15 August 2012

Philosophical Wanderings....A discussion thread that took on a life of its own.

This is just an topically eclectic thread that has grown to the point that I thought I would just post it by itself and then we can continue the discussion under this heading.

Here are the original comments.......followed by a long response by me.

Jim C. said...

Hey John,


I apologize in advance for abruptly steering the conversation off onto a completely different tangent but I thought you should take a look at this.

It was written by someone who used to be a small celebrity in Catholic circles who eventually rejected his religious beliefs and is now an atheist.

When I think about your story I see many similarities. You both used to be ultra-conservative Christian rightists who have since abandoned that position. You both read copiously and draw heavily on life experience in order to shape your thinking. Of course, the main difference between you two is that you decided to remain faithful. He didn't.

Anyway if you have a chance I recommend taking a look at it and (hopefully) sharing your thoughts.

Jim C.

Proto said....


Boggling isn't it?

Frankly, as I've toyed at times with Eastern Orthodoxy or something like it.....it would ultimately mean not only apostasy in terms of the Biblical Gospel but apostasy in terms of Christianity.

All the threads would come undone and I would be left destitute.

Being where I have been....if I actually apostatized, I would probably kill myself.

I would be some miserable and out of my skull. If you don't believe there's a God, then this world is full of injustice and lies. I guess I would either park it on a barstool, take up a gun and go on a rampage...or just end it.

Nihilism is really all I would have left.

I'm really quite surprised that more mass shootings and things like that aren't happening. It's only God's restraining hand that keeps it from happening every moment of the day.

Because if this world is just nihilistic...why not? Eat and drink for tomorrow we die. Why not die today?

My wife says I remind her of Thomas Hardy's Jude. Not that I have apostatized like Jude did...but that Jude (and of course Hardy who created him) saw what was happening, and experienced what happens when you learn much, think much and yet won't play by the rules. It's hard not to end up bitter and isolated.

Though my writings may seem bitter and I am filled with frustration and sorrow...... I also possess something that neither the apostate blogger nor Thomas Hardy had....hope, joy, and peace.

 Jim C said.....

Hey John,

I'm not saying I disagree with you but allow me to play the devil's advocate on this one.

First of all when you said "if you don't believe there's a God, then this world is full of injustice and lies." Is this what you meant to say? You and I both believe in a sovereign God in control of the universe and yet we both acknowledge the existence of evil. In fact, many nonbelievers use the popular "argument from evil" to criticize the idea of an all-good, all-powerful God. How, they say, can God just sit there and allow all these injustices to happen? Why doesn't he intervene? Either it's because he's indifferent, impotent or just not there. I'm sure you've heard this countless times before.

Also, I've heard the argument before that connects lack of religious belief with nihilism. I suppose it has some merit but the logical outworking of it could cut one of two ways. On the one hand one could resort to gross epicurean excess and drink him/herself bloated/go on a killing spree, etc. or they could get an education/raise a family/make money/cure an illness, etc. Either way, they'll be dead within a hundred years and nobody will care by that point. At least if they opt for the latter they'll at least derive some fulfillment even if it's fleeting and that's better than none at all.

In other words, even though the universe is objectively ateleogical people can nevertheless create their own purpose in life and live by it. Again, I'm not saying I agree with them but this is the sort of thing they would say in their defense.

Again, let me know if I've misconstrued what you've said.


Proto said........

You're certainly permitted to disagree as long as I can argue back!
Yeah let me clarify. Since we believe in God, we can account for the injustice and lies. It's due to the presence of sin.
But if you don't believe in God...how can you account for it? Or anything?
Right I was just talking about the Holocaust with my oldest son and explaining how this is a key event that is used as a fulcrum in so many different discussions. And the one you cited...if there was a God how could he let this happen?...was one we discussed.
And you're also right that some people, embracing atheism...still go out and conform and maybe even try to better the world. But philosophically they cannot justify this behaviour. Psychologically it may give them a sense of worth, but they can't justify it. If we're just slime, and that's what we'll become again...what's the point?
I suppose someone like Dawkins might say evolutionary progress is an innate platform for ethics. But if survival of the fittest is true and being 'the fittest' is morally right....then Hitler's happiness and exercise of being the 'fittest' could be argued as ethically good.
I think (and this is just me) that optimistic atheists must embrace a positive view of progress and ethics to keep themselves from going mad. Philosophy is against them and frankly so is history.
I do think nihilism is about all you're left with. Whether that manifests itself as Hitler, a punk rocker, a mad gunman, or a druggie in a back alley....it doesn't really matter.
I guess what I would say to one of the 'positive' atheists is....I don't like you and since there's no God.......bam!
I shot him dead. He doesn't like it but can't explain why. If he wants to say it's wrong, then he has to account for 'wrong'...some kind of transcendent non-empirical concept.
I think there are some atheists that are socially speaking...good people. All I'm saying is, it doesn't make sense. In fact 'good' makes no sense in that context. At best a concept like 'goodness' is a social convention. Maybe goodness in my social construct means I kill you because I don't like the way you look.
Now I know they would argue against what I've said, and if you want to continue (in the role of advocate)....go for it. I probably should spend some time looking at Dawkins' books and things along those lines. I haven't been terribly interested, but I have heard him on BBC and NPR. I'm always very interested to hear how they argue. So like I said, I know they would have a response...if you know what it is beyond what I've said here...please share.

