turn is necessary for being made fit for spending eternity in God’s presence” (304). Though (as Murray notes) this “hybrid” model has the advantages of both of the previous models, it’s worth emphasizing that it has their disadvantages as well. But even setting this consideration aside, further objections could be raised. If Murray’s favored “hybrid” model is true, then:
God is unjust because the punishment in Hell does not fit the crime.
God is unjust because some who go to Hell never had a chance to hear or understand the Gospel in life.
God is unloving because a truly loving God would not allow his beloved to suffer such a fate.
God is unloving because he would not make the eternal consequences of Heaven and Hell depend on what we think and choose in our limited earthly lives.
Murray responds to each of these objections. He insists that the punishment does fit the crime in response to #1 (cf. the discussion above). To #2 he offers a number of speculations: (a) perhaps those who never hear the Gospel wouldn’t believe it even if they did hear it; (b) maybe all of the information needed for salvation is available to everyone regardless of one’s knowledge or understanding of the Gospel; (c) possibly those who don’t hear the Gospel in this life will have a chance to hear it after death but before judgment. In any case, Murray holds that there nothing unjust here because God does not owe salvation to any of his fallen creatures. In his response to #3, Murray notes that according to Christianity, God did send his Son to cancel the penalty of sin for human beings. Moreover, if God were to block the “natural consequences” of sin, free will would be meaningless:
For freedom to be meaningful, it is not only true that we must be able to choose amongst alternatives. It must also be the case that the course of events varies with out choices…. To interfere [by blocking the “natural consequences”] would be to remove the meaningfulness of … freedom, and this would be to undermine both … human dignity and the real purpose of earthly life: autonomous soul-making (311).
Finally, to #4 Murray insists that God could not make his purposes clearer without removing the freedom necessary for soul-making. Moreover, there is no reason to think that the tools that God has given us are insufficient for the task of life.
As noted earlier, some Christians think that those who end up in Hell receive the (finite) penalty merited by their sins and then are annihilated. Murray objects that it is odd to judge that, in eternity, capital punishment is less severe than a life sentence, while the reverse is true in earthly life. But where is the mystery here? Hell is a guarantee of unending misery that makes annihilation a preferred option. On Earth, a life sentence in jail might well be preferable to death because jail is not unending misery, and it does not entail the same scale of suffering as Hell. Indeed, there is no other way that it could be on the Christian account.
13. Stewart looks at “ways Christians can and should think about the relationship between science and religious belief” (320). Initially, Stewart’s focus is on what he claims to be mistaken views of the relationship between science and religious belief; later, he turns to consider ways in which the relationship might be more properly conceived.
Echoing a line attributed to Pierre-Simon Laplace, some people claim that science renders the religious belief in God superfluous. Stewart addresses this claim as follows: “the existence of God is not best regarded as a large-scale hypothesis postulated to explain anything, let alone those things science cannot explain. We arrive at our knowledge of God by way of revelation, both ‘generally’ (through creation) and ‘specially’ (in Jesus Christ, as well as through Scriptures and the Church)” (322). But here Stewart seems to be conceding that “positive apologetics” has no hope of success and thus the work of Davis, Collins, et al. is so much wasted labor. For example, what are we to make of the fine-tuning argument if the existence of God is not properly thought of as an explanatory hypothesis?
Others claim that science makes the existence of God very unlikely. Stewart responds to them by distinguishing different senses of naturalism:
Many scientists … maintain that the scientific process assumes a kind of methodological naturalism. This methodological commitment is, these scientists insist, distinct from metaphysical naturalism, or a commitment to naturalism as an overall metaphysical outlook. Methodological naturalism stipulates that scientific accounts must refer to wholly natural phenomena without reference to immediate or direct contributions by non-natural or supernatural forces or agents…. It may be perfectly acceptable to talk about non-natural or supernatural activity, but such talk does not, strictly speaking, belong to science. To call this methodological naturalism serves to highlight the fact that it is a way of characterising a particular methodology, nothing more. It does not suggest (or is at least not normally intended to suggest) a larger metaphysical or ontological claim about what sort of activity is or it not possible in the real world (324).
