Category Archives: Philosophy

A Review of “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell: Part V The Moral Argument For Deity

 

The moral argument for God’s existence. This is a popular one among contemporary Christian apologists such as CS Lewis in Mere Christianity. Although different variations of it can be seen as far back as Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) in the fourth of his Five Ways. Ironically the German philosopher Immanual Kant (1724 -1804) argued that if you come across a man who tells you he has five proofs for the existence of God, you can be sure he doesn’t have any, because if he had any it would only take one. So which argument did Kant chose? The moral argument for God.

Kant’s version of the moral argument becomes very influential in the history of theology and philosophy. He held that moral beings will “the highest good” if they can have confidence that within the causal structure of nature the highest good can be achieved by moral means. Thus belief in God is the guarantor that the highest good is achievable. And from this you might be able to detect the dilemma Russell will present us with. Because if one were to remove God from this equation you can see how the whole moral project implodes.

The reason I mention Kant is because Russell mentions him in his rejection of this argument. He writes,

“Kant, as I say, invented a new moral argument for the existence of God, and that in varying forms was extremely popular during the nineteenth century. It has all sorts of forms. One form is to say that there would be no right or wrong unless God existed.”

You might have heard Christian apologists who argue the way Russell is explaining. It seems compelling since many non-believers have not consider the nature of morality. As a result some will confess that they don’t know where morals come from. There are some in “new atheist” literature who aren’t amused by the question in the slightest. Some of them will say that morality is the utilitarian standard of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Others might give a pragmatic response but one thing they are sure of is God is not a necessary condition for morality. Granted I believe these points can be refuted successfully by the theist and in fact should be. However, when you think about it, are these individuals being consistent with their own perspective on reality and the world? They are after all doing what Paul describes and suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. Thus for them to insert the idea of God as evidence for morality is like putting the square peg in the round hole.

Moving on, Russell continues by arguing:

“The point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, you are then in this situation: is that difference due to God’s fiat [command or decree] or is it not? If it is due to God’s fiat, then for God Himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God’s fiat, because God’s fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that He made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God.”

Once again Russell offers one of his arguments of dichotomy. The dichotomy is either right and wrong are irrelevant to God, or God must appeal to moral laws which are “anterior” or outside of God. I hope you see the dilemma he is making here. Leave me a comment if you would like more explanation. My response would be that if God was a finite being, such as you and me are finite beings, this argument would have some traction. God however is an infinite Being so that when He says what Right conduct is He is simply reflecting on His own Being. Therefore we say that God is good and is the standard of goodness.

There is no dilemma as Russell is suggesting. Rather Russell is working from the assumption that God is finite and operates at this finite level. Such an assumption gives Russell the impression that he can stipulate standards for himself and impose them upon God from his finite realm of experience. Once again this isn’t the Christian conception of God and therefore Russell hasn’t made his case for not being a Christian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Apologetics

A Review of “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell

Russell’s paper might be a little dated (presented in 1927) but its arguments are still being circulated today even among those in “New Atheism”. You can judge for yourself as you read along. Having recently read through Russell’s paper I found plenty of discussion topics to comment on. The first one being Russell’s explanation of what a Christian is.

WHAT IS A CHRISTIAN?

What is interesting about the answer he gives is that it tells us quite a bit about how the Church portrayed itself and the way in which the Church was understood by the culture around the end of the 19th beginning of the 20th century. He begins by saying, “It is used in these days in a very loose sense by a great many people. Some people mean no more by it than a person who attempts to live a good life. In that sense I suppose there would be Christians in all sects and creeds”. In spite of the fact that I disagree with Russell on almost anything and everything, I will agree with him on this point, if Christianity is the cultivation of moral behavior, there would be many outside the church who would be regarded as Christian since there are many who attempt to live a good life. I would say from the Christian perspective there is an aspect of moral living which we call sanctification, but it isn’t as central to Christianity as justification typically holds that place.

Just a few years prior to Russell presenting this paper across the pond another intellectual J Gresham Machen, who is a Christian and was President of Westminster Theological Seminary before his death. Machen wrote a very important book that is still being sold and read today, Christianity And Liberalism. Here Machen writes, “Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time (that is true of this present time as well); there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.”[1] Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in columns of Church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life.” So while Russell struggles to find a definition of Christianity based on what he has experienced, Machen is calling for for precision in our teaching for the reason that a Christianity without it results in a faith that “will never stand amid the shocks of life.”

I think we can probably spend a great deal of time unpacking just this quote of Machen’s alone. However the review is on Russell so I will attempt to stay focused. Machen was speaking specifically of theological liberalism or modernism of his day. Early in modernity some decided to practice the “if you can’t beat em, join em” school of ecumenism (Church unity). The end result was a re-configuring of Biblical teaching that was for the most part gutted of true Biblical content. One of the first teachings to go was the atonement. Once that was out the cross of Christ was no longer the means by which our sin was atoned for. Rather, modernists looked at the crucifixion as an act of love one that we ought to emulate. When all was said and done Christianity amounted to what Russell referred to as ” a person who attempts to live a good life”.

