Category: philosophy

“Heidegger is There”

Martin Heidegger is an extremely difficult philosopher to follow. If you have ever read any of his stuff, specifically his well-known work Sein und Zeit (better known in the English-speaking world as Being and Time), then you know what I mean. I have a degree in philosophy, and I’m finishing up a PhD on philosophical hermeneutics–but let me tell ya, Heidegger is still hard! Diving into his Being and Time, a work full of abstraction and weird words like Da-sein (“being there”), is not for the faint of heart. He is difficult. 

But he is necessary.

His work was game-changing on many levels, to be sure, and the modern thinker must deal with him. There’s no way around it. 

The focus of my own research has been centered around Hans-Georg Gadamer’s particular construal of hermeneutical theory. Since Gadamer’s hermeneutic was influenced by Heidegger, every good Gadamerian needs to know Heidegger. There is a great quote (below) from Gadamer in his book called Heidegger’s Ways. For those familiar with Heidegger, you’ll appreciate what he has to say.

Gadamer was an extraordinary writer and in typical fashion, his first sentence in the last paragraph below is nothing short of poetic (admittedly, though, I am prejudiced toward Gadamer). All the same, it made me smile:

Heidegger’s rescue attempts are violent. He is constantly rupturing the natural understanding of familiar words and forcing new meanings upon them–often basing this on etymological connections that no one else sees. The products of this approach are extremely manneristic expressions and provocations of our linguistic expectations.

Must it be so? Does not the natural language in its universal malleability always offer a new way to express what one has to say? And is it not the case that whatever does not allow itself to be said has been insufficiently thought? Perhaps. But we have no choice. Now that Heidegger has posed the question, we are obligated to continue our inquiry in the direction it delineates; we can only hope to be assisted by that found in his works which is accessible to our understanding. It is easy to poke fun at things unusual or violent. To improve on it is much more difficult. Certainly the game in which participants shove around the little ivory discs inscribed with Heidegger’s conceptual jargon–a for of following Heidegger that is very common–should not be played. This type of scholasticism blocks the way into the opening formed by the question asked no less than the most caustic polemics.

But either way, Heidegger is there [da]. One cannot get around him nor–unfortunately–can on progress beyond him in the direction of his question. He blocks the path in a most disturbing way. He is an erratic block awash in a stream of thinking rushing toward technical perfection. But he is a block that cannot be budged from its place. [1]

  1. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Heidegger’s Ways, trans. John W. Stanley (Albany: State University of New York, 1994), 27. 

Alētheia, 2

I have said that “truth” is a person—namely, Jesus Christ. But there is more, I think, that can be said about this. Taking cues from Heidegger, I understand alētheia as denoting “disclosure.” The noun alētheia is actually the negated form of the verb lēthō, which means something along the lines of “to be hidden” or “to be outside one’s notice” (e.g., see Mk 7:24). But when “a-” is put in front of lēthō, the opposite is meant, namely, an un-hiddenness. If lēthō means “closure,” then a-lēthō (or simply, alētheia) means dis-closure. The word alētheia, or “truth,” then, means to take something that is veiled or hidden and un-veil or un-hide it. At its most fundamental level, “truth” is the uncovering of that which is covered, it is the revealing of that which is hidden. This is what truth is in everyday life. When a person “tells the truth,” they disclose reality. That is, they show what is, in fact, the case. Suppose, for example, that an archeologist comes upon an ancient, mysterious (but very beautiful) object. The scene is at first confusing, perhaps even perplexing. But after years of research, the archeologist discovers the truth—the truth about the object, who made it, where it came from, its significance, etc. When we say the archeologist “discovers the truth” about the object, what we really mean is that the archeologist un-veils the mystery; he/she reveals and un-covers the reality of the object (e.g., that it was crafted in the Bronze Age). “Truth,” therefore, is an un-veiling, an un-covering, and an un-hiding.

And this is the essence of the person of Christ. The one true God is revealed, unveiled, and disclosed in Christ. When Jesus says in Jn 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, the life,” it is in the context of showing the Father: “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (v.7). Phillip begs to see the Father, and Jesus’ reply is telling, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Phillip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (vv.8-9). To know Jesus is to know God.

Moreover, Jesus is the picture “of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). As Gadamer has taught us, all pictures have the essence of presentation—i.e., they image-forth. This is their mode of being. He says, “A drama really exists only when it is played, and ultimately music must resound (T&M, 115).” I wonder if there is not a parallel here? Just as sound cannot be separated from the essence of music and just as performance cannot be separated from the essence of a drama, so also is Jesus the very real presentation and revelation of God to the world. Indeed, it is through Christ that the divine drama is being revealed, disclosed, and unveiled. Why? Because Jesus is Truth.

