Gabriel Marcel on the Mystery of Evil

Here is a brief excerpt from my first bookEvil and the Evidence for God, published in 1993:

“Some philosophers have been rather adroit in their expression of this theme. For Gabriel Marcel, the only problem of evil is what is sometimes called the ‘existential’ mode of the problem. If Marcel is correct, this language intrudes a pseudodistinction and the so-called logical problem of evil becomes a pseudoproblem, or a mystery degraded to the level of a problem. To seek ‘the causes or the secret aims’ of experienced evil, the professed goal of any theodicy, is to view evil ‘from outside,’ where evil no longer ‘touches me’ and is therefore ‘no longer evil which is suffered.’ And evil that ceases to be suffered ‘ceases to be evil.’ So the only evil that exists is the evil that we encounter in our prereflective lived experience. Our ivory tower incursions into logical territory miss the heart of the matter.”

It has always seemed to me that Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) was onto something. Today I would say it is a penetrating insight. The details can be found in his little book The Philosophy of Existentialism. But the themes intimated there are explored and developed throughout his essays and plays.

Today, October 8, is the anniversary of Marcel’s death. His work lives on and his influence continues, notably through the work of the Gabriel Marcel Society. I hope you’ll venture to explore the rich texture of Christian sensibility reflected in the pages of this French thinker of the 20th century.

Novel Quotation—What University Professors Do

This quotation comes from the novel A Novel Bookstore, by Laurence Cossé. It speaks knowingly of the professor’s vocation.

‘That’s the way they are, those university professors,’ said Madame Huon, ‘they work one day a week.’ ‘One day!’ echoed Madame Antonioz. ‘You need at least two hours to get to Chambéry. If you take off an hour for lunch, that leaves half a day.’

We have been found out, I’m afraid!

Animated Video on the Problem of Evil

Image.People.Greg GanssleI’m pleased to direct your attention to a new series of videos on the problem of evil for Christian theism, narrated by my friend Greg Ganssle. Greg is a philosopher at Yale University and a Senior Fellow of the Rivendell Institute at Yale. These are effective animated videos that encapsulate a treatment of the problem of evil concisely and in an engaging format. Have a look. Then come back here and leave your comments!

Click here for a link to the first 5-minute video in the series. More about Greg can be found here.


First Lines: On Not Knowing the Answers to Questions Raised by Knowing

Who wrote this?

Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.

ImageImmanuel Kant, of course. Except Kant wrote in German . . . and was no more perspicuous for doing so. He meant, of course, that some of the knowledge we actually have generates additional questions which are both insistent and unanswerable.

Here, for example, is a question for Kant’s claim, a question that is itself insistent: How did Kant know such a thing? As far as I can tell, the question is unanswerable.

Note: The above quotation is the first line in the Preface to the First Edition of Kant’s frequently impenetrable book Critique of Pure Reason, in the translation by Norman Kemp Smith.

In Memoriam—John Hick (1922-2012)

John Hick, the eminent scholar in the world of religion, died at the age of 90 on Thursday, February 9, 2012. Many will mourn the loss of this gentle man and incisive thinker. But we will also count ourselves blessed to have known him, and celebrate his work among us for so many decades of fruitful scholarship.

I first met John Hick in 1985 or 1986 following a lecture he delivered at the Claremont Colleges, in southern California. I had just written my M.A. thesis (for Gonzaga University) on his treatment of the problem of evil. When I shared this with him, he said he would be interested in reading it. After he had read it, he wanted to meet. So we scheduled a get-together at the colleges and talked about my project. I will always remember two things he said to me at this meeting. The first thing he said, once we got down to business, was that, in my exposition of his position, I had gotten it right. He added that this was unusual for critics of his various views. This put me at ease immediately. We may have met for an hour. Toward the end John asked me what plans I had for publishing my thesis. I had no plans. But John urged me to seek a publisher for it, and offered his assistance.

This was indeed an auspicious beginning to a long-term friendship with one of the world’s foremost religious scholars of the 20th century. It led, eventually, to the publication of my first book, Evil and the Evidence for God: The Challenge of John Hick’s Theodicy (Temple University Press, 1993), with an Afterword by John himself.

A few years later, John’s book, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (Yale University Press, 1989) was released. This book was the publication, in expanded form, of his Gifford Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh, 1986-1987. The book earned him the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Religion. Shortly after its release, the Claremont Graduate School hosted a major conference, with scholars from various places around the world present to discuss his sophisticated defense of religious pluralism. I was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Southern California at the time, and I was surprised by the invitation I received, with John’s support, to participate in the proceedings and present a paper of my own.

