Monthly Archives: September 2014

Announcing…A New Book Containing Year One of Ifaqtheology’s Essays!

I want to insert into the current series (“Is Christianity True”) an announcement about the publication of my new book, The Thoughtful Christian Life. For those who have read the blog intermittently or those who would like to have the essays in a book form, this book contains the 55 essays posted in the first year of ifaqtheology. I revised and corrected them, collected them into four categories, and wrote discussion questions for every chapter.

I hope that having these thoughts in book form will make them more accessible to small groups and book clubs for reading and discussion. My goal is the wider dissemination of these ideas in hope that they might inspire greater thoughtfulness among Christian people.

Take a look at the Amazon page and, if you wish, spread the word.

On Friday I will post the next essay in the series on the question of Christianity’s truth. If you have not read the previous post entitled “The Miracle of Atheism: Turning Matter into Mind,” I hope you will do that.

The Miracle of Atheism: Turning Matter into Mind

In the previous post, I argued that the first decision point in the discussion between atheism and belief in God is the choice between matter and mind as most fundamental explanation for our world. Is the beginning and end of all things “spirit or matter, life or death, intelligible or unintelligible, mind or machine?” I ended that post with the question of whether or not we could make a rational judgment about this issue. Today I want to begin a line of reasoning that I believe enables us to reject materialism for rational reasons, not just because of our emotional reaction to its deification of death.

In this post we will consider a common experience central to the argument between atheism and belief. We experience ourselves and the external world in two ways, as mind and matter, that is, as something intelligible and something merely sensible. We can think the intelligible as an idea, a concept, or a set of relationships. The intelligible aspect of things enters our minds as information. But we experience the sensible as merely there, a brute fact offering resistance but not yielding information. Both are such primitive experiences that we can’t readily explain one in terms of the other.

To move us forward, let’s assume that the atheist option is correct, that matter is the one primordial reality, and see where this hypothesis leads us. If atheistic materialism is true everything we experience can be reduced to matter. Everything real is wholly material, and everything that we experience as mind or idea is but an “appearance” of matter, even the mind, ideas, and thoughts of the atheist who makes this argument. By definition pure matter cannot possess any intelligible properties. But can we actually perform this reduction of mind to matter?

To pursue this argument we need a clear concept of matter. But it would be a huge mistake to assume that our common sense notions give us an adequate concept of matter. Let’s use a human artifact as our example of how the reduction of mind and intelligible ideas to matter might work. From the street in front of my house I can see the entire front of the structure. When I look at it I think the idea of a house. My house is not matter alone. Its matter is structured by an idea. The idea of a house contains many components we might consider practical or emotional, such as beauty, comfortable, convenience, and familiarity. But the idea of a house is also a complicated design plan that one can diagram as a set of blueprints and understand with the mind. The design plan differentiates the house from other physical objects, from a car or an elephant.

My house is composed of smaller units arranged according to its design plan. Let’s remove one of those units and consider it in isolation from the other units. A single brick is not a house. Nor is pile of bricks a house. You need a design plan and a builder in addition to materials to create a house. But neither is a single brick pure matter, for there is a difference between a brick and unmixed, unmolded, and unbaked clay. Not just any pile of earth can be made into a brick. Hence a brick, too, is an idea, a design plan, an inner order that makes its components a brick and not one of many other things.

Let’s go further. The brick also is composed of units arranged in an order, according to the idea of a brick. The units are composed mostly of Silicon and aluminum oxides that possess properties that enable them to form tiny, thin, flat sheets, which gives wet clay that slick feel. A Silicon tetraoxide (SiO4) molecule is also composed of units, one Silicon atom and four oxygen atoms. A single Silicon or a single Oxygen atom or an aggregate of these atoms is not a Silicon tetraoxide molecule any more than a brick is a house. And apart from the design plan that makes these atoms a Silicon tetraoxide molecule, they do not possess the properties of Silicon tetraoxide.

