Thus far we have looked at some basic terminology regarding naturalism (see here), we have very basically looked at cosmological naturalism (see here), we have looked at some criticisms of cosmological naturalism (that may also apply to naturalism as a whole, for them see here), and we will continue to develop and address those criticisms over the course of the series, but for now, let us look at methodological naturalism and allow Nielsen to briefly define it for us:
2. Methodological naturalism is a methodological commitment to employing inquiry only the norms and methods of inquiry of the empirical sciences together with their logico-mathematical auxiliaries. This the claim is, is the only way we legitimate and securely can fix belief. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 135)
As stated it is the sciences which are used to determine both the categorical terms that are taken as basic, including those terms used to characterize the generic traits of nature, as Nielsen states:
Different naturalists will take different categories to be basic, but they will all agree on the use of the scientific method as the proper way of fixing belief – including belief concerning which categorical terms to adopt. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 145)
Some clarifications before we move on: what exactly is the scientific method in our conversation here today? How can it be the sole fixer of belief, and be reliable enough to establish a worldview around? (The term “fixing belief” has been used, but what does this mean? Essentially it is the method we attempt to attach our beliefs to, for example Pierce would state that the scientific method is the tool that gives us the most access to facts (others such as metaphysics or theology have been used) and thus is the most reliable method for us to fix our beliefs to, for more see here). Hook and Nagel define their use of the scientific method as an empirical one, a “hypopthetico-deductive-inductive method” (p. 169), that as Pierce called “the combined use of induction, deduction and abduction” (p. 169). Hook and Nagel’s project was to shirk extraneous philosophical posturing, to avoid the philosophical urge to look for “first principles” (naturalistic or otherwise), specifically our underlying presuppositions, to them there is “no special philosophic knowledge, or philosophic wisdom that can be otherwise gained or warranted” (p. 169) instead their focus was on the “working truths on the level of practical affairs which are everywhere recognized and which everywhere determine the pattern of reasonable conduct in secular affairs, viz., the effective use of means to achieve ends”. (Nielsen quoting Hook, p. 159) Nielsen states that these working truths are not necessary ones, but rather more reasonable than their alternatives (whether this has been demonstrated is a source of disagreement), they avoid pedantic discussions (usually held by and between philosophers) about the problems of looking for first principles; in the same way that the results of science can be known without locking down every principle and presupposition of scientific reasoning (we can after all know that obesity is related to dietary and lifestyle factors rather than the position of the sun). Some examples of possible categories, or working truths determined by the scientific method were mentioned in the last blog (see here), “structure, function, power, act, cause, relation, quantity and event.” (p. 145), these are not factually true or false, so the argument goes, but are “proposals about how to conceptualize things whose use is to be justified pragmatically.” (p. 162)
We are more confident of the warrant of those beliefs … than of any first principles that people might appeal to for their justification. (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2003, p. 160)
From here Hook states:
The choice… of which categories to take as basic in describing a method depends upon the degree to which they render coherent and fruitful what we learn by the use of the method… [it is a non sequitur states Nielsen] to assume that because one asserts that the fundamental categories of description are X, Y, and Z, and that they hold universally, one is therefore asserting that the world cannot be significantly described except in terms of X, Y and Z. (Hook 1961a, 191) (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2001, p. 169)
To Hook and indeed Nielsen the above is not to say that the world consists of nothing but X, Y and Z, we can also use A,B and C which might not be categorical and still say as nonreductive naturalists: “that the conditions under which any existing thing is significantly describable in terms of A, B and C are such that they are describable in terms of X, Y and Z.” (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2001, p.169) The example he uses to demonstrate this is Nielsen himself moving a pen, we can describe the movements of such in terms of intentional acts, and in terms of bodily movements (without reference to intentional acts).
Let us finish with one last quote from Nielsen who asks if methodological naturalism is a good policy, in reply he states that it comes from a tradition of philosophy which has tried to explain reality via metaphysics, that has tried methods other than the scientific to fix belief, what we “might reasonably take to be true or take for truth or to be warrantedly assertable” (p. 149). Nielsen states that, as the argument goes:
But, at least during the modern period with its extensive pluralism, there never has been with these other methods of fixing belief anything but local and temporary agreement with no progress in the direction of reflective and informed consensus… The scientific method, though through and through fallibalistic, works and carries with it a considerable consensus about its working. So if we want to be reasonable we will stick with the scientific method and leave metaphysics to spirit-seekers and other crazies. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 149)
How well methodological naturalism works as a worldview will be addressed later. Of course this blog is only very short and shallow in its descriptive content, but the discerning reader will see there will be problems with questions of meaning and morality with a scientistic worldview, even if it is nonreductive, these issues and more will be addressed later.
Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.
It seems appropriate when looking at a book with naturalism in the title to begin our discussion with a look at naturalism; starting more generally, working our way to the specific naturalism Nielsen puts forth. Thusly, what is Naturalism?
Naturalism denies that there are any spiritual or supernatural realities. There are, that is, no purely mental substances and there are no supernatural realities transcendent to the world or at least we have no sound grounds for believing that there are such realities or perhaps even for believing that there could be such realities. Naturalism has sometimes been reductionistic (claiming that all talk of the mental can be translated into purely physicalist terms) or scientistic (claiming that what science cannot tell us humankind cannot know). The more plausible forms of naturalism are neither across the board reductionistic nor scientistic. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 29)
(I will go into more detail on Nielsen’s discussion on reductionism and scientism in another post.)
Nielsen continues stating that (where consistent) naturalism is a type of atheism, although it “need not be a militant atheism and it should not be dogmatic: it should not claim that it is certain that theism is either false or incoherent.” (p. 30) This fallibalism however does not mean that a naturalist should be an agnostic, that is; to be consistent such a naturalist would be “an atheist arguing, or at least presupposing, that theism is either false or incoherent or in some other way unbelievable.” (p. 30) To Nielsen naturalism is incompatible with belief in God (or a belief that God exists), therefore a naturalist cannot be an agnostic: “saying, as agnostics do, that we do not know, or perhaps even cannot know, whether or not God does or does not exist. In accepting naturalism, a naturalist is also accepting that there is no God.” (p. 30) Nielsen is quick to add however that the spirit of fallibalism is at the heart of a reasonable naturalists philosophy, that is they will “argue for atheism in a fallibalistic, and sometimes even moderately skeptical, manner: a manner characteristic of modernity including that peculiar form of modernity that some call postmodernity.” (p. 30) A naturalist should be sceptical as in the fashion of Hume, that is in a “limited and moderate sense”, although they should not, and indeed cannot be a sceptic “through and through”; moreover, Nielsen adds, that a sceptic, “limited or otherwise, need not be a naturalist, atheist, or even an agnostic as the fideistic stances of Pascal and Kierkegaard brilliantly exemplify.” (p. 30) As stated Nielsen puts a high premium on fallibalism, stating that whether or not a sceptic, a naturalist will be (if she is reasonable) a fallibalist, “but that notwithstanding, still an atheist. “Dogmatic atheism” is not a pleonasm and “fallibalistic atheism” is not an oxymoron.” (p. 30)
As a small digression here, it might be important to note that to Nielsen there is not a sharp distinction between atheism and agnosticism, that is atheism is defined as:
In speaking of an atheist, I refer to someone who rejects belief in God either (a) because she believes that it is false or highly unlikely that God exists, (b) because that the concept of God is incoherent or so problematic as to make such belief impossible or irrational, or (c) because she believes that the term “God” is being used in such a manner that it is so devoid of substance as to make religious belief, rhetorical effects aside, indistinguishable from purely secular beliefs except for the fact that religious beliefs are associated with certain religiously distinctive stories which in turn are stories which (on such an account) the religious believer, though she must entertain them in a vivid and lively way, may or may not believe. (Nielsen, 2001, pp. 56-7)
From this Nielsen adds the atheist bases her rejection on how “God” is being construed by religious people; moreover Nielsen defines his personal atheism as that of someone who rejects (i) anthropomorphic conceptions of God on the basis of (a), (ii) belief in the God of developed Judaism, Christianity, or Islam on the basis of (b), and (iii) purely symbolic conception of God such as Richard Braithwaite’s and R.M. Hare’s on the basis of (c). (Nielsen, 2001, pp. 57)
Continuing on Nielsen states that most naturalists reject the conception common to the Abrahamic theisms (“where they are being even remotely orthodox”, p. 31) that “human beings are sinful, utterly dependent on God, and can only make adequate sense of their lives by accepting without question God’s ordinances for them.” (p. 31) Moreover such a naturalism rejects that particular conception of human beings as well as the associated morality that comes with those beliefs. Naturalists believe that people can “make sense of their lives and reasonably order their lives as moral beings without any belief in God or any other spiritual realities.” (p. 31)
Nielsen states that naturalists engage in both critique and explanation of religion, and that in some cases, if successful, such investigation also becomes a critique of religious belief and practice. Some critics of naturalism such as Robin Horton have stated that naturalistic explanations of religion simply “explain religion away and are superficial to boot.” (Nielsen quoting Norton, p. 31) Nielsen agrees with Horton that Bertrand Russell’s and Baron d’Holbach’s critiques are such examples that align with Horton’s view, but others such as Ludwig Feuerbach and Emile Durkehim (both of whom Nielsen draws on quite heavily in his chapter: “Naturalistic Explanations of Religion“) do not. Nielsen argues that a naturalistic conception of religion will “explain religion as a function of human needs and of the conditions of life which give rise to those needs.” (p. 31) Nielsen does ponder what if anything would constitute an adequate naturalistic explanation of religion, citing Marx Wartofsky who states “that a viable conception of religion is one which doesn’t explain religion away, but rather explains its origins, its distinctive cultural and historical forms, its persistence in various institutions, its changing contexts and development, its continuing and present existence in the modes of belief and actions of individuals.” (Nielsen quoting Wartofsky, p. 31)
Of course I am being very vague in what a naturalism might be about, after all the number of different naturalisms Nielsen looks at reflects the large number of thinkers who have discussed, defended and criticised this philosophical tradition. It becomes difficult to define any particular naturalism as Nielsen spends much of the book comparing the naturalisms of a wide range of thinkers, against their critics, and each other; some naturalisms on offer are Nielsen’s own social naturalism, Nagel’s methodological naturalism, Hook’s pragmatic naturalism, Dewey’s (et al.) ethical naturalism, Quine’s cosmological naturalism etc. Made all the more confusing when we see that many of these thinkers held more than one naturalism to be true, or very likely true, or espoused subcategories or situational naturalisms that amount to the same thing (e.g.: “Nagel characterized his naturalism as a contextualistic naturalism and Hook characterized his as an experimental or pragmatic naturalism, though as we shall see, they come to much the same thing.” Nielsen, p.138), there are even cases of some theists holding to some form of naturalism (as in the cases of Jacques Maritain, Richard Neibuhr, and C.S. Pierce), obviously these would be very nuanced positions to both hold to the title naturalism and for these thinkers to retain their theism.