In this way I was drawn into the discussion of religious pluralism. Shortly after I was appointed to my first teaching post at Taylor University (Upland, Indiana), Wheaton College issued a call for papers for a conference on religious pluralism. I sent a brief proposal for a paper evaluating John Hick’s position. Because it was one of very few proposals for a direct discussion of Hick’s important contribution to the topic, I was told, I was invited to deliver my proposed paper.

Dennis Okholm and Timothy Phillips, who had hosted the conference, eventually developed the idea for a book that was to be called More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (first published by Zondervan in 1995 and later reissued under the moderately abbreviated title Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World in 1996). Again, I was invited to participate, and I was asked if I might contact John Hick to request his participation, as well. He agreed. The two other contributors were Alistair McGrath and Clark Pinnock. Gary Phillips was co-author with me for a chapter we titled “A Particularist View: An Evidentialist Approach.” John’s chapter was called, sensibly and simply enough, “A Pluralist View.” The most illustrious contributor, of course, was John Hick. And it’s very possible that the book remains in print on account of his contribution.

These are the only projects in which I partnered, after a fashion, with John Hick. But we had many get-togethers over the years. Most of these happened during the years he was at Claremont, where he held the Danforth Chair in the Philosophy of Religion from 1979 to 1992. At other times we would meet when we happened to be at the same professional conference. The second most memorable occasion of our meeting was long after he had retired and I visited him at his home at the end of Seeley Oak in Birmingham, England.

John Hick was a brilliant communicator, in print and with a microphone. He was a gracious scholar who respected would-be scholars 40 years his junior. He was tenacious in defense of his many controversial positions, and friendly and tolerant toward those who disagreed. Always fair-minded and even-handed in his dealings with me, he marked my life in ways no other scholar of similar repute has (or could have), and he steered me in ways he would never have known.

John was Irenaean as opposed to Augustinian in his theodicy, a universalist and a pluralist in soteriology, a kind of Kantian anti-realist regarding the existence and nature of God—all things that I am not. But there are two reasons why he could not be ignored. First, he reasoned his way to his positions with great care and he could articulate them with great clarity. Second, he had begun his theological odyssey as an evangelical of more-or-less the sort that I am, but had gradually and in nearly step-wise fashion moved further and further away from this starting point in his career as a professing Christian. His kindness toward me would naturally count as a third reason to engage and evaluate his work with the same care that he exemplified as book after book flowed from his pen.

When I last saw John Hick, I suspected that we would not see each other again. He had ceased traveling across the pond, and I had no immediate plans to return to England. But we remained in touch over many years. I will miss his Christmas cards. And I will miss him.

For more on John Hick:

I wish to thank Fred Sanders, writer for The Scriptorium, who encouraged me to post about my experiences with John Hick. See Fred’s post here.

New Book Arrival—Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life

The new book edited by Doug Geivett and Michael Austin has arrived from the publisher! Here’s what three noted Christian thinkers are saying about Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life . . . .

“Being Good, with its outstanding contributions by frontline Christian thinkers and scholars, is a major contribution to the intellectual and spiritual needs of our times. Hopefully it will become a part of the practice, teaching, and preaching in today’s most prominent ministries.”

— Dallas Willard, University of Southern California

“Being Good contains eleven well-informed, gracefully written new essays on crucial aspects of Christian character, intentionally crafted to aid the reader in the quest to grow in the Christian virtues.”

— Robert C. Roberts, Baylor University

“Here I found a significantly Christian approach to living virtuously, complete with practical suggestions in every chapter for improving the quality of this life. I found myself finishing a chapter and thinking it was the best I had seen so far, only to find the next one equally or even more stimulating. When that happens, you realize that you are holding a quality text!”

—Gary R. Habermas, Liberty University

For more details about the book, follow this link.

Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life—New Book Announcement

Doug Geivett and Michael Austin have co-edited a new book, to be released by Eerdmans January 2012. Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life discusses eleven vital virtues from a Christian philosophical perspective. Each chapter is devoted to a particular virtue and is written by a Christian philosopher with special interest in that virtue. Contributors include:

  • Paul Moser, on the virtue of Faith
  • Jason Baehr, on the virtue of Open-mindedness
  • Jim Spiegel, on the virtue of Wisdom
  • David Horner and David Turner, on the virtue of Zeal
  • William Mattison, on the virtue of Hope
  • Steve Porter, on the virtue of Contentment
  • Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, on the virtue of Courage
  • Charles Taliaferro, on the virtue of Love
  • Michael Austin, on the virtue of Compassion
  • Doug Geivett, on the virtue of Forgiveness
  • Andrew Pinset, on the virtue of Humility

The book is organized into three parts:

  • Part 1: Faith
  • Part 2: Hope
  • Part 3: Love

Each chapter discusses a particular virtue, with careful description of the virtue, attention to philosophical difficulties related to the virtue, treatment of important Bible passages that deal with the virtue, and practical application of the virtue. Chapters conclude with though-provoking discussion questions to aid in personal reflection or small group discussion.