A Silicon atom, too, is composed of units arranged in a stable and intelligible order. It contains 14 protons, 14 neutrons, and 14 electrons. Its inner structure is surprisingly complex, and a list of its known properties would fill several pages. In experiencing and understanding a Silicon atom, just like our knowledge and experience of a house or a brick, we do not experience matter alone. We know a Silicon atom as an order, an intelligible structure, that is, as an idea.

Let’s keep going! A proton by itself is not a Silicon atom, and it does not possess the properties of a Silicon atom but a completely different set of properties. Like a house, a brick, a Silicon tetraoxide molecule, and a Silicon atom, a proton is not pure matter. It too has an inner structure and is composed of units. A proton is composed of 2 up quarks and 1 down quark held together by three gluon fields. Quarks and gluons also possess properties that differ from those of the protons for which they are the components. How far toward the infinitely small modern physics can pursue the structure and properties of the physical world I do not know. But one thing is clear: Matter, considered as primordial, unordered, unintelligible, undifferentiated yet real stuff—a concept necessary for atheism to make sense— can never be known or experienced except as an abstraction from the ordered and intelligible world we know.

From our common sense experience of the world, we tend to think that the existence and nature of matter is the most obvious of all things. And the immediate plausibility of atheist/materialist’s argument depends on this naïve presumption. But the existence of matter is not obvious at all. Matter is a theoretical idea postulated to account for the difference between mere ideas and the physical objects that embody those ideas in space and time. Matter is not knowable in itself, that is, apart from an internally structured physical object. The physical order we experience daily in ourselves and the external world is built up not from purely material components but by things with internal order, used as components for other orders, and those are used for still others, and so on for many levels.

Nevertheless, let’s continue to assume the materialist hypothesis. This hypothesis asserts that all the intelligible order in the universe, everything that ever was and ever will be, from quarks and gluons to human brains, came into existence not by the ordering power of mind but by some other means. What other means could account for the vast number of levels of intelligible order in nature? Apart from mind, what could you add to amorphous, unordered, and undifferentiated matter to cause it to become ordered? If matter is all there is and matter is unordered by definition, why wouldn’t matter simply remain unordered forever? Chance, you say? I agree that chance is the only option other than active mind for creating new order. But chance won’t work to order pure matter, because chance applies only in our already ordered world. Chance makes sense only where there is differentiation and processes are already under way. Chance makes sense only where you have two or more lines of causality that can intersect in a way unpredictable from within either line. But with pure matter there is no causal process because causal processes assume a difference between cause and effect; and in pure matter all is one and the same. Without difference nothing happens, and if nothing happens, nothing can happen by chance either. If, nevertheless, the atheist/materialists insist that something did happen to order matter, they are asserting an absurdity, a miracle, which hardly places them a superior rational position to theists who insist that the operation of a mind is the explanation for the intelligible order of our world.

As I stand before that first decision point, completely surrounded by intelligible structures, layer within layer, knowing matter only as an abstraction, I feel justified in rejecting the materialist alternative and choosing the alternative that asserts that mind and intelligibility are fundamental aspects of reality.

Next week: we will examine our experience of ourselves as causes, free and creative initiators of change. We know that pure matter cannot order itself, but we know mind can order matter because we do it every day.

If God is Dead, Death is God

I devoted the six previous installments in this series (“Is Christianity True”) to clarifying the concepts needed to answer intelligently the question of Christianity’s truth. We examined the nature of the question about Christianity’s truth, the concepts of truth, reality, knowledge, and faith, and the issue of who bears the burden of proof. Now we begin to address the heart of the matter.

Debates about the truth of Christianity begin at different points depending on which objection is being pressed. It would seem that a discussion with an atheist would need to begin with the question of God’s existence. Deists would agree with Christians that God exists but would object to miracles, the incarnation, and the resurrection of Jesus. And adherents of other religions and philosophies would press other objections and demand other bodies of evidence. Since in these essays I am addressing a general audience, I don’t want to presume a beginning point anywhere short of the most basic issue. In the previous post, I spoke of certain natural decision points at which one must decide which road to take. One road takes us further on the way to Christian faith and the other takes us another step away from faith. What is the first and most fundamental decision point?