Moreover, Stewart adds:
[E]ven if one did (mistakenly) think that methodological naturalism requires a commitment to metaphysical naturalism there is, on the face of it, something logically suspect about the claim that “science proves metaphysical naturalism.” More precisely, this argument seems to commit the fallacy logicians call “begging the question”—assuming the very thing one is attempting to prove (325).
Here Stewart conflates considerations about the persuasiveness of arguments with considerations about reasons and rationality. (In my view this is an unfortunate characteristic of much contemporary philosophy of religion.) The findings of modern science could very well make metaphysical naturalism highly likely (and Christianity highly unlikely), even though it would beg the question to assert that the scientific process makes metaphysical naturalism likely simply because it presupposes naturalism for methodological purposes. Thus Stewart gives nonbelievers no reason to reject the claim that the findings of modern science make metaphysical naturalism very likely to be true.
Some people endorse what Stewart calls “the conflict thesis,” i.e., the claim that science and religion are inherently opposed to one another (325). Stewart objects that (1) the conflict thesis is historically misleading and (2) defenses of the conflict thesis exaggerate the force or status of scientific claims about the world.
Under the first head, Stewart notes that the conflict thesis “completely ignores the historical reliance of science on religion for presupposition, sanction, and in some cases, even motivation” (326). Moreover, he insists that it is a mistake to see either Galileo or Darwin as a victor in wars between enlightened science and obscurantist religion. In particular, he claims that either “the thesis of common ancestry” is consistent with Christian theism, or else Christians have good reason to believe that this thesis is false. Finally, Stewart concedes that it is impossible to “eliminate the possibility of tension between science and [Christian] grasp of scripture,” but insists that “the tension is often a fruitful one … and calls for a healthy dose of humility with respect to every means of knowledge at our disposal” (333). But these claims tend to pull against one another. Typically, when nonbelievers insist on “the conflict thesis,” what they have in mind is precisely the point that there are “tensions” between science and Christian grasp of Scripture. In the face of this point, considerations about “the historical reliance of science on religion for presupposition, sanction, and in some cases, even motivation” are completely beside the point, as are claims about simplistic readings of the history of physics and biology. Given, as even many Christians allow, that science presupposes methodological naturalism—i.e., that “scientific accounts must refer to wholly natural phenomena without reference to immediate or direct contributions by non-natural or supernatural forces or agents”—it is very hard to see how science could fail to conflict with the views of those Christians who reject “the thesis of common ancestry” in favor of the doctrine of “special creation.” If science presupposes methodological naturalism, then special creationism cannot be scientific. Thus, even if there were no adequate scientific account of human origins, Christians could hardly deny that there is a conflict between science and religion here.
Under the second head, Stewart aims to “debunk the idea that religion is (unlike science) entirely subjective and speculative, whereas science is (unlike religion) all objective and certain” (334). He begins by insisting that “the theory-ladenness of observation”—the fact that all observations are interpreted in terms of some background theory—shows that science is not objective. He then adds that the abductive nature of scientific inference—the fact that science merely infers the best available explanation of the facts at hand—shows that science is not certain. Moreover, he insists that Christians are better placed than nonbelievers to explain why the marks of good abductive reasoning (fit with background beliefs, production of novel predictions, simplicity, beauty, elegance, and so on) are conducive to discovery of truth. Finally, he concedes that at some level there is a conflict between science and religion, but insists that Christians need not be bothered by it.
Stewart also contends that science should operate according to methodological naturalism without making metaphysical commitments:
The best defences of methodological naturalism connect it with its contribution to achieving science’s goal of understanding the natural world…. Consensus is … the immediate practical aim of scientific inquiry (while the cognitive aim is truth). Science is something we do together, all of us, and thus it should preclude appeals to metaphysical or religious views that are not universally shared. Otherwise, agreement becomes impossible (340).
But while there are sensible grounds for adopting methodological naturalism, Christians might insist that, because science currently adopts a naturalistic methodology, it is “not religiously neutral” and thus scientists should also pursue a “theistic science” that does not adopt methodological naturalism as a guiding principle.
There are several questions to ask here. First, one might wonder whether anyone would adopt methodological naturalism simply to generate consensus. Moreover, how are we to exclude “metaphysical views that are not universally shared” from science in practice? For instance, is scientific cosmology to be precluded from assuming that the universe is more than 10,000 years old since the extent of the past is a “metaphysical view” for which there isn’t universal agreement? Should we suppose that scientists working within the framework of standard Big Bang cosmology are not doing science? Surely such concerns amount to a reductio ad absurdum of the claim that this is the “best defense” possible for adopting methodological naturalism.