Alētheia, 1

What is truth? Most define “truth” as “that which corresponds to reality.” I agree. Whatever concurs with reality, that thing, whatever it is, is the truth. The proposition, “These words are written in the English language,” is true insofar as it corresponds to reality. Considering these words are, in fact, “written in English,” then that proposition is to be taken as true. But consider the following: “Diese Worte sind in englischer Sprache geschrieben.” Is that proposition true? No, it is not. The reason, of course, is because it runs contrary to reality, for it is written in German, not English.

According to Christian tradition, “truth” (alētheia) is much more than a proposition, it is a person. “I am the way, the alētheia, and the life,” says Jesus of Nazareth (Jn 14:6). Of course, it is easily understandable, I think, why Christians would believe that Jesus is the embodiment of alētheia. He is for us, after all, the ultimate reality. He is the logos, the most fundamental reality there is (Jn 1:1-3). Of course, as logos (“Word”), Jesus is the “through-which” all things were created (Col 1:16). The Genesis account of creation (Gen 1) remains the backdrop for John’s Christology, to be sure; there is to be no doubt about the Jewish overtones in John’s use of logos, I think. But I believe John’s use of logos would appeal not just to a Jewish audience, but to a Greek audience as well. The logos, after all, was believed to be the foundation of all cosmic order (something a few Greeks mused about from time to time). And yet John says that Jesus of Nazareth is logos. Jesus, therefore, is to be seen as the central part of fundamental reality and order, for everything that is and has being finds its basis upon the divine logos. In this way, Jesus is alētheia, since truth is that which corresponds to reality, and Jesus as logos is the basis for ultimate reality. Truly, one can say that the Christos, as the logos, sustains the cosmos.

Logisch Denken: The Cosmos, Beginnings, Faith & Reason — Part 3

With the series that I have called “Logisch Denken,” I’ve tried to show that faith in God is reasonable. (Stated negatively, I’ve tried to show that faith in God is not unreasonable.) The common assumption among skeptics, and even among a certain number of evangelicals, is that “faith” and “reason” are not in any way compatible. Thus, what I have tried to show (and will conclude with this post) is that this is not the case—faith is not unreasonable, both reason and faith are compatible. 

I talked about causation in the last post. Here I want to examine one more aspect of how the universe came to exist. We determined previously that the universe—i.e., the the space-time universe—must have had a cause. We recall that to say otherwise would commit oneself to an infinite regress of sorts, and all things considered, this is not logically satisfying (at least in light of the alternative). We concluded that the theist’s idea that the universe was created by God is not, at least up until our last post, shown to be in the slightest bit irrational, for theist’s believe there was a cause for the universe to come into existence; they simply call this cause “God.” Since it is not unreasonable to believe in causation, the belief in God as the Cause, then, is compatible with reason.

Of course, just because the universe had a cause does not necessarily lead one to conclude theism, at least not initially. It could, after all, have been the case that the universe caused itself to come into existence. How does this idea stand in the face of logical scrutiny? There are, perhaps, several things that could be said here, but let’s look at just one area of critique below regarding the idea of self-causation.

If the universe was caused, it was either caused by itself or caused by an outside agent/force. If it was caused by itself, then the universe would be both its own effect and its own cause. But this means, it seems, that the universe would had to have existed before it existed in order to have caused itself to come into existence. But this is absurd, for how could something exist before it existed?[1] That violates a fundamental law of logic, namely, the law of non-contradiction. Therefore, the universe’s cause for its existence, by definition, must have come from something outside of the space-time universe. Logic lends to this idea. So does theism, which also states that the universe’s cause remains outside the space-time universe, namely a cause described as “God.” Theism is therefore seen to be both reasonable and unscathed.

Technically, I’m not trying to prove God’s existence with this argument. What I am trying to do here is somewhat less ambitious. My point is to simply show how belief in God, theism, is not unreasonable. After all, belief in causation is not absurd. Moreover, the attributes of God, as depicted in the tenets of classical theism, seem to be compatible with what logic demands of the universe’s cause—namely, a cause that is non-material, all-powerful, and timeless (not to mention all-knowing). This, again, is what theists call “God.”

Therefore, belief in God, while it may be a matter of faith, is still seen to be a matter of reason, for I have shown through a set of propositions that theism can be construed logically. In the end, however, I realize that the arguments that have been presented in these posts may not convince the atheist/agnostic that theism is true, and that’s quite okay. But out of all the things the atheist/agnostic will say by way of response, one of those things cannot be that belief in God is illogical or unreasonable. It turns out that theism is quite reasonable.

_______

[1] William Lane Craig brings this point up often.