Jim C said......

Hey Proto,

It looks like you adhere to a transcendental/Van Tillian line of argumentation on the issue of evil; that is, God must exist because of the impossibility of the contrary. I'm not sure if you would phrase it that way but you've at least said here that for evil to have an objective existence once cannot epistemologically presuppose eliminative materialism.

Some atheists have responded to this by holding to a modified, non-reductive variation of materialism. They believe that matter is ontologically primary but they also allow for the existence of non-reducible categories. They would go on to say that even though materialism in its strictest form is absurd it doesn't follow that a God must exist.

I think you're correct when you point to evolutionary progress as a standard for ethics and go on to say that natural selection/survival of the fittest can be problematic from an ethical standpoint. An atheist may respond by saying that invoking Hitler/Stalin is arbitrary and that "evolutionarily fit" does not necessarily entail Nazism, Communism, mass murder or dictatorship. They may say that showing compassion to the weak increases the overall fitness of a society as a whole, which in turn benefits the individual. Utilitarianism plays a key role in this: the greatest good for the greatest number.

You also said, "At best a concept like 'goodness' is a social convention. Maybe goodness in my social construct means I kill you because I don't like the way you look." The response to this is quite simple: your killing someone because of their appearance is an individual act that violates social convention and is therefore evil. Of course, the problem with consensus-based ethics is its foundational arbitrariness. For example, Aktion T4 in Nazi Germany permitted the execution of mentally disabled people and the only ones who protested were Catholics and some Protestants. The rest of German society was convinced that killing them was the humane thing to do. Was it therefore okay? Who's to say?

With regard to the biblical God both you and I presuppose, some atheists would point to the atrocities commanded in the Old Testament and on that basis criticize divine command theories of ethics, etc. "How can God command people to turn the other cheek and not do so Himself?" some would ask.

Hopefully this provides further depth to this discussion. Again, I apologize for going off on this tangent since it had nothing to do with the subject of this thread.

Protoprotestant said......