To elaborate on this point, it seems absurd to suppose that consensus is the immediate practical aim of scientific inquiry; its immediate practical aims are much more plausibly technological in nature. But then it is not consensus but success that is all-important. Moreover, as Philip Kitcher and others have insisted, disagreement is a crucial element in successful scientific communities: scientific progress typically emerges from conflict between strong supporters of conflicting theories. (Thus a healthy scientific community is one in which a variety of competing assumptions are made. And if scientific work is to be judged by its empirical success, scientists should be free to make whatever controversial metaphysical assumptions they like. See Kitcher , “The Division of Cognitive Labor” in The Journal of Philosophy 87, 5-22.)
By the lights of nonbelievers like me, science presupposes methodological naturalism because throughout the full sweep of human history there has not been one plausible instance where scientific or technological progress has depended on the incorporation of supernaturalist assumptions into scientific theory or reasoning. No one has ever made predictions or carried out crucial experiments that have vindicated or supported supernaturalist hypotheses. There are no physical, chemical, biological, geological, or astronomical experiments or observations that count in favor of supernaturalism. A plausible inference to the best explanation from the historical record is that there are no supernatural entities that interact causally with the natural world. In other words, science adopts methodological naturalism because, as a contingent matter of fact, metaphysical naturalism is probably true.
14. Cover sets out to (1) determine the extent to which “some strong apologetic strategy—some argument from miracles to the existence of God—is workable” and (2) provide a defense of the rationality of Christian belief in miracles (348). By my lights, his ultimate conclusion is suitably irenic. He insists that “the success of defending a rational belief in miracles is in no way dependent upon the success of giving ‘an argument from miracles to the existence of God'” (363). Moreover, he says that it is unnecessary to show that Christianity is true—it is sufficient to defend the rationality of Christian belief: “There is probably no convincing proof for Naturalism, but it is not thereby irrational to believe that Naturalism is true. There is probably no argument for theism that every rational person must accept, but theism isn’t thereby irrational to believe” (371). He also applies this point to belief in miracles specifically:
If what is counted as good grounds for believing some claim is to be judged on the basis of the likelihood or reasonableness of other, prior beliefs, then an unbeliever—sharing no such beliefs as those deliverances of religious experience and natural theology and faith might provide—may well lack sufficient grounds for believing in miracles. But the believer needn’t be in this position. And the believer who isn’t in that position, who aims to defend the rationality of believing in miracles, needn’t presume the posture of ‘adopting’ it by obliging the familiar demand for ‘theistically neutral evidence’ (373).
Cover begins by considering the suggestion that an event e is a miracle iff:
(1) e violates at least one law of nature, i.e., e is an anomalous event; and
(2) e is caused by God either directly or though some divine agency
Cover discusses three well-known objections to the possibility of reasonable belief in miracles (so defined). First, David Hume famously argued that when we weigh the testimonial evidence for the occurrence of an anomalous event against the evidence that the allegedly violated law is indeed a law of nature, rationality requires us to believe that the anomalous event did not occur and that the alleged law really is a law of nature. Second, some argue that if we have good evidence for the occurrence of an apparently anomalous event—an event that violates what we take to be a law of nature—then that evidence suggests that what we took to be a law of nature wasn’t really a natural law after all. Third, others object that the occurrence of an anomalous event does not warrant supposing that the event was caused by God or any other supernatural agent. (For example, perhaps the bush that spontaneously bursts into flames does so without any cause at all. What reason could there be to prefer the hypothesis that God caused the event over the hypothesis that it was uncaused?)
Cover responds to Hume’s argument by pointing out that if it were successful it would prove far too much. Hume vastly overrates the weight of accumulated experience: we do allow that scientists can discover that what we previously took to be laws of nature are no such thing. Moreover, Cover considers the idea that the Humean conception of laws of nature makes violations of natural law impossible, but suggests that it is a mistake to think of miracles as violations of lawlike regularities in the first place. Rather, we should think of miracles as occurrences that cannot be caused by the operative natural forces of created objects left to themselves. (Exercise for the reader: How does this idea comport with the insistence—manifested, for example, in the chapter by Davison—that God conserves the world in existence and co-operates with the activities of every created thing?) Cover explains this alternative account:
[M]iracles are so to speak ‘gaps in nature,’ occurrences having causes about which laws of nature are simply silent. The laws are true, but simply don’t speak to events caused by divine intervention…. Miracles are anomalous—non-nomological, non-law-like—not because they violate laws of nature, but rather because the laws of nature don’t speak to their causes at all (362).