“We Know in Part”: On the Limits (and Comforts) of our Way of Knowing

Human beings are knowers. That is, our mode of being—i.e., the manner in which we go about life—is that we come to know things. What things? Everything—things like people, objects, TV shows, the color of that dress, what this blog post is about, etc. But in order to know these things (and anything, really), we must interpret. No matter the person, everyone is engaged in interpretation. All of life is interpretive. For example, we are always interpreting other people (“What are they saying with that facial expression?”); we are always interpreting TV shows (“What was the ending of LOST all about?”); we are even at times interpreting the color of dresses (“Is that dress gold or blue?”); you are even interpreting this blog post (“What in the world is Matthew saying?”).

Thus, you are an interpreter. Your entire life is interpretive, and through interpretation, you come to know things. But what can you know? I believe that people can have confidence that they are able to arrive at truth about the real world. You can surely know, quite reasonably, things about other people (for example, their likes and dislikes; what makes them happy or sad). Moreover, you can know that the moon exists or that there is a computer (or smartphone) screen in front of you or that there is a chair in the middle of the room (if indeed there is one). 

But it is important to say one thing about our ability to know these things: We don’t know things completely and objectively; we don’t know things as they totally are.

Now, this might be confusing, but let me explain. Let’s suppose I have an object sitting in front of me, say, a big square box. Now, since I’m sitting on the couch across from this big square box, I wonder to myself, Can I see the box in its completeness? The answer, of course, is no: I cannot see the box in its entirety. That is, I cannot see it completely. The reason is because I am only looking at the part of the box facing me at the moment (and of course part of the sides of the box since it sits a bit diagonally across from me). But make no mistake, I cannot see it completely. Moreover, by not being able to see it completely (all of the sides, including the top and bottom at the same time), I also cannot see the box objectively (at least in the purest since of the word). That is, I can’t see the entire object, which I call “the box.” How come? Because I, as the viewing subject, am looking at the box from a certain angle, namely, from the west side of the room where I am sitting on the couch. Thus, I do not, strictly speaking, see the box objectively or completely. Echoing St. Paul, I know the box only in part (1 Cor 13:9).

A further illustration is in order. Suppose I’m standing on the northwest corner of Fifth and Main. Looking across the busy intersection, I witness two cars wreck into each other. I observe, as it were, two cars collide. But I only do so from a specific angle or vantage point, namely, the vantage point of the northwest corner of Fifth and Main. Did I see the wreck completely or objectively? No, for my encounter with the object (the wreck) was actually only partial and subjective. Make no mistake about it, though: Even though I could not see the object of my observation (i.e., the wreck) completely and objectively, it doesn’t follow that there never was an actual wreck or actual cars or actual people driving the cars. Thus, I don’t think I need to say the wreck’s happening was somehow contingent upon my observing it. (Relativism is not a necessary consequence of what I’m saying here.) At any rate, I can know there was a car wreck, just not from a God’s-eye point-of-view. Rather, I witness it from a human’s-eye point-of-view. Why? Because, well, I am a human.

I happen to think that all of interpretation is like this, for we all have angles from which we interpret, whether car wrecks or biblical texts. We each have an angled-view, or rather a worldview, from which we come to know things—all things, in fact. It’s nonsensical to suggest otherwise. But let’s suppose I do suggest otherwise. Suppose I say, “I can know the big box in the middle of the room completely and objectively. After all, I can get up off my couch and walk to the other side of the room and look thusly. If I do this for every possible angle (a tiring enterprise, I suspect), then I can see the entire box as it is—completely and objectively.”

In response to this, I concede that one could perhaps do this (given enough time and perseverance), and it would appear that as a result one could “know” something objectively and completely. However, on closer analysis I’m not so sure. For at the very moment you get off of the couch and observe the box from a decidedly different angle is to, at the same time, leave your previous point-of-view and substitute it for another. It is at this point where your view of the box is still a “point-of-view.” In fact, with each and every point-of-view, you are moving as it were through space (not to mention time) and viewing the object differently in each case. This does not do violence to the realism of the object, but it does necessitate a change in how you come to know the object and in your perception of it (perhaps you discover, for example, that the other side of the box is colored pink—thus, your horizons of knowledge about the box is enhanced and broadened. That is, you learn something new). Similarly, as you go for a walk in the park, you can only see (and hence observe, interpret, and know) that which is in front of you. Your viewpoint is always angled in this way. Even if you were to turn around and look behind you, your looking behind is, once more, angled. In short: You cannot ever know things fully and completely at the same time and same place; you cannot know things without a point of view. You are not God, after all. Your knowing is always provisional in this sense because you are a humble human.

Personally, I find this whole thing frustrating (finitude is never comfortable). But never mind that, for it is the reality of what it means to be a human—that is, a human being. And this, as a result, is part and parcel of what it means to be finite—not just in regard to mortality but also our knowability. Just as I cannot be in more than one place at one time, so also I cannot know something without knowing it from just one place in one moment of time. The German philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, encouraged us to take our own historicality and finitude seriously; that is, according to him we ought to allow it to come to bear upon our knowing and understanding things. Thus, while we can know truth and the real world, we can only know it partially. This, I think, accords well with traditional religious conviction, especially of the Christian sort. If one were to insist to Paul that our knowability was infinite (i.e., “God-like”), I suspect he would respond to such a proposition with a mē genoito.

