Archive for the ‘Dialectical’ Category

Plantinga’s free will defense

Free-willThe previous post consisted of a brief outline on Alvin Plantinga and theistic personalism. In this post, I will examine Plantinga’s use of a “free will defense” against an opponents presentation of the logical problem of evil.

The logical problem of evil is nothing new – it dates back to Epicurus and probably beyond. However, I will credit the particular philosopher Plantinga was responding to, JL Mackie. The argument is set out in his 1955 paper, Evil and Omnipotence.

  1. God is omniscient (all-knowing)
  2. God is omnipotent (all-powerful)
  3. God is omnibenevolent (morally perfect)
  4. There is evil in the world

The thrust of the argument is that if 1-4 are all true, then there is a logical contradiction. Because if God knows of evil, has the power to stop it, and must stop it by His very nature, then whence evil?

Plantinga’s response is interesting in that it is not a traditional theodicy (where one attempts to justify the existence of evil) but rather a direct attack on the soundness of his opponents argument.

Plantinga asserts that there is no contradiction in 1-4 as presented. He gives the example that God, not being able to bring about a contradiction, cannot create beings with real free will that will not on occasion commit evil acts. Plantinga goes on to say that it is rather the implicit assumptions that one may bring to the logical problem of evil (as presented above) that will make it convincing.

So where does this leave us? Plantinga famously holds that his free will suppositions need not be true, but they are sufficient for defeating Mackie’s argument.

Alvin Plantinga and theistic personalism

indexAlvin Plantinga (b. 1932) is an American philosopher whose work sits within the school of analytic philosophy. He is best known for his work in Christian apologetics. Plantinga’s father was a philosophy teacher, and encouraged him to leave high school a year early and enroll in college. Plantinga would go on to study at Calvin College, Harvard and eventually Yale, receiving his PhD there in 1958.

There will be two posts on Plantinga’s free will defense and his ontological argument following this one, but first it is important to understand how Plantinga’s view of God differs radically from classical and medieval philosophers such as Aristotle and Aquinas.

If one reads Aquinas’s Five Ways or Anselm’s ontological argument, it becomes apparent that classically understood God is always a type of reality that is absolute and fundamental, and necessarily the source of all things non-absolute and non-fundamental. That is to say God does not depend on anything for His existence, and could not in principle do so. He is not composed of parts that require an explanation for their composition and He does not participate in forms that are over Him.

In modern times, there has arisen a new way of conceiving of God – this movement has been labelled “theistic personalism”. Personalist because these thinkers generally start their inquiry in anthropomorphic terms: that God is a person just as human beings are persons, with a will and powers and so forth. However, unlike human beings God has these powers maximally. God is not absolute and fundamental, but rather He is the best that anyone can be given the limitations on Him, whether they be physical laws or forms or etc.

Of course, where one stands in regards to this issue has far-reaching implications when one thinks through controversies such as divine simplicity, the relationship of God’s intellect and will, the aseity of God and so on.

Sartre’s unique anti-theist argument


Most anti-theist arguments take the form, in one way or another, of the problem of evil. The classic example is Epicurus’ trilemma.

Sartre however, formulates a fascinating and unique atheistic argument. I have written in the previous post regarding Sartre’s existential anthropology – in that a man’s existence precedes his essence and thus he is necessarily a subject, and necessarily free.

With that background, I will attempt to trace out Sartre’s argument syllogistically.

  1. If God exists as traditionally conceived, then essence will precede existence and man must be an artificial object of God.
  2. Man is not an artificial object.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Sartre writes in his play No Exit in the voice of Garcin:

This bronze. Yes, now’s the moment; I’m looking at this thing on the mantelpiece and I understand that I am in hell. I tell you, everything’s been thought out beforehand. They knew I’d stand at the fireplace stroking this thing of bronze, with all those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more, many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all that we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the ‘burning marl.’ Old wives’ tales, there’s no need for the red hot pokers. Hell – is other people!

As Garcin is being scrutinised he feels like the bronze statue, an artifice. Sartre then moves from the gaze of men to the gaze of an omniscient God. As RC Sproul writes, Sartre sees God as a kind of “cosmic voyeur” that reduces all men to mere objects. After all, if other people are hell, how much worse is the company of God!

Of course, this argument is not without controversy. One may point out that man is natural rather than artificial due to his intrinsic teleology, even if essence precedes existence. Or one may simply concede that in fact man is a type of object.

Karl Popper on science and falsification

Karl_PopperKarl Popper (1902 – 1994) was an Austrian born philosopher that spent most of his academic life working in New Zealand and Britain. In his youth, he worked in road construction and cabinet making, but struggled with the toil of heavy labour. Popper obtained his doctorate in psychology in 1928, and by 1937 he had obtained an academic position in New Zealand that enabled him to flee the rise of Nazism in Europe.

Popper completed many political works, but he is most well known for his work on the philosophy of science. Particularly, his proposal that all scientific theory should be falsifiable; that it is a strict condition that a scientific theory should be overturn-able given empirical evidence to its contrary.

