Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Apologetics (Logic)

Logic

This final area of philosophical inquiry is somewhat other than the rest. Logic is not so much a part of human life to investigate, as a tool we seem capable of accessing in order to do the investigation well. Logic is similar to language in that, while we can think reflexively about both, we need both in order to think reflexively, and think well. Yet, that there is also a second-order, philosophical question about why logic works, or what are logical connections, is itself certainly true. Still logic is essentially just good reasoning, and reasoning is something we do naturally. To study logic is to study the nature of reasoning, and develop methods and strategies by which our reasoning can improve, and truth attained.

Some forms of logic, like symbolic logic, are also similar to languages, albeit non-natural ones. They are highly abstract. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, philosophers like Gottlob Frege, Georg Cantor, Bertrand Russell, and Alfred North Whitehead, developed symbolic logical systems designed to eliminate the ambiguity associated with classical forms of logic that deal with natural language. These systems, based on mathematical reasoning, attempt to illustrate purely structural relationships between entities, regardless of whether such entities are real or not, and they sometimes go under the umbrella term Logicism. These highly abstracted, a priori systems are very technical, and tend to be utilized by professional philosophers in specialized areas of research (like Logic itself).

Alternatively, Classical, or Aristotelian, logic is primarily a prescriptive set of rules regulating our mental operations when seeking the truth about claims about reality. Classical logic deals with natural language claims, and the relationship between words and sentences of natural languages (e.g. English, German, Mandarin, etc.), that is it deals with grammars. It is this kind of logic I will discuss here, since it is most commonly used in developing arguments related to the defense of the Christian faith, and many other areas of everyday philosophical investigation like philosophy of science, religion, aesthetics, and politics.

Formal & Informal Logic

Formal Logic is fundamentally about one thing: structural validity of arguments. This differs from informal logic, which primarily has to do with logical fallacies in premises.

Most people are familiar with some aspects of informal logic, for example fallacies like: the genetic fallacy, ad hominem fallacies, or the fallacy of composition. Most informal fallacies fall into larger categories like: Fallacies of Ambiguity, Relevance, or Sufficiency. Informal fallacies are not less damaging than formal ones, they are just not related to the “form” of an argument. They have to do with language and the meaning of words and sentences.

Informal fallacies usually apply to the sentences themselves, not to the relational structures, or grammar, of arguments. Here is an example of an informal fallacy:

Socrates is a Greek. Greek is a language. Therefore, Socrates is a language.

This is an example of a fallacy of Ambiguity, since the term “Greek” has multiple meanings in common parlance. Thus, it would have to be clarified what the term means in the context it is given. Here is another informal fallacy:

John is an evangelical Christian, so what would he know about science? Even if he has a PhD in micro-biology, he can’t do real science.

This is an example of a fallacy of Relevance, in this case a kind of ad hominem attack, or attack against the person. More specifically this particular instance is a “poisoning the well” fallacy, making an initial claim about a person (or group) that tries to undermine any future claims they may make about a given topic, here the biological sciences. The fact that John is a Christian is simply irrelevant to his being able to practice science well or make accurate pronouncements on scientific issues.

Another kind of fallacy of Relevance is the Genetic Fallacy, which attacks the source of the claim, as opposed to the claim itself:

Evolution endowed human beings with certain cognitive capacities that led to the rise of beliefs in God and gods among early, prehistoric communities. Therefore, belief in God is irrational.

Here, it is argued that because it may be the case that human beings, over a long prehistory, developed certain cognitive capacities that facilitated the belief in supernatural beings, or a supernatural Being, that therefore the belief in those beings, or Being, is irrational. However, the source of the formation of the belief is not ultimately what determines if the belief is true. That must be determined on other grounds, otherwise the Genetic fallacy has been committed.

One final kind of informal fallacy is the fallacy of Insufficiency. This usually has to do with premises that do not rely on a sufficient amount of data or factual evidence to be considered strong premises. For example:

My friend Joe has been smoking all his life, and he has never had any problems with his lungs; therefore, smoking is just fine!

Here we have the fallacy of Hasty Generalization, which bases a radical conclusion, to assume smoking is fine for your health, on a very small amount of evidence: knowledge of just one friend’s capacity to smoke and not get ill. That is called an appeal to “anecdotal” evidence and would be insufficient to warrant starting to, or continuing to, smoke.

Most informal fallacies are found in inductive arguments, not deductive ones, and there are many more informal fallacies that we could give examples for. For a good introduction to Informal Fallacies, see here.

Formal logic

Formal logic, in contrast to informal logic, is concerned with demonstrating how syntax (the order of a sentence) is related to relational validity when two or more sentences are fit together in a grammatical structure. Formal logic is a means to demonstrate how, when declarative statements are strung together through certain operative words like “if…then” “and” and “or,” or “some” and “all,” and put into a sequential order, the conjunction of those sentences compel us to accept or reject a conclusion by the sheer light of reason. Errors in the structure of an argument, however, do not say anything about the argument’s conclusion being true or false, just that the arrangement, or form, of the argument does not show the conclusion to be true or false, because it contains a structural deficiency.

For example, the following argument is logically valid, but the conclusion is false:

Premise 1: All cats are blue
Premise 2: Tabby is a cat
Conclusion: Therefore, Tabby is blue

Here, the structure of the argument is valid, for if all cats really are blue, and if Tabby is a cat, then Tabby must be blue. Of course the problem is that premise 1 is simply false.

And, conversely, here is an example of a conclusion that is true, but where the argument is invalid, and therefore does not demonstrate the conclusion’s truth:

Premise 1: Some men are bald
Premise 2: Tony is a man
Conclusion: Therefore, Tony is bald

Now, it does so happen that the “Tony” I am thinking about, namely myself, is bald, and thus the conclusion is true. But, because the argument is not valid, it bears no weight on that conclusion. It is an invalid argument because premise 1 only says that “some” particular men are bald, and while premise 2 does pick out a particular man named “Tony,” there is no logical connection between the “some” of premise 1, and the “Tony” of premise 2 that forces us to conclude Tony is bald (even if this particular Tony does happen to be bald, that is purely accidental).

If however, like in the previous example, the universal affirmative “all” was used in premise 1, then the argument would be valid, although the conclusion would now be rendered false. Thus, the following is again valid, but false:

Premise 1: All men are bald
Premise 2: Brad Pitt is a man
Conclusion: Therefore, Brad Pitt is bald

Propositional or Semantic Content

Sentences however are not really what we are interested in, rather we are interested in something far more “mysterious,” namely propositions. Sentences are just the linguistic expression of propositions, or semantic content. Therefore, propositions themselves are often, and correctly, seen as non-linguistic, immaterial, yet real objects. This can be demonstrated as follows:

  1. The snow is white
  2. Der Schnee ist weiss

Both of these sentences mean exactly the same thing. However, they are clearly not the same sentence. What is identical is the proposition behind each set of words, i.e. that “snow is white.” But the words themselves are obviously not identical. Moreover, if we were to write a third sentence in Mandarin Chinese, we could have entirely different symbols, yet the same meaning or propositional content. Thus, we can show that propositions and their sentences are not identical.