So far, so good. But “if the Humean objection emerges as weak overall, the same cannot quite be said of the remaining [two] objections” (364). Here the conciliatory considerations that I adverted to above cut in. While the second and third objections may cut no ice by the light of theists—as they hardly show that it is irrational to believe in miracles—they surely show that there is no good “positive apologetic” argument from the occurrence of alleged miracles to the existence of God (and the truth of Christianity). Of course, there is much more to say about specific miracle claims, particularly about whether there is any sufficiently-attested Christian miracle claim. (There is some interesting and worthy material on this in the later part of Hume’s essay on miracles in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.) But Christians and nonbelievers appear no more likely to find common ground on whether there is reason to believe that miracles have occurred than then they are to agree on whether grounds for believing in miracles are even possible.
15. Frances Howard-Snyder begins by discussing ethical relativism before moving to a discussion of Christian ethics. Of course, fellow metaphysical naturalists might share my worry that there is an implicit (and insidious) implication in structuring the discussion this way—namely, that metaphysical naturalists, or at least consistent metaphysical naturalists, are ethical relativists. Since I hold no brief for ethical relativism, I will not comment on Howard-Snyder’s criticisms of it.
Howard-Snyder begins her consideration of Christian ethics with a discussion of divine command theory. On this view, a moral act is right only because God commands it and an immoral act is wrong solely because God forbids it (380). Howard-Snyder concedes that, among other things, divine command theory is subject to serious “Euthyphro” objections. For instance, surely God commands certain acts because they are right and forbids certain acts because they are wrong, not the other way around. But despite this admission, Howard-Snyder adds that these difficulties “may not be insurmountable; this appears to be one of those issues on which serious thinking Christians can disagree” (384). Perhaps she is right about that; but surely nonbelievers are entitled to conclude that if this is where Christian belief leads, there is yet another major roadblock in the path of “positive apologetics.”
The bulk of Howard-Snyder’s chapter discusses principles unifying Christian moral teaching and thought. In her view, Christianity offers two distinctive unifying moral principles: the “first great commandment”—to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind—summarizes our moral obligation to God; and the “second great commandment”—to love your neighbor as yourself—summarizes our obligations to other human beings. Of course, further explanation is required concerning how these principles are to be interpreted. Moreover, however these principles are interpreted, they do not provide a complete guide to moral action: they do not produce an effective decision procedure for moral action even though “all the law and the prophets hang on the law of love” (395). In particular (as Howard-Snyder acknowledges), they seem to be silent (at least in some cases) on how to resolve conflicts between our various neighbors’ interests. While Howard-Snyder holds that one who truly loves God and her neighbors can do no wrong (even though she can make mistakes), I suspect that other nonbelievers will agree that it is very likely that Howard-Snyder is incorrect here. If you love God and your neighbors but make the wrong choice in a “trolley case”—choosing to kill twenty rather than one—you have committed a moral wrong, even if your chosen moral code doesn’t enjoin you to kill the one rather than the twenty. Sincerity and purity of heart are not enough; morality also requires that you get it right!
16. Blount tries to show that a person who believes that Josiah tore his clothes solely on the basis of Scripture is not being irrational. More precisely, he claims that it is rational to believe that the Bible is inerrant, and thus rational to believe that Josiah tore his clothes. But there are good reasons for even Christians to doubt that Blount’s defense of this claim succeeds.
Blount begins by offering an account of knowledge: if one reasonably believes proposition p, and p is true, then one knows that p is true. (This analysis is likely mistaken. As Bertrand Russell pointed out nearly a hundred years ago, one can reasonably form the belief that it is 10:18 by looking at a clock indicating the correct time even though—unbeknownst to the observer—the clock stopped exactly 12 (or 24) hours earlier. But in these circumstances, one doesn’t really know that it is 10:18—he is correct by accident. Half a century later, Edmund Gettier created an entire philosophical puncture-and-patch industry by constructing other examples (so-called “Gettier cases”) illustrating this same point.)