In the modern era, Francis Bacon is the father of scientific philosophy with his inductivist method. Bacon’s idea was that one would observe the world, propose a law, and then confirm that law by further observation of many particulars. This law may later be modified or discarded pending further empirical study.

However, David Hume’s criticism of this method was that human beings do not directly perceive the causal connections between events (a.k.a problem of induction). This is a problem for Baconian science in that while one may see certain things and certain activities at certain times, this is by no means proof of any law of operation in nature.

Popper provides a solution for this problem: scientific theory must be falsifiable. The popular example is of the sun rising every morning. Popper states that while there is no way to prove that the sun will rise every morning empirically, one may formulate a scientific theory that the sun will rise every morning. There is no need to reject this theory until there is a morning where the sun does not rise – in which case a new theory will need to be formulated.

Popper works under the assumption that no scientific theory can be proved true, it can only be falsified. In this way it is like ancient Pyrrhonism, where the thought that one way is better than another lays in the deluded belief that one could prove their prejudice true.


Heidegger: phenomenology and being

Heidegger_1955Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) was a German philosopher and one of the most prominent thinkers of the 20th century. Raised a Roman Catholic, Heidegger attended the University of Freiberg at the Church’s expense to study theology on the understanding that he would become an apologist. However, Heidegger broke with the Church and switched his field of inquiry to philosophy.

He would complete his doctoral thesis on the works of Duns Scotus, but it was Edmund Husserl and his philosophy of phenomenology that would become Heidegger’s greatest influence.

Like most great thinkers, Heidegger begins with a problem. Per Heidegger, the problem with Western Thought in the 20th century was that it had lost it’s concept of being and thus collapsed into nihilism. To clarify, it is the question of nature of being itself that fascinated Heidegger, rather the study of individual beings.

Heidegger developed two important concepts. The first is “Sein”, this is being itself. The second is “Dasein”, which are particular beings that “care” for the question of “Sein”. The main concern of Heidegger’s early philosophy is the phenomenological analysis of Dasein in order to understand Sein.

Heidegger’s search for Sein complicates Husserl’s philosophy. For Heidegger, the idea of the intentionality of the mental world is transformed because the experiences that are key to phenomenological analysis are already grounded in being. Rather, Heidegger argues the Dasein is what it is because the question of Sein matters to it.

For Heidegger phenomenlogy is methodological rather than metaphysical. One may also note the modern and especially Kierkegaardian emphasis on the subject as the starting point of philosophy. Heidegger would go on to influence the wave of existential thinkers of the 20th century.

Ludwig Wittgenstein on logic and language

ludwig_wittgensteinLudwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) was an Austrian born British philosopher. Wittgenstein produced only one published book on philosophy (Tractatus Logico-Philosophus in 1921) while he was alive, but is nonetheless considered one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. He was born into a wealthy family in Austria, but would later gave away his inheritance to his family, stating that philosophy was the only work that gave him satisfaction.

Wittgenstein was a student of Russell. Russell described him as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.” I have written previously regarding Russell’s unique style of Platonism, which emphasised the importance of terms. Wittgenstein, inspired by both Russell and Frege, takes this one step further in contending that all major philosophical problems have their being in the misunderstanding of the logic of language.

At the heart of the Wittgensteinian philosophy is the saying/showing distinction. Wittgenstein contended that what can be shown cannot be said. But if all philosophy is bound by language, then there are simply things that cannot be known. In this sense Wittgenstein channels Kant, where the necessary apparatus for making sense of experience are things that themselves cannot be experienced and known. In this way Wittgenstein shows the Kantian limitation of Frege-Russell logic, like a paradox it may explain all things but remains itself unexplained.

Russell, realism and analytic philosophy

what-were-plato-s-beliefs_2ebecdd3-b206-467b-bb0e-c3a742b09571In the previous post I discussed some of the reasons for Betrand Russell’s rejection of the idealism of his teachers and peers.

This is remarkable because of how unfashionable realism was in the early 20th century. Russell rejected both the popular “scientific materialism” view criticised by Whitehead that all is matter, and of course the idealistic view that reality is ultimately the mental world of ideas.

Going forward, Russell was to adopt a unique type of Platonism. He writes:

Whatever may be an object of thought,…, or can be counted as one, I call a term. …I shall use it as synonymous with the words unit, individual, and entity. … Every term has being, that is, is in some sense. A man, a moment, a number, a class, a relation, a chimera, or anything else that can be mentioned, is sure to be a term….

Principles of Mathmatics, p. 43

So, according to Russell what has being is “terms” which may or may not exist. This is because for Russell words simply mean objects (or terms). So it follows that a sentence, which contains terms, is an entity of itself i.e. a unity of those terms, which may be particulars or concepts.

Following that, logical analysis consists of the deconstruction of complex unities into increasingly simpler components of concepts and particulars. This is the birth of analytic philosophy in the early 20th century.