As a committed theist, not to mention a Christian, this approach is arguably the humble one, for it accounts, as I have said, for our own human finitude (a fairly important aspect of Christian doctrine). The Enlightenment encouraged us to pride ourselves on reason, with some strands of the movement going so far as to say that we can know things as they are (a strong positivism, we may call it). Ever since Descartes, we don’t like anything that whispers even a hint of uncertainty. But the Christian tradition arguably takes exception to such claims. A Christian epistemology, it seems, would imply a less proud approach to what, and how, humans know—namely, that what we know, and the way we know, is only in part. (Descartes rolls in his grave at such a suggestion, but let him roll.)

Moving on, this idea I have expounded on above has, I think, ramifications for Christian belief and praxis. Perhaps there are some pastoral implications as well. As a pastor, I find myself in constant engagement with hurting people—with death, interpersonal conflict, doubt, and questions about life and life’s difficulties. Like most pastors, I sincerely want to offer hope and help people. (Seldom, though, do I ever end the day thinking I’ve done a good job on this; there is always one more person I could have visited or called or counseled or prayed with; hurt is everywhere, at least since Eden’s gates slammed shut). That said, some of the hurts that people experience are, sadly, unanswerable. Unfortunately, there is no repository of theological-pastoral answers from which I can draw and hand them to my people for a quick and easy fix (hasten the day for when Eden’s gates fling open!) Moreover, for someone who hates overly-tried and obnoxiously-tired clichés and platitudes, I find myself using them even on myself. Unfortunately, pastors are not immune to suffering. I, often enough, go through times of hurt and pain, too. Such self-inflicted clichés take the form, more or less, of the following: “I’m not sure why there is evil and suffering in my world, but I know there is a reason.”

Ugh. Psychologically, I find such words unsatisfactory.

But I wonder if I should reconsider. I mean, even though this is psychologically unsatisfactory, could it not be philosophically reasonable? There’s nothing unreasonable, after all, about the idea that just because I do not know something completely and objectively (namely the answer to why there exists evil and suffering) that it follows there is no complete and objective answer to the question itself. Personally, again, I find my limits to what I can know frustrating; but I wonder if there is not, upon closer consideration, something comforting about these limits? Let me explain.

Just as I would not want to deny that there is a box in the middle of the room merely because I cannot see it completely and objectively, so also I do not want to deny that there is an answer to the question of evil and suffering just because I cannot, completely and objectively, know it. In some ways, I reckon it’s at least possible that precisely because I can’t discern a complete and objective answer to the question of evil and suffering, that such provisionality itself grounds the idea that there is indeed an objective and complete answer out there. In much the same way, I suspect it is not unreasonable to suggest that, precisely because I can observe a square box (however partially) from a particular angle is due to the corollary fact that there does, indeed, exist a whole object in the middle of the room. Likewise, my provisional understanding of how, and why, suffering exists is, perhaps, due to the fact that there is a larger answer somewhere out there. At the very least, I don’t think this idea is outside of the realm of possibilities.

We may question the color of the dress from person to person as to whether it is gold or blue, but it seems altogether unreasonable to question whether there is a dress at all. We know in part precisely because, perhaps, there is a whole. We may not know the whole thing, but it doesn’t follow that it isn’t known or at any rate knowable by Someone. It is not unreasonable, then, to trust in the One who knows things fully and completely—whether it be the real existence of dresses or the real existence of real answers to our own very real suffering.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

(1 Cor 13:12-13 ESV)

Logisch Denken: The Cosmos, Beginnings, Faith & Reason — Part 2

Continuing from my last post, I’m exploring the question, “Is it reasonable to believe in God?” Of course, behind this question is another: “Is faith and reason reconcilable?” I maintain that the answer to both questions is, quite simply, yes. My main goal with these posts is to show that it is not unreasonable to believe in God and that reason and faith can cohere.

I have shown in the last post that the universe had a beginning (or, at the very least, that it is reasonable to think it did). And if the universe did indeed have a beginning, then what caused the beginning? What caused the universe to jump into being? It is reasonable to suggest that events, such as beginnings, do indeed have causes (as philosophers like W. Craig say). In fact, I’m not sure that it is satisfying to say otherwise. After all, the claim that “The universe began to exist—i.e., came into being—from nothingness all without a cause” is really a leap of faith in its own right. Is it not, after all, the case that effects have causes?

