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Epistemology

Epistemology

Julian Baggini on the Four “New Atheist” Horsemen

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A second feature of atheism is that it is committed to the appropriate use of reason and evidence. In order to occupy this intellectual high ground, it is important to recognise the limits of reason, and also to acknowledge that atheists have no monopoly on it. The new atheism, however, tends to claim reason as a decisive combatant on its side only. With its talk of “spells” and “delusions”, it gives the impression that only through stupidity or crass disregard for reason could anyone be anything other than an atheist. “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence,” says Dawkins, once again implying that reason and evidence are strangers to religion. This is arrogant, and attributes to reason a power it does not have.

The Sacredness of Questioning Everything

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Questions make new worlds possible, asserts author Dark (The Gospel According to America), a key premise in this thought-provoking meander of reflections on, and challenges for, living an engaged life of authentic Christianity. The well-read author draws insight and inspiration from a broad range of sources — Shakespeare, Ursula Le Guin, Johnny Cash and James Joyce — in calling into question the status quo, received history and conventional theology. Dark brings to his writing the kind of energy, offbeat enthusiasm and commitment to relevance that must make his high school English classes exciting places for inquiry and exploration. That each page yokes keen observation to practical application with wisdom and compassion inclines the reader to forgive the book’s bewildering organization and abstruse section headings. Questions for further conversation at the end of each chapter will be useful for groups eager to put Dark’s appeals into action. The author’s passion for social justice, clarity about the sacred obligation of taking nothing at face value and confidence that unsettling questions yield rich rewards for both individuals and communities is convincing and moving. ~ Publishers Weekly

Richard Swinburne on Understanding Revelation

Go Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all claim that God has given humans a revelation. Divine revelation may be either of God, or by God of propositional truth. Traditionally Christianity has claimed that the Christian revelation has involved both of these. God revealed himself in his acts in history; for example in the miracles by which he preserved the people of ancient Israel, and above all by becoming incarnate (that is human) as Jesus Christ, who was crucified and rose from the dead. And God also revealed to us propositional truths by the teaching of Jesus and his church. Some modern theologians have denied that Christianity involves any propositional revelation, but there can be little doubt that from the second century (and in my view from the first century) until the eighteenth century, Christians and non-Christians were virtually unanimous in supposing that it claimed to have such a revelation, and so it is worthwhile investigating its traditional claim. It is in any case very hard to see how it would be of great use to us for God to reveal himself in history (e.g. in the Exodus, or in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus) unless we could understand the cosmic significance of what happened — e.g. that Jesus was God incarnate and that his life and death constituted an atonement for our sins. And how are we to know that unless with the history God provides its interpretation?

The Reconstruction of the Christian Revelation Claim

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Dr. Hackett provides, in digestible form, a comprehensive, systematic, and pervasively philosophical apologetic for the Christian revelation claim. Although the approach is seriously philosophical, the text is free as possible of the earmarks of technical scholarship-reflecting the author’s aspiration to "reach the common person who has a deep interest in such questions."

Gregory Dawes on Luckless Theistic Hypotheses

Go One might argue that this history is just that, history. Past failure does not, strictly speaking, preclude future success. Who knows? we may yet require the theistic hypothesis. That is true. But it is also true that any proposed theistic explanation comes out of a stable whose horses have previously performed badly. A prudent punter will be reluctant to put money on its future success. From a Bayesian point of view, you might argue that the past failure of the tradition of theistic explanation lowers the prior probability of any proposed theistic hypothesis. But even from the explanationist perspective which I have chosen, you can argue that past failure counts against present acceptance. It establishes what one might describe as a defeasible presumption in favour of natural explanations.

Victor Reppert on What Governs Reason

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It is not enough that one mental event cause another mental event in virtue of its propositional content. Someone who engages in rational inference must recognize the correctness of the principle of sound reasoning, which one applies to one’s inference. Modus Ponens works, affirming the consequent does not. Our inferences are supposed to be governed by the rules of reasoning we recognize to be correct. However, can these rules of inference ever really govern our reasoning process? According to physicalism, all of our reasoning processes are the inevitable result of a physical substrate that is not governed by reasons. ¶ So we might ask this question: “Which laws govern the activity we call rational inference?” We might stipulate, for the purposes of this discussion, the idea that laws of physics are accounts of the powers and liabilities of the objects in question. If the materialist claims that laws other than the laws of physics apply to the assemblage of particles we call human beings, then those particles are not what (mechanistic) physics says they are, and we have admitted a fundamental explanatory dualism. If however, the laws are the laws of physics, then there are no powers and liabilities that cannot be predicted from the physical level. If this is so there can be a sort of emergence, in that the basic laws governing a sleeping pill will not mention that the pills tend to put you to sleep. Nevertheless, the pill’s soporific effectiveness can be fully and completely analyzed in terms of its physical powers and liability. If this is so, then we will be rational if and only if the physical configurations of matter guarantee that we are physical, and in the last analysis, the laws of logic do not govern our intellectual conduct.