If asked, perhaps most people would say that the most obvious beginning point for the debate between nonbelievers and believers is issue of the existence of God. Indeed, this debate may be the most obvious beginning point, but we must also keep in mind that explicit atheism and theism presuppose many judgments and decisions about background beliefs. These unspoken background beliefs must be true if atheism or theism is true. So, I want to look for the most fundamental decision point among these unspoken commitments.

Atheist philosophies vary markedly and resist simple generalizations. But I have to risk some generalizations or our argument would never progress beyond disputes over definitions. At this stage, using Alvin Plantinga’s definition, I will define atheism as the belief that “there is no God or anything like God” (Warranted Christian Belief).  Theism is belief in one God conceived in a general sense that covers Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Perhaps some atheists would disagree, but I am going to take for granted that the debate about God’s existence makes no sense unless atheists and theists alike believe that something is real, that something true can be said about it, and that we can attain some knowledge of it. It would be hard to argue with someone who denies the presuppositions and rules that make arguments possible! In my view, a second assumption, related to the first, is needed to get the debate going. How could a debate progress unless atheists and theists agree that behind or at the beginning of all the manifold phenomena in the world lies something that explains the phenomena but itself needs no explanation? Rationality possesses a drive to relate and unify things that seem at first to be unrelated and separate. The notion that ultimate reality is composed of an infinite number of unrelated, unconnected, utterly different and self-existent entities makes reason ineffective and knowledge impossible. Hence there is a tendency among atheists and theists to seek for the fewest and simplest explanatory principles possible.

We now have before us the first decision point. If atheists and theists agree that there is an ultimate reality that explains all phenomena and events, the debate turns on the nature of that ultimate reality. Is it spirit or matter, life or death, intelligible or unintelligible, mind or machine? Clearly, atheism, as the belief that there is no God or anything like God, chooses the second option in each of these four pairs. For atheism, the beginning and end of all things is matter, death, the unintelligible, and the mechanical. The theism chooses the first member of each pair. For theists, the beginning and end of all things is spirit, life, the intelligible, and mind. The choice one makes at this fork in the road determines one’s most basic understanding of everything else. All future choices are but specifications and variations of this one.

Is the choice between these two paths merely arbitrary or based on one’s personality? Or, is there room for making a rational judgment? And if so, what are our resources for making this rational judgment? I see only three: our experience of our minds, our experience of our bodies, and our experience through our minds and bodies of the external world. Or, we can think of it this way. Through our bodies and minds we experience reality in two ways, as intelligible and unintelligible or as mental and material or clear and obscure or internal or external. These two basic experiences give us three options: (1) the intelligible is primary and the material is derivative; or (2) the material is primary and the intelligible is derivative; or (3) the material and the intelligible are equally primordial.

In the coming posts I hope to lay out the evidence available for making a rational judgment about which one of these three options is superior. But already we can see the huge significance of this most basic decision. If death is God, God is dead. And if God is dead, death is God.

Is Christian Belief a Decision or a Conclusion?

In the previous post we addressed the question of what it means to know something. I defined knowledge as true, justified or warranted, belief. It is important to note that this is merely a definition of knowledge. A definition of knowledge cannot tell us whether a particular belief is really true or whether a particular person is really justified or warranted in holding that belief. The definition can be applied to particular cases only hypothetically. If we accept the definition of knowledge as true, justified or warranted belief, it follows that: “If belief A is true and person S is justified in holding A or possesses warrant for A, S knows A.” But the definition gives us no way to get past the little word “if.”