It is true that the noted skeptic David Hume taught us that our beliefs about cause and effect are not as as air-tight as we might think. Thus, the proposition, “The universe had a cause,” is not inherent to the proposition,“The universe had a beginning,” such that if you have the latter, you must a priori affirm the former. It’s not like taking the proposition, “Sam is a bachelor” and then concluding a second proposition, namely, “Sam is unmarried.” That second proposition is true based upon the first proposition, for to be a “bachelor” is to be “unmarried.” In other words, the truth of the second proposition is inherent to the first. 

But that’s not how propositions about causation work, at least according to Hume. I’m no Hume scholar, but he essentially taught that a person believes in cause and effect based upon past experiences of how objects (such as billiard balls) interact when they come into contact with one another. That is, a person knows that when a ball rolls into another ball of less or equal weight, there will be an effect—namely, the effect that the second ball will be pushed forward. But this belief about cause and effect is not itself based upon a priori reason; it is, rather, based upon past experiences of how a person has seen objects interact. Thus, one might say that even the idea of cause and effect, too, is a leap of faith. 

But which “leap of faith” is more reasonable? Hume, despite his own skepticism, admitted that it would be “absurd” to do away with causal propositions. The question, therefore, still remains: Is it more reasonable to claim that an event, say, the beginning of the universe, had a cause for its beginning or to claim that it sprang from nothing without cause? Heeding Hume’s remark about absurdity, I think the answer would have to be in favor of causation. To me, it seems that the burden of proof is not upon those of us who claim the universe, as an event, must have had a cause, but rather upon those who would deny it. After all, it seems more reasonable to affirm the idea of causation.

But nevermind which is more reasonable. As a committed theist, I am saying something a bit less robust. In fact, all I want to do (keeping in the spirit of these posts) is to say, quite simply, that it is not unreasonable to believe the beginning of the universe did, indeed, have a cause. That is, there is absolutely nothing logically contradictory about that proposition at all. In fact, it seems quite reasonable to say such a thing, not least when we take in past experiences about cause and effect. That is, to say the universe had a cause is an instance of logical thinking (taking “logical” in the broad sense: that it is not unreasonable to trust my senses).

Is belief in God, therefore, irrational or otherwise unreasonable? No, not in the least. Theists (at least those within the traditional camps, i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) all believe the universe had a beginning, and this beginning was caused. Therefore, up to this point, I have shown how, by thinking logically about the universe, traditional beliefs inherent to theism are quite reasonable. Faith and reason, at least up until this point, are not at odds.

But there still remains one more hurdle to my entire argument. Could it be the case that the universe never needed a Divine cause for its existence? Could it be that the universe caused itself to come into existence? 

We will tackle that in the next post.

 

 

Logisch Denken: The Cosmos, Beginnings, Faith & Reason — Part 1

I’m doing a series of posts under the title Logisch Denken (German, “think logically”). In a few paragraphs, I’m attempting to show that Reason and Faith are not, contrary to popular opinion, mutually exclusive. That is, I don’t think a person must choose between one or the other. In fact, what I hope to accomplish is to show, quite simply, that there are instances where reason can cohere with a faith commitment (i.e., that these two are not at odds). My last post kicked things off by attempting to do this very thing. There I tried to point out that the universe, having merely a contingent existence, required (by definition) some sort of necessary existence/being for it’s own being and existence. I ended the post by saying that a person (an atheist, say) should not be afraid to follow the argument even if it resulted in religious implications. To do otherwise is unwarranted dogmatism. In this post, I want to continue showing how logic and religious faith cohere, that they are not necessary enemies.

First, let’s examine once more the cosmos—that is, the whole of space-time. One must ask the following question: Did the universe have a beginning or is it beginningless? Either the universe had a beginning or it always existed (in some fashion). Which of these is most reasonable? Theists (believers) would say that the universe most definitely had a beginning, for it was created by God. It is important to point out, moreover, that this is similar to the position of most scientists, even non-theistic ones—namely, the idea that the universe had some sort of (however mysterious) “beginning.” This idea is called “Big Bang Cosmology.” The prevailing idea among scientists (both theistic and atheistic) is that the universe “sprung” from some point of singularity. Scientific data does seem to lend support for this hypothesis, e.g., Edwin Hubble’s discovery of how the universe seems to be expanding as shown in spectrum shifting, etc. The theist’s idea that the universe had a beginning lends to the prevailing scientific consensus that the universe began with, well, a “bang.” I’m not a physicist, but I do know a bit about some of the philosophical issues that pertain to this. And I think philosophy could help illuminate the question of beginnings further.