Eric Reitan on Religion and Equivocation

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Imagine an author who sets out to prove that music glorifies violence but who spends most of the book fixated on gangsta rap and then attributes the vices of the latter to music in general. As already noted, this kind of mistake is called equivocation. Dawkins’ rhetorical excesses and inattention to nuanced differences do not just make him susceptible to this fallacy. When he tries to make the case that religion is pernicious, Dawkins moves willy-nilly from an attack on particular religious doctrines and communities to conclusions about religion and belief in God generally. And this, of course, is entirely typical of religion’s cultured despisers.

Eric Reitan on Defining Religion

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The fact is, we use the term “religion” in a variety of ways. And this fact makes it difficult to talk precisely about religion, let alone attack it with valid objections. Whenever usage is so varied, there is a real danger that one will fall prey to what philosophers call equivocation — that is, the fallacy of using the same term in different senses in the course of a single argument or discussion, without noticing the shift. … Is religion a comprehensive and unsurpassable account of everything that matters to a person? If so, the naturalism secular humanists would qualify as their religion. Or is religion a private matter of how the individual relates subjectively to what is taken to be the fundamental reality? If so, the physicist’s awe and wonder at the vast beauty of the cosmos would be a religion. Or is religion a social construct, its metaphysical pronouncements (if any) an incidental by-product of its goal of creating loyalty, obedience, and cohesion among society’s members? If so, Marxist ideology would have been the religion of the former Soviet Union. Or is religion an attempt, through metaphors and ritual practices, to bring our lives into alignment with an inexpressible transcendent reality? If so, then most world religions would paradoxically be true religions even as they reject the accuracy of Hick’s account (since thy don’t typically take themselves to be engaged in merely metaphorical discourse). The point, of course, is that “religion” is used in all these ways and more.

Eric Reitan on Sam Harris and Equivocation

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In The End of Faith, Sam Harris raises equivocation on the meaning of "religion" to a high art, wraps the ambiguity in mellifluous prose, plays up our fear of religious extremists, launches stinging attacks on Christian fundamentalism, and then lets the force of rhetoric do the work of implicating all religion in the impending demise of human civilization. His message is simple: humanity is headed towards Armageddon, and the blame lies as much with your Aunt Ruth, who faithfully drives to her United Methodist Church every Sunday to sing hymns and pray and listen raptly to Pastor Jim, as it does with Al Qaeda fanatics.

Eric Reitan on Corrupting Religion

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It is my conviction that theism and other forms of supernatural religion are born out of a combination of rational insight, profound experiences of a distinctive kind, and morally laudable hope… I believe that the germ of religion born from these sources needs to be refined and shaped by careful and humble reflection in open-minded discourse with others… But it is an unfortunate fact of history that the germ of this religious vision has consistently been co-opted for political and economic gain, corrupted by our more mean-spirited impulses, obscured by our blinkered and parochial thinking, and — perhaps — distorted by the kinds of impulse that Dawkins and Dennet take to be the evolutionary basis for religion itself. The results have been religious traditions that — while preserving the germ of what I might presumptuously call “true religion,” and while offering fleeting glimpses of what that germ might evolve into — are also laden with crud. ¶ And in some of the more pernicious modes of religious expression, the germ has been thrown away altogether and the crud has been lifted up. Human beings have been encouraged, indoctrinated, even coerced into the worship of rubbish.

Religulous: Uncut Reflections

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If you consider a wide sampling of the reactions to Bill Maher’s and Larry Charles’ Religulous, two distinct themes emerge. On the one hand, reviewers consistently note that the filmmakers were deliberately manipulative in their survey of religion: in whom they chose to interview and feature, in asking baited questions, and finally, in their merciless splicing and dicing in the editing room. And so, not surprisingly, religious people come off as goofy, gullible, and worse. On the other hand, a number of reviewers note what they take to be an earnest search by Maher to understand people of faith. As Maher puts it himself at the outset, his quest is to understand how otherwise intelligent and rational people can continue to believe in fantasies like talking snakes and a virgin birth. It’s a worthwhile question, and there are moments in the film when Maher displays some genuine curiosity about it. Nonetheless, these two observations about Religulous are incompatible. And regrettably, by the end, it is clear that Maher and Charles set out not on a quest for understanding, but rather to proof-text their presumptions. Religulous is funny enough, and at times thought provoking. On the whole, however, Religulous is a “mockumentary”. A hit-piece. It is a quest that begins with a predetermined destination in mind and manages to arrive there by scrupulously avoiding any detours that might have derailed the script.