The book can be ordered now, directly from Eerdmans here.

Coincidences of Life – Ender’s Game and a UPS Truck

UPS Truck . . . without a driver

This afternoon I was waiting at a red light (northbound on Palm at Central in Brea, CA, if the coordinates matter) and listening to the audio-book for the sci-fi novel Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. Just as the light turned green, one character said to the other, “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service.”

This struck me as odd, showing up in a work of science fiction. But stranger still, as I shifted my motorcycle into second, a UPS truck passed me in the intersection going south.

Was it a coincidence? Of course it was. It was quite literally the coinciding of an auditory reference from one source and a visual reference from another source to the same company, UPS. These sensory experiences occurred simultaneously. They each conveyed information, and the information conveyed referred to the same thing. I heard a guy say through my headset, “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service” just as I waved to a guy driving a truck for the United Parcel Service. (Well, actually, I didn’t wave.)


Sort of.

The Merriam -Webster Dictionary defines “uncanny” in this way: “seeming to have a supernatural character or origin,” or “being beyond what is normal or expected: suggesting superhuman or supernatural powers.”

The concurrence of two causally unrelated references to the same informational content attracts our attention. It is so incredibly unlikely that this would happen, it seems almost to have been planned. Was it planned? And if so, who arranged it? It might take superhuman or supernatural powers to make it happen just so. What other explanation could there be?

“Coincidence,” we say, with palpable matter-of-factness. But of course it’s a coincidence. Saying so merely reports an observation of fact. The real question is, what kind of coincidence is it? What is the explanation for this coincidence?

We do explain coincidences in various ways. Sometimes we say, “It was just a coincidence.” By this we mean that there’s nothing more to it than that, a mere coincidence, with no deep explanation. There is no intelligible cause, and no intelligent agent, involved. There is no meaningful answer to the question, “Why did this happen?”

But the question does present itself. It does to me, anyway. Trivial coincidences like this happen in my experience with remarkable frequency. I say “trivial” because I infer no special significance when they happen. And yet it is both remarkable each time it happens and remarkable that it happens as often as it does.

Why is it remarkable if the coincidence is trivial? It’s remarkable because the concurrence is so improbable. The degree of improbability varies depending on the specific character of the information presented. But the improbability of the concurrence does not, as such, warrant attribution of some special significance.

Why not?

The answer, I think, is two-fold. First, we can think of no special reason why the elements in our experience have occurred together. (Note: No one else in the intersection, I believe, actually heard or thought of the words “United Parcel Service” at that moment.) Second, we can identify no  causal mechanism that would ensure that they did occur together. In other words, there is no apparent point in their concurrence, and no obvious causal account of their concurrence. If we thought their concurrence served some purpose, we would naturally be curious about the cause. And if nothing else will serve, we might say that the cause was superhuman and personal. Given a general reluctance to attribute causes to occult entities, we require that a coincidence be specially significant. Also, if the concurrence was caused for our benefit, then we should find some benefit in their concurrence. That is, if we who experience the coincidence were meant to experience it, then there was some reason why it happened and why it happened in our experience. And this suggests that we should be capable of discerning that purpose.

What purpose could possibly have been served by the coincidence I experienced on my way home this afternoon? Nothing comes to mind. “It’s just a coincidence.”

But wait, now that I think that thought, I recall that there was a UPS package for me when I arrived home not two minutes later. Was the coincidence a warning, then? It certainly didn’t have that effect on me when it happened. In fact, when it happened, my thought was, This is something I could blog about. And in retrospect it doesn’t seem that a warning was required. The contents of the package were innocuous. Some clothing I had ordered. I don’t know if it matters, but the package wasn’t waiting on the front porch, as if it had just been delivered by the very same UPS truck. It had been carried in by another member of my household who wasn’t home. (I know she wasn’t home because no one was home. And I know it was a she because I’m the only he in the household. Aren’t you impressed with my awesome powers of deduction?)