In other words, there is a huge difference between knowing A and knowing infallibly that you know A. (In my view, infallible knowledge is impossible apart from absolute knowledge.) And there is a huge difference between affirming the hypothetical statement, “If belief A is true and person S is justified in holding A or possesses warrant for A, S knows A,” and asserting categorically that “S knows A” or that “I know A.” In common speech, to say “I know A” asserts subjective certainty, and we learned last week that subjective certainty is compatible with falsehood. And to assert that “S knows A” is to express a judgment that A is true and S is justified or warranted in holding A. Clearly, this judgment is also fallible.

Every human act asserting an existential statement of the form “A” or “A exists” or “The belief that A exists is true” is fallible. Even if an assertion is true and is held in a justified or warranted way, the human act of judging a belief to be true is fallible. We cannot infallibly rule out every possible condition under which a belief could be false. The universal fallibility of human judgments makes doubt a real possibility for any judgment. Doubt is the subjective side of fallibility and the subjective opposite of certainty. Doubt no more makes a belief false than certainty makes it true.

We adapt to human fallibility and doubt in much of our lives, especially in those areas where the consequences of being wrong are not severe. In purely theoretical matters—if there are such things—or practical matters of little consequence, we shrug our shoulders and say, “Who cares?” In those areas we are able rather easily and routinely to make decisions and act in the absence of infallibility and complete certainty. We do not notice that our judgments and the actions based on them are fallible and involve risk. But when the stakes are high and great good or great evil may result from our actions, we become acutely conscious of our fallibility. Subjective doubt and anxiety arise and may paralyze us unless we find a way to deal with them.

Now I want to apply these thoughts to our question, “Is Christianity True.” If all human judgments are fallible and if in some really important matters, despite our best efforts to examine and weigh the evidence, we are forced to act on our fallible judgments, there will always come a point at which we must choose, decide, and act despite the risk. Hence in accounting for their Christian commitment, believers need not accept the obligation to “close the loop” and present conclusive proof for the truth of their faith. We can present the evidence and our evaluations of it, but we need not and cannot describe in rational terms the decision to act despite the risk. The necessity of acting on fallible judgments applies to all actions, trivial or monumental, enacted by believers or nonbelievers. Christian faith and commitment should not be held to a higher standard—that is, an impossible one—than other beliefs and commitments have to meet.

The necessity of decision and action based on responsible but fallible judgments determines much of my apologetic strategy and marks it off from many other approaches to apologetics. I hope to guide the reader on the road from unbelief to Christian faith. Along the way, we will come to certain natural decision points where progress demands that we choose one of two ways in the absence of conclusive proof. I will do my best to clarify the nature of the alternatives, the evidence for and against each, and what is at stake in the decision between the two. But rational arguments can take us only so far. Finally, one must choose and act despite the risk.

Christian Belief: Knowledge, Faith, Opinion, or Just Wishful Thinking?

In this installment of our study of Christianity’s truth we continue clarifying the basic vocabulary, framework, and rules for the discussion. Many discussions about God’s existence and Christianity’s truth suffer from confusion. We get in a hurry, talk past one another, and express our feelings rather than take the time to communicate clearly and understand each other. So, I believe it is necessary to give some time to these introductory matters.

In recent posts I’ve addressed the issues of truth and reality and the issue of who bears the burden of truth. Today, I will focus on knowledge. What does it mean to know something? In transitioning from truth to knowledge, we shift from the issue of the properties of a proposition to the issue of how a proposition is held by a knower. In addressing the question “Is Christianity True?” how would it profit us to clarify what it means to claim that Christianity is true, if we have no idea what it would mean to know that Christianity is true? And, of course, in due time we need to secure that knowledge.

What is Knowledge?

What does it mean to know something? To say that we know something speaks about the way a truth is held by the knower. First, knowledge concerns truth. Belief in a falsehood is not knowledge, no matter how certain you are of its truth and no matter how diligently you work to discover and test its truth. There is no such thing as mistaken knowledge. Second, believing a truth is not sufficient for knowledge. You may guess correctly how many fingers I am extending behind my back; that is not knowledge. Guessing, tossing the dice, accidents, wishful thinking, and prejudices of all kinds, even if they hit on the truth do not count as knowledge. You need something else. The “something else” concerns the way you hold that truth to be true.

Contemporary philosophers differ on the exact thing needed to transform a true belief into knowledge. I am not going to take sides in this debate. We need either “justification” or “warrant” in addition to true belief. The justification criterion demands that we make a good faith effort to examine a belief and that we are able to give good reasons for accepting it as true. The warrant criterion focuses on the proper functioning of our belief-forming mechanisms. If our belief is true and it is formed under the right conditions and our belief-forming mechanisms are functioning properly, we possess knowledge.

Does knowledge come in different quantities and qualities? The answer is yes. There is a qualitative scale of knowledge, with perfect or absolute knowledge at the top and complete ignorance and falsehood at the bottom. And our vocabulary of knowledge reflects this scale. We speak of knowledge, faith, opinion, supposition, educated guesses, probability, certainty, likelihood, etc. Absolute or perfect knowledge is held by God alone. Everything that is, is either God or the effect of God’s action. And God knows his own being and action perfectly. God knows everything about everything. Human beings do not and cannot possess such knowledge. Does this mean that anything less than absolute knowledge is not knowledge at all, that human beings know nothing? This skeptical conclusion would imply that in relation to knowledge there is no qualitative difference between guesses, wishful thinking, prejudices, etc., and true, justified or warranted belief, no difference between science and superstition. I reject this view. I believe our efforts to discover truth are worth the struggle.

What is Faith?

What is Faith, and where does it fall on the scale of knowledge? A common misunderstand opposes faith to knowledge. It assumes that to hold a belief by faith rules out its status as knowledge, and that to know something rules out its being held by faith. This opposition would be correct only if knowledge had to be defined as absolute knowledge. To say a belief is held on faith specifies that the believer has only indirect access to the reality to which the belief refers. The act of faith holds a belief to be true on the word of a trusted person or authority that has direct access to the reality in question. For example, to possess faith in the resurrection of Christ is to hold this belief to be true on the word of Paul, Peter, the Twelve and other witnesses to the resurrection appearances. Can such a belief be justified or warranted. Sure, it can. And, if it is true and justified or warranted, it counts as knowledge. There is no opposition between faith and knowledge. However there is a difference. One can believe a falsehood to be true, but one cannot know a falsehood to be true or a truth to be false. Knowledge concerns how a true belief is held and faith concerns merely how a belief is held whether it is true or not.

The true counterpart to faith is intellectual or empirical intuition, not knowledge. Intuition has direct access to the reality it knows whereas faith has indirect access. We intuit logical and mathematical truths, and our senses make direct contact with the physical/empirical world. These intuitions produce beliefs. Logical deduction is slightly removed from intuition, and so its relation to reality is also indirect. It grasps the truth of a proposition through its logical relationships to other propositions that we hold to be true.

What is Opinion?

Like faith, the word opinion refers to an act of the knower and does not require the thing held as probably true to be really true. One forms an opinion by assessing the evidence for the truth of a proposition as weighty enough to make the proposition more likely true than not. In contrast, faith trusts the word of someone it believes really knows. In this sense, faith stands higher in the order of knowledge than opinion.

What is Certainty?

Certainty is a measure of the subjective purity with which a belief is held. A belief held with certainty by someone is beyond doubt to this person. They hold it with untroubled passion. However, certainty is not a measure of truth or knowledge. One can be certain that a falsehood is true and that a truth is false.

Are Christian Beliefs Knowledge, Opinion, Certainties, Or Faith?

As we proceed in our study, we will see that many of the central Christian beliefs are held by faith. However, as I argued above, their being held by faith does not rule out their also being knowledge, that is, true, justified or warranted belief. Some Christian beliefs are supported by intellectual and empirical intuition. Some require a chain of logical reasoning. Other beliefs fall into the category of opinion. And Christians experience different levels of certainty in their faith at different times.