Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The Continuity of Philosophy

I mentioned before about the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast as a great survey of the history of philosophy. One thing that stands out is that I do not think that either of the two popular stories we tell ourselves about the history of (especially Western) philosophy stand up all that well. There is the account that praises the classical Greek tradition, and then disparages tthe Middle Ages only to rejoice at the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. There is also the account that gives credit to the Middle Ages as a further enhancement of the classical tradition only to be wrecked by the Enlightenment.

The totality of Western philosophy seems much more continuous than that though. The themes that many associate with the Enlightenment are already in play in the medieval period, and these in turn were brought forward from the classical world (often via the Islamic world). There is no way that the Enlightenment could have sprung fully-formed out of the tail end of the classical period, and yet it also starts to appear to me to be so much the expected outcome of the medieval period too.

Job Posting: Automotive Philosopher


This article is a great reminder that reports of philosophy’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. How would we program a self driving car to deal with the famous trolley problem? Sit down, eager utilitarians, this gets complicated quickly, a sample:

“Here is the nature of the dilemma. Imagine that in the not-too-distant future, you own a self-driving car. One day, while you are driving along, an unfortunate set of events causes the car to head toward a crowd of 10 people crossing the road. It cannot stop in time but it can avoid killing 10 people by steering into a wall. However, this collision would kill you, the owner and occupant. What should it do?

One way to approach this kind of problem is to act in a way that minimizes the loss of life. By this way of thinking, killing one person is better than killing 10.

But that approach may have other consequences. If fewer people buy self-driving cars because they are programmed to sacrifice their owners, then more people are likely to die because ordinary cars are involved in so many more accidents. The result is a Catch-22 situation.”

So quickly it becomes more than just “minimize loss of life” – and how is this to be resolved by an autonomous machine?

Theodicy and the Goodness of God

The “problem of evil” has been around for a while, as have responses to it. One of the most perennial (appearing in places such as Job) is these days called “skeptical theism”, or else a “mysterian” reply; putting it simply, it questions the question, pointing out that God’s incomprehensibility, the limits of our knowledge, and the fallibility of our moral sensibilities, along with the positive reasons to believe in God’s power and goodness, and argues these should lead us to conclude God has sufficient reason to allow evil, though we cannot necessarily see what it is. It is a conclusion that God is trustworthy, though his ways sometimes seem inscrutable.

Sometimes, when this response has been provided, the natural question will arise: if this response is correct, what does it mean to call God “good”? I want to provide a brief answer to that question here.

Aristotle provides an intuitive definition of good which covers the various uses human beings have for the word beyond and inclusive of the ethical: “the good is that which all things desire.” In light of this definition, the classical conception of God is that God is the most desirable reality. As Thomas puts it:

But all things, each according to its mode, desire to be in act; this is clear from the fact that each thing according to its nature resists corruption. To be in act, therefore, constitutes the nature of the good. Hence it is that evil, which is opposed to the good, follows when potency is deprived of act, as is clear from the Philosopher inMetaphysics IX [9]. But, as we have shown, God is being in act without potency. Therefore, He is truly good.

I’m not here concerned to provide the arguments for the classical view of God, just to explicate what it said about his goodness. If we follow it’s roadmap, we will also say that God’s goodness means God’s desirability. To put it plainly, God is the kind of thing that, when we might see him (whether with the eyes, or in the figurative sense, with the eyes of the mind), we would want him. Or perhaps to say it yet another way, God’s goodness is what leads us to worship him, to be struck with awe and joy at the sense of his presence.

Now we can connect this back to theodicy. Questions of God’s justice focus more specifically on the moral character of God, i.e., his goodness in the more narrowly ethical sense. But the general doctrine of God’s goodness has implications for this more specific sense, too. It means, at minimum, that nothing in God’s character implies God is anything less than the ultimately desirable reality.

Returning to the “mysterian” theodicy, then, we can explain it this way. The character of cruel and evil people is repulsive; people with healthy consciences find such behaviours morally disgusting, not desirable at all. The argument claims that if we knew all the relevant truths about God and the world, which we do not know, we would be able to see both God and all the evil in the world simultaneously, and still see God as the perfectly desirable reality. Nothing in his character provides grounds to react to him as morally sane people do toward evil dispositions.

For those who want to read further on how the classical conception of God relates to the problem evil, you could do worse than to start with Ed Feser’s various posts on the subject.