I suppose now I might take care trying on the clothing that was delivered. But I can’t seriously entertain the notion that I’m in some kind of danger.

If there was a message, it was totally lost on me.

Could there be some other purpose, completely unrelated to my goals or interests, so that the purpose might be achieved quite apart from my cognizance of it?

(c) 2009 Katherine Gehl Donovan

Sure. A minor demon might have been taunting some innocent angel with her powers of manipulation, claiming to be able to cause me to hear “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service” and, at the same precise moment, cause me to see a guy driving a truck for the United Parcel Service.

In that event, would it really matter whether I recognized the concurrence of the appearance of a UPS truck just as I was hearing that bit of fictional dialogue? I can imagine a neophyte angel thinking, How did you do that? What if the line I’ve quoted from the story isn’t actually in the novel?

And what if there wasn’t really a UPS truck crossing the intersection in the opposite direction? Maybe the demon’s game was to present me with visual and auditory data that did not correspond with objects matching the data. Who knows what minor demons are capable of?

The point is, if there was a purpose in the coincidence, I have no idea what it was, and this makes it less likely that, if there was a purpose, realization of that purpose depended on my discerning that purpose.

Now, what do I actually believe? Do I believe there was a purpose in the coincidence? I do not. But this is imprecise. Not believing that there was a purpose is not the same as believing there was no purpose. I might simply be agnostic about whether the coincidence served some purpose.

So am I agnostic? No. I believe that no purpose was served.

I should have a reason for believing this, shouldn’t I?

My chief reason for believing that no purpose was served by the event is that attributing a reason does not comport with my worldview. Or rather, my worldview provides no basis for attributing a reason for the coincidence.

What we make of coincidences often is a matter of worldview commitments. Some coincidences do, for me, invite an inference to the agency of some superhuman or supernatural agent. Apparent answers to prayer, for example.

Here’s a question for fellow theists who believe that God exists and is a personal being who created the universe and sustains it in existence, others like me who affirm a doctrine of meticulous divine providence:

How do you decided whether this or that ‘coincidence’ is the occurrence of an event serving some special purpose intended by a superhuman or supernatural being?

Bonus Question: Is the angel/demon image posted here too provocative? Is it poor judgment to use it here?

Teaching Logic & Critical Thinking to Your Kids

Cover of

Cover of Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking

It’s pleasing to know that parents are taking a more proactive role in the education of their children, whether or not they are homeschooling. I’ve been asked if I can recommend tools that could be used to teach children the elements of logic and critical thinking.

  1. My first suggestion is that the best way to teach children how to think critically is to be a visible model of critical thinking. Children have a far greater aptitude for critical thinking than adults credit them for. They tend to be good at inferential reasoning. Their powers are limited in part by their limited storehouse of information from which to make inferences.
  2. Modeling excellence in critical thinking presupposes skill in critical thinking. So parents need to be students of logic and critical thinking themselves. Unfortunately, most have not had the opportunity for formal education in these skills. But there are accessible books to consider. I’ll add a list of recommendations at the end of this post.
  3. If your children see you making the attempt to sharpen your skills in reasoning, this will itself be a good example to them. You can tell them what you’re learning.
  4. Learn the names of basic inferential moves (for example modus ponens, modus tollens) and use these labels with your children when they demonstrate their own ability to make such moves. This should reinforce their awareness of the significance of their mental powers, and affirm them in the use of their powers.
  5. Encourage your children to think about the implications of something they have said or heard. You’ll have to be alert to opportunities for this. But once you’ve been at it for awhile, you’ll get into a natural groove. It will eventually become a part of your routine interaction with your kids. How to do this? I’ll save that for another post sometime.
  6. Get your children reading at their grade level (or above!) books that exemplify and encourage critical thinking. Mystery and suspense novels, carefully selected for their sophistication and interest, can be useful. I read the Hardy Boys as a kid. I also liked the stories of the Sugar Creek Gang.
  7. If you’re home schooling (or not), you can include in the curriculum some materials that teach critical thinking. The Fallacy Detective is a good source for this. (See below.)


So, here are a few of the many resources available. I’m recommending those that provide a good place to start. Each title is linked to its Amazon page.

Books that inspire parents and other educators to teach children these skills:

Books for self-education in logic and critical thinking:

With adequate preparation in the early years, children in junior high and high school may be ready to work through these books themselves. They don’t provide a complete education in logic, but they are satisfactory for pre-college preparation. For more rigorous study in high school, I recommend using one of two textbooks:

Like most textbooks, Copi and Hurley are pricey. So you may want to settle for a second-hand copy. The illustrations and exposition of old editions will be dated, but the logic will be the same! I shop for second-hand books at

For grade school and up:

Fiction classics for youth:

This post is cross-referenced in an interesting post here.