We’re In This Together

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On a recent broadcast of the Infidel Guy (Sep. 16, 2008), a caller challenged Gary Habermas, the evening’s guest, to reconcile the omniscience of God with human free will. Habermas did his best to argue that there is no necessary conflict, that God knows because we freely choose, we do not so choose because God knows. For my part, I think it’s a legitimate and difficult objection. I’m not yet persuaded by either Molinist or Openness attempts to reconcile the two, much less compatabilism or the notion that it is solved by God’s being outside of time. But what followed is what struck me. Habermas took the opportunity to ask Reggie Finley, the host, whether he, as a naturalist, believed in free will. Reggie paused, then conceded that he was still trying to figure that one out. Good luck, because while free will may be problematic for the theist, it is probably a lost cause for the naturalist. For example, in his excellent and lucid work, The Significance of Free Will, Robert Kane manages to find a place for indeterminacy in matter (in quantum theory), but not for agency, the sine qua non of free will in my judgment. My point is not to wade into the deep waters of human freedom. Rather, I’m taking exception to the widespread impression that it is only the theist who must accept mysteries, antinomies, and quandaries. The truth is, all worldviews are beset by unique difficulties and internal conceptual problems. And, we remain perplexed by many mysteries that we share in common. That is to say, we’re in this together. With our amazing, but limited human faculties, the world remains puzzling to us all. In the ongoing debate about what is and is not real, it would serve us well to be mindful of the problems with which each worldview must wrestle. To that end, here are some that occur to me for both Christian theism and for Naturalism.

Stephen King on Mystery and God

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It’s a mystery. That’s the first thing that interests me about the idea of God. If there is one, it’s mysterious and powerful and awesome to even consider the concept, and you have to take it seriously. I understand where Bill Maher is coming from when he says, basically, the world is destroying itself over a bunch of fairy tales about talking snakes and men who are alive inside fishes. I’m very sympathetic to it, but at the same time, given the cosmos that we’re living in, it’s very persuasive, the idea that there is some kind of first cause that’s running things. It might not be the god of Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, it might not be the god of al-Qaida, and it might not be the god of Abraham, but something very well could be running things. The order of the universe as we see it, the interlocking nature, and the way things work together, are persuasive of the idea that there may be some overarching first cause.

Oxford Handbook of Skepticism

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In the history of philosophical thought, few themes loom as large as skepticism. Skepticism has been the most visible and important part of debates about knowledge. Skepticism at its most basic questions our cognitive achievements, challenges our ability to obtain reliable knowledge; casting doubt on our attempts to seek and understand the truth about everything from ethics, to other minds, religious belief, and even the underlying structure of matter and reality. Since Descartes, the defense of knowledge against skepticism has been one of the primary tasks not just of epistemology but philosophy itself. The Oxford Handbook of Skepticism features twenty-six newly commissioned chapters by top figures in the field. Part One contains articles explaining important kinds of skeptical reasoning. Part Two focuses on responses to skeptical arguments. Part Three concentrates on important contemporary issues revolving around skepticism. As the first volume of its kind, the articles make significant contributions to the debate on skepticism. ~ Product Description

Bill Maher on Trying to Make Faith Reasonable

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This is the idea that people have in their heads, that somehow you can have a person who sounds very rational and can hold his own in a conversation about whether religion is silly or not. And I just disagree with that premise. If you’re defending the story I just described, you are going to come out sounding ridiculous no matter who you are and no matter how intelligent you are. We interviewed Francis Collins in the film. He’s the man who mapped the human genome, he’s a brilliant scientist. But he says some pretty cuckoo things, some things that are just factually wrong and make him look foolish. I said, “We don’t even know for sure whether Jesus lived,” and he said, “We have eyewitness accounts.” I said, “No, every scholar agrees that the gospels were written from 40 to 70 years after Jesus died.” And he said, “Well, that’s close.” That’s close to an eyewitness account? Forty years after somebody dies, 2,000 years ago? This idea that there’s somebody out there who can make a case for this and make it sound reasonable, that just doesn’t exist.

