Not long ago we posted about the theological and philosophical movement known as Radical Orthodoxy, asking whether Lutherans could have a seat at that table. Well, in another context, my friend George Strieter put me on to Johann Georg Hamann, a devout Lutheran who was friends with Kant and Hegel but who critiqued their philosophies with some extremely innovative philosophy of his own. It turns out, Hamann’s thought is said to be a major influence on ” Oswald Bayer, John Milbank and David Bentley Hart.” The latter two are the most prominent figures in Radical Orthodoxy. And that Oswald Bayer , perhaps the favorite contemporary German theologian at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, is mentioned here puts him in the company of the radically orthodox. [Read more…]
Alvin Plantinga is a highly-respected philosopher, respected even by those who disagree with him. An evangelical, Reformed Christian, Plantinga has written a new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism.
It has received a glowing review from Thomas Nagel, an atheist–in the New York Review of Books, no less–in which he says that Plantinga’s arguments help him to realize that Christians are, in fact, rational. And that his own side has some explaining to do.
The gulf in outlook between atheists and adherents of the monotheistic religions is profound. We are fortunate to live under a constitutional system and a code of manners that by and large keep it from disturbing the social peace; usually the parties ignore each other. But sometimes the conflict surfaces and heats up into a public debate. The present is such a time.
One of the things atheists tend to believe is that modern science is on their side, whereas theism is in conflict with science: that, for example, belief in miracles is inconsistent with the scientific conception of natural law; faith as a basis of belief is inconsistent with the scientific conception of knowledge; belief that God created man in his own image is inconsistent with scientific explanations provided by the theory of evolution. In his absorbing new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, Alvin Plantinga, a distinguished analytic philosopher known for his contributions to metaphysics and theory of knowledge as well as to the philosophy of religion, turns this alleged opposition on its head. His overall claim is that “there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.” By naturalism he means the view that the world describable by the natural sciences is all that exists, and that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.
Plantinga’s religion is the real thing, not just an intellectual deism that gives God nothing to do in the world. He himself is an evangelical Protestant, but he conducts his argument with respect to a version of Christianity that is the “rough intersection of the great Christian creeds”—ranging from the Apostle’s Creed to the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles—according to which God is a person who not only created and maintains the universe and its laws, but also intervenes specially in the world, with the miracles related in the Bible and in other ways. It is of great interest to be presented with a lucid and sophisticated account of how someone who holds these beliefs understands them to harmonize with and indeed to provide crucial support for the methods and results of the natural sciences.
Plantinga discusses many topics in the course of the book, but his most important claims are epistemological. He holds, first, that the theistic conception of the relation between God, the natural world, and ourselves makes it reasonable for us to regard our perceptual and rational faculties as reliable. It is therefore reasonable to believe that the scientific theories they allow us to create do describe reality. He holds, second, that the naturalistic conception of the world, and of ourselves as products of unguided Darwinian evolution, makes it unreasonable for us to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable, and therefore unreasonable to believe any theories they may lead us to form, including the theory of evolution. In other words, belief in naturalism combined with belief in evolution is self-defeating. However, Plantinga thinks we can reasonably believe that we are the products of evolution provided that we also believe, contrary to naturalism, that the process was in some way guided by God.
Nagel gives a very clear summary of Plantinga’s epistemology, which emphasizes that there are different kinds of “warrants” for beliefs. Faith itself, Plantinga argues, is such a warrant:
Faith, according to Plantinga, is another basic way of forming beliefs, distinct from but not in competition with reason, perception, memory, and the others. However, it is a wholly different kettle of fish: according to the Christian tradition (including both Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin), faith is a special gift from God, not part of our ordinary epistemic equipment. Faith is a source of belief, a source that goes beyond the faculties included in reason.God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.)2 In addition, God acts in the world more selectively by “enabling Christians to see the truth of the central teachings of the Gospel.”
If all this is true, then by Plantinga’s standard of reliability and proper function, faith is a kind of cause that provides a warrant for theistic belief, even though it is a gift, and not a universal human faculty. (Plantinga recognizes that rational arguments have also been offered for the existence of God, but he thinks it is not necessary to rely on these, any more than it is necessary to rely on rational proofs of the existence of the external world to know just by looking that there is beer in the refrigerator.)
It is illuminating to have the starkness of the opposition between Plantinga’s theism and the secular outlook so clearly explained. My instinctively atheistic perspective implies that if I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true, the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith. From Plantinga’s point of view, by contrast, I suffer from a kind of spiritual blindness from which I am unwilling to be cured. This is a huge epistemological gulf, and it cannot be overcome by the cooperative employment of the cognitive faculties that we share, as is the hope with scientific disagreements.
Faith adds beliefs to the theist’s base of available evidence that are absent from the atheist’s, and unavailable to him without God’s special action. These differences make different beliefs reasonable given the same shared evidence. An atheist familiar with biology and medicine has no reason to believe the biblical story of the resurrection. But a Christian who believes it by faith should not, according to Plantinga, be dissuaded by general biological evidence. Plantinga compares the difference in justified beliefs to a case where you are accused of a crime on the basis of very convincing evidence, but you know that you didn’t do it. For you, the immediate evidence of your memory is not defeated by the public evidence against you, even though your memory is not available to others. Likewise, the Christian’s faith in the truth of the gospels, though unavailable to the atheist, is not defeated by the secular evidence against the possibility of resurrection.
Read the whole review.