Logic is therefore the main tool we use to “see” whether two or more sentences, linguistic devices that represent propositions, if tied together in some kind of grammatical structure, force us to think something may, or must, be the case. There is yet another kind of logic, modal logic, which deals expressly with the idea of whether or not certain propositions are “necessarily” true, or only “possibly” true, etc. Simple propositional logic however helps us to determine the truth value of a sentence, which itself is the linguistic expression of propositional content. In classical propositional logic then, there are only two possible values for any declarative sentence, “true” or “false.”

The grammatical structuring of sentences for the sake of determining truth is what we often call an “argument.” Arguments in philosophy come in two main categories: deductive and inductive arguments.

Deductive Arguments

Deductive arguments are comprised of premises and a conclusion. The main thing to know about deductive arguments is this: if the premises are true, and the structure of the argument valid, then the conclusion MUST be true. The classic example of a deductive argument is this:

Premise 1: All men are mortal
Premise 2: Socrates is a man
Conclusion: Therefore Socrates is mortal

If P1 and P2 are both true, then it has to be the case that the conclusion follows. So it goes with deductive formulations of arguments. An example of a deductive argument often used in the Apologetics is the Kalam Cosmological argument, which usually is presented as such:

Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause
Premise 2: The universe began to exist
Conclusion: Therefore the universe had a cause


If P1 and P2 are true, then the conclusion must follow. Another way of thinking about Deductive Arguments is that they tend to start with a general theory or statement and reason toward a specific conclusion. This can been clearly seen in the two aforementioned arguments that start with broad statements about “all men” and “mortality” and “whatever begins” and “causes” to “Socrates” and “this universe.”

Because Deductive arguments are meant to force one to either accept a conclusion, or reject the truthfulness of one of the argument’s premises, the structure of deductive arguments has to follow certain rules of logic. One way to try and test for the validity of an argument is through Natural Deduction.

Natural Deduction utilizes some intuitive rules of logic, or rules of inference, to create deductively valid arguments. The nine most useful rules of inference are: modus ponens, modus tollens, addition, disjunctive syllogism, simplification, conjunction, hypothetical syllogism, constructive dilemma, and absorption. The aforementioned examples both use the rule “modus ponens” as a means of demonstration. Valid, or sound, deductive arguments are the strongest kinds of arguments, since they force a conclusion upon the hearer.

However, there are very few deductive arguments for anything that cannot to some degree be questioned in the soundness of their individual premises, even if their structures are valid. Finally, the main fallacy associated with Deductive Arguments, is “begging the question” which goes something like this:

Premise 1: The Bible says that God exists
Premise 2: The Bible is true because it is God’s word
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists

Here, the conclusion may be true (I certainly think it is), but the argument is helpless to show it true, because it requires God’s existence to show that the Bible is true (premise 2), yet God’s existence is what the argument is supposed to prove. Thus, from this argument alone, we cannot know the Bible is true, and if we cannot know the Bible is true, then we cannot know that God exists. It “begs the question” or, in other terms, it is “circular reasoning.” Atheists can run into similar problems:

Premise 1: Reason tells us that God does not exist
Premise 2: Reason is the source of all truth
Conclusion: Therefore, God does not exist

Same problem here, since to claim that “Reason” is the source of all truth, requires the use of reason itself. But, how do we know that the very tool we are using to attain truth is itself reliable? Thus, it “begs the question” about whether or not reason really is the source of all truth by simply asserting it to be the case.

Inductive Arguments

Inductive arguments, in contrast with deductive ones, are meant to give strong reasons for the likelihood of a conclusion, but do not force a decision upon the hearer to either accept the conclusion, or reject one of the premises. The hearer could think the premises are strongly supported by the facts, and that the conclusion is strong based on the conjunction of those factually supported premises, yet still believe that there is room for the conclusion to be false. Induction is the primary form of scientific reasoning, and usually starts with particular or specific observations in order to work toward a general conclusion. Inductive arguments are therefore probabilistic in nature. Here is a common example:

Premise 1: Every time I have walked Susie’s dog, it has not bit me
Premise 2: Tomorrow I will walk Susie’s dog
Conclusion: Therefore, when I walk Susie’s dog tomorrow, he won’t bite me

Here, we can see that the conclusion is not certain, but it very well may be probable, especially if the dog walker has walked Susie’s dogs several times without incident. It may not be necessary for me to believe with certainty that Susie’s dog will not bite the walker, but I may wind up believing that due to the pattern that has been set. This is an example of what we might call an inductive generalization.

Another example:

Premise 1: 85% of Americans own at least one TV set
Premise 2: Tom is an American
Conclusion: Therefore, probably Tom owns a TV set.

Inductive arguments can focus on one set of data, e.g. past dog-walks, ratio of TV’s to American citizens, and try to make a strong, albeit not absolute, inference to the truth. Some, like the second example, can be statistical in nature, and thus, if done right, can be fairly compelling.

Many arguments for or against the existence of God due to the problem of Evil are probabilistic, or inductive ones:

Premise 1: If an an all-loving, all-powerful God exists, then there likely would be no gratuitous evil in the world
Premise 2: There is gratuitous evil in the world
Conclusion: Therefore, it is unlikely that an all-loving, all-powerful God exists

Here, one can see that the conclusion is not certain, it is only a probability argument, and one not based on quantifiable data, but a common sense, qualitative notion of likelihood. There are many responses to this kind of argument against God from the PoE, and both premises can be challenged.

Abductive or Inference to the Best Explanation

As Apologists we often use deductive and inductive arguments to either force a conclusion regarding a specific theistic belief (e.g. God exists), or to compel one to accept the likelihood of a specific belief (e.g. probably Jesus rose from the dead). However, when defending Christianity as an all-encompassing worldview, our apologetical project often synthesizes together many different deductive and inductive arguments to show that, on the whole, Christian theism is the best explanation for the world, and our experience of that world.

This kind of reasoning, where we take into account various scientific and historical facts, philosophical arguments, and other natural and human phenomena to provide an overarching theory, or explanation, is called abductive reasoning, or inference to the best explanation. This is perhaps the most commonly used form of reasoning today in Christian Apologetics, and is often called “cumulative case” reasoning by popular authors and speakers. This kind of reasoning tries to fulfill certain explanatory criteria, such as: explanatory power, explanatory scope, lack of ad hocness, simplicity, predictive capacity, etc., and show why Christianity is a better fit to explain certain facts about the world.