It might be better, now that we have very simply touched on some of the basic ideas of naturalism, that is its varieties, its relation to atheism, fallibalism etc, we can explore different naturalisms, what Nielsen thinks of them, how strong they fare against their critics, and some of the outlier issues involved in this worldview such as the pragmatists tendency to drop metaphysical talk, the rejection of reductionism and scientism, and Nielsen’s own use of verifiability principles.
Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.
After looking at some basic terms, very briefly (see here), I want to turn now to something which may seem peripheral, and maybe it is, but is of interest to me nonetheless. What am I speaking about? Relativistic v objectivist morality, and some misunderstandings about it, and where Harris might land on either issue.
As stated in the last post, Harris’ thesis is about setting up a moral system that is objective, and based on truth – that is – not relativistic, subjective, and thus not simply relying on the whims, or preference of any given person or culture on any given day.
Moral relativism, however tends to be self-contradictory. Relativists may say that moral truths exist only relative to a specific cultural framework – but this claim about the status of moral truth purports to be true across all possible frameworks. In practice relativism most always amounts to the claim that we should be tolerant of moral difference because no moral truth can supersede any other. And yet this commitment to tolerance is not put forward as simply one relative preference among others deemed equally valid. (Harris, 2010, p. 45)
Harris goes further than this, he states that the motivations for relativism lie in the intellectual reparations for Western colonialism ethnocentrism and racism (p. 45), this being the only “charitable” thing he can say about it.
Later on in his book, the last page in fact, Harris in recognizing some of what anthropologists and cultural theorists might say about the state of relativism, states that it is not subjectivity that is the problem for a moral theory, at least as far as the scientists who study the brain are concerned. No, it is the belief (among those scientists) that there is no intellectual justification for “speaking about right and wrong or good and evil, across cultures.” (p. 190)
Much of this of course might be considered a caricature of what relativists, of any breed- be they anthropologist, atheistic philosopher, Post Modernist (theistic? After all a divine intelligence is a mind is it not? Would a moral law given from such an intelligence be considered simply divine relativism?) or otherwise – might say. He does not engage much with relativistic challenges to his theory, instead choosing to make common sense points, rather than referencing. This is a book written at the popular level however, you may choose to give it wriggle room for that, or not.
The challenge of subjectivity, and what it means to knowledge of all types is a serious one, that many philosophers have struggled with (see here, here, here, here, here). Heidegger, Patocka, Husserl, Foucault and Post Modern thinkers working in that tradition such as Heise are all concerned with how the phenomological, subjective experience is taken into account with theories of objectivity, as Patocka states, theories that situate us in the third person, or as Foucault might say, theories that ignore power relations. It would have been nice to see stronger engagement with this philosophical challenge.
To further draw out what Harris might mean though let’s turn to what he means when he uses the terms ‘objective’ and subjective’, and indeed ‘absolute’. Harris thinks that many people are confused about what scientific objectivity might mean:
As philosopher John Searle once pointed out, there are two very different senses of the terms “objective” and “subjective”. The first sense relates to how we know (i.e., epistemology), the second to what there is to know (i.e., ontology). When we say that we are reasoning or speaking “objectively”, we generally mean that we are free of obvious bias, open to counterarguments, cognizant of the relevant facts, and so on. This to make a claim about how we are thinking. In this sense, there is no impediment to our studying the subjective (I.e. first-person) facts “objectively. (Harris, 2010, p. 29)
From this Harris uses the analogy of his tinnitus to show that although this is a subjective experience, he is being “objective” in the sense that is he is not lying about his tinnitus, this is not preference or bias. He states his experience can be confirmed by an otologist, which suggests his tinnitus has a third-person (objective) cause that can be discovered. Moreover Harris states that much of the sciences of the mind are predicated on being able to “correlate first-person reports of subjective experience with third-person states of the brain.” (p. 30) From here Harris states that many people think that just because moral facts relate to experience and are thus “ontologically subjective” all talk of morality must be subjective in the epistemological sense, that is biased, or merely personal. Harris doesn’t think this is so. He doesn’t deny that there is a subjective realm of experience in regards to his talk of objective moral truths, or objective causes of human well-being. He is not saying moral truth exists independently of the experience of conscious creature either, or that some actions are intrinsically wrong. What he means to say is:
I am simply saying that, given that there are facts – real facts – to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions. (Harris, 2010, p. 30)
Finally, Harris makes the distinction, that is not always obviously delivered in say, debates on morality between atheists and theists, that there is a distinction in moral talk between ‘objective’, that is in either the epistemological or ontological senses discussed above and ‘absolute’, in which a moral truth is so and has no exceptions (see Moreland & Craig, 2003 for an equivocation between absolute and objective). We can speak of morals Harris thinks in objective terms, without speaking about them in absolute ones.
Many people seem to think that a universal conception of morality requires that we find moral principles that admit of no exceptions. If, for instance, it is truly wrong to lie, it must always be wrong to lie – and if one can find a single exception, any notion of moral truth must be abandoned. But the existence of moral truth – that is, the connection between how we think and behave and our well-being – does not require that we define morality in terms of unvarying moral precepts. (Harris, 2010, p. 8)
Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.
Moreland, J., P., Craig, W., L. (2003). Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL, Intervarsity Press.
It’s been a while between articles posts, let’s get straight into it:
Philosophy Bites – Links to the First 176 Episodes -Edmonds and Warburton.
LCA 2013: distributed democracy, speaking stacks, links -Sky Croeser.
Anti-Muslim hysteria in Australia -Russell Glasser.
We get email: Believers and their security blankets -Martin Wagner.
Good luck in Somalia- Ophelia Benson.
Egyptian atheist facing blasphemy sentence - Jacob Fortin.
Repairs under way -Ophelia Benson.
A fabulous “Manly Meal”-Ophelia Benson.
WL Craig on Morality and Meaning (Series Index) -John Danaher.
My Favourite Posts of 2012 -John Danaher.
Sexual Objectification: An Atheist Perspective -Richard Carrier.
Prototypical Sexist Atheist on Exhibit- Richard Carrier.
Atheism+ : The Name for What’s Happening-Richard Carrier.
Waldron on pornography -Russell Blackford.
Gay Bishop Comes Up With the Worst Argument to Support Same-Sex Marriage- Greta Christina.
My Letter to the Boy Scouts- Greta Christina.
Same-Sex Marriage Opponents Increasingly Desperate and Stupid – Greta Christina.
Catholic Priest blames women for bringing violence on themselves – Jacob Fortin.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews harass sexually abused girl – Jacob Fortin.
Bill O’Reilly calls David Silverman a Fascist – Jacob Fortin.
Top 10 anti-Christian acts of 2012 -J.T Eberhard.
Most insulting fundraiser ever. – J.T Eberhard.
Don’t Say Gay legislator: being gay is like shooting heroin. -J.T Eberhard.
How often god’s moral decrees bear no resemblance to justice. -J.T Eberhard.
Craig’s Argument for God from Intentionality – Philosotroll.
Witch Hunts in Papua New Guinea – Leo Igwe.
Randal Rauser on William Lane Craig’s defense of the Canaanite genocide -Chris Hallquist.
More Powerpoint Slides from a Christian Pastor’s Anti-Gay Sermon – Hermant Mehta.
Who Still Thinks the Church Has Any Moral Credibility? -Hermant Mehta.
Shells and switches -Deacon Duncan.