On this, let’s suppose the other position, namely, that the universe—the whole of space/matter and time—was infinite. Is this a reasonable idea? I don’t think so. I follow philosopher W. Craig on this one. That is, the idea of an eternal/infinite universe is not a reasonable position precisely because it results in odd mathematical paradoxes. Craig, if I remember right, once gave an example of the paradox. For instance, suppose a person, Sam, had an infinite amount of marbles. Moreover, Sam took the time to number all of them. Let’s further suppose that Sam gave all of the odd numbered marbles away to a friend named Katy while keeping the even ones for himself. In response to this, we ask an initial question, How many marbles does Sam have after he gave away the odd numbered ones? Well, he would have an infinite amount of (even numbered) marbles. Furthermore, how many marbles would Katy have? She, too, would have an infinite amount of (odd numbered) marbles. So the paradoxical question is this: How can half of an initial set of marbles be, at the same time, equal to the number of the original set? The idea seems self-contradictory, for how could half of a whole be, at the same time, equal to the whole? This is logically contradictory. But even more so (I’m unsure if Craig himself points out this following question), How could Sam even have taken the time to number the original set to begin with? He would never have finished the numbering process before he could have given away the odd numbered ones, for it would have taken him an infinite amount of time to count them. The point, it seems, is this: actual infinity does not exist in a space-time universe. The concept and idea does, yes. But actually, no. Thus, the universe—the set of space-time “stuff”—is not eternal or infinite. Or, at the very least, it’s not logical or in any case reasonable to believe it is.

There’s more to say about all this—e.g., what caused the Big Bang? Does the Big Bang need a “cause”? We will tackle those questions and similar ones in the next post. But suffice it to say presently: The theistic idea that the universe did, in fact, have a beginning is not an unreasonable idea. In fact, this idea itself is the general consensus of the scientific community and it is also philosophically much more satisfying, at least in the face of the alternative.

Is theism unreasonable? So far, absolutely not. It is, at least up to this point, entirely consistent with what most believe about cosmology, as we have said. But I’m prepared to go further than this. I will go so far as to say with other theists (Craig, Moreland, et al) that theism, as opposed to non-theism, is not only not unreasonable, but a worldview to be preferred since it is most reasonable. I will say more about this in the next post.

(The third installment in this series can be found here.)

Logisch Denken: On the Universe, Existence, & Religious Implications

Let’s think logically about the space-time universe and its existence, its being. The universe is contingent—that is, the universe doesn’t exist by necessity, and it could have been the case that the universe never existed. There’s nothing, in other words, necessary about the fact that the universe exists. Therefore, the universe has a contingent existence. One must wonder, then, what its existence is contingent upon? (One, by the way, cannot appeal to some other contingent being or thing as the reason for the universe’s existence, for even that other being or thing is itself contingent and as such requires its own reason for existing.) It seems one would need to eventually arrive at some necessary existence in order to explain the universe’s contingent existence. There simply doesn’t appear to be a way around this fact, as it seems to be the most reasonable thing to conclude.

To be sure, a Necessary Being would indeed provide an adequate answer, and it seems belief in a Necessary Being is where our reasoning would lead us. But why are some so hesitant to go there? Is it because this would be a “religious answer” and, if adopted, would only send us back to the dark ages, an old time when dogma, not reason, was the rule of the day? But is it not first, and most properly, a logical answer? 

Just because logical answers may lend to religious implications does not mean they should be avoided. To insist otherwise appears unreasonable and is nothing short of dogmatism (an odd position for non-religious skeptics to find themselves). At any rate, it is here where the believer is actually shown to be less dogmatic than the ardent skeptic; perhaps it’s simply more logical to be religious than dogmatic? All the same, to believe in a Necessary Being is not, most assuredly, contrary to reason. It actually seems to be quite reasonable—an instance of logical thinking.

(The second installment in this series can be found here.)

What Christians (and Atheists) Should Keep in Mind about the Problem of Evil

Most people are quick to admit that there is such a thing as evil. Such admissions aren’t exactly the result of strenuous mental gymnastics—belief in the reality of evil is fairly easy to come by for most thinking people (to be sure, the nightly news helps us out tremendously).

But the reality of evil, some have said, presents a fundamental challenge to belief in God. One of the more common objections toward theists (especially toward Christian theists) is the question of how God can be “God”—i.e., supremely good, powerful, and knowledgeable—all the while allowing evil to have seemingly full reign. As many have objected (beginning with Epicurus so many years ago), if God is omnipotent (all-powerful), then why doesn’t he use his power to destroy evil and suffering? Either he is capable of doing so or he is not. If he’s not, then the Christian view of God is found to be wrong (we believe, after all, that God is omnipotent). But let’s say he truly is omnipotent. Then, again, why evil? It could be that he simply doesn’t want to eradicate evil; perhaps he is an all-powerful God, but maybe he’s not a good God and that is why he allows evil. But this, once more, would show the Christian conception of God to be wrong, for we believe that God is omnibenevolent (“all-good”). Moreover, perhaps he is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent but can’t destroy evil because he simply doesn’t know how to do so. Maybe, one might say, he just isn’t omniscient (“all-knowing”).