One can think of many facts, or givens, about our experience of reality that seem to be best explained by a broadly religious, or even specifically Christian, explanation of the world.

For example:

  • the almost universal belief in human souls,
  • compelling reports of near death experiences,
  • the existence of anything at all,
  • the intuition of cause and effect,
  • the hard problem of consciousness,
  • the argument from desire,
  • the phenomenon of beauty in both the natural world and in human art,
  • the sense of having free will,
  • the nature of morality,
  • the abundance of miracle reports,
  • the complexity and variety of biological life,
  • the historical witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth,
  • the rise, global spread, and longevity of the Christian faith,
  • and, of course, personal religious experiences and changed lives.

When all taken together, and weighed against various competing hypotheses, one can see how the Christian worldview is a powerful explanatory hypothesis when put up against other views like naturalism, pantheism, or polytheism. While cumulative case arguments are not arguments in the same sense as deductive ones, they get right to the heart of answering the most fundamental human question: why? Abductive reasoning of this sort is also the primary way scientific theories are developed. It is the most common, and natural, form of logical argumentation.

Conclusion to Philosophical Apologetics

This series on Apologetics has first taken into account the four main areas of Philosophical inquiry: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, and Logic. At this point the young Christian, or the Christian young in the faith, may feel overwhelmed. How, after all, can one learn “all this stuff!?” While it is clearly not necessary to be an expert in any of these fields to evangelize, since the power of the Gospel is itself sufficient to convert even the hardest heart, we should also not relinquish the battlefield of ideas to the skeptic, the materialist, or the co-religionist. The pursuit of knowledge is part and parcel of the Christian life of discipleship, and so I end this section with the words of one of the “greatest” of Christ’s disciples, John Wesley:

If we are “overseers over the Church of God, which he hath bought with his own blood,” what manner of men ought we to be, in gifts as well as in grace? …

To begin with gifts, and with those that are from nature: Ought not a Minister to have, First, a good understanding, a clear apprehension, a sound judgment, and a capacity of reasoning with some closeness? Is not this necessary in an high degree for the work of the ministry? Otherwise, how will he be able to understand the various states of those under his care; or to steer them through a thousand difficulties and dangers, to the haven where they would be? Is it not necessary, with respect to the numerous enemies whom he has to encounter? Can a fool cope with all the men that know not God, and with all the spirits of darkness? Nay, he will neither be aware of the devices of Satan, nor the craftiness of his children.

He goes on…

Some knowledge of the sciences also, is, to say the least, equally expedient. Nay, may we not say, that the knowledge of one (whether art or science), although now quite unfashionable, is even necessary next to, and in order to, the knowledge of the Scripture itself? I mean logic. For what is this, if rightly understood, but the art of good sense? of apprehending, things clearly, judging truly, and reasoning conclusively? What is it, viewed in another light, but the art of learning and teaching, whether by convincing or persuading? What is there, then, in the whole compass of science, to be desired in comparison of it?

Is not some acquaintance with what has been termed the second part of logic (metaphysics), if not so necessary as this, yet highly expedient, (1.) In order to clear our apprehension (without which it is impossible either to judge correctly, or to reason closely or conclusively) by ranging our ideas under general heads? And, (2.) In order to understand many useful writers, who can very hardly be understood without it?

John Wesley, An Address to the Clergy (1756)

Oh Death Where is Your Victory?: Death and Dying in a Time of Crises

Like so many other social institutions in lieu of the outbreak of COVID-19, churches have decided to suspend their services indefinitely. However, churches are part of something that itself is more than just a social institution, for most members of most churches are also members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church.

As the Church then, a transtemporal, transcultural and transcendent community, this global pandemic presents each of us with a serious question: to what extent do we allow the fear of the reality of death shape our decisions in life? The apostle James had something to say about man’s plans in light of death, and that in a time when the experience of death, and death from disease, was much more commonplace, and much more difficult to prevent:


13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. (Jas 4:13-17)

Clearly, life and death can seem at times very ephemeral, even arbitrary. After all, what decides who dies, at what time, and under what circumstances? If God is not providentially in control over the course of human affairs, then there are perhaps two options for what determines life or death: either chance, or the human will. But, in a time of viral pandemic, clearly the human will plays a limited role in such a decision. For, as James points out, while we may intend this or that, or plan for “x” or “y,” there seems to be forces at work that are simply beyond man’s control; we can neither facilitate a positive outcome, nor avoid a negative one, despite all our best efforts. When it comes to natural forces, we are struck by our own frailty. When it comes to viruses, or tsunamis, we are out of control.

Either it is in the Lord’s hands, or in no hands at all.

So, that leaves chance. And, if chance is the ultimate arbiter of things, then the age-old philosophical question remains: is it better to exist, or not to exist? Shakespeare put it this way in his play Hamlet:


To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them.

Hamlet’s inquiry rings eternally true: Do we resign to passive suffering and inaction, or do we “wage war” against the tyranny of chance? Can we will pain and suffering out of our daily experience? Can we eliminate it through meticulous planning, positive thinking, and an endless, political process aimed at perfecting the world’s brokenness?

However, both of these options, passive resignation and defiant effort, often end in their own tragedy, and often have ended in great human atrocity, especially if the ultimate purpose of human existence has been gradually forgotten, or expressly rejected. The razor’s edge of balancing virtuous action with maniacal control, presents itself poignantly in times like these. For, if we passively resign to the evil in the world, even the natural evil of disease and disaster, then we sacrifice what we all take to be a fundamental good, namely, the value of life itself. To resign to do nothing in the face of crisis may have a certain mystical or stoic attraction, but all thing equal just seems outright inhuman to give up when there is a real chance to live, and even live well! To lie down and die, is not the answer. Virtue requires some kind of positive action, some response to pain, some alleviation of suffering.

Yet, if we overreact, and try to exert our will over all manner of brokenness and decay in this finite world, we easily fall prey to acting in ways themselves destructive, manipulative, and life-inhibiting. We can become so fearful of death itself, so anxious about crossing over into that distant land, that we engage in tyrannical behavior, enacting draconian measures to prevent death at all costs!

As C.S. Lewis put it so wisely during one of mankind’s most horrible man-made tragedies (World War II), we must see that the greatest evil is not death, but sin and human corruption:

The doctrine that war is always a greater evil seems to imply a materialist ethic, a belief that death and pain are the greatest evils. But I do not think they are. I think the suppression of a higher religion by a lower, or a higher secular culture by a lower, a much greater evil. Nor am I greatly moved by the fact that many of the individuals we strike down in war are innocent. That seems, in a way, to make war not worse but better. All men die, and most men miserably. That two soldiers on opposite sides, each believing his own country to be in the right, each at the moment when his selfishness is most in abeyance and his will to sacrifice in the ascendant, should kill [each] other in plain battle seems to me by no means one of the most terrible things in this very terrible world.