God and the PlayStation 3 -Deacon Duncan.
The Gypsy Curse -Deacon Duncan.
Now, let us have a look at Descartes first argument for the existence of God, which is located in the Third Meditations of his First Philosophy. We do not have enough room to exhaustively explore the entire nuance of Descartes’ first argument for the existence of God, so it is enough for our purposes to simply follow through the argument as presented on The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy and then comment on it. We might tentatively entitle Descartes’ first argument for the existence of God as “The Causal Argument”, and it is one in which once the CAP is established, he can turn those notions to the question of God’s existence.
Firstly let us define our main term; Descartes defines God as “a substance that is infinite <eternal, immutable>, independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful and which created both myself and everything else” (Descartes, 1985, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, p. 31). In looking for an idea that he cannot be the cause of; as the CAP suggests he can be the cause of any idea he has either formally or eminently, Descartes reasons that he is formally a finite substance, hence he can be the cause of any idea with the objective reality of a finite substance. Since finite substances require another party to subsist, namely God, and modes (remember modes = properties) require a finite substance require as well as God, finite substances are more real than modes. Since a finite substance cannot be formally, but rather eminently a property/mode Descartes reasons, therefore he can be the cause of all of his ideas of properties/modes. The problem lies however in the idea of God being an infinite substance; which is more real due to its absolute independence “it follows that Descartes, a finite substance, cannot be the cause of his idea of an infinite substance. This is because a finite substance does not have enough reality to be the cause of this idea, for if a finite substance were the cause of this idea, then where would it have gotten the extra reality? But the idea must have come from something. So something that is actually an infinite substance, namely God, must be the cause of the idea of an infinite substance. Therefore, God exists as the only possible cause of this idea. ” (Skirry, 2008, Rene Descartes (1596-1650): Overview)
Now that we have stated the argument we may begin to discuss it from Descartes perspective, so we might see why he thought this argument worked. What might be our first task is to find out, is if Descartes’ idea of God, is a fabrication or not, or rather, if Descartes explained how his idea of God was not a fabrication, if we discover his notion of God to be, simply a fabrication, this will be a serious flaw in his argument. It would appear from the above outline of Descartes’ argument that he would reason the objective idea of God in his mind to be adventitious or innate. The key to understanding Descartes’ view of God is in understanding his definition of ‘eminent reality’, for it is on this definition that ‘properties’ and ‘substances’ are defined. Descartes views properties (remember our ‘blue, wet, smelly’ example) to be less real, or perhaps more aptly stated less independent, than substances (recall ‘the ocean’ example) which posses greater independence. God being defined as an infinite substance means he has a total state of independence from all other substances (and properties), this would preclude Descartes from being the cause of the objective reality of the idea of God, as Descartes does not contain as much eminent reality as the idea of God contains. Therefore we can rule out Descartes’ objective idea of God as a fabrication, moreover as we see above, a fabrication can be “controlled, examined and cast aside at will.” And we see from the above argument, that God cannot be redefined as, for example, a finite being, or a material being, hence it follows that this being cannot be invented by him (which is consistent with the reasoning he used to come to his conclusions about the sun). It would appear his idea of God is closer to being innate, as he defines the term.
Another possible objection, expressed on The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy by Skirry, 2008 we may like to explore from Descartes’ point of view is the objection that could not a finite substance with an idea of God, such as Descartes, not have been given the idea of God, by another substance, with the idea of God? Would it not be a category error to reason from an idea of an infinite substance (God), to that infinite substance actually existing? We may presume that Descartes might argue that this would lead to an ultimate regress, for whence does the other finite cause get its idea of God? From another finite substance? But where does that finite substance get its idea of God? From another finite substance? And so on, and so on. The answer lies in there needing to be, as the argument goes, an eminent cause of that first idea of God, which can only be found in an infinite, independent substance (that which we call God), this halts the infinite regress. This is explained adequately by the CAP, and is the reason it is not a category error for Descartes to reason from the idea of an infinite substance, to the existence of said infinite substance. (Skirry, 2008, Rene Descartes (1596-1650): Overview)
The next argument for the existence of God that we will consider appears in Descartes’ Fifth Meditations of his First Philosophy, and it can aptly be titled “The Ontological Argument”. Descartes provides this argument in a strict geometrical fashion (but it should not be mistaken for an axiomatic or Euclidian proof), indeed referencing it to the likeness of a shape.
“But if the mere fact that I can produce from my thought the idea of something entails that everything which I clearly and distinctly perceive to belong to that thing really does belong to it, is not this a possible basis for another argument to prove the existence of God? Certainly, the idea of God, or a supremely perfect being, is one that I find within me just as surely as the idea of any shape or number. And my understanding that it belongs to his nature that he always exists is no less clear and distinct than is the case when I prove of any shape or number that some property belongs to its nature.” (Descartes, 1985, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, p. 45)
The common scholarly objection to this argument that would seem to be decisive is Kant’s criticism of existence being a predicate (for an in-depth analysis see Himma, 2005, or Nolan 2011). For our purposes however, instead of engaging the discussion on whether Descartes was right, or not, let us instead look at what Descartes thought of this argument, at why it was convincing to him. Perhaps, as we have mentioned Kant’s criticisms of predication, we may like to muse on what Descartes’ response to such a criticism might have been. Banach, 1982 states that Kant’s (and others) criticism boils down to the fact that we cannot define a being into existence, in that we cannot come to a proof for God’s existence, by simply contemplating concepts. This charge is that the definition of God that Descartes is using is question begging, for if we define God as existing, we beg the question in favour of God’s existence, it becomes a circular argument. How did Descartes address this view? Descartes’ “Ontological Argument” is arguing for an essence of God that is based implicitly on the traditional view held by the medieval scholastics that there is a distinction between a thing’s essence and existence. Nolan, 2011 states that according to this tradition then one can separate, and discuss the issue of essence from existence. This view seems integral to Descartes being able to avoid the charge of circularity. The confusion would seem to come when we talk of a supremely perfect being necessarily existing, under the banner of its essence. (Nolan, 2011, “Descartes’ Ontological Argument”)
As Banach, 1982 has stated there have been some philosophers who have used a straw man in stating Descartes’ argument as: “I have an idea of God as a supremely perfect being. Existence is a perfection. God must exist in reality or else the supremely perfect being would lack a perfection, and this is absurd. God’s essence or nature contains existence just as the essence of a triangle contains it having three sides. The emphasis in these types of interpretations is on the use of existence as a predicate and a perfection which one must attribute to the nature of the supremely perfect being.” (Banach, 1982) To understand Descartes’ argument we need to understand in what context he is discussing the term existence. He differentiates between “existence” which could be defined as part of anything conceivable, and “necessary existence” in which he does not mean logical necessity in the way philosophers use the term now, but rather, he is using the term to describe ontological necessity. To Descartes God’s essence contains necessary, ontological existence or as Banach also states “eternal and unconditioned existence”. (Banach, 1982) There also appears to be discussion that the term necessary existence is tied up in the idea of God necessarily existing, and God necessarily existing in reality. Banach claims Descartes’ response might have been that we know certain characteristics of the essences of things, in “normal cases”, and that what we reasonably know in those circumstances is that certain characteristics belong to the thing as a “possible existent”. “That is, if it exists then what we have clearly and distinctly perceived as belonging to the nature of a thing, will belong to it in most normal cases the essence of a thing contains only contingent or possible existence.” (Banach, 1982) In God’s case we have the characteristic of a perfect being who by definition must include necessary existence, then according to our previously stated “axiom” whatever we “clearly and distinctly perceive as belonging to the nature of the thing” really does belong to it, hence we can derive his existence from his nature. (Banach, 1982)
What of the objection that Descartes is simply saying something to the effect of “thinking it makes it so”? Descartes counters stating: “…just as I cannot think of a mountain without a valley, it certainly does not follow from the fact that I think of a mountain without a valley that there is any mountain in the world: and similarly, it does not follow from the fact that I think of God as existing that he does exist. For my thought does not impose any necessity on things… “(Descartes, 1985, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, p. 46) As Lacewing, 2008 states, it is not as if thinking about God’s existence brings about his existence, all that would bring about are ideas, no we have it the wrong way around; it is because God’s existence is (ontologically) necessary that we can think of him as existing. Reality determines our thought, not the other way around. (Lacewing, 2008, Descartes’ Ontological Argument)
As we have seen Descartes’ new theory of ideas is a complex novel idea about the intentionality of consciousness, how we perceive external realities, which was a radical departure from the medieval scholastics view. His theory relates ideas, as ‘objects’ in the mind, based on some ‘formal’ or ‘eminent’ reality, this relationship is demonstrated by the example of the sun in the sky, and the object in our mind of said sun, the sun can be said to be the ‘formal’ cause of the ‘objective’ reality that is the sun in our mind.