It isn’t as if Russell was ignorant about this matter. Moreover, this isn’t a case of an atheist with an axe to grind. Later he wrote in this discussion, “I think that you must have a certain amount of definite belief before you have a right to call yourself a Christian. The word does not have quite such a full‐blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant. You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions”. Notice the distinction between what Russell observed in his day compared to how he describes Christians in the pre-modern era. Moreover, here we are in the 21st century and there isn’t too much that is different from Machen and Russell’s era.

Returning to Russell, he has this to say about defining Christianity, “Nowadays it is not quite that. We have to be a little more vague in our meaning of Christianity. I think, however, that there are two different items which are quite essential to anyone calling himself a Christian. The first is one of a dogmatic nature ‐‐namely, that you must believe in God and immortality. If you do not believe in those two things, I do not think that you can properly call yourself a Christian. Then, further than that, as the name implies, you must have some kind of belief about Christ.” He begins by saying these days are not like the past where people were self conscious of their Christian beliefs. He says that now there is more ambiguity as to what one believes about Christianity. So he offers up 3 things that one must believe which are belief in God, immortality, and some kind of belief about Christ. Interesting choice of words; he is attempting to encompass all that go by the name Christian which is quite ambiguous. Obviously there is more to it than just that. Such a description still falls into the dilemma stated earlier of encompassing those who are not Christian. However, that is the definition that Russell goes by.

At this point I feel that I have bitten off a little more than I can chew for one post so I will have to continue with Russell in a second installment.

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Apologetics

A Review of Sutanto’s Covenental Apologetics And Common Sense Realism

I came across Sutanto’s paper in the Journal of Evangelical Theology (JETS 57/4 (2014) and have been thinking it through. Part of the reason this caught my interest is because I live in Southern California and I have noticed how predominant the Argument from Consciousness is in these parts seeing how I believe it lacked the Theological justification for a genuine apologetic. But I struggled to understand why it was that these well intending apologists were so adamant about using the Argument From Consciousness and did use it with every opportunity seemingly. I believe Sutanto does an outstanding job explaining the situation in this paper and if you get the time I would highly recommend reading his paper.

However, here I provide a very simplified and watered down explanation of Sutanto’s argument. Some readers may not be too familiar with the technical language but many will be familiar with the concept the terminology seeks to communicate. Thus common sense realism (CS) is expressed by Sutanto as “referring to those propositions or intuitions that are perspicuously true, upon, or even prior to immediate reflection. When any subject S entertain these propositions, it is supposed, S will come to see the obviousness of the veracity of the proposition, and thus be lured, or even compelled, to adopt a belief in them. (777)” For example the fact that I have hands is a belief I hold from common sense and it would be difficult for anyone to refute. This is what Sutanto is addressing in the CS thesis. The relationship of CS to the Argument From Consciousness (AFC) is that the common sense reality of my conscious awareness points to belief in God. CS provides the epistemic justification for the fact of consciousness. Allow me to explain.

Sutanto begins by looking at the AFC as it is articulated by J.P. Moreland in The Rationality of Theism. It is here that Moreland wants to argue that the existence of non-physical mental states (consciousness) is a defeater of any naturalistic argument that can be offered since a precommitment to naturalism is inconsistent with a notion of non-physicality (i.e. consciousness or mental states). Sutanto frames Morland’s argument this way:

  1. Genuinely non-physical mental states exist.
  2. There is an explanation for mental states.
  3. Personal explanation is different from naturalistic scientific explanation.
  4. The explanation for mental states is either personal or natural scientific explanation.
  5. The explanation is not a naturalistic scientific one.
  6. Therefore, the explanation is a personal one.
  7. If the explanation is personal then it is theistic.
  8. Therefore, the explanation is theistic.

Sutanto seems to be in agreement with Moreland’s AFC. Where Sutanto wishes to “recalibrate” is not the AFC itself but rather Sutanto wants to recalibrate AFC’s foundation.

The argument that Sutanto is going make centers on the matter of the principium cognoscendi (principle of knowing).  Morland begins premise one by denying third person scientific investigation. For Morland premise one is based on first person phenomenology  hence it is at this point that he invokes the CS thesis as his principium. Here Sutanto offers some objections to the understanding of CS as principium.

Sutanto pulls from different sources in the formulation of these objections. The first objection he calls the “Marsden Olifent objection” named after two scholars George Marsden and Scott Oliphint who address this issue of CS in other works. Without going to far into what was said I think I can summarize their position as a historical refutation of CS demonstrating that there is no ground or reference for what knowledge is in fact common. Without a base or start point the pursuit of knowledge that is common becomes vacuous at best. The next objection he refers to as the “Bishop and Trout objection” which comes from Michael Bishop and J.D. Trout’s book Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment. The thrust of the argument is an appeal to a naturalistic epistemology. Because no genuine  agreement among epistemologists or people in general can be found in standard analytic epistemology the authors propose a third person naturalistic approach which is precisely what Morland is refuting.