No matter how one slices it, the traditional and Christian view of God as omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient is, one might say, challenged by the presence and reality of evil. It appears that, given the fact of evil, a person has to say either God is lacking in one (or more) of these qualities or he simply doesn’t exist at all. Either way, Christian theism appears to falter.

When cornered by skeptics, Christians often find it particularly difficult to offer a response (at least one that is pleasing). In light of what I take to be very sincere questions from skeptics and non-believers, offering a reply to such existentially-centered questions about pain, evil, and suffering are without a doubt challenging. Many times Christians (and theists in general) resort to answers like, “I don’t know why God allows evil, but I’m sure there’s a reason for it.” For atheists, this response isn’t very appealing. As a result, many find atheism (or on a lesser scale, agnosticism) much more satisfying and comfortable given the presence of evil. For them, it’s simply better to posit the non-existence of God than fill in the “unknowns” and “knowledge gaps” with a supreme deity.

But could it be the case that the atheist response is even less satisfying? Alvin Plantinga, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, seems to think so. He doesn’t appear to agree that it’s a good intellectual move to jump from the mysteries of the so-called “problem of evil” and into the realm of agnosticism and atheism. Even for a believer in God, a theist (who might find himself troubled by the reality of evil) shouldn’t fret too much, not least in the face of atheistic challenges. Just because the theist can’t give an outright reason for why God allows evil (that is, give a robust “theodicy”) it doesn’t follow that the believer should resort to atheism or agnosticism. Plantinga hints at this when he writes in his book God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974) that,

 …a theist might like to have a theodicy, an answer to the question why God permits evil. He might want very badly to know why God permits evil in general or some particular evil—the death or suffering of someone close to him, or perhaps his own suffering. But suppose none of the suggested theodicies is very satisfactory. Or suppose that the theist admits he just doesn’t know why God permits evil. What follows from that? Very little of interest. Why suppose that if God does have have a good reason for permitting evil, the theist would be the first to know? Perhaps God has a good reason, but that reason is too complicated for us to understand. Or perhaps He has not revealed it for some other reason. The fact that the theist doesn’t know why God permits evil is, perhaps, an interesting fact about the theist, but by itself it shows little or nothing relevant to the rationality of belief in God” (p.10).

Thus, the fact that a person doesn’t know why God allows evil is nothing more than a cognitive circumstance, as interesting as it may be. At the end of the day, this fact has no bearing whatsoever on “the rationality of belief in God.” Thus, to claim what many atheists do—namely, that “since one cannot think of reasons why God allows evil one must therefore lose faith in God’s existence”—is an argument based on a non-sequitor. The latter simply doesn’t follow from the former. After all, as Plantinga shows above, there are other possibilities one should consider.

He writes again,

Perhaps we can see this as follows. The theist believes that God has a reason for permitting evil; he doesn’t know what that reason is. But why should that mean that his belief is improper or irrational? Take an analogy. I believe that there is a connection of some sort between Paul’s deciding to mow the lawn and the complex group of bodily movements involved in so doing. But what connection, exactly? Does his decision cause these bodily movements? If so, how? The decision may take place long before he so much as sets foot on the lawn. Is there an intermediary causal chain extending between the decision and the first of these movements? If so, what events make up this chain and how is the decision related, let’s say, to the first event in it? Does it have a first event? And there are whole series of bodily motions involved in mowing the lawn. Is his decision related in the same way to each of these motions? Exactly what is the relation between his deciding to mow the lawn—which decision does not seem to be a bodily event at all—and his actually doing so? No one, I suspect, knows the answer to these questions. But does it follow that it is irrational or unreasonable to believe that this decision has something to do with that series of motions? Surely not. In the same way the theist’s not knowing why God permits evil does not by itself show that he is irrational in thinking that God does indeed have a reason. To make out his case, therefore, the atheologian [the skeptic/atheist] cannot rest content with asking embarrassing questions to which the theist does not know the answer. He must do more—he might try, for example, to show that it is impossible or anyhow unlikely that God should have a reason for permitting evil (p.11)

Plantinga goes on to note that several atheistic thinkers have tried to do that very thing—namely, attempt to show that there is a logical contradiction when one joins the proposition “God exists” with the proposition “evil exists.” In other words, some atheists have tried to show that it’s unreasonable and incoherent to affirm both at the same time. Remarkably, Plantinga (as most people admit, including prominent atheists) successfully argues that there is, in all reality, no contradiction whatsoever in holding these two beliefs. Using modal terminology (possible words scenarios, etc), Plantinga essentially solves the logical problem of evil. All that to say, even if one were not sure as to why God allows evil, it doesn’t follow that belief in God is irrational.

In light of this, I think both the atheist and the Christian ought to remember a few things. For starters, as Plantinga implies, both sides must realize that the burden of proof does not rest solely upon the believer. There’s actually a rather hefty burden that the atheist must bear, for it is they who must show (positively) how the propositions “God exists” and “evil exists” are logically contradictory when taken together. The atheist can’t simply make claims; they need to make an argument (quite the feat, I might add once more, given they must show that it’s not possible for the two above propositions to be affirmed together).