This causal process was important to Descartes, and important to his notion of the external world, its existence and grounding that existence in the final cause, God. In fact, Descartes’ first argument was based upon the notion of working from his causal ideas: since all substances rely on God to subsist, and all properties rely on substances and God to exist it follows then that properties contain less reality than substances. God is defined as an infinite substance, which Descartes could not eminently be responsible for, as he is only a finite substance and does not present with the formal prerequisites to create such an idea objectively in his mind. Therefore Descartes reasons, God exists. Descartes has another proof for the existence of God’s, just as God is defined as an infinite substance, which could not be produced in Descartes’ mind, he is also defined as necessarily existing, which is essential to his nature, his essence, just as. For example, a triangle has 3 sides is essential to its nature. Descartes’ other proof for the existence of God relies upon the medieval tradition of separating essence from existence, and existence from necessary existence. All things conceivably contain existence, but only one thing contains necessary or ontological existence, and that is God.
Banach, D. (1982). Descartes’ Ontological Argument. Saint Anselm College. Retrieved from http://www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/Descartes%20Ontological%20Argument.htm
Descartes, R. (1985). Meditations of First Philosophy trans John Cottingham. Cambridge. Pp. 24, 25, 26, 28-9, 31, 45, 46.
MacDonald, P.S. (2012). PHL218 Unit Information and Learning Guide. Perth, Western Australia. Murdoch University. P. 31.
Lacewing. M. (2008). Descartes’ Ontological Argument. Retrieved from http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/philosophy/downloads/a2/unit4/descartes/DescartesOntological.pdf
Nolan, L. (2011). “Descartes’ Ontological Argument”. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Reterieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/descartes-ontological/
Pessin, A. (2008). “Descartes’s Theory of Ideas”. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/descartes-ideas/>
Skirry, J. (2008). Rene Descartes (1596-1650): Overview. The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/descarte/#SH4b
Due to the length of the assignment, I will split it into 2 parts, the first focusing on the background knowledge we need to view his Descartes’ arguments, and the second post will deal with the arguments themselves.
Rene Descartes was a hugely influential 17th century philosopher and a central figure in the scientific revolution of that time. Any discussion of Descartes and God must ultimately begin with the backdrop from which Descartes discussed these ideas. It is not enough for us to very simply deconstruct his two arguments; we must look at several principles, or methods Descartes used to put forward these notions. Central to our understanding of Descartes two arguments for the existence of God are two principles (1) Descartes’ “new theory of ideas”, and (2) the “Causal Adequacy Principle (CAP)”. We shall begin by discussing each of these in turn. We will then look at “The Causal Argument” for the existence of God, the first proof Descartes offers in the Third Meditations of his First Philosophy, then we will look at his “Ontological Argument” as it is put forth in the Fifth Meditations of his First Philosophy. We will be looking at these arguments from a unique perspective, instead of challenging Descartes and his views, what may be more interesting, and within the scope of this limited paper, is instead to try and see these arguments from Descartes’ perspective, and attempt to explain why he, as immensely smart as he was, thought they were valid.
(1) Descartes new theory of ideas
Descartes new theory of ideas is brought to us in the third meditations of his First Philosophy, and is a result of his systematic doubt put forward in the preceding two mediations. Descartes’ system of doubt did not allow him to use the common usage of the word ‘idea’ used by the medieval scholastics, which is to say an idea is a mental image that resembled and was caused by the object it was representing. His method forced him to rejected modes of thinking which were taught to him; the only thing that had epistemic justification was that he was a thing that thinks, and by this he means: a thing that” affirms, denies understands a few things, is ignorant of many things, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions” (Descartes, 1985, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, p. 24).
Let us begin by first teasing out what Descartes meant by the term ‘idea’ then we’ll move onto his new theory of ideas. When we investigate Descartes’ definition of the word ‘idea’ we can easily become confused, there is much discussion about what the term means, separate from its common usage, for example: “Some of my thoughts are as it were the images of things, and it is only in these cases that the term ‘idea’ is strictly appropriate — for example, when I think of a man, or a chimera, or the sky, or an angel, or God.” (Descartes, 1985, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, p. 25). The Stanford dictionary of Philosophy provides a lengthy discussion on how this definition conflicts with others Descartes used (Pessin 2008), but for our purposes let us focus on this one definition. It seems the Cartesian concept of ‘idea’ equates the image in our thoughts of the ‘objective’ reality it is relating but as Pessin, 2008 states this is not the medieval concept. Under Descartes’ view the term ‘images’ is not meant to be taken literally as he lists God, and God is not something which can be viewed as an image. It is possible Descartes takes an idea to be, that there is an ‘object’ of his thought, and this ‘object’ is more of a likeness to the ‘formal’ reality rather than a strict mental image. All of these terms are used in a special sense, one we will define and elaborate on when we get to the CAP.
We should note, that according to Descartes, there are three modes (or ways) in which ideas exist: innate, adventitious (external) and invented by him, which derive from his own nature. (Descartes, 1985, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, p. 26). According to The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Skirry, 2008) “innate” ideas are placed in us by God at creation and can be viewed, but cannot be altered – such as ideas of geometry. “Adventitious” ideas are the product of sensations produced by material objects existing externally to the mind. “Invented by him” (or “fabrications”) are as the name suggests inventions of the mind, and can be controlled, examined and cast aside at will.
The issue, which Descartes’ new theory of ideas attempts to solve, is (to paraphrase Descartes): which ideas does he take to be derived from outside him, and what is his reason for thinking they resemble things that exist? This will be integral to our discussion on Descartes arguments for the existence of God (and will lead us into the CAP).
Let us look at an example Descartes provides to discuss the difference between ideas in our mind (the ‘objective’), and the cause of them in reality (the ‘formal’ factor) – the sun. Descartes finds within himself two distinct ideas of the sun, one acquired from the senses, and one acquired from ‘astronomical reasoning’. The idea (‘object’) that Descartes has in his mind of the sun, derived from his senses is, according to him, an example of a ‘formal’ reality with an ‘eminent’ adventitious source. Although the senses would tell him the sun is very small, many times smaller than the Earth in fact. The other idea (‘object’) he has of the sun, which comes from ‘astronomical reasoning’ based innately (or constructed by him in some other way), reveals the sun to be many times larger than the Earth. We see this leads us to a contradiction in Descartes’ object-idea of the sun, as both ideas cannot resemble the sun that exists outside his mind. What Descartes can do though, is use the different versions of his ‘objective’ ideas of the sun, and the fact that his idea of the sun does not depend on his will, to conclude that the sun must have a ‘formal’ reality for its ‘objective’ status in his mind , which exists adventitious and ‘eminently’ to him, in reality. At this stage however, Descartes is still working under the assumption that the existence of the external world is under the highest level of doubt, it is not until the proofs for God’s existence are given, can he ground them in an external reality. At this point in time his maligning demon holds reign over his external perceptions. To talk of the sun is an example of Descartes employing reason to determine the idea-content in his mind that must have as much objective reality, as its cause (i.e. – the sun existing in reality, to cause the idea-content in Descartes’ mind). What we can reasonably take away from this exercise is that different cognitive modes of discovery are being employed by Descartes to investigate the ‘formal’ and ‘eminent’ reality of an idea (these terms will be explained in the CAP) and its cause.
(2) The Causal Adequacy Principle (CAP)
Central to Descartes’ ‘new theory of ideas’ is what is known as the “Casual Adequacy Principle” which is brought to us in the Third Meditations of Descartes’ First Philosophy. It is integral to our understanding of the two arguments for the existence of God and to our previous discussion on Descartes’ new theory of ideas. Why? We have been using several terms to discuss Descartes’ theory of ideas that need unpacking, and in this unpacking we should see how the above discussion on the interaction between ‘formal’ cause, and ‘objective’ reality becomes a coherent description of the intentionality of consciousness. Let us allow Paul MacDonald, 2012 to demonstrate and elaborate these terms for us:
““formal” – pertains to the cause of you having an idea (its occurrence)
“objective” pertains to the intention of the idea you have (its about-ness)
“eminent” pertains to the degree of reality of an idea’s cause (its ontological independence).” (MacDonald, 2012, PHL218 Unit Information and Learning Guide, p. 31)
To further tease out what these terms mean, let us take a look at each of them in turn. “Formal”: simply put this term is the cause of an idea, to use our previous example – the sun in the sky, would be a ‘formal’ cause of our having an idea of the sun. “Objective” – this term follows from ‘formal’ in the sense that it is the ‘object’ in our mind of the ‘formal’ cause. So, the formal cause (the sun) would exist as an ‘object’ (a representation) in the mind. It is important to note that this is a special use of the word ‘objective’ that does not refer to the objective fact that is the sun existing in reality, apart from our subjective interpretation of its existence. Rather is it taken to mean, literally an object (representation) in our mind of a ‘formal’ source. “Eminent” – this term refers to a substance (an independent, autonomous thing), which has greater reality than a property (a dependent thing which cannot exist autonomously), or we could word it as a substance is that which has a greater degree of independence. For example you cannot have simply ‘blue, wet, smelly’ (properties), you need to have a substance that contains those properties, such as – the ocean (substance). Properties are dependent on substances for their existence and it’s important to note that in his discussion of God, Descartes believes God to be an infinite substance.