Personally I think Van Til's argument is just a reworking of Anselm's Ontological Argument. In terms of Van Til's overall philosophical construct...his System/Idealist Thought and his Theonomy/Autonomy dilemma...the issues regarding knowledge being analogical....on those issues I'm not quite as keen. In fact in many ways I'm opposed to him.
But in terms of an overall apologetic method, I cannot be categorized as Van Tillian because I also don't really have a problem with finding Common Ground and employing Evidentiary argumentation. Apologetically I'm a pragmatist.
Also I firmly believe Natural Law fulfills a sufficient role in the realm of Common Grace which is antithetical to Van Til's thought. He was trying to find a philosophical basis for the ideas of Bavinck and Kuyper.
I would agree that 'evil' really has no concrete meaning in a materialistic worldview. At best it's a conceptual category....I'm thinking Nominalism here. If there are no Universals, then all we're left with is linguistic categories...concepts.
When you say they allow for the existence of non-reducible categories....that sounds like metaphysics to me. Simplicity may limit the metaphysical discourse but evil and love can't be found in a laboratory....
Materialism can't acknowledge a metaphysic or it ceases to be coherent. This is why when I turn on NPR's Science Friday I listen with laughter and tears to the absurd discussions where they try to break down ethics to chemical impulses in our brains. They do try to find these things in a lab....the Scripture that comes to mind is...Professing themselves to be wise they became fools.
I guess this is where modern Secular Science finds that weird connection with Eastern Mysticism. Now I sound like a conspiracy nut (New World Order/One World Religion). By the way that's not what I'm getting at. Not at all.
 But in their inability to explain some of these concepts they almost turn to non-theistic Eastern thought (like you might find in Theravada Buddhism) and seek to account for or find a basis for ethics.
Or it reminds me of  the philosophical difficulties that come with Darwinism. Their problems would be solved (at least temporarily) if they could prove extraterrestrial life. Celestial Darwinism would give them an out....it would allow them to dodge these questions by pushing them back onto a category which they would insist exists but would lack the tools and ability to elaborate on it.  Epistemology would be thrown into a blender and it would open a whole new world in terms of moral philosophy.
You better believe they're cheering on the Mars mission. The massive waste of time called NASA is more rooted in philosophical desperation than true scientific endeavour. It is science but it's about science trying to account for itself.
Utilitarianism has played a HUGE role in shaping American thought. Today people usually think of someone like Peter Singer but actually a lot of our cultural ideas...about what sorts of things we should preserve and promote and certainly a lot of our economic ideas flow from some of the basic ideas of Utilitarianism. Some of them like Mill floated toward Socialism but generally speaking Bentham and the boys were all big on Laissez Faire.
·       As an aside...just the other day I listened to yet another lecture on how John Knox and John Calvin are the 'real' fathers of America. While undoubtedly they played their part in shaping Western thought...this reductionistic argument completely ignores Locke, Bentham, Hume, Rousseau, and many others who were profoundly shaping how people thought.
Of course society's 'benefit' and ideas like 'happiness' all rest on question begging. I would challenge them by saying how do you measure benefit? If German society really believed they (the majority) would benefit from and be most happy with Jewish extermination... then how can an atheist argue against it?
Granted people like Dickens (hardly some kind of Orthodox Christian) could and did argue against these men and the brave but cruel new world they were encouraging....a world that cared little for the individual or for the old system of rights, obligations and protections found in the old social order. Ideas like honour, love, trust, and dignity....had little use or import in a Utilitarian framework.
And it's funny, because with Dickens I would use the same type of argument against the Religio-Capitalists of our day. It produces an ethic that reduces men to two-legged commodities and places efficiency over dignity and/or any other social obligation.
I understand that practically speaking even an atheistic or Buddhist utilitarianism or altruism can benefit society and create order and stability.
It's not philosophically sustainable...but in the realm of Common Grace....and under the purposes that Common Grace serves....it may be enough.
As far as me gunning down my opponent, yes....thankfully our culture isn't so gone as to turn a blind eye to murder. But not that long ago if I was a white guy in Mississippi and I didn't like the look of my negro neighbour....the social convention might indeed look the other way.
It's arbitrary and fluid. Van Til also makes these kinds of criticisms, but he does so...he demolishes them in order to build a new Christian order in its place. I don't think the Bible gives us the tools to do that, nor does it give us a mandate. In fact theologically it is impossible...unless you're a Pelagian that believes fallen man can work righteousness of his own volition.
This is great. My son and I were just talking about all this...the OT and the atheistic condemnation of YHWH's ethic. This is why the Christian Theodicy is unique. We look at the Canaanites being destroyed and say...we also deserve that but for the grace of God.
And much more difficult because of its social connotations and the emotions that go with it....
We all deserve Auschwitz. We all deserve worse. The fact that we don't have that happening all the time...is an act of mercy.
In fact in terms of Providence....in terms of Redemptive messages being extrapolated from history....Auschwitz can be viewed as a merciful warning...a foretaste of hell warning the world to Repent and Believe.
Could God stop it? That's not the point. Why didn't He if He is indeed truly good? Because they (and all of us) deserve it. The fact that He chooses at times to be less merciful in no way casts aspersions on His character.  
Providence decreed it but the SS and Einsatzgruppen who carried it out....they did it of their own wicked and twisted volition and must answer for it.
To argue that God should turn the other cheek is to take obligations that we as fallen creatures have and to impose them on a Holy Sovereign Creator. In fact, the 2nd Adam did turn the other cheek...even though by rights he didn't have to. He had every right to Judge and strike back.