Related Posts by Doug Geivett:

Christians Who Behave Like Atheists


Image via Wikipedia

In my recent post Are Atheists Haunted by the Possibility of Being Mistaken?, I suggested that it may be common for atheists to entertain severe doubts about their atheism, and contemplate the possibility that God does exist and is worthy of belief and even worship.

It would be easy for Christians to explain atheistic belief in terms of rebellion against a God whose existence is only too obvious and personally offensive. But I would encourage Christians to consider that something resembling this may be found among believers, as well.

Any refusal to face the facts about God in the light of ample evidence is rebellion and idolatry. So one may believe that God exists, but refuse to believe certain things about God. Or one may believe certain things about God but then act in defiance of such a God. And one may assert the existence of God, even argue vehemently that God exists, and yet remain indifferent toward God on the personal level.

A believer, then, should be careful not to apply a double standard in comparing himself with nonbelievers. He should reflect on the possibility that he is like the typical skeptic in fundamental ways.

There are varieties of triumphalist apologetics. One form chastens nonbelievers for attitudes that one would find in oneself if one simply looked closely enough.

Are Atheists Haunted by the Possibility of Being Mistaken?

Archibald Alexander (1772-1851)

Image via Wikipedia

Archibald Alexander, who was the first professor of Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote in the 18th century:

Whatever may be the truth in regard to religion, it must be admitted to be the most important subject which can possibly occupy the thoughts of a rational creature. It cannot be wise to treat it, as many have done, with levity and ridicule: for even on the supposition that there is no true religion, it is a serious thing that it has got such a hold of the mind, that it cannot be shaken off; so that men of the noblest powers of intellect and the highest moral courage have been subdued and led captive by its impressions. And they who boast a complete exemption from its influence, and glory in the name of atheist or sceptic, do nevertheless often betray a mind ill at ease, and in the extremity of their distress are sometimes heard to call upon that God whose existence they have denied, and to implore that mercy which they have been accustomed to deride. . . . They seem to be haunted with a secret apprehension that the reality of religion will at some moment flash upon their conviction. It is with them a common saying, that ‘fear made the gods;’ but it would be much more true to assert, that fear made atheists; for what but the dread of a Supreme Being could be a motive strong enough to lead men to contend so earnestly against the existence of God? . . . . Indeed, a man should first take leave of his reason before he advocates an opinion demonstrated to be false by everything which we behold.

Alexander suggests that atheists and religious skeptics often are haunted by the possibility of being mistaken. One good reason for this is that there is good evidence for the existence of God.

I’ve noticed that some of the most public and argumentative atheists today deny that there is any good reason at all to believe there’s a God. This, surely, is over-stating the case, even if you think that, on balance, the case against the existence of God is stronger than the case for God’s existence.

Another feature of Alexander’s statement has continuing relevance. The atheist who campaigns for his worldview in a public way today attests to the importance of the question of God’s existence by his vigorous efforts in the marketplace of ideas. And this, too, confirms the claim that religious concern is, for all intents and purposes, a universal concern.

Some who are agnostic about God’s existence may be understandably reluctant to deride religious belief, lest it turn out that God does exist. But if it should turn out that God exists, will it be so much better to have been an agnostic than an atheist?

Are God’s Mental States All in Your Mind?

Where do we get our concept of God? I ask in the first person plural “we” because there is something pervasive and shared about “the concept of God” that we manage to think and talk about with each other.

This is illustrated by the Slate article of a week ago titled “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Brain.” The author, Jesse Bering, aims to explain “how our innate theory of mind gives rise to the divine creator.” Click here to read the article.

The article begins by noting the uniquely well-developed capacity we have to attribute mental states to others of our species, then present evidence that we also attribute mental states to inanimate entities. On this basis, Bering hopes to make a natural inference to the claim that in our thinking about God we are projecting a mental life onto an object that is neither animate nor inanimate, but unreal.

So it would appear that having a theory of mind was so useful for our ancestors in explaining and predicting other people’s behaviors that it has completely flooded our evolved social brains. As a result, today we overshoot our mental-state attributions to things that are, in reality, completely mindless. And all of this leads us, rather inevitably, to a very important question: What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind? That God, like a tiny speck floating at the edge of your cornea producing the image of a hazy, out-of-reach orb accompanying your every turn, was in fact a psychological illusion, a sort of evolved blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain? It may feel as if there is something grander out there . . . watching, knowing, caring. Perhaps even judging. But, in fact, that’s just your overactive theory of mind. In reality, there is only the air you breathe.