If we go back and look at our analysis of Descartes discussion of the sun, as well as our definitions of his use of the word ‘idea’, we can begin to see Descartes’ method of investigation and how it yielded a map to understanding the link between the mind, brain, and the external world. Now we may begin to look at Descartes’ view of intentionality in regards to the CAP. As MacDonald 2012 states, to Descartes the CAP operates in three directions:
“1. Cause and effect which governs the interaction between material things;
2. Cause and effect governs the interaction between the material thing and having an idea about it,
3. But cause-and-effect does not govern the relation between the idea-act and its ‘object’, this relation is explained by representation or (as he says elsewhere) signification.” (MacDonald, 2012, PHL218 Unit Information and Learning Guide, p. 31)
From this notion of causal mechanisms we can begin to understand, by way of looking at another example, how Descartes explained modes of consciousness, to tease out some clarity from these concepts. Descartes uses the example of the stone: a stone which did not previously exist, cannot begin to exist, unless it has a sufficient cause for its existence – in this sense ‘cause’ refers to something which contains either formally, or eminently everything that is contained within the stone. Likewise Descartes’ explains, the ‘idea’ of said stone cannot exist in Descartes mind, unless it is put there by some cause that contains as much (formal) reality as he conceives to be in the stone. We need to be clear about what Descartes is, and is not saying here; he is not saying that the stone that exists in reality also exists in his mind, physically. He is saying, however that there is a representational ‘object’ in his mind of the stone. This representation is caused by the eminent or existing stone.
Now we can look at how Descartes worded the CAP:
“The nature of an idea is such that of itself it requires no formal reality except what it derives from my thought, of which it is a mode. But in order for a given idea to contain such and such objective reality, it must surely derive it from cause which contains at least as much formal reality in the idea. For if we suppose that an idea contains something which was not in its cause, it must have got this from nothing, yet the mode of being by which a thing exists objectively <or representatively> in the intellect by way of an idea, imperfect though it may be, is certainly not nothing and so it cannot come from nothing.” (Descartes, 1985, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pp. 28-9).
At this point the only clarification we will need in regards to the above, is the use of the word ‘mode’, this simply refers to a ‘property’.
Today, let’s look at a few conceptions, and defences of the word ‘faith’, in the ‘religious faith’ sense of the word, to see if it really is anything more than simple ‘belief without evidence’ – as some skeptics might claim.
Firstly we must look at definitions and, of course, the Bible is the best place to start, to try to tease out what is meant by the word ‘faith’. We may find it hard to pinpoint any specific definition of faith, particularly one that won’t draw criticism and argument from theists. Perhaps the best we can hope for in attempting to lock the Bible down in anything, is to have a reasoned discussion, and simply let the passages speak for themselves.
Any discussion on the Bible’s use of the word ‘faith’ must ultimately begin in Hebrews 11:1:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1, King James Version, p. 1930)
In the footnotes on this section the editors of this edition of the Bible state that this above definition is not so much a function of what faith is, but rather a description of what faith does. They state that faith provides substance, and in the orignal Greek this would normally mean “assurance”, which is why you may sometimes see this passage with the word ‘assurance’ instead of ‘substance’. Secondly the authors suggest that faith provides ‘evidence’, meaning in the “sense of proof that results in conviction.” (p. 1930) Hence, why you may also see ‘evidence’ substituted for ‘conviction’ in some passages. The authors state:
The difference between assurance and evidence would be minimal were it not for the phrase qualifying each: of things hoped for and of things not seen. The first involves future hope; the second involves present realities not seen. the first includes the hope of the resurrection, the return of Christ, and the glorification of the saints. The second involves unseen realities, such as the forgiveness of sin through Christ’s sacrifice and the present intercession of Christ in heaven. Hope is faith relating to the future; conviction is faith relating to the present. (King James Version, p. 1930)
Under this explanation and definition we can begin to discuss some of what ‘faith’ means to some biblical authors; firstly, to say that faith provides ‘substance’, properly understood as ‘assurance’ can be reasonably interpreted to mean ‘faith provides comfort’. Secondly to say that faith provides ‘evidence’ understood as ‘conviction’ seems to suggest that faith provides ‘strength of will’, or ‘character’ in the sense that one would face the challenges of the world, or adversity, or worldly struggles, under the Christian conception – a ‘stiff upper lip’ if you will.
Going further though, the authors explain ‘faith’ in the first sense as a ‘comfort in believing the resurrection, the return of Christ and the glorification of the saints, as true’, where as in the second sense faith provides a ‘strength of will to endure the hope of unseen forgiveness of Christ’s sacrifice and the present intercession of Christ in heaven.’
If my interpretation of the biblical authors above is accurate (and it may well not be), it would seem that the Hebrews passage both describes a personal feeling of assurance in the works of Christ, so recorded in the Bible (his acts) as well as a trusting in the things not seen (Jesus’ works of salvation).
At the very least we see that the above passage supports our earlier contention that there is a lot of language used to describe ‘faith’ that suggests a lack of rational or epistemic justification for belief in God, and His works, ergo, it seems justifiable to proclaim the ‘belief without evidence’ slogan that some atheists do, even if it is a touch simplistic, at least in this case.
Moving on, this isn’t the only passage that talks of faith in the Bible, John 20:29 states:
Jesus said unto him. Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet believed. (John 20:29, King James Version, p. 1654)
These isolated passages certainly seem to revel in a lack of epistemic justification for belief, and as Jesus is the authority of the Christian faith, this implies an epistemology Christians should follow. Moreover, this conception of belief without evidence, is consistent with the Hebrews passage.
Having said that though, there are also many passages (Romans 3:18, 5:1, Galatians 2:16, 2:8, 3:8-12, James 2:17, Revelation 2:12 etc) that discuss faith as a verb, as something you do, or hold, which is consistent with another sense of the word ‘faith’ used by those who define it, both in the Bible (Hebrews above) and without (which we will discuss more in a moment). This should give critics of the word ‘faith’ pause, only long enough to investigate what the proponent means, when they use the word.
Moving away from the Bible, the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines faith as:
The conviction of the truth of some doctrine which is the result of a voluntary act of will. According to *fideists who happen to be believers in the same doctrine, this act may be meritorious (and a refusal to make it may be a fault or even a *sin); according to others, it may in fact be just as sinful to ride roughshod over the deliverance of reason (itself a divine gift) when that commands us to suspend judgement. (Blackburn, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 130, 2008)
Let us unpack this definition a little: it seems as if faith in the above sense, is the act of will over reason. Moreover, those who hold to this dogma, also assert that to rely on ‘evidence’ over faith, may in fact be a negative (“sin”)- we might consider this the ‘common view’ of the word ‘faith’ (in the ‘religious faith’ sense), in that it portrays a lack of respect for evidence and epistemic or rational justification – at least by an atheists perception. It is also a view, as we see from above, that is supported, biblically.
For a more in-depth analysis, let us move to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of The Christian Church which gives us far too long a quote to list here, but paraphrased the author, Livingstone, suggests there are 2 ‘distinct senses’ in which the word faith is used, under the Christian conception. (1) The body of the Christian faith is found in the “Creeds, the definitions of Councils, etc., and especially in the Bible.” (p. 213) The teachings of which are said to come from Christ and are to be rejected at your own peril. (Livingstone, Oxford Concise Dictionary of The Christian Church, p. 213, 2006)
Under (1) we see that perhaps what is meant by ‘faith’ in the apparent objective sense implied is that the Christian creeds, dogma and tradition is simply labelled as “faith” (this is the second kind of usage of the word ‘faith’, that we talked about above, mentioned in the Bible). This is confusing though, why would a term be given, that certainly implies belief held without appropriate justification, when in fact, all that is simply meant is ‘tradition, creeds and the Bible‘, which is seemingly the justification for the belief system, or worldview known as Christianity? In essence, Christians have used a word that commonly means ‘belief without evidence’ to label their worldview, which they deem to be ‘belief with evidence’. This is intentional obfuscation, or intentional revisionism, I’m not sure which is better. But let us continue with our definitions before we make too loud a pronouncement.
Livingstone continues providing (2), accompanying the ‘objective’ standard for faith given in (1), there is also an apparent ‘subjective’ faith which is the individuals response to the divine itself, “depicted in the NT as involving trust in God rather than intellectual assent.” Livingstone states that according to theologians this acceptance is not a natural act, but rather, something given by, and is dependant solely on, God’s “action in the soul.” Livingstone continues stating that in the Middle Ages the term was slightly re-defined to select between those truths accessible by the human intellect via reason (for example: the existence of God), and those truths that could be understood only by faith alone (for example: the Trinity).
Under (2) we get a more traditional definition of what most of us atheists understand ‘religious faith’ to be, with words and phrases used like ‘trust’, ‘act of will’, ‘those truths that could be understood only by faith alone’ – something like what we saw with the Hebrews, and John passage. It seems the Christian ‘faith’, at least on the subjective level, viz. Livingstone, Hebrews, John 20:29 et al, is based on a series of words and phrases, which override epistemic justification, and rely simply on accepting the word of dogma, irrespective of evidence or rational justification. Which seems to support the contention that, at least in some respects ‘religious faith’, it can be argued, is ‘belief without evidence’, or rather, ‘belief irrespective of (counter) evidence’. After all, why do you need trust, or faith, in a conclusion that you have rational justification for? You merely (tentatively?) accept it, and your acceptance is proportional to the evidence, and changes with the evidence – if you care about what is true, and having good reasons for belief.
Moreover under (2) there is a fine line drawn, that may in fact be outright question begging: according to Livingstone Christianity finds its justification through faith, which also comes from, and relies upon, God. How is this not circular? It amounts to saying: “God exists, and Christianity is true, because God tells me it is so.”
It seems from the 2 senses Livingstone gives above, that (1) implies simply the catalogue of Christian ‘evidence’ for the belief system, which itself, is simply titled ‘faith’ without actually implying what the word is commonly meant to imply (belief without evidence). And under (2) the common view of the word ‘faith’ is given, in that it is an act of will, over the light of reason, a ‘trust’ in the dogma, tradition and creeds provided by the Christian ‘faith’ that is not dependent on reason (re: evidence?), but rather is dependent on God’s grace. Livingtone’s definition provides a conflicting message, on (1) the Christian ‘faith’ seemingly has its evidence in the Bible, yet under (2) the ‘faith’ is defined as trusting in the supernatural works of God. We are left to ask, if (1) does not provide rational justification for (2), then there is seemingly no rational way to accept (2) or (1). From this we can conclude that if the ‘tradition, creeds and the Bible’ is not enough to provide rational justification for the Christian faith, if epistemic leaps are being made, then we might be justified in inferring, yet again, that in some senses the Christian faith is based on ‘belief without rational justification.’
In our next post we will discuss what popular apologists have to say regarding faith.
It seems in the end, based on our very cursory examination of what ‘faith’ means, that the word has 2 meanings, or senses in which it is used. (1) appears to denote a kind of ‘belief without evidence’ in the sense that, it involves a trust, belief, or even hope in a god or god’s works and existence. None of these words inspire us to much confidence that what the authors mean is “epistemically or rational justified true belief’, but we need not make assumptions. The definitions above seem to imply that while there are portions of the Christian ‘faith’ that are accepted based on evidence (natural theology for example) there are aspects that are not (salvation, the Trinity etc), which can allow us to conclude, that any simple rhetoric about ‘belief without evidence’ might need to be unpacked in discussion, before simply being bandied about.
Then there is (2) in which faith is the experience of being a Christian, that the system is simply entitled a ‘faith’ without adhering to what we might naturally think the word means. This isn’t simply a modern delineation either, as we see there is biblical precedent for the definition of ‘faith’ as ‘belief that goes beyond the evidence’. Under (2) faith becomes the traditions, creeds, the Bible and doctrines that make up the Christian faith.
This analysis should give us pause, from making any simple pronouncements about the word ‘faith’ and to get us thinking about the context with which it is used. It should be noted, and possibly stressed, that in our discussion of the word ‘faith’, and deciding whether the ‘belief without evidence’ slogan is fair, that Christians actually do offer a rational defense for their faith, with evidence, argument, and logic – hence why they certainly wouldn’t see their ‘faith’ as being ‘belief without evidence’. In this discussion we are only addressing what is meant by the word ‘faith’, not the arguments and evidence Christians offer. Given time to think about it, however, the fact that Christians do offer argument and evidence, makes the use of the word ‘faith’ even more baffling. Why use a word, that promotes such a negative connotation, to define your belief system, when you believe it to be epistemically and rational justified? Is it simply tradition, and dogma that keeps such an antiquated word going? The problem is, it forces apologists and theologians into such bizarre contortions to attempt to free it from its common usage, that we might wonder why the word isn’t simply dropped altogether.
Blackburn S. (2008). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition). New York. Oxford University Press. P. 130.
Livingstone E.A. (2006) P. 236. Oxford Concise Dictionary of The Christian Church (Revised 2nd Edition). New York. Oxford University Press. P. 213.
King James Version. (1988). Thomas Nelson Inc. Pp. 1654, 1930.
- The Perils of Not Being a Christian (inactiveactivist.wordpress.com)
- Be Faithful To Christ (trinityspeaks.wordpress.com)
- Assurances of the Believer (trinityspeaks.wordpress.com)
- It’s a Long Way Until November, and I’m Steaming Already (comingeast.com)
- Fighting The Fight Of Faith (nodogshere.wordpress.com)
- Mormon Dilemma 1 Answered (mormonapologeticstudies.org)
- Christianity promotes Ignorance (new.exchristian.net)
- Heaven Scent: A Fragrance for the Faithful (bellasugar.com)
- Sermon: When Life Goes Pear-Shaped (Habakkuk): Habakkuk’s Prayer (bigcircumstance.com)
- Sometimes you just KNOW it’s not a Reasonable Faith (new.exchristian.net)
This is an interesting movie, I just happened to come across it, randomly, through the interwebs. Based on a Cormac MaCarthy book, it opens with Tommy Lee Jones (simply known as “White”), sitting at a table with Samuel L. Jackson (known only as “Black”) discussing the nature of life, religion, passions, meaning, the world, society, culture, violence, consequence, God, Jesus, atheism, nihilism, jail, literature etc. The full gamut of experience is viewed and explored by these characters. The basic premise being – Black saved White’s life from a suicide attempt, having done this they retire to Black’s house, so that the poorly educated, yet religious Black, may attempt to assuage the intelligent, educated professor (White) into seeing something in the world, to hold on to.
The obvious and basic premise labelled, it’s important to note, that the underlying meaning, at least to me, is not that Black is a theist because he is classically “uneducated”, nor, similarly, is White an atheist because he is “smart” (indeed one may wonder what is smart about suicide). I also didn’t feel like any particular view-point was especially strawmanned, nor did I feel a preference in the director’s (also Tommy Lee Jones) preconceptions or presuppositions – the audience is left with 2 convincing characters that portray their view points fairly, and with passion.
Being that this entire 90 min movie is set on one location, with 2 actors going at each other, with no theatrical “tricks” (cuts, edits, flashbacks etc) employed, the weight of this piece is firmly set on these 2 characters interactions – and it works, powerfully.
I felt a collection of things during this movie, and many of the utterances given by both characters struck me – obviously because I align with the atheists position, and have, like so many apologists claim, dealt with nihilism (though have moved on from it), I was affected by White’s dialogue. Many things he said, resonated with me. And that’s part of what I wanted to say here.
White’s character is dark, at his wit’s end, but most importantly, this is a rational person, a seeming contradiction, after all – how can you be suicidal, yet rational? White articulates his case over the course of the movie, his sense of … disillusion with the world, that “happiness is contrary to the human condition”, and that “we were born into such a fix as this, suffering and human destiny are the same thing, each one is a description of the other”.
As an uneducated, and moody teenager I dabbled in this same idea of the futility of existence, in the Nietzschean “death of God” sense, or to quote Tool: “it doesn’t matter what’s right, it’s only wrong if you get caught”. It’s easy to see why people are like White, that given a particular view of the world, even he states: “I don’t regard my state of mind as some pessimistic view of the world, I regard it as the world itself”, and that this world he refers to is “a horrible place, full of horrible people”. We see this given commonly among apologetics as the default atheist position, but it is rather, the lazy, or reactionary position, for depressed people, not necessarily atheists. Moreover the reason theists might say this is due to the fact that they have their meaning gift wrapped for their pleasure, a stalwart tradition from which to draw, socially accepted (majority) communities – seems easy. Even if in practice, it really isn’t. Atheists on the other hand, have no such gift wrapped world view, or community from which to draw strength, generally, they have to find what philosophies they will adopt, what meaning the see value in (which does not mean subjective relativism). And nihilism, and depression can be a result of facing reality, on its terms.
The problem for me of course, the reason I don’t subscribe to nihilism, to the death of value, where I part from White – is because I subscribe to a worldview, not only that, not as lofty as that, I look at the world around me, I look at the results of World War 2, I look at people who fight religious intolerance, inequality, the point my reason leads me to?
There are good people in this world – who fight intolerance.
There are people who fight everyday for the good, Black may be considered one of those people. There are people fighting the world over for a cause that is just – look at our society, there are ways of looking at it, that it seems dark – poverty, molestation, rape, jealousy, greed, these are all part of the condition of being alive. I think White would argue, that the fact that good people have to fight, against that dark backdrop, only speaks to the futility of the enterprise, or as he says “you can’t be happy if you’re in pain”. White’s at a point, where he has no fight in him anymore, he doesn’t see the world anymore, the forms he sees are ‘colours” and “shapes”, but with none of the value we attribute to these things, and moreover he sees this as supported, biblically: as he says, “even God gives up at some point, I’ve never heard of a ministry in Hell.”
White is, perhaps not eminently likeable – he is evasive to the most simple questions, which makes him sound like a petulant child, not wanting to cater to someone he considers (intellectually) beneath him. This also makes him passively condescending, we see how he views Black, I guess, like so many atheists might do.
Here we see Black’s increasing despair and desperation as the power of the relationship switches, through most of the movie Black is the one asking the questions, throwing his theology around, sharing his life experience. White is uncomfortable, constantly feeling the need to leave. But it’s when White opens up on Black that we feel, if not see, White’s conclusion as seemingly undeniable, moreover, we see that Black feels it, not completely mind you.