Second, the Christian ought not be pressured to think their faith in God is irrational merely because they can’t posit a reason why God allows evil. It simply isn’t so, as we’ve seen above. If the atheist insists that the Christian must give positive answers for why they can believe the propositions “God exists” and “evil exists,” then perhaps the atheist ought to give positive answers for why they can believe the propositions “God doesn’t exist” and “goodness exists.” I suggest the atheist ought to consider answering the “problem of the good.” This remains particularly difficult especially when the atheist happens to be a committed naturalist. After all, if reality is nothing more than the random compilation of matter upon matter upon matter over time (not to mention because of accidental chance), then what can we say about “goodness” as a moral concept? It’s hard to tell how moral good can arise from amoral matter. If there’s nothing “moral” or “immoral” about a material object (an asteroid, say) crashing into a planet that is orbiting a distant star, then how can one claim the impulses which spurn a man to commit a heinous crime is at any rate “immoral”? Are not these impulses and actions nothing more than the collision of matter–namely, the complex interaction of neurons inside the criminal’s brain? It’s hard to see how they could be “moral” or “immoral”—it seems they would be amoral. Moreover, what becomes of altruistic acts such as giving to the poor or even feelings of love for one’s spouse, for one’s children? Are these, too, the mere firing of neurons—the result of matter interacting with matter? How comfortable are we to reduce the human experience to mere material happenings in our cognitive organ, the brain? Nevermind evil, what about “the problem of the good”?

Food for thought, I reckon. These are some things that the atheist and the Christian should keep in mind (or if you prefer, keep in their “neurons”) when discussing the problem of evil (and the problem of goodness).

One final note. I mentioned above the idea of “accidental chance” producing “reality.” Naturalists would have to take this seriously. In fact, they would have to take this so seriously that they, in all consistency, would have to consider their own cognitive abilities (and mine) as, once more, the result of a cosmic accident—unguided, undesigned, a product itself of chance. I’m not sure one can grant these things and still take one’s own thoughts as reliable. Most of the time when things are undesigned and unguided, they tend to be that very thing: unreliable. Even if the atheist/naturalist were to write a response to this blog post (or at the very least, entertain a response in their mind as they were reading it), I would expect their response to be a good one—that is, one that is both designed and guided by their intelligence. Therefore, in their attempt to prove my post “wrong,” the naturalist would have to assume my point to make their own—namely, the point that a transcendent intelligence is the only reliable way to convey truth and information (whether the naturalist’s over his response or God’s over the cosmos). Nevermind the problem of the moral good (mentioned above), what about the problem of intellectual goodness? In order to present a good argument against my point, they would need to assume my own point from the start.

To which I would say: Don’t mind if you do.

Gadamer on Being Prejudiced

hans-georg-gadamerHere’s a great article touching on the work of 20th century German philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer. I’m currently finishing up my PhD on Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, and it continues to be a wonderful experience. If you have any interest in the subject of hermeneutics (and even textual exegesis), you need to check out Gadamer, a premier philosopher if there ever was one. His magnum opus, Warheit und Methode, is game-changing. (You can get the English translation, Truth and Method, at our bookstore).

As the article suggests, the thrust behind Gadamer’s work was that he sought to do the unthinkable: undermine the Enlightenment’s most basic idea, namely, that a person can, by adopting a (scientific) methodological approach to knowledge, free themselves from all the restraints and chains of prejudice. (This word, prejudice, is a translation of the German Vorurteil, and it simply means to “pre-judge.” Originally, this word never connoted anything negative; today, however, the word has taken on new meaning, denoting a social vice of some sort—e.g., when a person speaks of one’s “sexist prejudices.” Originally, the word implied nothing of the sort; it simply meant to make a preliminary judgment, whether good or bad.)

All that to say, scientific methodology continues to be all the rage these days. It’s not uncommon to even hear philosophers (of all people, they should know better) talk about the benefit of becoming a critical thinker who can now “free his/herself from things like assumptions (particularly religious ones).” As a critical thinker, they say, one “doesn’t have to be held down by such things any longer.”

Like the article mentions, these sentiments come from the likes of Richard Dawkins, who isn’t a philosopher by trade, though who does remain a rather hawkish atheist who regularly speaks critically of religion but praises science and reason. Dawkins (and others) often talk about how science is the key to progress, whereas religion—being held down by prejudices and tradition—remains nothing more than a nagging vestigial organ of the bronze age.

But as Gadamer painstakingly shows in his Truth and Method, such ideas don’t hold much weight. We all have prejudices—whether religious or skeptical prejudice. And the scientist is no exception. It’s simply foolish to think otherwise.

Read more here.