Without Any Gaps

I stumbled across the podcast, History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps and thought that the readers of this blog might find it illuminating. As anyone who has taken an undergrad survey course in philosophy might have surmised, this podcast is meant as a corrective for the usual course of (Western) philosophy that goes something like Plato, Aristotle, assorted other classical Greeks and Romans up to Augustine, then a brief medieval stopover with Aquinas and then onto the Enlightenment.

How careful is host Peter Adamson about gaps? Well, to give you an idea, there are now over 200 episodes and they are still on the medieval period. Indeed, there are over twenty episodes on medieval philosophy and they haven’t even gotten to Aquinas yet! If you work and/or have kids, then you don’t really have time to hunt for medieval thinkers to understand, so for the non-academic (or the otherwise-occupied academic) this is a great way to at least get an introduction to some of these thinkers.

What exactly falls into these gaps? Here’s an example: Now I know some Christian traditions argue that the medieval period gets a bad rap, but even so, I rarely see Christian thinkers even acknowledge that thinking on topics like election was not, as seems to be popularly thought, essentially untouched between Augustine and Luther. This was apparently a serious topic of discussion in the time of Charlemagne.

I’m sure that someone who knows these all these philosophers might quibble with how Adamson portrays one or another of them, but I imagine that for many who are curious about these topics and outside the halls of academia, it will be exciting just to get an introduction.

Calvinism and Choice

Note: I inadvertently posted this in unfinished form when I intended merely to save an edit. Please take the updated version below as the final. Forgive me if this causes any confusion! 

The philosophy department at Tyndale University College has a blog called Every Thought Captive that is worth having on your Feedly (or whatever blog reader you use). I have had the privilege of meeting Dr. Paul Franks, one of the members of the department, a number of times, and brief though those times were, I enjoyed our conversation. I have not met Dr. Rich Davis yet, but his reputation among students of his whom I know is high. I am thankful that they teach at my local Christian university and are having an impact for the gospel in my locale and abroad.

Drs. Franks and Davis have done of a number of good series on their blog. I’ve particularly appreciated the detailed critique that they have provided of Brian McLaren’s work called “The McLaren Files.” I look forward to reading their critique of Dave Fitch in “The Fitch Files.” They are also writing a series of posts critiquing Calvinism, their most recent is what I would like to offer some thoughts on.

In “The ‘C’ in Calvinism,” Dr. Davis shares his concerns with the notion of choice and whether it is a real option given Calvinism. He asks whether choice and “determinism” are compatible. The Calvinist of choice (pardon the pun) who functions as the foil for this essay is R. C. Sproul of Ligionier Ministries, a well-known popular expositor of Reformed theology. At hand is Sproul’s notion of “Edwards’ Law of Choice” (ELC) that was outlined in his influential book Chosen By God. ELC is so-named due to its earlier articulation by the New England theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) in his work Freedom of the Will.

Dr. Davis’ piece is, as to be expected, from a philosophical point of view. I have a keen interest in philosophy, but I would like to reply to this theologically. Not because I think that free will and sovereignty are questions that only theologians can answer, but because theology is the discipline whose methods I am most familiar with. I do not think this keeps us (that is, the philosopher and the theologian) from coming to shared conclusions because the question posed by Dr. Davis, and indeed Calvinism (whatever that is), is relevant to both the philosopher and the theologian. I also think that some of the problems in the essay are theological, and need to be addressed as such. I come at this as someone sympathetic to Reformed theology, and so my thoughts are largely critical.

First, when I read the essay it struck me that it was a sophisticated way of asking a simple question, one that most Calvinists and non-Calvinists who have reflected on the question of choice have asked: Is there such thing as free choice if God is sovereign? This is something we have all wrestled with, I know that I certainly have. The essay takes this a step further by evaluating the Edwardsean answer, the so-called ELC. But it is important to remember that this is not a new question and that there are plenty of resources available giving various answers to the problem.

Second, I am not totally sure why Dr. Davis has decided to take on this particular answer (ELC) to the question of free choice. My suspicion is, due to some of his comments at the beginning of his essay about the Young, Restless, Reformed (YRR), that he might see in Sproul, and by extension Edwards, a key element and that a criticism of him/them is a de facto criticism of the broader movement. If this is the case, I do not value this kind of argument as it tends to make a movement like YRR seem monolithic, which it is not. Nor is Reformed theology, historically or at present. Arguments such as this can unfairly paint a disparate group of people with one brush. But it may not be the case that Dr. Davis has taken this approach.

Third, ELC is not the only answer given in the history of Christian theology to the problem of choice and sovereignty. In fact, it is not one that all Reformed people buy into. Even those Reformed theologians who do, also buy into other arguments. Popular conceptions of Calvinism may not make this apparent, but there is an at-times sharp distinction between Edwardseans and traditional Reformed theology. The former is generally viewed as “deterministic,” due to the influence of thinkers like Hobbes and Locke on his thought. As we will see, Reformed theology should not be tarred with determinism. Whether Edwards can be viewed this way is up for debate, but it’s significant that this distinction be made. If Dr. Davis is aware of this, I wish that it had been stated, because it can run the risk of making unsuspecting readers think that to knock down ELC is to knock down Calvinism (whatever that is) as a whole.

Fourth, what is Calvinism? Is the Edwardsean version of Calvinism the only one? Is it the true one? Is Dr. Sproul’s version? Is Calvinism even a legitimate term to use? There are a host of assumptions in Dr. Davis’ essay that make readers such as myself wish that the sophistication of the philosophical language had given way to a more sophisticated understanding of the theological issues. This is not meant as an insult, Dr. Davis is much smarter than I am, and I have the fullest confidence that he has the chops to do more.

The term Calvinism is fraught with historical and theological problems. It assumes that Calvin is the sole progenitor of this brand of theology. Historians of the Reformation have put this misunderstanding to rest, and is why many of us do not particularly like the appellant “Calvinist.” We get stuck using it because of its general, popular use, but it is a term that would be better left behind. This might sound like a mere semantic quibble, but it poses serious definitional problems. How does one define Calvinism? Is it Edwards’ version? There is a lack of evidence in Edwards’ corpus that Calvin was a significant influence. The Reformer’s writings do not even appear in the catalogue we have of Edwards’ library. I would argue that the best place to go for such answers about the nature of Reformed theology—a more satisfying term—is the confessional documents of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. We also need to take into account the broader range of Reformed writers who contributed to the development of Reformed theology such as Bullinger, Musculus, Junius, Ames, Ussher, Owen, Turretin, and a host of others. There are a goodly number of theologians today who have done this, why not interact with them to get a truer picture? Or at least acknowledge that this is the case so that readers are not given the idea that Calvin is it for “Calvinism.”

Fifth, why use a secondary source to tell us about so-called “ELC”? Dr. Sproul’s ministry has been of incredible use to the church in popularizing Reformed theology, making some of the tough language easy for the lay-person to understand. Indeed, when I wrestled with these issues over a dozen years ago, it was Chosen By God that was a key book that helped me come to grips with the doctrine of election. My comments here are not meant to disparage Dr. Sproul at all. I am only making an historians’ point that when telling us about Edwards’ views it would be better to use Edwards’ own work. In the case of Edwards, this is particularly easy to do because Freedom of the Will, where ELC comes from, is readily available online at Yale’s site dedicated to Edwards’ Works (here). This is not say that Dr. Sproul misinterprets Edwards’ view of choice. It is to say that Edwards’ treatise is much longer with more detailed argumentation and defenses than Chosen By God because they were written for entirely different purposes.

Sixth, Dr. Davis, in his discussion of the power of contrary choice, seems to assume libertarian free will (LFW). This is not surprising, as most contemporary evangelical philosophers hold to this view (think Plantinga). This assumption contrasts LFW with Reformed theology. But is this necessarily the case? The answer to this depends on the view one takes of Reformed theology. While I do not personally espouse this, Oliver Crisp has recently argued that libertarianism can be consistent with the theology outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). At the very least, we can say that WCF statements on these matters allow for either a necessitarian or non-necessitarian view (see here). It would have been good for Dr. Davis to acknowledge this to see how it may have augmented some of his conclusions.

Seventh, Dr. Davis at a number of points refers to the Reformed view as “determinism.” This is an unfortunate use of terms and does not accurately reflect the way the Reformed tradition views itself on these matters. This is so because the term was not known in the early-modern period; opponents of Reformed theology referred to it as “Stoic fate.” Ironically, this puts more clearly the misconceptions that critics of Reformed theology have. However, to use that language would be as bad as me calling Dr. Davis a “Pelagian,” as the Reformed sadly would refer to their opponents. Such terms are unfortunate, and I hope that moving forward Dr. Davis (and others) would refrain from the term determinism when describing Reformed theology generally, because it does not accurately reflect our self-understanding and the nature of our argument.

Eighth, Dr. Davis  suggests that Calvinism (I’ll use this term as it’s the one he uses) makes no sense of Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37. Erasmus made this argument as well in his debate with Luther. Dr. Davis says, “If the reason for Jerusalem’s being unwilling is God’s not having given them I[rresistable] G[race], why chastise these people for their unwillingness? … Here the people are simply acting in accord with those desires.” Some thoughts: First, this does not take into account that this is Jesus in his human nature speaking. It says nothing of the divine will. Second, were it to speak of the divine will, Dr. Davis does not take into account the notion, as argued by John Piper, that God has two wills. This is well-reflected in Luther’s distinction between the hidden and revealed will of God. Third, it is exegetically misguided to think that this text has any bearing on the question at hand. Jesus has outlined in a series of parables and confrontations the hypocrisy of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. In Matthew 23 he pronounces a series of prophetic woes against the hypocrites. It is not a text like Romans 9, which would be a much thornier text for Dr. Davis to deal with, that has direct bearing on this question. Specifically, it answers the “control problem” that he points up later. A helpful rejoinder to the Arminian understanding of Matthew 23 is given over at Triablogue that I would suggest readers consult.

Ninth, Dr. Davis takes up the Old Testament figure of Gideon as an example of the power of contrary choice. Gideon was given a command to knock down his father’s idols in Judges 6:25, 27, but only did so at night out of fear. Dr. Davis argues that Gideon’s most powerful impulse was fear, but he acted contrary to this impulse in obedience to God’s command. “Why, otherwise, did he do it at night? Still, he obeyed the Lord—contrary to his most powerful impulse.” It strikes me that Dr. Davis has misunderstood ELC in his illustration of Gideon of what we might call Gideon’s Powerful Impulse (GPI). Is it the case that GPI is fear? If Gideon knocked down the idols, irregardless of doing so at night to mitigate his fear, he still acted on the the command to knock the idols down. Is it not the case the GPI is always manifested in the action? Dr. Davis is aware of this answer, but accuses it of question-begging. This is not question-begging, it is simply the relationship between one’s desire and action. GPI overrode his fear and enabled him to follow the command. His will was governed by his desire. It seems as though GPI affirms ELC.

Tenth, Dr. Davis quotes Dr. Sproul as defining ELC as: “The will always chooses according to its strongest inclination (desire) at the moment.” The corollary of this, that appears contradictory but is not (according to Dr. Sproul), that every choice is both free and determined. This appears incompatible, but it is is not because coercion is not involved. Dr. Davis does not agree. He argues that due to the coercive nature of “irresistable grace,” choice is not really free. There is a lot here to unpack, so for the sake of space in an already long post, I would like to offer some brief thoughts. First, if a person is dead in trespasses and sins as Ephesians 2 tells us, how is that person made alive? Is it the spiritually dead person who does it? If not, who? It must be God because Jesus tells us in John 3 that we are born from above (or again) by the Spirit. Was I born according to my own will when I was physically born? No, I had no choice in the matter. Likewise, I do not have the choice in this matter, because of my spiritual deadness, I need to be made alive by force outside of myself (extra nos). Second, coercion here is a change of nature, not a forcing upon me of something against my will. This is called grace for a reason. God, in regeneration, changes my nature so that I can freely choose what before, due to my sin, I could not. I have been released by shackles of sin so that I can now choose the good. In my deadened state, I made free choices, but they were always in conformity with my sinful nature. This is a good thing. Why take it as something bad? Even if it does in fact violate or vitiate my free will, I am glad it does! Third, I am not sure that Dr. Davis has proved the point that coercion (in the sense of regeneration, which is really what we are talking about) violates freedom. The philosophical idea of “compatibilism” gives us the categories to articulate how two seemingly opposed propositions are both true. See the helpful essay by philosopher James Anderson on Reformed views of determinism and compatibilism here for more. Fourth, and related to the third, is that a more helpful way to express this language is that of J. I. Packer in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God where he spoke of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility as an “antinomy.” In this case, both seemingly opposed views are held in common because both are clearly revealed in scripture. We see this in the story of Joseph’s description of God and man’s role in his captivity (Genesis 50:20), or in Peter’s description of God and man’s role in the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 2:23).

I conclude with a book recommendation. A helpful book on the subject of Reformed theology and the freedom of the will is that edited by William J. van Asselt, J. Martin Bac, and Roelf T. te Velde entitled Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in Early Modern Reformed Theology. In it we learn that the Reformed orthodox were very concerned to maintain human freedom, yet they did not want to do so at the expense of God’s freedom as their opponents did. The editors’ introduction opens with a quote by Francis Turretin (1623-1687) that illustrates this: “We establish free choice far more truly than our opponents.” After the (excellent) introduction, there are chapters devoted to freedom in the thought of Zanchi, Junius (my favourite), Gomarus, Voetius, Turretin, and de Moor. The book is a primary source reader for each. It is helpful because it ranges over the stages of orthodoxy and thus addresses variously situated theological and philosophical problems. Despite the different figures involved and the contexts they were addressing, the conclusion the editors come to is that Reformed theology self-consciously upholds the freedom of the human will and does so better than its opponents. This should not be surprising as they are part of the broader anti-Pelagian tradition rooted in Augustine (354-430), who very clearly affirmed libero arbitrio (see especially his “On Grace and Free Choice”).

I hope that this post is taken by all as a friendly rejoinder offered by one brother to another. I am thankful for the chance to rethink my own position due to the challenge that Dr. Davis poses. May my thoughts shared above go some small way towards giving greater understanding between two Christian positions as we work out our theology together in the kingdom of God. Soli Deo Gloria.

Conscience and Revelation

In light of some recent discussions in the blogosphere on these subjects, I thought I would share my views on them, such as they are.

How do feelings, reason, and conscience relate? 

What determines right and wrong is not simply a feeling. Feelings are reactions to perceptions, real or imagined. They don’t give us new data, they are in fact our reactions to what we perceive. But our perceptions can be mistaken, and so our moral feelings partake of that fallibility. What ultimately determines right and wrong is the objective moral order; our conscience is most basically our awareness of that order. It is, in line with the classical definition of “reason”, the adequation of our mind to the moral aspect of reality. However, like awareness of the material world and other aspects of reality, our perception of the moral aspect of the world can be faulty, our reasoning can go off track, and our feelings react improperly to what we perceive (through force of habit or for some other reason). For this reason we should always remain open to correction by the facts.

Does revelation call us to act against our conscience?

This question can actually be understood two different ways. The first is as many people who pose it understand it: can revelation demand that our will choose a course of action that our reason regards as wrong and our emotions find repulsive, and do so without giving us reason to suppose our prior judgment (the source of our emotional reaction) is mistaken? In this case, the Bible, and representatives of the Christian tradition like Thomas Aquinas (cf. ST II-I.19.5-6), would say “no”. Acts against a mistaken conscience are still sinful, precisely because they are acts against the conscience.

The second way to understand the question is as follows: can revelation provide new information that would demand that our former beliefs about reality be abandoned for new ones? And could there be a situation where we are called to do something we previously found repulsive which revelation now gives us reason to regard as right? To this question the Bible and Christian tradition would answer “yes”. A good example of this in scripture would be Acts 10:9-43. But also, general experience would suggest an analogous truth: even abstracting from questions of revelation, it seems any reasonable ethic will have to acknowledge that the conscience can be mistaken, and should change when presented with new facts. One famous recent example of someone claiming this happened in his own experience would be President Barack Obama’s evolution on same-sex marriage.

Are reason and revelation hierarchically ordered? How do they relate?

This is an old and important question, and even within the Reformed tradition there are very complicated discussions and disagreements about this. However, I would suggest that Richard Hooker’s approach to this question is best. He suggested that we must have reason to believe that scripture is the word of God (Laws, 3.8.13), but that once we do have such reason, the word of God provides the strongest evidence we have, even stronger than evidence we have for truths we directly intuit like the law of non-contradiction, because God’s vision of reality is intrinsically more reliable than our faculties of knowledge (Laws, 2.7.5). As Aquinas similarly says (ST I.1.5), “other sciences derive their certitude from the natural light of human reason, which can err; whereas [sacred doctrine] derives its certitude from the light of divine knowledge, which cannot be misled….”