Black goes from the boisterous, happy guy with all the answers to a man shaking with his head between his legs, as White spews all his bile at him, articulating so well, just what he sees is so hopeless, not just wrong, but hopeless about the world. It’s here we see a complete character come to life, and we empathise with what White feels like he needs to do, moreover, we might even feel, in our darker moments of despair, like the only thing that makes us disagree with him, is that we fear pain not death, or that we just want to stay – essentially, that our reasons for living are trivial.
I found myself thinking about death, about my own, about obliteration, nothingness, and part of me almost felt, as White did, and perhaps feeding off him, an excitement, a kind of peace about death. That this life is full of hustle and bustle, and that in death we find absolution, quiet, solace. Of course it won’t be that way, as even White knows, there can be no community of the dead because there are no entities to form such.
- John Haught On The New Atheists. (zaknafein81.wordpress.com)
- Nice Nihilism (3quarksdaily.com)
- Motes and beams (barefootbum.blogspot.com)
- Make up your minds, atheists! (dalehusband.wordpress.com)
- Letters (nytimes.com)
- God, atheism, and what it is to be human (bluejaysway.wordpress.com)
- Nice Nihilism and The Atheist’s Guide To Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (wanderlustmind.com)
- Atheism in South Africa (dead-logic.blogspot.com)
- The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, By Alex Rosenberg (independent.co.uk)
- An Inoffensive Atheist Ad Could Appear on Pennsylvania Buses (patheos.com)
Read any apologetics piece and you’re likely to get several claims: atheists adhere to a strict scientism, atheism is nihilistic, atheism leads to relativism, atheists can be moral, but have no basis for that morality (See Zacharias, The Real Face of Atheism, Craig, On Guard, Moreland, The God Question etc for examples).
Haught doesn’t let the team down in his critique of the New Athiests (here after “NA”). It takes Haught all of one page into his book to charge the NA (when he says NA he primarily means Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris, he considers his book to be a refutation of all other NA, by extension, p. IX) with scientism (he gives a much more comprehensive definition on p. XIII- XIV):
The belief system that Dennett and the other new atheists subscribe to is known as “scientific naturalism” ["scientism"]. Its central dogma is that only nature, including humans and our creations, is real: that God does not exist; and that science alone can give us complete and reliable knowledge of reality. (Haught, God and the New Atheism, p. X, 2008)
Of course, a real scholar would provide lengthy references for us to look up the dogmatic language used by the NA. But, of course, not a single source, or note is provided. Much is the way this entire book goes. Which is ironic given how much Haught goes on about what a high theologian he is, and how far above the NA his writing is. One wonders (for a referenced source of what the NA actually have to say on this issue, please see here).
Haught continues on his scientism strawman argument for about 20 pages until we come to what he perceives are the fundamental issues and consequences of atheism:
Go all the way and think the business of atheism through to the bitter end; before you get too comfortable with the godless world you long for, you will be required by the logic of any consistent skepticism to pass through the disorienting wilderness of nihilism. Do you have the courage for that? (Haught, God and the New Atheism, p. 22, 2008)
But it doesn’t end for Haught there, he continues stating that in the absence of a God you are the creator of the values you live by (relativism), but this is obviously a burden, according to Haught, that one would surely want to escape. That escape is the Nietzschean “Madman’s sensation of straying through”infinite nothingness.” (p. 22) It does, according to Haught, require an “unprecedented courage” to wipe away the transcendent world of a God, in the end Haught asks if we are willing to risk madness, and if not, you are not really an atheist. (p. 22)
As always, this type of rhetoric is clear projection: the world would seem this bleak to Haught, it seems his God is a crutch that gets him through the night. And though I’m reluctant to label him with so shallow a belief, it seems obvious that’s how he feels, when we see a world without God, through his eyes. If he was so well read, he would see many positive, atheist books extolling the virtues of a naturalized philosophy (see Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God, Murray’s The Atheist’s Primer, Kai Nielsen’s Atheism and Philosophy, John Shook’s The God Debates, not to mention the NA literature itself etc for examples)? Instead Haught wishes to focus on the writings of 3 existentialist, nihilistic philosophers (Sartre, Nietzsche and Camus) as the basis for how atheism should really be?
This is obviously nonsensical – leaving aside that atheism isn’t a movement, a worldview, a belief system, a religion, a dogma etc, no matter how hard Haught works, or wishes it to be so – you can be an atheist and a nihilist, you can be an atheist and a humanist, you can be an atheist and a moral relativist, you can be an atheist and believe in objective morals, or even, absolute morals. There is no contradiction in these, and atheism; these are all intellectual additions to a foundational atheism, worldviews which (can) include atheism.
In Haught’s discussion of morality I feel like he wants to give some kind of divine command theory as his justification for morals, but he never really delves deep enough into the issue to make any grand declarations of such, even though he eludes to it:
[On the NA] But where logical rigor would require that they also acknowledge that there is no timeless heaven to determine (emphasis mine) what is good and what is not… (Haught, God and the New Atheism, p. 24-5, 2008)
And again, on the next page he states that if there is no eternal grounding for values, then all we are left with is “arbitrary, conventional, historically limited, human concoctions”. (p. 26) Moreover he charges the NA with holding this supposed moral relativism as “absolutely binding” (p. 26). He states the NA demonstrate an absoluteness in their values of intolerance toward faith, and that to make moral proclamations you must assume that there exists a “mode of being, a realm of rightness that does not owe itself completely to human intervention, Darwinian selection, or social construction.” (p. 26) To Haught, if absolute morals exist, God exists, similarly the reverse is also true, if God does not exist, absolute morals do not and “one should not issue moral judgements as if they do.” (p. 26)
This is all very nice rhetoric, but I hope it is obvious to the reader, that Haught has offered no justification to substantiate his series of claims – no references, no formal argument of any kind, logical or evidential. His book reads like a sermon. But do we need to listen to a word of it? He does not cite where the NA make such proclamations (he quotes them without citation), and assuming they made such proclamations, Haught is merely assuming that without God, there can be no talk of morals. Why must this be so? Can reason, and evidence not suggest to us what normative moral choices we must make? And would this not be exactly what we would expect to see in a naturalized philosophy? A discussion of morals that deals with the world, as it is? What better way to make moral exhortations, than by looking at the evidence, and dealing rationally with the consequences, through philosophy, and evidence. How poor and low must we be, to rely on Bronze Age tomes to pronounce how to act, and what to think? Haught’s version of morals amounts to divine command – what God says goes – too bad for homosexuals, women, atheists etc, I guess.
Haught does not agree that reason is enough to get us to a place of moral prescription, as it is based on our reasoning, which is fallible (p. 73):
… as Harris conjectures, we can fall back on reason alone to explain what our obligations are and why we should heed them. Yet, even apart from the historical naiveté of such a proposal, this rationale simply leads us back to a more fundamental question: why should we trust our reasoning abilities either? If the human mind evolved by Darwinian selection in the same way as every other trait we possess, we still have to be able to justify our trust in its cognitional capacity – its ability to put us in touch with truth – in some way other than biology alone. (Haught, God and the New Atheism, p. 73-4, 2008)
Haught continues stating that a naturalistic worldview cannot justify the above presupposition. (p. 74) But this view seems to assume that each individual is disconnected from a recorded history, from other minds, from scientific evidence, from logical argument, from societal changes and pressures. Haught may be right, that if I were a lone person, stranded on an island I might have no way to confirm my moral choices (what moral choices I could make in that situation of course). But has Haught represented, accurately, the situation we find ourselves in? I would think not. We have all of those avenues mentioned above, to self correct the misgivings and short comings we have in our cognitive faculties.
There is also another assumption present in Haught’s view – that we (a) must be, or (b) can be absolutely right about all moral choices all the time. But, again, why think this is so? We are fallible creatures, our historical context, in both religious and secular settings, demonstrates that we have had ebbs and flows of moral development, which seems to suggest we are still heading toward a better moral perspective.
I don’t think Haught has made his case for the same old tired apologetics used against atheism. No source is given to demonstrate the NA’s views on scientism, only Haught’s (constant) assertion that they subscribe to that view. I hope I’ve demonstrated (via the link provided) that not only is this a baseless assertion, it is demonstrably false. If I have succeeded in demonstrating that point, we see much of Haught’s book is a strawman attempt, I leave it for you to decide what you make of such an author who relies on such tactics.
Similarly Haught never shows us why a nihilistic view of atheism would be bad, even we agree it might be, but the fact that he’s citing philosophers who are such, suggests that such a view can be rationally justified. What Haught relies on is an emotional response – we view nihilism as negative, as relative, as amoral, so we would not want to be like that – hence atheism is bad.
Similarly with his charge of relativism and atheism having no basis for morals. It should be obvious to any reader of this blog by now, what atheism is: a lack of belief in a god or gods. Under this definition atheism has no responsibility to find a moral system, that is the job of a naturalized philosophy, or a materialistic philosophy, or a feminist philosophy etc. Adding to that, I think it can be demonstrated, at least as superficially as I have done in this post, that a naturalized philosophy provides a more coherent moral basis, one that is suited to the world, than the one based on the dictator in the sky.
Haught, J.F., (2008). God and the New Atheism. Louisville, Kentucky. Westminster John Knox Press. Pp. IX, X, XIII, XIV, 22, 24-5, 73-4, 75.