In Search of a Confident Faith

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In Search of a Confident Faith is an excellent comprehensive apologetic for establishing trust in God "for real." I wanted to review this book due to my own interest in Christians becoming confident in their faith. The book reaffirms the Christian faith as one of propositional knowledge confirmed through personal experience; but does so at a very accessible level. Moreland and Issler address many helpful points concerning the influence of Western culture in creating doubt in Christians’ faith. First, the authors address the misuse of the term "faith" in today’s culture as a "blind leap" or as in place of reason. The term historically entailed a much richer meaning of trust and confidence, which crucially required the proper exercise of reason, evidence, and knowledge. Second, they describe the essential role of knowledge in the Christian faith; through a look at the Biblical view of knowledge, through breaking down the concept of knowledge, and through addressing our plausibility structures (explained more thoroughly later). Third, the authors attend to intellectual and emotional doubts: both through logical arguments and then through practical steps in handling these doubts. Fourth, Moreland and Issler handle doubt caused by low expectations of God’s intervention into a believer’s life and make practical suggestions for increasing trust in God. Their writing systematically and carefully treats each area without losing interest or bogging down in terminology. ~ Mary Jo Sharp @ Amazon.com

John G. West on Scientism and Eugenics

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[T]he idea that the current scientific consensus on any topic deserves slavish deference betrays stunning ignorance of the history of science. Time and again, scientists have shown themselves just as capable of being blinded by fanaticism, prejudice, and error as anyone else. Perhaps the most egregious example in American history was the eugenics movement, the ill-considered crusade to breed better human beings. During the first decades of the 20th century, the nation’s leading biologists at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Stanford, as well by members of America’s leading scientific organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences, the American Museum of Natural History, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science were all devoted eugenicists. By the time the crusade had run its course, some 60,000 Americans had been sterilized against their will in an effort to keep us from sinning against Darwin’s law of natural selection, which Princeton biologist Edwin Conklin dubbed “the great law of evolution and progress.” Today, science is typically portrayed as self-correcting, but it took decades for most evolutionary biologists to disassociate themselves from the junk science of eugenics. For years, the most consistent critics of eugenics were traditionalist Roman Catholics, who were denounced by scientists for letting their religion stand in the way of scientific progress. The implication was that religious people had no right to speak out on public issues involving science.

Rhetoric or Reason

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Christopher Hitchens is recognized by just about everyone as a master rhetorician. His wit and command of the English language are things to behold. The American Heritage Dictionary offers a number of definitions of the term rhetoric, including: 1) The art or study of using language effectively and persuasively, 2) Language that is elaborate, pretentious, insincere, or intellectually vacuous. No doubt Hitchens’ rhetoric has been persuasive in many quarters, but the more I read, the more clear it becomes that the second definition is also apt, that what we have here is as much style as substance. At Afterall.net we host The Illogic Primer, a catalog of common logical fallacies and rhetorical chicanery. We can all be forgiven a slip or two into illogic, but Hitchens’ god is not Great is an unending cascade of this kind of rhetorical mischief. Is it merely empty rhetoric, or is there reason beyond the rhetoric? I’ll leave that judgment till I turn the last page. In the meantime, allow me to enumerate some concerns about Hitchens’ style of argumentation and why I think it impedes getting to the truth of the matter.

The Defense of the Faith

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The Defense of the Faith is Van Til’s book about the subject for which he is most famous, presuppositional apologetics. I know many Christians wish to be able to defend their faith and to be “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope” that they have (I Peter 3:15). … “Presuppositional” means that the argument for the truth of the claims of Scripture focuses on the presuppositions, or assumptions, of non-Christian thought, and it is founded on and proceeds according to the presuppositions of Biblical, Christian thought. The most foundational idea of non-Christian thought is the idea of human autonomy. According to the Bible, the unbeliever’s heart is naturally at war with God after the fall. God has revealed that He is the Creator, and that man, whether he wants to or not, must always ultimately face the fact the he is the creature, and is responsible to and dependent on God. He knows that this is true. However, after the fall, the unbeliever does not want to be responsible to or dependent on God. He suppresses the truth that he knows in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:21). He wants to determine for himself the significance and purpose of his life. He makes his own mind the ultimate criterion for all interpretation and for all activity. The claims of God are not satisfactory to him, so he rejects them. The mind of the creature sits in judgment over its Creator. Thus all human reasoning and interpretation is inescapably and fundamentally ethical by nature. Van Til’s argument is that a truly Biblical apologetic must confront the unbeliever at this very point. … ~ B.C. Richards at Amazon.com