(C.S. Lewis, Why I Am Not A Pacifist)

In this time of great crises, albeit one not a man-made one like war, but due to an illness that is part of the very fabric of a fallen, natural world, Christians must give an answer that walks the fine-line between these two, despairing views of death: one that says we must simply succumb to nature “red in tooth and claw,” and the other that says “we must protect physical existence, even to the point of vicious and tyrannical behavior.” For historical crises like this one, will inevitably raise the questions in all of us: “for what reason ultimately am I here?,” and “in what, or in whom, do I put my faith and hope for the future?”

As the Church, we must then cry out in prophetic overtures that even this virus, COVID-19, is but part of God’s providential plan over all of human affairs, and that it, COVID-19, is subject to the Divine Will, and subordinate to the Goodness of that Will. That Will, the One that determines all things, neither expects us to roll over and die in the face of tragedy, nor does it expect us to solve the problem of death on our own. What that Divine Will wills for us is first repentance, then action; action in faith, and action in love.

For we should fear, but not death, rather we should fear the one who has the power over life and death!

Thus we recognize, as the authors of scripture did, that Death can have no victory, neither in its actual occurrence, nor in its psychological hold, if we are true believers in Jesus Christ. For death, as Lewis reminds us, is not the worst thing. Far worse than death is sin. Far worse indeed; for sin is eternal death, and that is a death not limited to what takes place only after our hearts fail, and our brains cease to function. That death is occurring every day, COVID-19, or no COVID-19.

In sum, let us as the Church not hesitate to do what we can to fight against this outbreak, to do everything within reason to combat illness, and save human life. However, let us also not put so much faith in our own efforts, and that out of a fear of pain and death, that we engage in sin and vice, in order to prevent that which is inevitable to all of us, us miserable men, and women, who are destined to die. The real question then remains, unto what or unto whom will we die? Unto death, or unto eternal life?


55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Apologetics (Ethics)

Continuing in this series on four, core domains of Christian Discipleship, I now sketch a brief overview of the third area of philosophical Apologetics, Ethics.

Ethics

The moral argument is perhaps the most concrete and powerful argument for the existence of God. The first five chapters of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity is still one of the most common-sense, and forceful defenses of objective moral values and duties ever written. But ethics has not only to do with the source or grounds of moral values and duties, but also with the application of those values and duties, should they actually exist.

As such, ethics is often categorized into two main divisions: Normative Theories, and Applied Ethics. A third, overarching category, Metaethics, is what ultimately will interest us as theological Apologists, since it has to do with the source of morality and the nature of moral discourse. However, both normative ethical systems and applied ethical issues are tightly related to our work as defenders of the truth, and the goodness, of the Christian faith.

Types of Ethical Systems: Cognitive and Non-Cognitive

One way to categorize normative systems of ethics is either as cognitive, meaning that moral statements have actual truth values, or as non-cognitive, meaning that moral statement are, by and large, mere projections or expressions of feelings about a particular state of affairs, i.e. they are neither true, nor false. Let’s look at the non-cognitive systems first.

The most general non-cognitive system of ethics is called Emotivism. In brief, Emotivism is the idea that there are no real moral facts about the world. Emotivism tends to go hand in hand with metaphysical naturalism, or the belief that there are only physical things, since if ultimately only the physical world exists, it is difficult, if not impossible, to see how we could derive objective (mind independent) moral values and obligations, i.e. “oughts,” from brute facts about mere “stuff.” After all, what could the random motion and accidental collocation of sub-atomic particles tell us about what we should, or should not do? Of course, this is not to say that all metaphysical naturalists are emotivists. In fact, there is a trend back to moral realism, even among naturalists.

Non-Cognitive: Emotivism

As such, on Emotivism, to make a moral claim about, say torturing baby kittens, is akin to saying nothing more than “Torturing baby kittens…yuck!” On this view I simply feel that torturing animals is wrong, but if I were to formulate the proposition “it is wrong to torture baby kittens” I am not saying anything more than “I just don’t like the feeling I have when I see or think about baby kittens being tortured.” There are other kinds of non-cognitive systems of morality, but all of them reject the idea that a moral statement can be true or false. They just are expressions of emotional distaste, or affirmation.

Cognitive Systems: Teleological, Deontological, and Virtue Based

Cognitive systems, on the other hand, argue that there are truths about moral claims. That something is really either morally right, or morally wrong, and that one can give reasons to support one or the other. Cognitive systems can be categorized into three broad domains: teleological, deontological, and virtue ethical systems.

Teleological systems are ones that see the attainment of a fundamental goal or end as the primary determiner of moral actions. Some teleological systems are: ethical egoism, psychological egoism, and utilitarianism. Of these teleological systems the one that tends to reign supreme in Western culture, and that for roughly two and a half centuries, is utilitarianism, or the idea that whatever actions cause the greatest number of people to enjoy the maximum amount of happiness or pleasure over the longest period of time, are morally good actions. Conversely, any action that precludes the greatest number of people from enjoying the greatest amount or degree of happiness for extended periods of time, is immoral or wrong. Utilitarianism is sometimes known as “Consequentialism,” as moral actions become either good or bad depending on the consequences they produce. For obvious reasons, Christians have always been wary of Consequentialism as a theory of moral action, as it can easily degrade into an “ends justifies the means” kind of thinking. Nonetheless, consequentialist views of ethics have dominated Western democracies’ public life for generations.

Deontological systems, made famous by the work of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), focus not on an end goal of moral action, but focus on duty or moral obligation. In a sense deontological ethics is about following certain rules, regardless of the outcome, and in following those rules, one acts morally. In contrast to Consequentialism, deontological ethics can almost neglect the outcomes of actions. Thus, if Consequentialism can degrade into a system that allows for what would seem to be evil acts just in case there are good results, deonotolgical ethics can come off as a system that is so duty-bound that it neglects how one’s moral activity might cause great harm. For example, on a very strict deontological system, should Nazis soldiers come to one’s door looking for hidden Jews they intend to haul off to a concentration camp, one would be duty-bound to tell the Nazis where the hapless victims are hidden, since lying is a universal “no-no.” Kant believed that pure reason alone could determine what were the universal moral truths human beings were to live by, and this without recourse to anything like Special Revelation from God. Most today think that this project, however, has failed, since reason alone is not up to the task of determining universal moral obligations. However, there are forms of deontological systems that are still robustly defended in secular culture today, most of which revolve around some kind of contract theory, also known as Social Contractualism.