- Dogmatic New Atheism. (zaknafein81.wordpress.com)
- Blackford on l’affaire Haught et Coyne (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
- Faith and Evidence in John Haught’s “God and the New Atheism” (choiceindying.com)
- Cognitive Dissonance and Christian Definitions (thinkingenigma.wordpress.com)
- Haught is to Haughty Near Allied (choiceindying.com)
- Scandal in Academia! John Haught refuses to have his debate with Jerry Coyne Posted! Shame on you Dr. Haught! (choiceindying.com)
- Julian Baggini on Mystification (choiceindying.com)
- John Haught releases the video (freethoughtblogs.com)
- Haught vs Coyne: “Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?” (sandwalk.blogspot.com)
- Articles (zaknafein81.wordpress.com)
For todays purposes I want to, simply and briefly, discuss God’s omnipotence/omniscience, but before we begin, let us define God and omnipotence:
For many theists, though not all, God is thought to be omnipotent. That is, God is all-powerful. If God is all-powerful, there is nothing that God cannot do. His power is infinite. There are no limitations. To find anything that limits God’s power would mean that God is not, after all, omnipotent. (Murray, The Atheist’s Primer, p. 111, 2010)
Murray goes on to say that the reason God is thought of this way is due to him being “more praiseworthy than anything else. If power is praiseworthy, more power is more praiseworthy. If God is the most praiseworthy thing, take any praiseworthy attribute, God has to have that attribute to the utmost degree.” (p. 111)
One response to this conception, is the so-called ‘paradox-of-the-stone’:
Can God create a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it? Is the answer is “Yes,” then here’s something God can’t do: lift this particular stone. If the answer is “No,” there here is something God can’t do: create this specific stone. Either way, God’s power is limited. Ergo, God cannot be omnipotent. (Murray, The Atheist’s Primer, p. 111, 2010)
Murray admits, that this ‘disproof’ is too petty, pedantic and disconnected to be convincing to anyone – but he does state that it makes one thing clear: “infinity ascribed to an attribute belonging to an agent is untenable.” (p. 111) But, before we even get into the paradox-of-the-stone problem, we face more immediate logical problems with God’s omnipotence :
If omnipotence means – as it certainly appears to mean – an ability to do anything, then there is an even simpler argument that there can be no omnipotent being. No being could create a square circle, or an even integer greater than two and smaller than four. Because there logically could not be such things, there could be no being that could create them. (Grim, Impossibility Arguments, p. 200, 2007)
According to Grim, Aquinas defeated this rebuttal, by stating that this is essentially a meaningless objection as God’s power requires the ability to perform any task, and that “creating a square circle” does not represent a genuine task. As a matter of principle it can be, quite generally held: ” contradictory specifications fail to specify anything – precisely because they are contradictory – rather than specifying something of a peculiarly contradictory type. If so, contradictory task specifications fail to designate genuine tasks, and thus fail to designate tasks required of an omnipotent being.” (p. 200)
Unfortunately this rebuttal to our first level objection, does not remove our second level, paradox-of-the-stone objection so easily. Grim states that the task specification is clearly not contradictory if the problem is stated as:
I could certainly create a mass of concrete too heavy for me to lift. Could God? If so, there would be something he could not do: lift that mass of concrete. If not, there is again something he could not do, though even I could do it: create such a mass of concrete. (Grim, Impossibility Arguments, p. 201, 2007)
The objection to the above becomes less about the task specification being contradictory, and more that the rebuttal contains “token inflexives or indexicals: terms that shift in their designation with the person we suppose to be performing the task.” (p.201) Some have said this objection is faulty as the tasks specification is to create a mass of concrete too heavy for one to lift, but this is not a uniform task description, as “in my case it demands only that I create a mass of concrete that I cannot lift. In God’s case it demands that God create a mass of concrete not that I cannot lift, but that God cannot.” (p.201)
But, does this objection succeed?
Grim asks, are there essentially indexical tasks? He answers that there are. Examples given are tasks undertaken in a wilderness survival course: in which a lone person is taught “building alone and without aid, a boat that both will support its builder and that its builder can easily portage.” (p. 201) The point being:
If there are any reflexive tasks of such a sort involving two inversely coordinated powers – such as creating and lifting a heavy stone – omnipotence as an ability to perform any task is simply impossible. (Grim, Impossibility Arguments, p. 201, 2007)
Perhaps, to understand this objection, we should see a more formally stated version of Grim’s argument, some clarifications and how the above also applies to omniscience too:
No one else – no one other than me – knows what I know in knowing that:
- I am making a mess.
Or so the argument goes. Since an omniscient being would be a being that knows all that is known, since I know what I know in knowing (1), and since I am not omniscient, there is no omniscient being. (Grim, Against Omniscience: The Case From Essential Indexicals, p. 349, 2003)
We can ask though, is this not the same proposition as (2) “Patrick Grim is making the mess”? Does it not contain the same information as (1)? It could be said that what is expressed in (1) is the same as what others may express in (2). Grim disagrees though, stating that this is far “too simple an account of objects of knowledge in general and of what is known in cases of (1) in particular.” (p. 351):
For the ‘I’ of the (1) is an essential indexical – essential to what it is I know or express in knowing or expressing (1). (Grim, Against Omniscience: The Case From Essential Indexicals, p. 349, 2003)
To demonstrate his point Grim articulates a scenario in which he is following a trail of spilled sugar around a tall aisle in a supermarket, in search of the person making the mess. Only to realise it is in fact himself making the mess, due to a torn sack of sugar in his cart, he is the culprit (hence (1), and (2)). It is only under (1) that all information about who is making the mess is fully expressed, whereas (2) only explains most of the information about who is making the mess (it does not include Grim’s self-realization that “he” is making the mess, and that he knows he is Patrick Grim) – which is “to reintroduce the indexical”. (p. 351)
Moreover what Patrick feels when he realises that he is making the mess can’t be “merely this impersonal matter of a named individual making a mess, because that is not what I am suddenly ashamed of or what I suddenly feel guilty about in being ashamed or feeling guilty that I am making a mess” (p.351) Grim states that others may be embarrassed by the fact that Patrick Grim is making a mess, but only he can feel the “shame and mortification of knowing that those antics are mine” (p.351)
Tying this back to omniscience:
… we see that in order to qualify as an omniscient a being must know at least all that is known. Such a being must, then, know what I know in knowing (1):
- I am making a mess
But what is known in such a case, it appears, is known by no omniscient being. The indexical ‘I”, as argued above, is essential to what I know in knowing (1). But only I can use that ‘I’ to index me – no being distinct from me can do so. I am not omniscient. But there is something I know that no being distinct from me can know. Neither I nor any being distinct from me, then, is omniscient: there is no omniscient being. (Grim, Against Omniscience: The Case From Essential Indexicals, p. 352, 2003)
Boy, wasn’t that a handful!
In an effort to avoid indexically specified tasks, some objections have moved to what Grim calls “states of affairs” (p. 201), omnipotence is redefined to mean “[one] would be able to bring about any states of affairs.” (p. 201) Grim rejects this move as well, stating that there are indexically specified states of affairs as well:
You and I may face the same state of affairs, for example, when neither of us has paid our taxes. (Grim, Impossibility Arguments, p. 201, 2007)
What has happened Grim states, is that attempts to defend a full notion of omnipotence – the ability to perform any (“consistently specifiable”) task or to bring about any consistently specifiable state of affairs – have simply been given up. Instead lesser attempts have been formulated to avoid impossibility arguments, but still retain a connection to “notions of exaggerated power to be able to claim some theological legitimacy.” (p. 201)
J.L Mackie said:
But often enough these adequate solutions are only almost adopted. The thinkers who restrict God’s power, but keep the term ‘omnipotence’, may reasonably be suspected of thinking, in other contexts, that his power is really unlimited. (Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence, p. 63, 2003)
James Rachels has stated that arguments are rarely convincing, perhaps that’s true, but make them we shall continue to do. I leave it for you to decide if any of this is compelling, if essential indexicals are enough of a reason to deny the possibility of omnipotence and omniscience and by extension a God, so defined.
Grim P. (2003). ‘Against Omniscience: The Case From Essential Indexicals”, in M Martin and R Ronnier’s, The Impossibility of God. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. P. 349, 351.
Grim P. (2007). ‘Impossibility Arguments’, in M Martin’s, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. New York, New York. Cambridge University Press. Pp. 200, 201.
Mackie J.L. (2003). ‘Evil and Omnipotence‘, in M Martin and R Ronnier’s, The Impossibility of God. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. P. 63.
Murray M. (2010). The Atheist’s Primer. Ontario, Canada. Broadview Press. P. 111.
- God is Omnipotent (thegodfranchise.wordpress.com)
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- Logical Arguments from Evil (adamoriens.wordpress.com)
- Omni-this and Omni-that (jmrich78.wordpress.com)
- Why the Common Conception of God is Impossible (fensel.net)
- Power and Knowledge (centretruths.wordpress.com)
- My First Ever “Hitch Slap” – To My Religious Studies Teacher! (britishfemaleatheist.wordpress.com)
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- Quotable Quotes – C.S. Lewis on Divine Omnipotence (basictheology.wordpress.com)
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- Day 6- Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Omniscient ! (lizmason.wordpress.com)
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