“What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind?” Great question! I would say, “That sounds like wishful thinking on your part. Show me the evidence.”

Of course, Jesse Bering doesn’t present any evidence. Our capacity to ascribe mental lives to members of our species seems, from Bering’s point of view, to be legitimate. That much is a relief. But our tendency, as Bering would put it, to do the same for inanimate objects suggests that we are somehow hard-wired to err in doing this.

Now, it doesn’t really matter that the evidence Bering presents for our supposed projection of mental lives onto inanimate objects is very weak, because even if Bering is right about that, it doesn’t count as evidence that that’s more-or-less what we’re doing when we think about God. But the evidence that we routinely project mental lives onto the inanimate doesn’t bear the weight of Bering’s conclusion. There are plausible alternative explanations for our behavior toward physical objects when we’re angry and for our talk about objects as if they were personal entities. I don’t slam the car door because I hold my car personally responsible for “refusing” to start and “making” me late to work. But I do slam the door and I do speak this way. The action is expressive of my frustration, if only to myself, and the speech is metaphorical.

When I think and talk about God, my acting and speaking is completely unlike my acting and speaking when my car won’t start. I believe that God is real, is a person, hears and responds to me, and so forth. Unaccountably, Bering doesn’t acknowledge this difference in my so-called “intentional-state attributions.” I only appear, through my behavior, to attribute intentions to my stupid car. But I do not actually attribute intentions to the thing. My behavior does not tell the whole story, a story that I know from the inside, as the person engaged in that behavior. But I do attribute intentions to a divine creator. In fact, I see evidence all around me of a creator’s existence and intentions.

If time allowed, I would show how the reality of our mental lives—acknowledged by Bering—is itself evidence for the reality of God, a supreme being with a real mental life. That will have to be for another time. Meanwhile, I encourage you to read the charming but misguided article by Jesse Bering. It neatly exhibits a pervasive confusion—one that nurtures a very real illusion about God.

Linked to Amazon

Henry Boynton Smith (1815-1876)

February 7

On this date in 1877, Henry Boynton Smith died in New York City, age 61. This theologian, who was born in Portland, Maine, studied at Bowdoin College and at Andover and Bangor theological seminaries. Later, he studied in Germany, getting to know Friedrich Tholuck and Hermann Ulrici at Halle, and August Neander and Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg at Berlin.

I have long had an interest in Tholuck (1799-1877) for his work in Christian apologetics as a German evangelical. Henry B. Smith lectured in apologetics at Union Theological Seminary during the academic years 1874-1875 and 1875-1876. His course of lectures was published in 1882 by A. C. Armstrong & Son.

Smith adopted a three-fold division of Christian apologetics:

  1. Fundamental Apologetics
  2. Historical Apologetics
  3. Philosophical Apologetics

His system is sophisticated and worthy of close study. He begins with the question whether the supernatural can be known (considering first general questions of epistemology) then moves on to “the proof of the Being of God” (p. 46).

Here is how he begins to address the question, “How can we know God?”

The very question implies some knowledge. Unless we had some conception of God we could and would nevermore ask, How can and do we know God? Unless man had some belief in God he would not ask, any more than an animal, Can you prove His being—can you demonstrate His existence?

The questions implies a need, a craving—seeks for an answer to a demand of our rational and moral being. This is the very least that can be said. There is a strong subjective belief—that is the starting-point; and the question is, Is there a corresponding objective reality? Are there sufficient grounds for full belief, binding on all rational and moral beings?

Hence the question is not at all about knowing some unknown thing, about proving the existence of a mere abstraction—as a theorem in geometry. It is as to the proving the existence of a being in whom, somehow, in some wise, we already believe. It is not going from the known to the unknown—but showing that there are valid and final reasons for a strong, universal, native, human belief.

—Smith, Apologetics: A Course of Lectures (1882), pp. 71-72

Later, Smith writes:

  1. As the starting-point show that man’s whole nature and man’s whole history prove the need to him of a God; that man by nature and reason is irresistibly prompted to seek for Deity, and cannot else be satisfied. This is not the proof of God’s being, but the basis of proof.
  2. That all the phenomena and facts of the universe (so far as known) demand the recognition of a God as their source and unity—a personal God, the necessary complement of the world.
  3. That man’s reason (a priori) demonstrates the existence of a real, infinite, absolute being.
  4. The combination of 2 and 3 gives is the result and proof.