Great discussion. By all means....let it continue.
PS...I  recall Greg Bahnsen arguing that atheists can't account for the Laws of Logic. If Bahnsen is right, then the atheist can't even account for his method of argument or the way he systematizes thought.
The atheist might respond that the Laws of Logic are rooted in empirical observation......a position I'm actually sympathetic with. Do the laws of logic reflect the character of God and thus once grasped can be employed inductively in the realm of the theological speculation.......?
or, are the Laws of Logic actually part of the created order? This is an unresolved question, but one with profound implications with regard to metaphysical epistemology. In the Reformed Tradition you have guys like Gordon Clark and John Robbins that virtually deified logic. Clark believed he could start with God as the Universal and through simple deduction basically work out all of theology. A Platonic Realist in the Rationalist tradition. He believed that once you took Scripture to be axiomatic....then you really and truly could work out the rest. No mystery in that system. If you've got a mystery, then you need to check your math.
And then you have someone like Van Til who believed that our thoughts are at best analogical. Since true knowledge is comprehensive (a little Idealist influence there to be sure) we can never possess it. Since our thoughts are at best partial analogies we cannot engage in autonomous thought. All truth is God's truth and so we must seek to think His thoughts after Him. When we get something right, it's only because we have grasped something, a portion of his Comprehensive Thought. But then Van Til seemed to be quite bold (or perhaps audacious) in thinking that by employing logic we could induct and deduct a great deal..especially in the realm of theological development....this comes out most clearly when it comes to validating Kuyper's ideas concerning cultural spheres and blueprints....something I reject on several levels. He seemed to think he was on safe ground because he wasn't suggesting we could ever grasp the System Whole or Comprehensive.
Or to put it another way....through logic Clark thought he could about 99% of it. Van Til maybe about 80%.
I'm saying....wrong questions and assumptions to begin with. Apart from the Bible we get....0%.
In the case of both camps....I am uncomfortable with their use of logic. In both cases it seems to transgress the line between the Divine Creator and our limitations as Creatures.
Maybe I go even further. Even the atheist believes logic is sufficient to probe into their limited/obscure notion of metaphysical issues....logic, ethics etc...
My metaphysical epistemology is rooted in Biblicism. That too demands elaboration....prolegomenal questions....what is Biblicism? Hermeneutics? Theological method etc....
Pardon me if I sound Kantian but I think we're pretty blind when it comes to metaphysics...at least in terms of forming coherent systems. Fallen man knows something of God from the creation, he can innately know that murder and theft are wrong...but he can't really account for it.
That may be good enough, but sorry David Barton et al., a Christian society it does not make. Fallen men can be forced to conform to ethical standards they can't make sense of but without the Holy Spirit, these are but empty forms, mechanistic ethical applications....empty imperatives. You can force them to act like Christians but philosophically they can't account for it. Eventually this forced paradigm runs out of steam. Eventually the philosophical wheels will turn enough to speak out. And once the ball starts rolling and they start to question the system itself....you'll have the 1960's on your hands. But long before the 1960's, there were numerous similar eras where you find the forced social consensus being questioned.
I just don't have any confidence in logic when applied to metaphysics nor do I think it's ontologically rooted in metaphysics.
I think logic is rooted in the structure of the Created order. It's simply our linguistic and conceptual expressions rooted in the observance of Creation. It's empirical and limited to the Created order. We use it to build things. It provides a basis for proceeding with experiment and innovation.
I guess when it comes to Logic...I'm something of a Conceptualist. While most thinking Protestants are probably Realists on this issue.
I don't think it's a tool we can use to probe the eternal or speculate regarding theology. I think we need to be careful in what we deduce and I think we need to be very cautious regarding what we try to develop through inductive method. At that point we're subjugating theology (which should be rooted in Revelation) to our man-limited intellectual models.  I find this to be highly problematic.
The reason I bring this up is that actually when it comes to logic...I might actually go further and be less confident in it than not only many Protestants and certainly Catholics...but even atheists. And yet I might actually find some common ground with certain atheists in accounting for the ontological nature of logic....that is the Laws of Logic are essentially rooted in nature, determined through a posteriori investigation.......not a priori in the metaphysical realm.
Revelation (Jesus Christ) is our Axiom....not Logic. And they are not the same thing.
Of course anyone who is following this might immediately say (and it has been said to me)....you're a mystic. Perhaps but not a speculative or esoteric mystic. I'm a mystic in the sense that I'm content to submit to Revelation and leave a great deal of theology undeveloped....not just in principle but I would argue by necessity or to put it from a different angle...impossibility.
Did you follow that? I doubt you're going to agree, so please feel free to challenge me on it. I would appreciate some interaction.

1 comment:

Jim C. said...

Hey John,

It's at this point that I'm going to have to defer to your superior knowledge on this subject. I admit that I have not read very much of Van Til and even less of Clark but I'm familiar with the conflict between the two as well as the logical outworking of their presuppositions you've mentioned in this post. I also know that Van Til is accepted in Presbyterian and most Dutch Reformed circles whereas Clark finds a more favorable audience in more hyper-calvinistic groups such as Hoeksema's PRC.

I'm also familiar with the debate between Bahnsen and Gordon Stein and it's lauded in Christian forums the world over as a decisive defeat of atheism. Of course if you read about it from the perspective of the other side that's hardly the case, and even Stein himself admitted that he was not prepared for Bahnsen's transcendental argument but had since prepared a response. Other thinkers such as Michael Martin responded with a "transcendental argument for the nonexistence of God" or "TANG", where he made reference to the uniformity of nature and how an arbitrary God undermines the validity of scientific investigation, etc. That's not the fulness of his argument but it starts there. He's a lesser-known luminary within atheistic circles but in my opinion has a much more amenable disposition than some of the more famous thinkers.

Later in your post you said, "I just don't have any confidence in logic when applied to metaphysics nor do I think it's ontologically rooted in metaphysics." That actually threw me for a loop and left me scratching my head. What did you mean by this?

You also said that with regard to logic you were a "conceptualist" as opposed to a "realist". Again, I'm not sure what the distinction means.

Lovin' this discussion, btw.

Jim C.


I'm surprised I haven't seen Cal say anything. He always has something valuable to contribute to the discussion.

Cal u there?