Blount then points out that the affirmation of inerrancy “does not amount to affirming a flat-footed literalism which ignores the subtleties of genre and language implicit in the biblical texts” (402). One shouldn’t confuse a commitment to inerrancy with a commitment to a particular set of interpretations of the Bible.
Blount then says that his remarks are only aimed at Christians: “Attempts to persuade those who lack faith in Christ that it’s reasonable to believe the doctrine of inerrancy aren’t likely to have much apologetic value” (405). Given this proviso, he feels entitled to assume that Scripture is divinely revealed and possibly inerrant, and offers the following explanation of the reasonableness of believing that Josiah tore his clothes:
How have I come to believe that Josiah tore his clothes? Well, obviously enough, I’ve come to believe this by way of reading 2 Kings 22. But, on the Christian account of things, this isn’t the whole story. For, on that account, a believer who reads 2 Kings 22—or any other biblical passage—can expect assistance from the Holy Spirit in doing so…. Assuming that the Holy Spirit has in fact guided this reading, the means by which I’ve come to believe that Josiah tore his clothes include the Spirit’s having guided me to do so. And, of course, it’s hard to imagine a more reliable means of coming to believe something than the guidance of the Holy Spirit (411-412).
But don’t Christians sometimes arrive at incompatible beliefs on the basis of reading the Bible? Of course! So Blount now appeals to the authority of the current “consensus” of the evolving Christian community (though one wonders: of which Christian community?):
But what makes [a person’s] belief reasonable (in the absence of convincing reasons for giving it up) is not that [that person] can tell it resulted from the Spirit’s work but rather that it actually did result from the Spirit’s work. Here it’s important to recognize the difference between the Holy Spirit’s work in one’s life and one’s awareness of that work. What makes one’s belief reasonable (in the absence of convincing reasons for giving it up) is that the means by which one comes to have it actually are quite likely to lead to truth…. So it seems plausible to regard as reasonable one’s belief that the Bible is inerrant when that belief seems to have arisen out of one’s experience within the Christian community. Or, at least, so it does in the absence of convincing reasons not to hold it (414-415).
Perhaps, dear reader, you find this argument slippery. But let us press on to consider Blount’s treatment of what it would take to show that Scripture is not inerrant. According to Blount, contradictions and clear factual errors in the Bible would provide good reason to deny that it is inerrant; but, in fact, there are no such errors or contradictions in the Bible. Consider, for example, the apparent contradiction between Exodus 24:9-11 and Exodus 33:17-20. While the first passage says that Moses and his entourage saw God without dying, the second passage says that no one can see God without dying. But there is no contradiction here if the first passage uses the word “saw” in the sense of “had a vision,” while the second passage uses the word “see” in something like its literal sense.
Returning to the issue of Josiah and his garments, is it really reasonable to believe that Josiah literally ripped off his clothes on the basis of Scripture? Couldn’t one read Scripture as using a metaphorical expression to convey that Josiah had a hissy fit? What grounds could there be for preferring the literal interpretation over the metaphorical one? Moreover, how can the assumption that the Bible is inerrant help us resolve this point? Thinking about the reasons that are fully accessible to us, it is hard to see how one could have grounds for believing what Blount insists that we have reason to believe (inerrancy).
Of course, Blount’s account of rationality allows the consideration of reasons which are not fully accessible to the agent in question. But under examination, his key argument seems to run as follows:
It is possible that Scripture is inerrant.
(Hence) it is possible that believing what you read in Scripture is a reliable mechanism for forming true beliefs.
(Hence) it is possible that believing what you read in Scripture is rational.
Of course, this last step doesn’t follow unless one assumes an externalist conception of reasons—that one can have good reasons for a belief even without knowing what those reasons are. Moreover, Blount later writes that “given the other beliefs which they have, it might be that those who believe that Scripture errs are rational to do so” (422). But here he is clearly assuming the more familiar, internalist conception of reasons—that in order to have good reasons for a belief one must be aware of those reasons. So even Blount doesn’t fully endorse the implausible externalist conception of reasons that his account requires.
Copyright ©2005 Graham Oppy and Internet Infidels, Inc.