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Archive for the ‘Descartes’ Category

A Tribute to the Retiring Alvin Plantinga

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Alvin Plantinga has been a professor of philosophy for over 50 years, spending his last 28 years at Notre Dame.   To be quite frank he is one of the best philosophers in the past few centuries.   I think the greatest complement I have ever heard of Plantinga came a Jewish atheist professor at UF, who said something to the effect, ‘Alvin Plantinga has single handidly made Christianity respectable again in philosophy… his arguments are so damn good, that I have reconsidered my atheism.’

In analytic philosophy circles, Christianity was seen as an epistemological joke.  Plantinga painstakingly carved out a space for Christianity back at the discussion table in even the most hostile departments.  It is perhaps somewhat ironic that Plantinga was at Notre Dame considering his theological and philosophical heritage was from the Reformed tradition.  However, from what I understand the President of Notre Dame at the time wanted the best Christian thinking and at that time it happened to be Reformed epistemology.   So, Notre Dame grabbed guys like Plantinga, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Peter van Inwagen.

Here is a poor attempt at a brief and uncomprehensive summary his contribution to Christian thought:

Warranted Christian Belief and God as properly basic (Reformed Epistemology)

In Warranted Christian Belief, Plantinga makes a case that several things are properly basic.  Something that is properly basis does not require proof and functions as the bedrock that we layer our daily lives on top of.  One such example is Descartes’ famous “cogito ergo sum” or “I think therefore I exist.”  The most important thing that Plantinga voraciously argues for is that the existence of God is properly basic [and the atheists gasp, throwing the yellow flag calling for a 5 yard illegal motion penalty].  Plantinga makes a very good case (along with the presuppositionalists) that belief in God requires no proof or justification.  Consider the following – can you prove that other minds exist.  It sounds like a stupid question, but can you?  I could be a brain in a vat, or Neo in the Matrix, or the muse of some evil genius and all of what I think is reality could be completely constructed, and I am on the only thinking being.  None of us thinks or believes that we are the only mind in existence.  In simple terms, the belief in other minds is properly basic in a similar way that belief in God is properly basic.  Plantinga spends the rest of the book defending that the Christian worldview is justifiable.

Free-Will Defense Against the Logical Problem of Evil

There are several Problem(s) of Evil in philosophy.  The most common had been the logical problem of evil:

1. If a perfectly good god exists, then evil does not.    2. There is evil in the world.    3. Therefore, a perfectly good god does not exist.

Most philosophers have conceded that Plantinga has solved the logical problem of evil in his Free-Will Defense, and have given up on the logical problem of evil.  First off, it is important to say that his argument is a defense and not a theodicy.  A theodicy is a justification for why evil exists in a world created by God.  A defense exists merely to show a logically possible set of premises that refutes the trilemma above.  Plantinga’s argument goes like such:

A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.  God, Freedom, and Evil, pp. 166-167.

In undergrad, I wrote a paper reworking Plantinga’s argument removing a free-will view of Divine Sovereignty and human responsibility and inserting a compatibilist view in its place.  I believe that my paper did no harm to Plantinga’s argument and that his argument is still compatible with compatibilism.

Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

The evolutionary argument against naturalism is sheer brilliance.  He argues that if evolution and naturalism are true then it seriously undermines both evolution and naturalism.  Naturalism is the idea that we hold ideas “true” today because they have “survival value.”  If evolution and naturalism are true, then human thinking evolved to produce ideas that have survival value and not necessarily truth.  The set of beliefs that maximizes my ability to eat, reproduce, and fight is not always what is true.  Evolution and naturalism, therefore, are tuned to survival rather than truth.  Therefore, this casts significant doubt on trusting our thinking itself, and included in that thinking are both the ideas of evolution or naturalism themselves.  Genius.