But this is not revelation “trumping” reason in the sense that it demands we believe something we have no reason to believe. Rather, this scheme is rational all the way down, in that reason provides us with warrant to believe that God is infallible and good, and that God in turn has provided us testimony for certain facts that otherwise we might not believe. Given the nature of God as infinite and infallible, and given our nature as partly ignorant, partly sinfully motivated to deny the truth, it is conceivable that God could reveal something to us we may initially not already find to be true. Nevertheless, if we have an antecedent reason to regard the revelation as truly from God, we have good reason to regard our initial lack of a sense of something’s veracity as mistaken, even if we don’t know how we are mistaken.

It is important to note here that this does not commit us to the position that truth is multiple; the point is not that reality can be self-contradictory, but that our mistaken or limited perception of it might lead us not to see how it is actually consistent, though it is ultimately consistent.

If revelation can “trump reason”, does that unleash anarchy or oppression? 

The question that may arise at this point is one that has been raised at least since the aftermath of the Wars of Religion: if revelation can go beyond reason, won’t this unleash anarchy and every evil conceivable? Couldn’t someone use a claim of revelation to justify anything?

The answer to this is partly “yes”, partly “no”. Firstly, yes, in an obvious sense, nothing can physically stop someone from making such a claim. Secondly, no, it does not mean that anyone else is obligated to accept such a person’s claim. People are obligated to believe what they think all the evidence they know of tells them to believe. And Christians can appeal to evidence for their faith, as they have since the beginning of Christianity.

Of course, the hypothetical evil person claiming revelation could simply claim they have direct revelation from God that is stronger than any evidence Christians might appeal to; the question may then arise, “how do we respond to that in a way that will psychologically compel them to agree with us?” The answer is basically: “we can’t”. As epistemologist Michael Bergmann put it:

How can we say that the religious fanatic, who claims that the difference between her belief and ours is that hers is formed in accord with proper function and ours isn’t, is making a permissible move in a proper philosophical exchange? These questions arise, I believe, out of some important misunderstandings. One misunderstanding is the thought that radical disagreement (about such things as fanatical religious views) can be resolved if we follow the rules for permissible moves in a proper philosophical exchange. This thought is a pipe dream, a philosopher’s false hope. The disagreement between clever religious fanatics and those skeptical of their claims, like the disagreement between High Standard moderate nonexternalists and those skeptical of their claims, can ‘bottom out’ in the sort of exchange we’ve been imagining. The High Standard moderate nonexternalist can insist that genuine direct acquaintance with certain facts is sufficient for justification and that the demon victim with merely apparent direct acquaintance is out of luck justification-wise. The skeptic will find that unsatisfying. But the High Standard moderate nonexternalist won’t be moved by the skeptic’s dissatisfaction. The same sort of thing will happen in the case of religious fanatics: they won’t be moved by the skeptic’s dissatisfaction with their externalist response (nor, of course, will the skeptical be moved by their externalist response). …

I say that we can insist the religious fanatic is hallucinating and that those skeptical of introspection are subject to some sort of blindness. But can’t the religious fanatic just respond by saying that those of us who reject her view are subject to some sort of blindness? And can’t those skeptical of introspection responding by saying that we who rely on it are or might be hallucinating (where it seems to us that our introspective beliefs are genuinely infallible or that they are about facts genuinely before our minds, even though they aren’t)? Yes, the religious fanatic and the skeptic about introspection can respond in those ways. But in response to the religious fanatic, we can say: ‘the difference between our claim that you’re hallucinating and your claim that we’re blind is that our claim satisfies the conditions necessary and sufficient for justification and yours does not’. Likewise, in response to the skeptic about introspection, we can say: ‘the difference between our claim that you’re blind and your claim that we’re hallucinating is that our claim satisfies the conditions necessary and sufficient for justification and yours does not’. It’s true that this is unlikely to satisfy the religious fanatic or the skeptic about introspection and that they will likely have similar things to say about us. But the point here is just this: The fact that those with whom we disagree (e.g. the religious fanatic or the skeptic about introspection) can respond with philosophical moves similar in form to our own might keep us from complaining that they aren’t following the proper rules for philosophical exchange. It may even prevent us from resolving our dispute with the methods of philosophy. However, it doesn’t commit us to thinking that their views are sensible or respectable. [Michael Bergmann, Justification without Awareness: A Defense of Epistemic Externalism, 231-2]

To summarize Bergmann: any philosophical or religious disagreement can come to an impasse when one person claims something is obvious, and another says somebody is hallucinating when they claim something is obvious. But even in such a deadlock, people can be rational in holding their beliefs. For knowledge must be of the truth perceived by properly functioning epistemic faculties, while belief can be in error, and the side in the aforementioned impasse with the truth will have grounds for regarding the other person as mistaken. But it will mean that not every disagreement can be resolved by following common position-neutral philosophical rules.

What this means for the social question, “won’t this result in anarchy?”, is a negative answer. Societies are composed of people with beliefs, and they can respond to a minority of religious fanatics according to the evidence as they see it; even if they cannot persuade the minority with position-neutral philosophical arguments, they can still respond to them with other tactics beyond “the methods of philosophy”. They can make laws according to the truth as they see it. Of course, the majority might also be in error, but it is a mistake to think that a philosophical method will ever make such an error impossible. Tragedy is unfortunately always a possibility in this world.

Craig Keener on Miracles

Dr. Craig Keener is unarguably one of the world’s top scholars on the topic of miracles, and he recently delivered a lecture series on the subject that is well worth hearing if you want to get a fraction of his argument from his massive Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. This will be of interest to cessationists, materialists, and those who are neither.

HT: Triablogue

The Ubiquity of Kitsch


In an old essay from City Journal, philosopher Roger Scruton meditates upon the nature and ubiquity of kitsch. He contends “In all spheres where human beings have attempted to ennoble themselves, to make examples and icons of the heroic and the sublime, we encounter the mass-produced caricature, the sugary pretense, the easy avenue to a dignity destroyed by the very ease of reaching it.” This also, helpfully, gives Scruton’s understanding of the essence of kitsch. He elaborates more fully a little later:

Kitsch is not just pretending; it is asking you to join in the game. In real kitsch, what is being faked cannot be faked. Hence the pretense must be mutual, complicitous, knowing. The opposite of kitsch is not sophistication but innocence. Kitsch art is pretending to express something, and you, in accepting it, are pretending to feel.

Kitsch therefore relies on codes and clichés that convert the higher emotions into a pre-digested and trouble-free form—the form that can be most easily pretended. Like processed food, kitsch avoids everything in the organism that asks for moral energy and so passes from junk to crap without an intervening spell of nourishment.

Scruton contends that a major part of the origin of kitsch in the modern world is the decline of religion, but he also notes that this was precisely the sphere in which we first find it, and that it has persisted there to this day:

This work of the imagination is not possible for everyone; and in an age of mass communication, people learn to dispense with it. And that is how kitsch arises—when people who are avoiding the cost of the higher life are nevertheless pressured by the surrounding culture into pretending that they possess it. Kitsch is an attempt to have the life of the spirit on the cheap.

Hence the earliest manifestations of kitsch are in religion: the plaster saints and doe-eyed madonnas that sprang up during the nineteenth century in every Italian church, the cult of Christmas and the baby Jesus that replaced the noble tragedy of Easter and the narrative of our hard-won redemption. Kitsch now has its pantheon of deities—deities of make-believe like Santa Claus—and its book of saints and martyrs, saints of sentiment like Linda McCartney and martyrs to self-advertisement like Princess Diana. …

Kitsch reflects our failure not merely to value the human spirit but to perform those sacrificial acts that create it. It is a vivid reminder that the human spirit cannot be taken for granted, that it does not exist in all social conditions, but is an achievement that must be constantly renewed through the demands that we make on others and on ourselves. Nor is kitsch a purely aesthetic disease. Every ceremony, every ritual, every public display of emotion can be kitsched—and inevitably will be kitsched, unless controlled by some severe critical discipline. (Think of the Disneyland versions of monarchical and state occasions that are rapidly replacing the old stately forms.) It is impossible to flee from kitsch by taking refuge in religion, when religion itself is kitsch. The “modernization” of the Roman Catholic Mass and the Anglican prayer book were really a “kitschification”: and attempts at liturgical art are now poxed all over with the same disease. The day-to-day services of the Christian churches are embarrassing reminders of the fact that religion is losing its sublime godwardness and turning instead toward the world of fake sentiment.