For the purposes of our discussion, could we make some topics off-limits? First, please do not dismiss Plantinga as a “theistic evolutionist”; he may be one, but I think that’s too simplistic, and he is also giving some “warrants” for creationism. Second, let’s not get into the debate here between “evidentialist” and “presuppositionalist” apologetics. There is actually some of both here, as Plantinga is supporting the reality of objective evidence as well as the fact–which Lutherans, at least, must not deny–that faith is a gift. The ultimate cause of atheism, as Plantinga says and as the atheist Nagel admits, is “spiritual blindness.” Finally, let’s not have any attacks on Plantinga as a Calvinist. (Comments that violate these terms may be deleted.)
Psychiatrists medicalize personal problems, while psychologists apply the social sciences. Now there are counselors who use philosophers to help people think through their problems:
Patricia Anne Murphy is a philosopher with a real-world mission.
Murphy may have a PhD and an intimate knowledge of Aristotle and Descartes, but in her snug Takoma Park bungalow, she’s helping a broken-hearted patient struggle through a divorce.
Instead of offering the wounded wife a prescription for Effexor — which she’s not licensed to do anyway — she instructs her to read Epictetus, the original cognitive therapist, who argued that humans often mistake their feelings for facts and suffer as a result.
Murphy is one of an increasing number of philosophical counselors, practitioners who are putting their esoteric learning to practical use helping people with some of life’s persistent afflictions. Though they help clients cope with many of the same issues that conventional therapists do — divorce, job stress, the economic downturn, parenting woes, chronic illness and matters of the heart — their methods are very different.
They’re like intellectual life coaches. Very intellectual. They have in-depth knowledge of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist theories on the nature of life and can recite passages from Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological explorations of the question of being. And they use them to help clients overcome their mother issues. . . .
Unlike a visit to a conventional psychologist or psychotherapist, seeing Murphy won’t involve lying on a couch or reaching for the obligatory tissue box. Though she works from a home library lined with tomes by Albert Camus, Søren Kierkegaard and Immanuel Kant, Murphy takes clients outside for brisk strolls through her leafy neighborhood because Kant believed that walking helped thinking and was soothing for the soul.
The therapy is not covered by health insurance but is typically offered on a sliding scale and averages about $80 an hour for one-on-one sessions. . . .
The field is still in its early stages. There are about 300 philosophical counselors in 36 states and more than 20 foreign countries who are certified by the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, along with another 600 who practice but are not certified, said Lou Marinoff, president of the organization and author of the international bestseller “Plato, Not Prozac! Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems.’’ . . .
“You can go on the Internet and find 100 people who are giving you advice,” [Practioner Anne] Barnhill said. “But there are thinkers who are recognized for their knowledge, and ignoring them in our generation just seems like such a loss.”
I was skeptical reading this–for one thing, there are so many philosophers offering conflicting perspectives on everything–and yet Dr. Barnhill here makes a good point. We do have a heritage of wisdom that one might draw on. There is also, of course, spiritual counseling, which, at its worst tries to emulate secular psychology but at its best brings Christ into people’s difficulties. Do you think there is room for the philosophers?
Have you ever been helped through a personal problem by just reading something that pulled you through it?
Philosopher Edward Feser clears us misconceptions about the cosmological argument for the existence of God:
1. The argument does NOT rest on the premise that “Everything has a cause.”
Lots of people – probably most people who have an opinion on the matter – think that the cosmological argument goes like this: Everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause; so God exists. They then have no trouble at all poking holes in it. If everything has a cause, then what caused God? Why assume in the first place that everything has to have a cause? Why assume the cause is God? Etc.
Here’s the funny thing, though. People who attack this argument never tell you where they got it from. They never quote anyone defending it. There’s a reason for that. The reason is that none of the best-known proponents of the cosmological argument in the history of philosophy and theology ever gave this stupid argument. Not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Aquinas, not Duns Scotus, not Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne. And not anyone else either, as far as I know. . . .
What defenders of the cosmological argument do say is that what comes into existence has a cause, or that what is contingent has a cause. These claims are as different from “Everything has a cause” as “Whatever has color is extended” is different from “Everything is extended.” Defenders of the cosmological argument also provide arguments for these claims about causation. You may disagree with the claims – though if you think they are falsified by modern physics, you are sorely mistaken– but you cannot justly accuse the defender of the cosmological argument either of saying something manifestly silly or of contradicting himself when he goes on to say that God is uncaused. . . .
“What caused God?” is not a serious objection to the argument.
Part of the reason this is not a serious objection is that it usually rests on the assumption that the cosmological argument is committed to the premise that “Everything has a cause,” and as I’ve just said, this is simply not the case. But there is another and perhaps deeper reason.The cosmological argument in its historically most influential versions is not concerned to show that there is a cause of things which just happens not to have a cause. It is not interested in “brute facts” – if it were, then yes, positing the world as the ultimate brute fact might arguably be as defensible as taking God to be. On the contrary, the cosmological argument – again, at least as its most prominent defenders (Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al.) present it – is concerned with trying to show that not everything can be a “brute fact.” What it seeks to show is that if there is to be an ultimate explanation of things, then there must be a cause of everything else which not only happens to exist, but which could not even in principle have failed to exist. And that is why it is said to be uncaused – not because it is an arbitrary exception to a general rule, not because it merely happens to be uncaused, but rather because it is not the sort of thing that can even in principle be said to have had a cause, precisely because it could not even in principle have failed to exist in the first place. And the argument doesn’t merely assume or stipulate that the first cause is like this; on the contrary, the whole point of the argument is to try to show that there must be something like this.
He goes on, in some fascinating and lucid philosophizing.
HT: Joe Carter