In its ultimate philosophical principles the proof for the being of God consists of three arguments resting upon three ideas:

(a) The ontological argument, on the idea of being.

(b) The cosmological argument, on the idea of cause.

(c) The teleological argument, on the idea of design.

—Smith, Apologetics, p. 87

In chapter 4, Smith distinguishes between “the Supernatural” and “the Miraculous.” He develops the case for Christian miracles against pantheism and materialism, which both consider the impossibility of miracles to be an axiom. Not only are miracles possible, but on sufficient evidence, it is reasonable to believe that miracles have happened.

Smith says, “Besides having an adequate cause, miracles have also a sufficient end or object, and are never to be considered apart from, or dissociated from that” (p. 102).

Miracles are:

possible, if there is a God;

probable, if a positive revelation is needed; and

they have been [i.e., they have happened], if Christ and his apostles can be believed.

(p. 104)

Smith held that “Christian Apologetics is essentially Vindication. It seeks to vindicate, and in vindicating to establish, the value and authority of the Christian faith” (p. 118). His published lectures are a credit to his effort to do just that.

Note: It was also on this date, in 1664, that Gottfried Leibniz completed his master’s degree in philosophy.


Gottfried Leibniz

Elizabeth Anscombe on the Hebrew-Christian Ethic and Utilitarianism

After my post of yesterday about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alex Plato tipped me off about this passage from philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001):

Now this is a significant thing: for it means that all these philosophies [i.e., of English thinkers from Sidgwick to the present] are quite incompatible with the Hebrew-Christian ethic.  For it has been characteristic of that ethic to teach that there are certain things forbidden whatever consequences threaten, such as: choosing to kill the innocent for any purpose, however good; vicarious punishment; treachery (by which I mean obtaining a man’s confidence in a grave matter by promises of trustworthy friendship and then betraying him to his enemies); idolatry; sodomy; adultery; making a false profession of faith.  The prohibition of certain things simply in virtue of their description as such-and-such identifiable kinds of action, regardless of any further consequences, is certainly not the whole of the Hebrew-Christian ethic; but it is a noteworthy feature of it; and, if every academic philosopher since Sidgwick has written in such a way as to exclude this ethic, it would argue a certain provinciality of mind not to see this incompatibility as the most important fact about these philosophers, and the differences between them as somewhat trifling by comparison.

—From “Modern Moral Philosophy,” 1958

Thanks, Alex!

Points of Interest:

Books of Interest:

Note: Anscombe first presented her essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” to the Voltaire Society in Oxford. It was published in the journal Philosophy, vol. 33 (1958): 1-19.

Michael Shermer on the Mexico Debate

In November, I participated in a three-on-three debate with three atheists, Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, and Michael Ridley. This was part of an international conference held in Puebla, Mexico. (See my account here.)

On January 17, 2011, Michael Shermer offered his take on our debate.

I’m inclined to comment briefly on a few of his remarks. Here are ten distinct points to consider.

First, in describing the debate, Michael refers to me and to William Lane Craig as theologians. Just for the record, my field is philosophy. My theology friends would no doubt want people to be clear about that.

On to more substantive points in Michael’s commentary:

Second, Michael argues in his review of the debate that arguments for the existence of God are irrelevant to the question, “Does the universe have a purpose?” This is a hard sell, for several reasons: (1) during the debate, the atheists wanted to be known as atheists who had a different conception of the purpose of the universe than we, the theists—so by their own testimony, what one believes about the existence of God makes a difference to what one thinks about the purpose of the universe; (2) the atheists took pains to repudiate our arguments for the existence of God (though they did not offer substantive objections to the arguments we presented); (3) the atheists were in disagreement with each other about whether the universe has a purpose; (4) of course the universe has a deep purpose if it was purposively created by God (as we argued), and does not have a deep purpose if its existence is not grounded in purposeful agency (as they believe).

Third, Michael has to state a very qualified sense in which the universe does not have a purpose, even if God does exist. He says, “whether there is a God or not, the universe per se cannot have a purpose in any anthropomorphic sense for which that term is usually employed.” This is a pretty baffling remark. Michael seems to confuse two senses of purpose, one where the universe has a purpose per se, and another where the universe has a purpose in some anthropomorphic sense. Since these two apparently separable senses are conflated by the grammar of his sentence, it’s nigh impossible to know what Michael is saying.