Modal Logic Version of Ontological Argument

It took me 3 years, 4 philosophy professors, and 4 versions of the argument to finally understand its genius.  It is not sophistry; it is not a parlor trick; it is not a aberration of grammar.  Do not go chasing the ontological argument unless you have copious amounts of time, a willingness to make your brain hurt, and the patience to deconstruct why Gaunilo and Kant’s objections are incorrect.  If you are up to the task, start here.

In the wake of evangelicalism’s massive receding from all public spheres (particularly the University), Plantinga has nearly single-handidly re-carved out a space for the Christian to have a voice in philosophy and respectability in the University.  You would be wise to have a basic understanding of his thinking.

Thank you Alvin.  I am deeply indebted.

The 25 Most Destructive Books Ever Written…

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Darwin: Origin of Species

…and why you should read them (or at least be familiar with them).

These are books that have had a deleterious affect on humanity (almost exclusively Western in their thinking).  Some of them had “good intentions”* but fell flat on their face with horrible unintended consequences.  The Christian has the responsibility to defend the truth of the Gospel.  One part of defending the truth is refuting all untruth.  We need to be reading primary sources of the things we are seeking to deconstruct – not summaries, the wikipedia article, or a blog post about it.

*1.  The Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life by Charles Darwin
I do not think Darwin would agree with half of Neo-Darwinianism or macroevolution.  He makes massive concessions that geology and microbiology would need to corroborate his thesis.  He was a good scientist who followed the evidence, I think he would be in the intelligent design camp (perhaps this is a controversial statement, but read Origin for yourself).  I have listed this as #1 as this work was critical in pretty much all of the destructive thoughts of the past 150 years:  Eugenics, Scientific Naturalism, Nietzschean atheism, New Atheism, Liberal Protestantism, and Communism.

2.  Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant

This book is probably the most influential book in philosophy since the ancient Greeks.  Kant seeks to synthesize the great debate of the history of philosophy:  Being vs. Becoming aka Plato vs. Aristotle.  In the process, Kant comes to the conclusion that our minds cannot have knowledge of things that are not physical – ie. God and many other absolute truths.  In defense of Kant, his thinking did begin to change in his third work as he makes some wiggle room for faith as being a legitimate pathway for knowledge (but almost no one reads his third volume).

3.  The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

20,000,000 dead under Stalin, 6-8,000,000 dead under Lenin, 40,000,000 dead under Mao Zedong, 1,700,000 dead under Pol Pot… case and point.

4.  On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers by Friedrich Schleiermacher

This guy birthed liberal Protestantism.  His ideas split Protestantism and millions think they know Jesus when they don’t.

5.  Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche decries how humanity has killed God through our apathy.  He then espouses why humanity needs to move beyond God, morality, truth, and the good, in favor of embracing exerting power and control over the weak.

*6.  Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes

Descartes had every intention of proving through pure axiomatic reasoning that God existed.  In short, his arguments for God’s existence were awful and his arguments for doubting everything were excellent.  His legacy is solid argumentation for skepticism.  Epic Fail.

7.  Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler

11-17,000,000 dead.  Hitler sees Judaism, capitalism, and communism as the three major threats to Germany.  The Final Solution means purging all associated with these things and the result is the Holocaust.  Awful.

8.  Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity by Richard Rorty

In my view, this is the most important book to be read today for the Christian.  For an explanation why, read my previous blog post on post-modern-pragmatism.

9.  The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

In order to be successful in life you must exercise control through power and manipulation.  Morality hurts your ability to exert your will.

10.  Origins of the History of Christianity by Ernest Renan

The New Testament is essentially myth.  This revisionist history was seminal in classic liberalism and influential in the later Jesus Seminar.

11.  Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men by Jean Jacques Rousseau

Society is corrupt, man is good.

12.  The Pivot of Civilization by Margaret Sanger

Sanger promoted sexual liberation and then birth control, abortion, and eugenics.  39,000,000+ babies dead worldwide… this year from abortion.

13.  Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

Humans are immoral, therefore only Leviathan is the solution… Leviathan is a strong and aggressive central government.

14.  The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig von Feuerbach

Christianity is superstition that will soon be replaced by humanism.

15.  The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud

Humanity has invented God and this delusion is a kind of mental illness.

16.  Various Writings by Pelagius

Denial of the doctrine of original sin, denial of efficacious grace, and the denial of the sovereignty of God.  1600 years later his teachings still plague the church.

17.  Sexual Behavior in the Human Male by Alfred Kinsey

This was just painful to read (and I was unable to finish) and I am not endorsing actually getting a copy (hence no link).  Kinsey basically says that no sexual behavior or orientation is immoral.  All is permissible.

18.  The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

Some bit of gnosticism had to make this list.  I wrestled with what to choose here.  Pagels is your run of the mill critic who says that the gnostic “gospels” are the real story and history.  These ideas are ridiculous due to their pseudepigraphic nature, date of writing, and mutually exclusive theologies.

19.  Prolegomena to the History of Israel by Julius Wellhausen

Wellhausen espouses that the first five books of the Old Testament were not written by Moses but by editors from four schools of thought.  A flood of Bible criticism followed Wellhausen.

20.  Why I am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell

Russell is one of the few atheists other than Nietzsche that I respect.  His thoughts are well ordered and argued.  The New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens…) wish they could hold a candle to Russell.

21.  Process and Reality by A.N. Whitehead

Whitehead argues for Process Theology.  Read about Process Theology here.

22.  The Council of Trent

Justification by faith alone is anathematized.  Veneration of Mary and saints upheld.  Transubstantiation upheld.  I love my brothers and sisters who are Christians in the Catholic church despite the Catholic church.  Trent had the opportunity to listen to the Reformation and return to God’s Word for truth.  It did not and left in its wake countless eternal casualties.

23.  His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman

Pullman sought to write the opposite of Milton’s Paradise Lost.  He seeks to commend humanism and ultimately atheism as the commendable life path.  His Dark Materials is aimed at young adults and has been recently popularized by the Golden Compass film.

24.  Protagoras by Plato

For clarity sake, these are sayings ascribed to Protagoras and not Platonic thoughts.  The famous quote is “Man is the measure of all things.”  Protagoras is the first person to espouse a kind of moral relativism.

25.  Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead

The logical consequences of naturalism and Darwinianism applied to anthropology and sociology.  What is primitive is good, therefore the sexual inhibition she evidenced in primitive Samoa ought to be writ large.

Some thinkers who nearly made this list:

Leon Trotsky, Mao Zedong, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Victor Gollancz, Lillian Hellman, Cyril Connolly, Norman Mailer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertolt Brecht, Johann Fichte, Georg Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, John Dewey, Joseph Smith, Percy Shelley, Henrik Ibsen, Edmund Wilson, James Baldwin, Kenneth Tynan, Jean-François Lyotard, Claude Levi-Strauss and Noam Chomsky.

What did I miss?

The Power of Aphorism

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Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines “aphorism”  as follows:

Main Entry: aph·o·rism
Pronunciation: \ˈa-fə-ˌri-zəm\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle French aphorisme, from Late Latin aphorismus, from Greek aphorismos definition, aphorism, from aphorizein to define, from apo- + horizein to bound — more at horizon
Date: 1528

1 : a concise statement of a principle
2 : a terse formulation of a truth or sentiment : adage

Pascal wrote mainly in aphoristic style.   I promise you that in brief sentences Pascal wrote, he said more than others could say in a volume.   The power of aphorism is that it makes you think.  In this regard, I think the power of aphorism is similar to the power of parable.  Pascal does not lay out a thorough line of argumentation of premises and conclusion.   He gives you some provocative nugget that gets at the heart of a matter and whets your appetite enough to make your own brain do some legwork.

One of my favorites:

“Descartes is useless and uncertain.”

Rene Descartes

Best and most succinct critique of Descartes that I’ve ever read.  What is Pascal getting at when he says “useless” and “uncertain”?

Written by Michael Graham

October 1, 2009 at 8:53 am

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