Virtue Ethical, or character-based, systems of Ethics are as ancient as Aristotle, actually more ancient. In fact, most classical philosophy, even abstract metaphysics and epistemology, was aimed at the ultimate goal of developing the moral character of the individual citizen of the Greek polis. This was known as aretaic, or character, ethics, and to build virtue was part and parcel of living “the good life,” itself the primary focus of all classical philosophy. For the ancient Greeks, the idea of building virtues was more important than either the consequences of actions, or the rules of the nation or culture. Classical virtues like temperance, prudence, courage and justice were to be pursued through the cultivation of certain habits and practice. Of course, in turn, one would expect a city, or nation, to be healthier were it to possess many virtuous citizens, as opposed to few. Also, since obedience to norms and traditions could be considered a virtuous disposition, virtue ethics can incorporate aspects of utilitarianism and deontology into its system. Since the work of C.S. Lewis’ contemporary at Oxford, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Alasdair MacIntyre more recently, Virtue Ethics as a system of Christian ethics has become a popular philosophical position.

Metaethics: Divine Command Theory, Realism, and Biblical Ethics

When it comes to Ethics, there is always the more fundamental question of where do moral values and obligations, if they do exist, come from? The ancient debate of whether moral values are grounded in something like the physical structure of the universe, or a Divine Mind, or whether they are nothing more than cultural conventions that change and shift over time, is still hotly debated today. Do our moral values come from a transcendent moral law giver who has designed the fabric of reality? Or are they derivable from purely natural facts about the world, and the neurological makeup we happen to have through the process of evolution? Or, perhaps most “spooky,” are they instantiations of Platonic forms that exist in an otherwise inaccessible transcendent realm?

As Christian apologists it is clear that option 1 is fundamental to our defense of the Christian faith. That God is the source of all moral values and duties, and that He gives explicit commands about those values and duties, is derived immediately, and with little confusion from the pages of Holy Scripture (see Exodus 20:1-21). However, this is not to say that there aren’t also some values and obligations that are relative to changes in cultural context, or particular situations (take our aforementioned Nazi scenario as an example of moral relativism with regards to lying). Still, that some form of Divine Command Theory is usually required for a proper articulation of Christian ethics, seems to be the case for any defender of Christian orthodoxy. That said, Divine Command Theory need not stand alone, and one of the logical counterparts to supplement any DCT view is, as alluded above, a theory of virtue ethics.

Finally, if Christianity is true, then we should all be moral realists, meaning that if God exists, moral facts and obligations are themselves real. They are not just conventions that emerge out of the minds of men, or their communities, or that shift and change over time without any fixed point. While there is room for things like morally complex or ambiguous situations or conditions, there are nevertheless objective values that accord with the divine nature of God, and that impose moral duties upon us. Thus, to be an anti-realist about morality as a Christian is akin to rejecting fundamental, metaphysical claims about God (e.g. God is triune, the triune God is eternal). After all, if man is the sole source of moral values and duties, then why did Christ have to die? If there are no objective moral values and duties, then whatever morality was in fashion then, or now, would not require such a great sacrifice!

In sum, most serious Christians are moral realists who defend some kind of Divine Command Theory that perhaps also incorporates virtue ethics into its model. C. Stephen Evans has written one of the best defenses of a modified Divine Command Theory in his God and Moral Obligations. Finally, when it comes to applied ethics, it is the role of the New Testament scholar and the local pastor to help elucidate to the Church what are the divine precepts that God expects us to live up to, and how we are empowered by the Spirit to do so. The Bible should be our primary source of moral knowledge, and when it comes to any issue of character, or action, we should be mining its pages for wisdom and truth about what is good, and what is our moral duty in light of that Good. One of the most comprehensive accounts so far with regard to deducing moral guidelines from Scripture and applying them to contemporary ethical cases is Richard B. Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Apologetics (Epistemology)

Continuing in this short series on Apologetics, here is part II which deals with Epistemology, the second area of Philosophical Apologetics.

Epistemology

The study of how we know things is called Epistemology, from the Greek episteme (belief), and logos (knowledge or understanding). It is in this sense that Epistemology is often considered first in the order of philosophical inquiry, for before we can have any knowledge about what kinds of things exist, or how things change over time, or what powers or liabilities substances may have, we would first have to know about how we know these things, and whether or not when we say we know something, we actually do know it.

Current theories of Epistemology differ noticeably from classical theories of knowledge, most of which derive from Plato and Aritstotle who presented knowledge as justified, true belief, even though it is Xenophanes who is often referenced as the father of Epistemology. Moreover, Aristotle’s correspondence theory of truth was the standard theory of truth for well over a millennia, and at least until the Enlightenment in the West. It is stated succinctly:

“To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.”

Although late 19th and 20th century philosophers and theologians have claimed that the Correspondence Theory (CT) of truth is no longer a viable epistemic theory of knowledge, the fact remains that the CT is still the most common-sensical, and most commonly used approach to knowledge. Thus, it cannot ever be fully discounted, nor relegated to some philosophical dustbin of history. It will always have its defenders, and, most who defend Christianity as a true worldview, will rely on the CT as their primary approach to truth, since a straightforward reading of Scripture best aligns with the CT.

As such then, we have two classical theories, one about truth itself, the Correspondence Theory (CT), and the other about knowledge of truth, or Justified True Belief (JTB for short).

However, there have been major shifts in Epistemology since the classical and Christian medieval eras. Two such shifts were seismic in their impact on Western thought, and our current approach to knowledge. The first such shift came with Rene Descarte, whose attempt to find epistemic certainty established a theory known as foundationalism as the best available theory for guaranteeing knowledge. Foundationalism, in short, is the theory that all justified true beliefs have to be grounded in some foundational beliefs that themselves are not justified by other beliefs. They are justified by something we call “givens” or “raw feels” or “direct experiences.”

Foundationalism

Foundational beliefs are directly given, usually through introspection, direct perception, or something like hearing a personal testimony and remembering it. For Descarte, the foundation of all other beliefs was “Cogito Ergo Sum” or “I think therefore I am.” Or, in other words, because I am a thinking thing, I can at least have certainty that I exist, for something, the “I” or self, has to be doing the thinking. There is obviously much more that could be said about Foundationalism than this, both its “Cartesian” version, and more contemporary versions. To illustrate, however, here are some examples of how Foundationalism might work.

Call a particular belief, (B), for short. Each belief has some proportional content to it, call that (P).

  • B1 = Tony believes that (P1) “the trees outside his back window are green.”

How does Tony know that B1 is justified? Answer: He simply sees trees that appear green to him. The perception of the trees itself is not a belief, it is a “given” that forces the belief upon him.

  • B2 = Tony believes that (P2) “he is thinking about Foundationalism as a theory of justified belief.”

How does Tony know that B2 is justified? His internal introspection of his own thoughts (his thinking about his thinking) cannot be false. The content of his thoughts could be wrong, but that he is having those particular thoughts is neither true or false, he simply is having the thoughts he is having, it is a given that forces the belief to emerge. Givens on Foundationalism are something like non-propositional, direct awarenesses, or immediate experiences.

Still, in the 20th century, Foundationalism fell on hard times, which lead to an emergence of other theories of truth and justified belief. Two alternative theories to Foundationalism are: the coherence theory, or Coherentism, and Post Modernism.

Alternatives to Foundationalism

Coherentism argues that there are no real givens, or direct experiences, that cannot be doubted, and therefore there are no real foundational beliefs. All direct experiences: perception, testimony, memory, even introspection, could, after all, be faulty. We can see this since it is obvious that even the most apparently true perceptions in fact could be faulty, either because they are interpreted wrongly, or they are just not real (like vivid dreams, or drug-induced illusions). Or, we could see how even the famed “Cogito Ergo Sum” may not work on a Hindu understanding of the “I” or “self.”

As such, what matters is not what foundation one’s belief structure stands on, but to what degree one’s individual beliefs logically cohere. In other words, does one have a network of beliefs with as few contradictions as possible. The main problem with Coherentism is that it seems to ignore the truth value of particular beliefs in favor of how those beliefs relate to one another. Thus, that one could have many individual beliefs that cohere well together, but otherwise have little to nothing to do with reality, seems clearly possible, and this is crippling to the coherentist view.

Coherentism in this sense, seems to abandon the Correspondence Theory of truth, and neglect the requirement that beliefs be related somehow to reality, or, in other terms, to a metaphysical counterpart. If Foundationalism is a bottom up belief structure, like a building or pyramid, Coherentism is like a web of beliefs, or a raft, that hangs in mid-air, or floats amid a sea of moving waters.

Post-Modernism, if it can be called an epistemic theory at all, is essentially a view that says no beliefs require any justification at all. And that primarily because it views “truth” fundamentally as a construct or project of either individual minds, or of cultural communities. Reality for the Post-Modernist is simply inaccessible, and because it is inaccessible, every claim to “truth” is inherently false, as it is fundamentally an interpretation of one’s personal experience of something we know not what.

Post-Modernism as an epistemic view can be traced back to Immanuel Kant who made a fateful distinction between the noumena and the phenomena, or “the thing itself” and “the thing for me” (in German “das Ding an sich” and “das Ding fur mich.”) For Kant the activity of the mind made it impossible for us to ever know “the thing in itself” and we could only know “thing thing as it appears to me.” Post-modernism, in this restricted, epistemic sense, says that knowledge is essentially unattainable, because every “fact” about the world, even scientific ones, goes through an interactive, interpretive process.

On Post-modernistic theories, therefore, we should see claims to truth as expressions about one’s experience of the world, not of the world itself. Or, more nefarious perhaps, Post-modernists who have also bought into versions of Critical Theory, see statements as fundamentally “power plays” (alla Nietzsche) aimed at achieving far more immediate and pragmatic benefits. Truth, or claims to it, on this view are primarily assertions of the will to power, means to try and control others for personal or national gain. “Truth” claims are expressions of the philosopher’s desires, not actual conclusions about the world.

Furthermore, on Post-modernist views of knowledge, abstract thought and metaphysical speculation become almost totally irrelevant, or, are seen as linguistic games that have these far more mundane goals. As such, “God talk” is often not about an actual divine, eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, causally efficacious personal Being and Creator of the universe, but rather about our human concepts of such a Being, and how those concepts cause us to think, or not think, to do, or not do, certain things in the physical world.

“Post-modern Christianity” has become a popular trend since the 1960’s, and is often connected to liberal and progressive forms of Christianity, but need not be so liberal. For theologians have pointed out for centuries that reason itself is damaged through the Fall of Adam, and, in that sense, there are always, and only, finite and flawed interpretations of reality.

While some people who attach themselves to post-modernism, tend to see foundational truth claims as ever-changing and always in need of reinterpretation, this doesn’t have to be the case. But, it does make it very difficult to understand how there can be any universal truth of the Gospel that transcends both time and culture. The “poster-boy” for this kind of Christianity was for many years Bishop John Shelby Spong, who was notorious for rejecting almost every metaphysical and moral claim of the Bible, yet still presenting himself as a believing Christian, and leader in the Episcopalian church. Occasionally one will see atheist “Christians” who are still employed as pastors or preachers by some church that has bought into post-modernism like this.

A counter to this kind of extreme post-Modernism in so-called Christian circles, might be a modified or moderate post-modernism, one which takes into account the fact that reason seems often not only deficient, but also not neutral. In other words we are creatures of desire as much as reason, and if there are real noetic effects of sin, then there may be a form of reason itself that must be redeemed in order for us to really think properly about anything.

Still, as an epistemic theory, post-Modernism has rightly been shown by professional philosophers to be not only a self-refuting proposition, but also a fairly dangerous one at that. Much of the rise of philosophical popularizers like Jordan Peterson has been due to their withering critique of Post-Modernism.

Externalist Answers to Epistemological Problems

The second seismic shift of the Epistemological landscape started with a landmark paper written by Edmund Gettier in 1963, whose name is now synonymous with certain epistemological thought experiments, know as “Gettier problems.” Gettier basically showed in his very short essay (just under 3 pages) that one can have justified, true beliefs, yet still not have real knowledge about something. The key to what makes the difference between having a justified true belief, yet not having knowledge, depends on how I came to have the justified, true belief. In short it cannot be the case that in my “mental journey” to having a justified and true belief, there was a false belief, or something purely accidental, that lead me to have that justified and true belief. I cannot say I know reality, if it happens by sheer luck, or through some falsehood, that I hold a justified, true belief!

Without going into detail on how Gettier showed this discrepancy in the classical formulation of knowledge, these problematic thought experiments led to what is now called “externalist” views of knowledge, or views that posit that a belief can be justified based on how it was formed, and that regardless of whether or not the believer is aware of any reasons for actually believing what she does.

Reliablism, or Proper Function views are called externalist views of justified belief. They rely not on whether there are foundational beliefs per se, or what those beliefs may be (although some Reliablist and Proper Function advocates, like Alvin Plantinga, are also foundationalists), but focus mainly on how the beliefs themselves are formed. Thus, the Proper Functional view, for example, posits a model of what it thinks it would take for a belief to be justified, and, if that model is correct, then we can assume we have at least some justified beliefs, and hence some knowledge. Robert Audi, a Christian philosopher, describes reliablistic interpretations of knowledge succinctly:

“Knowledge, so conceived, results from the successful functioning of our epistemic equipment, which consists above all of finely tuned perceptual, memorial, introspective, and rational instruments.” (Audi, Epistemology)

In this sense, knowledge is the result of the proper functioning of our mental “equipment,” similar to how the healthy flow of blood in the body results from the proper functioning of our heart. How we know whether our mental equipment is functioning properly, however, is another problem.

There tends to be two ways of looking at externalist views like Proper Function as an epistemic theory: a naturalistic, and a supernaturalistic way. Naturalistic views treat human beings as basically highly evolved, yet purely biological animals that have luckily developed the right kinds of cognitive tools to accurately collect data and track facts about reality. There just happens to be a lucky, accidental interaction where that thing that is me forms beliefs about the natural world that are accurate representations of the world. What demonstrates the reliability of this process is something like the fact that we continue to survive fairly well in our environments.

On naturalistic accounts like this, if I have a perceptual experience of the green trees in my backyard, it is because evolution has endowed me with the right kind of visual processing equipment to receive such perceptual data, and because the trees themselves cause me to have those perceptual experiences. There are only two things: my brain with its bio-chemical reactions, and my environment. In short, the natural world triggers functions of my brain, which then cause me to have beliefs. However, when it comes to other kinds of true beliefs, for example like “2 + 2 = 4” or “If Jane is taller than Sally, and Sally taller than Sue, then I know that Jane is taller than Sue,” it seems like naturalistic, proper function theories are inadequate. Naturalistic theories seem riddled with such problems regarding how we know things, or whether the things we know are true, or, if blind evolution is the correct, why true beliefs would actually aid survival, as opposed to false ones.

When it comes to supernaturalistic theories of proper function, no one has done more to develop a rigorous system of how we can have justified (or in his terms, “warranted”) true beliefs grounded in the proper function of our cognitive capacities than Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga (perhaps the 20th century philosopher most responsible for the resurgence of Philosophy of Religion as a serious academic discipline). On Plantinga’s “Reformed Epistemology” view, we can have justified, or warranted, beliefs based on the proper functioning of our mental faculties, because those faculties have been designed by a Divine Being, namely God, to function in specified way, and in such an environment, as to produce accurate and true beliefs about not only the physical world, but also the metaphysical and spiritual world. As such we can have true perceptions of physical realities, and also we possess a “sensus divinitatus” that gives us some true beliefs about the spiritual realm, and even God.

Epistemic Options for Christian Apologetics

For the purpose of Christian Apologetics, the question that lies before the defender of orthodox Christian claims is to what extent he feels we must justify our true beliefs, and, how he thinks we should go about demonstrating that justification. There are essentially two camps when it comes to religious epistemology, that of the Plantingian sort, which suggests justification is external to the believer, and grounded primarily in the process of belief formation; and internalism, which suggests that justification is accessible to the believer, and must be grounded in personal reasons for believing. On internalist views, without good reasons that the believer herself is also aware of, there is no justification to believe any proposition of the Christian faith.

On the first view, beliefs cannot really be justified through arguments or evidence. Justification comes through the witness of the Holy Spirit, as He awakens our sensus divinitatus or “sense of the divine,” which itself has been put there by the Divine Architect. Here we find ourselves believing true things, because the process of God enlightening us to reality is a reliable process. This epistemological view is best suited to presuppositional apologetics, which suggests that arguments and evidence are ill-suited to bringing the skeptic to belief in God, because reason itself is, due to sin, a deficient and faulty mechanism if God exists, and a totally unreliable process if He does not. There must be a God, if we are to think at all that we are able to reason properly. Thus, we should start with God, and only then can we talk about what reason is capable of doing for us, and the justification of our beliefs. Arguments and evidence can be brought in later to bolster confidence in Christian belief, but ultimately what matters is the process of belief formation.

This is to be contrasted with the other, somewhat more common, mode of religious epistemology, which tends to see justification as something internal to the individual, and grounded in that person’s reasons for believing a particular claim. As such, internalists, who tend also to be foundationalists, will suggest that evidence and arguments are the better way for an individual to have justified, true beliefs. Here reason is certainly damaged, but God has allowed men to be able to have a sort of “natural light of reason” as part of his common grace. And that natural reason can be drawn to God through rational argumentation and a fair presentation of the evidence. This epistemological view is best suited toward evidential (or classical) Apologetics, which places a strong emphasis on deductive and inductive arguments for certain Christian claims, e.g. the Resurrection of Jesus.

Epistemology: Conclusion

In conclusion, there are options for Christian apologists when it comes to epistemological theories about knowledge, but, for the most part we would want to adopt minimally some version of the Correspondence Theory of Truth. Even if some kind of Post-modernistic thinking that takes into account the role of personal experience in one’s ability to reason about the world is necessary to work into our epistemology, we should not goes as far as to believe we must throw out truth claims because of the interpretive facet of the human mind.

In the next post we will look a the third area of Philosophical Apologetics: Ethics.

Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Apologetics (Metaphysics)

This is the last part of a series of posts outlining and defining four fundamental domains of Christian knowledge: Theology, Church History, Spiritual Formation, and Apologetics. We must engage in these disciplines, if we are to develop a robust intellectual and spiritual life, a life fully dedicated to Christ.

This last post on Apologetics has itself turned into a small series, so I am going to break it into several smaller posts, in an attempt to say something more substantive about Apologetics than just “Apologetics is the defense of Christianity using arguments and evidence.” Although it is, in part, just that.

What is Apologetics?

To an audience like this one, Apologetics may be as familiar a term as “doctrine” or “salvation.” However for many Christians, Apologetics is still an unknown or obscure term, a word that suggests we are meant to say “sorry” for something we have either done, or failed to do, but of which we know nothing. For others, Apologetics is at best a futile endeavor, if not an outright detrimental one; an undertaking that never helps the skeptic to believe, and often helps the believer to become skeptical (see here for a recent example).

But, we know better than that. We know that Apologetics is something that everyone does naturally, anytime they seek to defend or clarify the claims and content of the Christian faith, or any faith really. Even Atheists do some kind of apologetics when they defend their views. We also know although the discipline of Apologetics does not cause saving faith, that apologetical arguments and evidences can be effective steps in one’s indvidual journey toward saving faith. Thus, we understand the apologetical project to be one that the human person, any human person really, does naturally when they defend their views by giving reasons for their belief. But, at the same time, we rightly restrain our expectations regarding the power of rational argumentation when it comes to attaining personal knowledge of a personal God. No argument converts the human heart, that operation is reserved for the Great Physician.

In short then, we can define Apologetics very simply: Apologetics is the rational defense of Christian truth claims using arguments and evidence. Apologetics, in this sense, is as much for the head, as our previously discussed discipline, Spiritual Formation, is for the heart, or the emotions. Still, because we also recognize that the head and heart (the “left” and “right” brain) cannot be so neatly divided, we realize that there are different strains of Apologetics that can be pressed into evangelistic use.

Some Apologetics emphasize logical rigor and abstract analytical thought, while others seek to awaken the more aesthetic side of the human person, relying on good art and compelling stories to offer an attractive view of the world. Some authors have gone on to suggest that reason itself is an extension of the human imagination, that “reason is imaginative.” (Andrew Davidson, Imaginative Apologetics, xxv). If this is the case then our apologetical defenses, or offenses, need not rely on logic alone to attract our audience, but can be fully-orbed articulations of a Gospel that speak to the whole person, albeit not at the expense of good reasoning. Apologetics can be supra-reasonable, or “above reason.”

What we need is an apologetical method that cuts deep at the base of the world’s false premises, or as John Milbank puts it:

“We need a mode of apologetics prepared to question the world’s assumptions down to their very roots and to expose how they lie within paganism, heterodoxy or else and atheism with no ground in reason and a tendency to deny the ontological reality of reason altogether.” (John Milbank, Imaginative Apologetics, xx).

That said there are two broad categories of Apologetics that most kinds of Apologetical questions fall under: philosophical and historical Apologetics.

Philosophical Apologetics

Philosophical Apologetics is itself a very broad topic, but philosophy as a discipline is indispensable to the life of the Christian disciple, especially in the structuring of Christian thought. That said, this indispensability of philosophy does not mean that philosophy, or even reason, stands above theology, or revelation. Aquinas states it this way:

“This science [sacred theology] can in a sense depend upon the philosophical sciences, not as though it stood in need of them, but only in order to make its teaching clearer. For it accepts its principles not from other sciences, but immediately from God, by revelation. Therefore it does not depend upon other sciences as upon the higher, but makes use of them as of the lesser, and as handmaidens” (Summa Theologica, I.5.ii)

As a secondary intellectual discipline, or handmaiden, there can almost be a “philosophy” of any other intellectual discipline. Thus, it is now common to find all kinds of very narrow philosophical disciplines at the academic level: philosophy of science, of art, of religion, of literature, of mind, of history, of sports, etc. However, philosophy more generally has usually been understood to entail the study of four foundational areas of human experience, namely: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and logic.

But, what do these four core domains of human existence themselves entail? In order of philosophical inquiry, there is often a debate of what comes first, metaphysical inquiry, or epistemological inquiry. For sake of bypassing that discussion, and to keep this post somewhat brief, let’s assume metaphysics is the first order of inquiry. So, what does metaphysics entail?

Metaphysics & Christian Faith

Metaphysics is the most fundamental kind of philosophical knowledge if we are to understand with clarity and coherence the Christian worldview. Metaphysics (literally “after the physics”) is called such because Aristotle, or some compiler of Aristotle, placed his discussion of non-physical realities after his discussion of the natural world. These realities came after the physical things, or “after the physics.” Metaphysics explores two broad areas of human experience: existence and causation. In doing so, metaphysical investigation deals with ontology (what exists), and causality (how things change states or modes of being), to include derivative areas of inquiry like questions about identity, and time.

Metaphysics attempts to determine if there are things like essences, or substances, of both naturally occurring objects (e.g. iron, zinc, leptons), human artifacts (chairs, vases), living things (dogs, you and me), and, if they exist, abstract objects (the number “2”), and even immaterial concrete objects (God or gods, angels, human souls). Metaphysics also tries to understand the chain of causality, or how things that might exist go from one mode of existence to another mode of existence spanning across time. Finally, notions of possibility and necessity, or what are possible states of affairs versus necessary ones, or contingent beings versus necessary Ones, are also explored in the realm of Metaphysics.

Since the rise of Darwinian evolution and post-Newtonian theories in physics however, there has been a dominant paradigm in Western culture, which has sought to reduce all of reality down to only the natural world and its scientifically verifiable properties. From about the second half of the 19th century, to roughly the 1950’s there was a strong push to ditch metaphysics as a serious academic discipline altogether, replacing it with pure science (even though metaphysical reductionism goes further back to the likes of Scottish philosopher, and naturalist, David Hume).

The height of this philosophical trend toward scientific reductionism hit in the 1940’s and 1950’s with the short rise of logical positivism, a philosophical movement that sought to dismiss any question about non-physical realities as inherently meaningless, since they could not be empirically verified, or logically demonstrated. Therefore, religious claims about non-physical realities were also regarded prima facie as unintelligible, in that they could not be positively confirmed or verified through standard scientific methods. Fortunately this theory died a relatively quick death and by the 1960’s and 70’s there was a resurgence of metaphysical work that helped to reinvigorate the philosophy of religion, which, while broader than just Christian Apologetics, is where most of the scholarly work that underlies popular apologetical writing occurs.

Today, there is an abundance of contemporary metaphysical work being done across the Western academic world, and much of it is related to religious claims about reality. Thus, there has been a renaissance of philosophy of religion, and Christian truth claims are once again taken seriously in the philosophy departments in the West (well, at least some of them).

Some top contemporary Metaphysical thinkers of the last 50 or 60 years are: David Lewis (non-theist), David Armstrong (non-theist), W.V.O. Quine (non-theist), Saul Kripke (theist, Jewish), and David Chalmers (non-theist), and L.A. Paul. Paul especially has been working in the area of religious experience as transformative experience.

Among Christians who have contributed to Metaphysics in recent years are well known names like William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, Alexander Pruss, Robert Koons, J.P. Moreland, Peter van Inwagen, Elanore Stump, Robert Adams, Brian Leftow, Marilyn McCord Adams, Ed Feser, and Timothy Pickavance.

Thomistic and non-Thomistic Metaphysics

With regard to Christian Metaphysics, there are two main lines of Christian metaphysical though: Thomism (following Thomas Aquinas), and non-Thomistic Analytical Philosophy of Religion. Some famous Thomistic philosophers are Norman Geisler (Evangelical), Ed Feser (Catholic), Peter Geach (Catholic), Elanore Stump, and Robert Koons (Evangelical).

Non-Thomists are scholars like Alvin Plantinga, Peter van Inwagen, William Lane Craig, Alexander Pruss, Brian Leftow, and Willam Alston. However, much of St. Thomas’ writings and philosophy is appropriated by many Christian philosophers today, even those who do not buy into Thomism wholesale. So there is much overlap among Christian philosophers in this area, as many continue to profit from the works of the great Thomas Aquinas.

Special Areas of Apologetical Interest

Some particularly interesting areas of metaphysics for Christian Apologists are Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Time, and the Philosophy of Science. In particular metaphysical questions about mind-body interaction, the persistence of personal identity over time, God’s relation to time, free will and determinism, and the role and limits of the scientific method, are all very relevant to our theological reasoning, and defense of the Christian faith. Metaphysics, along with Epistemology, are perhaps the most important areas of philosophy for a Christian to understand, as they allow us to best articulate what it is we believe, and why we think it to be true.

In the next post, I will break down the philosophical discipline of Epistemology.