As a naturalist, and consistent with how he argued in the debate and has usually argued in debates with me, Michael must deny that the universe has a purpose in any ultimate sense. This may be what he means by his use of “per se.” So if the universe has a purpose at all, it will be relative to human interests. That is, the universe will have a purpose in a strictly “anthropomorphic” sense.

But this is what you have to say if you are a naturalist. It is not what theist’s believe. Again, Michael is mistaken. By his own conception of what “purpose” means, the existence or non-existence of God makes a difference to whether the universe has a deep, transcendent purpose. The theist says it does, and the naturalist says it does not.

Fourth, there is a practical difference, as well. A theist who believes that the universe has a purpose that is determined by God’s own purposes as Creator of the universe will want to know what this means for his own existence, so that he might live wisely and welcome human flourishing on God’s own terms.

Fifth, the atheists we debated have a stake in maintaining that it really makes no difference what one believes about God, since life is meaningful in any case. But whatever meaning the atheist wants to attribute to human existence, it will be whatever meaning humans can make of life without reference to God’s providential purposes. I can admire the moxie of such humanistic optimists. But I cannot agree that the meaning they manufacture in their way is the same meaning that my life has if God exists and if obedience to God’s loving will is the great condition for transcendent human significance.

Sixth, Michael asserts, without argument or evidence, that the laws of nature “have no purpose other than what they dictate matter and energy to do.” Here he betrays that he is a determinist. So I do not know what purpose could even be freely imagined, adopted, and pursued by human persons. After all, on his view, we are but by-products of the swirling mass of matter and energy that, in accordance with the laws of nature, dictate everything that happens.

Here again, Michael assumes that naturalism is true, and then infers that it must therefore make no difference whether there is a God when we ask whether the universe has a purpose. But what explains the existence of laws of nature? He may think there is no explanation. But the theist attributes their existence to the purposeful decision by God to create a universe that functions in accordance with such laws. These laws owe their existence and operation to God, and are operable only insofar as God deigns to leave them alone in their ordering of physical events. A supernatural being is sovereign over the natural laws. Hence, non-natural events are possible and will occur if God chooses to act supernaturally in the world of physical events.

Further, God has created human purposes, in God’s own likeness, with powers of self-determination, so that laws of nature do not strictly determine everything that happens.

Seventh, Michael mocks the notion that stellar stuff ponders its own purpose, as if this ludicrous notion would have to be true in order for the universe to have a purpose. This odd move invites four comments: (1) none of us suggested such a thing, nor is there any basis for thinking that we did, would, or should hold to such nonsense; (2) on Shermer’s view, human beings are little different than star stuff, and it would be as odd to attribute genuine thoughts and deliberations about purpose to humans as it would be to attribute such activities to stars; (3) but of course, we do attribute genuine thoughts, deliberations, and concerns about purpose to human persons, and this is evidence that Shermer’s general worldview is mistaken and that there are “objects in the universe” that have these powers; (4) while stars are naturally indifferent about the purposes they serve, that they serve a divine purpose is of real consequence for us.

Eighth, Michael boldly asserts that “life began with the most basic purpose of all,” that of “survival and reproduction.” How does he know this? Can he tell us how life began? If he cannot—and I’m sure he cannot, otherwise he would have told us by now—then how does he know what “purpose” is served by the existence of life?

Ninth, Michael contradicts himself when he says in one paragraph that even H. sapiens (that’s us!) do not sit around thinking about the purpose of things, and then says in the next paragraph that we are imbued “with a sense of cosmic purpose.” The paragraph after that begins, “Human beings have an evolved sense of purpose—a psychological desire to accomplish a goal.” Hmm. Then we come to the next paragraph: “How we define our purposeful lives may be personal . . . .” So we do define our “purposeful lives” personally. But how, if all is dictated by the laws of nature?

A couple paragraphs later, Michael compounds his inconsistency, admonishing us about how we should live. In answer to the question, “What type of purposefulness should we practice?” he describes specific purposes that he values. But why should anyone value these things? And what, in any case, could we really do to advance them—again, if all is determined?

Tenth, Michael concludes his article with the same proposal that ended his remarks at the debate. He invites theists and other non-atheists to try being an atheist “for an hour,” so that we all may see how little difference it would make to our lives. He has this backwards. Anyone who tries to be a genuine atheist without noticing a difference in his life either must not have oriented his life to the principles of theism, or he has failed to be an atheist, even for an hour.

I encourage you to read Michael Shermer’s account for yourself here. If I have erred in my understanding of his argument, feel free to comment on this post.

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