Is there anywhere we can turn to escape kitsch? Scruton is pessimistic:

Can we escape from kitsch? In real life, it surrounds us on every side. Pop music, cartoons, Christmas cards—these are familiar enough. But the escape routes are also kitsched. Those who flee from the consumer society into the sanctuary of New Age religion, say, find that the walls are decorated with the familiar sticky clichés and that the background music comes from Ketelbey via Vangelis and Ravi Shankar. The art museums are overflowing with abstract kitsch, and the concert halls have been colonized by a tonal minimalism that suffers from the same disease. Nor is the world of politics immune. The glimpses that we see of life in Baghdad show a return to the high kitsch of Nazi Germany, with portraits of the Leader in heroic postures and architectural extravanganzas that outdo the most camp of Mussolini’s stage sets. But look at our own political world and we encounter kitsch of another and more comical kind. The kitsch-fly has laid its eggs in every office of state, and gradually the organism is softening. What is Monica Lewinsky if not kitsch, object and subject of the most expensive fake emotion since Caligula? The epic of which she was a part is in the style of Walt Disney, and the object of her affections was not a president but a “president.”

He does offer a glimmer of hope, or at least a project to be undertaken, at the end of his essay, but I will leave the reader to pursue it at its source.

This year he lectured on the same subject, and added some further thoughts, including a useful reflection on the case of people of sincere faith who value kitsch. See here:

Two Kingdoms and the Great War

Philip Jenkins makes an insightful point about Lutheran two-kingdom theology and the Great War in his book The Great and Holy War:

German Protestants of this generation, though, had remarkably few qualms about presenting violence and warfare as legitimate tactics for a Christian state. Through its Zwei-Reiche-Lehre (two-kingdoms doctrine), Lutheran theology taught that the two kingdoms, earthly and heavenly, each had its own moral codes and ways of being. Although Christians lived in both simultaneously, it was impossible to apply the absolute demands of New Testament ethics to each: the state simply could not be expected to operate according to such standards. A state that turned the other cheek in the face of aggression or invasion would soon cease to exist. Even a nation made up almost entirely of devout Christians could never act politically according to strict Christian moral teachings. Potentially, this approach justified cynical state actions that seemed to violate Christian teachings or commonly accepted moral standards. In 1914, the doctrine overrode objections to the treatment of Belgium.

Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014), 84-85.

What Questions Are We Asking?

While discussing the place of Christians in contemporary academic and intellectual life, Charles Taylor writes in his concluding reflections to A Catholic Modernity? about how an atmosphere of unbelief has shaped not just the answers given in those places, but even the questions that are asked:

Add to this that beginning students are rarely too clear about what remarks they want to make anyway; we have more in the nature of confused intuitions at that stage (indeed, we have a lot of those at this stage, too), and we can easily understand how a student slides into a pattern of conformity, which may then become a lifelong habit.

A striking example of this preshaped agenda is the aspect of moral theory which I talked about in Sources [of the Self] and again in my lecture here. I argued in the lecture that a key issue for our times is that of moral sources, whether, for instance, we can maintain the high level of philanthropy and solidarity we now demand of ourselves, without these degenerating into their opposites: contempt, the need to control. The issue here is the quality of our moral motivation–in more old-fashioned terms, the quality of our will and the nature of the vision that sustains it.

Plato or Aristotle would have understood what I was talking about, although, of course, not the Christian or modern reference points of my discussion. But modern moral philosophy, particularly in the analytic world, has undergone a drastic foreshortening. These issues just fall off the agenda. For those thinking in the wake of the utilitarians and Kant, for instance, the principal moral question is, What ought we to do? (as against What is good to be? or What should we love?), and the principal task of moral philosophy is to find the principle or principles from which we can derive what we ought to do (the greatest happiness, or universalization, of whatever).

I was struck in some of the comments on Sources by how many people couldn’t seem to grasp what question I was addressing. They took “moral sources” to be another name for the highest principles. They literally couldn’t think outside the contemporary agenda.

But, one wants to protest, don’t you see that it also matters whether people can actually bring themselves to do the right thing? But then your interlocutor looks at you blankly and says: of course, but that’s not moral philosophy; how people actually get motivated, that’s in the domain of psychology, or sociology, or whatever.

In other words, these two issues, what we should do and how we come to do it, which were unproblematically seen as part of the same inquiry by Plato, Augustine, and just about everybody else until the last three centuries, have been neatly sundered and placed in noncommunicating intellectual universes. (119-120)