The next set of objections that Sutanto offers is divine revelation and the noetic effects of sin. Here with the text of Scripture he makes the case that there are two implications of the noetic effects of sin (or the way sin impacts our thinking). The first is that which should be common- namely the knowledge of God- which is treated by the natural man as uncommon. Therefore any appeal to what is thought to be CS can potentially be an appeal to what is uncommon. Thus in this sense the natural man will take for granted that his epistemic equipment is functioning properly when in reality it is working from the noetic effects of sin which suppresses true knowledge.

If the noetic effects of sin are so comprehensive what then can be our  principium cognoscendi. This is where Sutanto turns to the Triune God. He writes “With these objections we have shown that an appeal to common sense to ground an argument is insufficient at best or simply wrongheaded at worst, especially when we live in the post-lapsarian order” (786).  Sutanto goes on to say, “In recalibrating the argument from consciousness, and placing it on divine revelation rather than on natural theology, we preserve its concluding premises from devolving into a proof for some finite god. Instead , we begin from the ontological Trinity, and we lay an argument that concludes, also, with the Trinity” (791).

 

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BOOK REVIEW: A History of Western Philosophy And Theology

 

 

John Frame (Reformed Theological Seminary) has recently published yet another book A History of Western Philosophy And Theology. Pump the breaks! Why would any Christian write on the subject of Philosophy? Aren’t we exhorted not to entertain vain philosophies? Yes we are but that is not whats taking place here. As a student of philosophy (and by God’s grace a Christian) I have benefited tremendously from understanding the history of thought in both the east and the west. Based upon my reading of Frame that is precisely his goal. To help the Christian community understand these certain thought patterns that have developed over time in the west for the purpose of understanding non-Christian thought and speaking intelligently to it.

The book itself is a great read. Frame’s experience as a career educator comes through in his writing style and helping the reader understand and internalize sometimes complicated concepts as he covers such topics as:

Philosophy And The Bible

Greek Philosophy

Medieval Philosophy

Early Modern Thought

Theology In The Enlightenment

Kant And His Successors

Nineteenth Century Theology

Nietzsche, Pragmatism, Phenomenology, And Existentialism

Twentieth Century Liberal Theology

Recent Christian Philosophy

Some of these topics may look heavy but Frame hones in on major key points and movements that help in understanding the interchange between the disciplines of theology and philosophy.

“But wait there’s more!” The book is packed with great features. There is an appendices that provides readers with well developed reviews on topics covered in the book. Also, there is a very thorough glossary covering terms used through out the book. There is also bibliographies, indexes, but what I really enjoyed was that the chapters correlated with online lectures through iTunesU. An outstanding tool to help solidify what you just read.

In terms of reading level I would put it in the category of accessible. It is a book about the interchange of theology and philosophy in the west so there will be terms that aren’t commonly used but Frame goes over the top to make it understandable. This is a great book for an intro level college course (especially on a Christian campus) but it can also be used in a Sunday school class, or even home school (Freshman – Senior).

Rating: 5 Stars

james


This book is provided to me courtesy of NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

 

 

 

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BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy In The Hellenistic & Roman Worlds

Peter Adamson must be one of those rare breed of writers open to taking on any writing challenge that comes before him. Such is the case with Philosophy In The Hellenistic & Roman Worlds (PHRW). Notice the fine print at very top of the front cover that reads, “A History Of Philosophy Without Any Gaps”. Two things came to mind when I saw this. The first was “it’s about time!” The second thing that came to my mind was “how is that even possible?” To be perfectly candid it isn’t. However, I think Adamson does an outstanding job in spite of the task before him of covering subject matter often missed in academia but doing so in an entertaining way.

Adamson starts by outlining three areas of philosophy that tend not to get too much attention. They are: Hellenistic Philosophy, Pagan Philosophy In The Roman Empire, and Christian Philosophy In The Roman Empire. From these eras Adamson hones in on key disciplines such as metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, logic, ethics, philosophy of language, and the reader will occasionally come across brushes with other disciplines. So at the outset Adamson’s work highlights philosophers and their influences through a historical thematic way providing a much larger picture of the development of thought.

I was personally interested in Adamson’s discussion of Christianity in the Roman World. Adamson explains Christianity’s emergence out of a hedonistic tradition which began conceptually with a the principle of immediate pleasure in hedonism to the understanding of pleasure as a life pursuit in Epicurianism. Christian thought began to dominate the ancient world by appropriating Plato, Aristotle, and pagan thought. It isn’t till the time of Augustine that we begin to see a uniquely Christian philosophy whose impact is still felt today. Adamson points out that Augustines’s influence reaches so far out that even non-Christians today find themselves with Augustinian similarities. One example that I can think of is Bertrand Russell’s appeal to Agustine’s view of time.

RATING: 4 STARS

James

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