Knowledge of God

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Is belief in God epistemically justified? That’s the question at the heart of this volume in the Great Debates in Philosophy series, with Alvin Plantinga and Michael Tooley each addressing this fundamental question with distinctive arguments from opposing perspectives. The first half of the book contains each philosopher’s explanation of his particular view; the second half allows them to directly respond to each other’s arguments, in a lively and engaging conversation. Knowledge of God offers the reader a one of a kind, interactive discussion. “It’s difficult to locate this book, since, in the series, there is already a book entitled Atheism and Theism. The difference is that this book is more focused on the rationality of theism — is it reasonable to believe in God — than the question of God’s existence (though the latter obviously informs the former). The book is divided into six sections. Both authors get a 75 page opening statement, a 35 page response, and a final 15 page rejoinder.” ~ Timothy Perrine at Amazon.com

The Elusive God

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Three questions motivate this book’s account of evidence for the existence of God. First, if God’s existence is hidden, why suppose He exists at all? Second, if God exists, why is He hidden, particularly if God seeks to communicate with people? Third, what are the implications of divine hiddenness for philosophy, theology, and religion’s supposed knowledge of God? This book answers these questions on the basis of a new account of evidence and knowledge of divine reality that challenges skepticism about God’s existence. The central thesis is that we should expect evidence of divine reality to be purposively available to humans, that is, available only in a manner suitable to divine purposes in self-revelation. This lesson generates a seismic shift in our understanding of evidence and knowledge of divine reality. The result is a needed reorienting of religious epistemology to accommodate the character and purposes of an authoritative, perfectly loving God. An interview with Moser is available on the Evangelical Philosophical Society blog.

The Devil’s Delusion

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Militant atheism is on the rise. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens have dominated bestseller lists with books denigrating religious belief as dangerous foolishness. And these authors are merely the leading edge of a far larger movement – one that now includes much of the scientific community. “The attack on traditional religious thought,” writes David Berlinski in The Devil’s Delusion, “marks the consolidation in our time of science as the single system of belief in which rational men and women might place their faith, and if not their faith, then certainly their devotion.” A secular Jew, Berlinski nonetheless delivers a biting defense of religious thought. An acclaimed author who has spent his career writing about mathematics and the sciences, he turns the scientific community’s cherished skepticism back on itself, daring to ask and answer some rather embarrassing questions. ~ Product Description

On Being Certain

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You recognize when you know something for certain, right? You "know" the sky is blue, or that the traffic light had turned green, or where you were on the morning of September 11, 2001 — you know these things, well, because you just do. In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton challenges the notions of how we think about what we know. He shows that the feeling of certainty we have when we "know" something comes from sources beyond our control and knowledge. In fact, certainty is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. Because this "feeling of knowing" seems like confirmation of knowledge, we tend to think of it as a product of reason. But an increasing body of evidence suggests that feelings such as certainty stem from primitive areas of the brain, and are independent of active, conscious reflection and reasoning. The feeling of knowing happens to us; we cannot make it happen. Bringing together cutting edge neuroscience, experimental data, and fascinating anecdotes, Robert Burton explores the inconsistent and sometimes paradoxical relationship between our thoughts and what we actually know. Provocative and groundbreaking, On Being Certain, will challenge what you know (or think you know) about the mind, knowledge, and reason. ~ Product Description

Tim Keller on Doubt and Doubting Doubts

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A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection. ¶ Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts — not only their own but their friends’ and neighbors’. It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them. Only if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide the grounds for your beliefs to skeptics, including yourself, that are plausible rather than ridiculous or offensive. And, just as important for our current situation, such a process will lead you, even after you come to a position of strong faith, to respect and understand those who doubt.

Themes from G. E. Moore

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These thirteen original essays, whose authors include some of the world’s leading philosophers, examine themes from the work of the Cambridge philosopher G. E. Moore (1873-1958), and demonstrate his considerable continuing influence on philosophical debate. Part I bears on epistemological topics, such as skepticism about the external world, the significance of common sense, and theories of perception. Part II is devoted to themes in ethics, such as Moore’s open question argument, his non-naturalism, utilitarianism, and his notion of organic unities. ~ Product Description • "A welcome addition to the re-evaluation of Moore’s philosophical legacy. The book as a whole is well-organized; the authors cover a wide range of topics related to Moore’s work in epistemology and ethics. The well written essays are timely and the authors demonstrate the contemporary relevance of Moore’s work by showing how his views illuminate current disputes. This book will be useful to experts in the field and is accessible to those who are new comers to Moore’s work." ~ William Tolhurst, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews