Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Monday, November 30, 2009

How can Christian Intellectual Leadership Serve Non-Western Cultures?

Many have asked for audio or a transcript of J.P Moreland's EPS reception talk that he gave to a little over one-hundred people at the annual meeting.

While audio or a transcript are unavailable, here are the main points from J.P.'s talk:

  1. The church is exploding all over the world outside Western culture, and the disciples in these countries hold to an overtly supernatural worldview.
  2. The emerging young intellectual leadership in these countries look to the ETS/EPS/SCP for guidance and help.  They read our writings and follow us.  They are confused and hurt when we advance ideas that undermine the commonsense, supernatural worldview of the Bible that they embrace.  Thus, we have a responsibility to do our work in light of how it impacts our brothers and sisters in these countries.
  3. Here are four suggestions for how to better fulfill that responsibility:
  • Work together with others to write books, produce edited works, and so forth.  The synergy of such efforts increases our impact and it models the importance of the body of Christ and cooperation among its members.
  • Produce works that range from popular to technical, but be sure we do not look down upon those who work at the popular end of the spectrum.  The key is to find one's role and play it well.
  • Beware of living for a career and for the respect of the "right" people in the profession instead of living for the Kingdom and seeing one's work as a calling from God rather than a place to re-assure oneself that he/she is respected.
  • Require a burden of proof before one adopts a view, e.g., Christian physicalism, that if read by a brothers and sisters outside Western culture, would hurt their supernatural faith, especially if the view is not one held by a significant number of people in church history and if it is "politically correct" to adopt it under pressure from the academic community.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Interview with William Dembski: The End of Christianity

William Dembski, who was recently elected as the new Vice President of the EPS, released his latest book earlier this month from Broadman & Holman Academic, titled, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (2009). We interviewed Dembski about his book and its implications for Christian work on the "problem of evil."


What’s the main point that you are trying to communicate in this book? What is the “end of Christianity” that you speak of in your title?

My book attempts to resolve how the Fall of Adam could be responsible for all evil in the world, both moral and natural IF the earth is old and thus IF a fossil record that bespeaks violence among organisms predates the temporal occurrence of the Fall. My resolution is to argue that just as the salvation of Christ purchased at the Cross acts forward as well as backward in time (the Old Testament saints were saved in virtue of the Cross), so too the effects of the Fall can go backward in time. Showing how this could happen requires extensive argument and is the main subject of the book. As for my title, “End of Christianity” involves a play on words – “end” can refer to cessation or demise; but it can also refer to goal or purpose. I mean the latter, as the subtitle makes clear: Finding a Good God in an Evil World.

How did this book come about for you? How does the “problem of evil” intersect with your other professional and personal interests?

My main work has been in the field of intelligent design. The problem of evil looms large there because if the world and life are designed, the question arises what sort of designer would allow all the malevolent designs that we find in nature. In referring such evil designs to the Fall, however, one runs into a problem if they predate the Fall, as is required with an old earth: How can future events influence past events? So this question is at the heart of the debate between young and old earth creationists.

What do you think often lacking or neglected in “problem of evil” discussions among philosophers and theologians? How does your book contribute to filling-in-the-gaps in the contemporary literature on this topic?

Philosophers tend to approach the problem of evil generically, asking whether God, conceived without specific references to Christian revelation, could be good despite the existence of evil. Such an approach falls under philosophy of religion. It’s fine as far as it goes, but it does not address specifically Christian concerns. My book falls more properly under philosophical theology – I analyze philosophically the content of Christian theology on the question of evil and of the Fall. Moreover, I make a positive proposal for how the Fall is possible in light of advances in modern science, which suggest that natural evil must have predated humanity by millions of years.

In five parts, you lay out your twenty-four chapters. Can you briefly describe the flow of this book and help us understand the larger argument in light of the parts of your discussion?

Part I describes the essence of human evil, the Fall, and God’s solution to our predicament, namely, the Cross. Part II addresses how natural evil can be a consequence of the Fall. The chapters here contrast a young earth view, in which natural evil comes after humanity’s Fall, with an old earth view, in which natural evil comes before. Part III lays out a theological metaphysics that provides the theoretical underpinnings for the retroactive view of the Fall that is the heart of my book. Part IV lays out this retroactive view of the Fall in detail, showing how the Fall can come after the natural evils for which it is responsible. Part V ties together loose ends, notably what to make of evolution as well as the existential problem of evil (it’s one thing to discuss evil intellectually, it’s another thing to deal with it in experience).

In the introduction, you help the reader to pay attention to the reality that we live and think in a particular “mental environment.” What is that mental environment? Why does it matter for doing theodicy work?


Mental environments are more powerful than what typically are understood as worldviews. A worldview can be thought of as a collection of propositions to which we assent. But a mental environment adds conviction to a worldview. How strongly do we hold to certain principles and values in our worldview, and how does that make a practical difference in our lives? A mental environment controls, among other things, our plausibility structures – what we find reasonable or unreasonable.  In the current mental environment, given that it holds to an old earth, it becomes very hard for people to accept that the Fall affected the physical world (and, in particular, induced natural evil). My theodicy attempts to redress this obstacle posed to the Fall by the current mental environment.   

As you say in the introduction, “Christian theodicy” often does deal with the fact of (1) God’s wise creation of the world out of nothing and (2) God’s particular providence in the world. But what is often missing and yet considered preposterous for some is the claim (3): All evil in the world ultimately traces back to human sin. Why is that preposterous for some given our mental environment?

If the earth has been around for millions of years and if animals have been killing each other, getting sick, and going extinct all that time, how can all that suffering be a consequence of humanity’s Fall when humans have been around only a minuscule portion of that time? Without a retroactive view of the Fall, in which God by anticipation allows natural evil in consequence of the Fall, the Fall and its physical effects seem crazy.

Would you say that if there is a failure to account for or be acquainted with the knowledge that is involved in claim (3), then a Christian theodicy that results from claims (1) and (2) will be inadequate?


A denial of (3) does not entail a denial of (1) or (2). Still, as a practical matter, without a classical view of the Fall as given in (3), theologians and scholars seem to find (1) and (2) less plausible. The problem is that (1) and (2) suggest that God is very close to the creation, getting his hands dirty in it and therefore responsible for much that happens. Without passing the blame for evil to humanity, as in (3), that blame then naturally falls on God – unless, that is, God’s role in the world can be diminished, which is precisely what the denial of (1) and (2) involve and which is why process and open theism are now the rage.

The importance of claim (3) would seem to speak to the importance of divine revelation about the human condition and a theology of the heart that takes seriously that revelation as knowledge about reality. Would you agree? If so, how might greater Christian philosophy and theology work on the “problem of evil” result from taking seriously claim (3) in light of claims (1) and (2)?


My book arose out of an essay titled “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science.” I take seriously that the Scripture is God’s special revelation to humanity and that, as such, it is likely to contain layers of meaning that only become clear as our knowledge of the world increases. Far from scholarship undercutting the Scriptures, I see it as opening new vistas within the Scriptures. Thus I certainly see revelation as giving us knowledge about reality, knowledge that will agree with other sources of knowledge, such as science. As for the relation between claims (3) and claims (1) and (2), I see it as mutually reinforcing, where claim (3) renders the other two as more plausible and vice versa.

You are also working on a future project related to the topic, “being as communion,” which is also the title of chapter 13. Can you tell us about that project, including how is that project related to The End of Christianity? How is chapter 13 a microcosm of that larger project?


Actually, Part III, and not just chapter 13, which is within that part, is a microcosm of that larger project. “Being as Communion” attempts to provide a metaphysics of information that is conducive to Christian theism. It depends, however, on a prior science of information, which has been the subject of my research now for over a decade. My most current work here may be found on the Evolutionary Informatics Lab website (http://www.evoinfo.org/). There are still a few more mathematical results I need to publish before I’m ready finally to write a full-length treatment of the metaphysics of information.

What is your view about the reality of the Kingdom of God’s power and presence in our midst? How does that view figure into your treatment of suffering?

Evil, as I treat it, is never purposeless. Rather, God uses evil to bring us to our senses by making us face the consequences of our rebellion against God. The ultimate expression of evil and of God’s redemption from it is signified in the Cross. The Kingdom of God’s power is thus seen in God reversing the effects of evil through the Cross. God’s goodness, our hope and thanksgiving, and the full extremity of suffering are found in the Cross. For this reason, the first chapter in my book is devoted to the Cross – it is titled “The Reach of the Cross” and argues that the Cross is indeed enough to redeem the whole of a fallen world.

William Dembski is a Research Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. More about his work can be found at DesignInference.com and at his highly-trafficked group blog, UncommonDescent.com.

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Saturday, November 7, 2009

Philosophia Christi (Winter 2009): Religious Pluralism

The Winter 2009 issue of Philosophia Christi features a dialog on "religious pluralism" with scholars Keith Yandell, Paul Moser and Paul Knitter.

Here is a preview of what to expect. Subscribe Now!!!


Keith Yandell, "Religious Pluralism: Reductionist, Exclusivist, and Intolerant?"

Abstract: There is a general recognition that there are various self-identifying religions. Many people find the idea that these religions differ in significant ways altogether too distressing to accept. Thus Religious Pluralism is often taken to define the only unbiased, rational, and acceptable approach to the diversity of religions. In fact, the Pluralist route is anything but unbiased or rational. Rather than being the only acceptable approach, it should be flatly rejected. While proclaiming its respect to all nice religious traditions (ones that are not nice are simply cast out), it proposes a radical reshaping of religious traditions along the lines that it favors. Coming to clear terms with this imperialistic fact concerning Religious Pluralist procedures is no part of their agenda.

Paul K. Moser, "Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Kardiatheology"

Abstract: This paper contends that although many religious views are exclusive of each other, a morally perfect God worthy of worship would seek to include all willing people in lasting life with God. The paper distinguishes some different variations on religious exclusivism and inclusivism, and proposes an inclusive version of Christian exclusivism. The account implies that one can yield volitionally to God’s unselfish love and thereby to God de re, without any corresponding acknowledgment de dicto and thus without one’s knowing (or believing) that God exists. The paper finds the basis for this approach in the teachings of Jesus himself. In addition, the paper recruits a notion of kardiatheology to emphasize that a God worthy of worship would seek to transform the heart (or motivational center) of a wayward person even if this person does not (yet) believe that God exists.

Paul F. Knitter, "Religious Diversity: What to Make of It ... How to Engage It? A Conversation with Paul Moser and Keith Yandell."

Abstract: Knitter asks Moser if the soteriological inclusivism he is proposing for our understanding of God can also be extended to our understanding of Christ: Christ’s death and resurrection do not constitute or bring about saving grace; they reveal it, thus leaving room for the possibility of other revealers. For Yandell, Knitter first clarifies that the necessary conditions for dialogue are not established before but in the dialogue. He then urges an epistemic humility for all Christian philosophers in view of the ineffable Mystery of God—a Mystery that may well include, to the philosopher’s consternation, a “coinciding of opposites.”

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God, Evidence and the Will

Thomas Nagel, an atheist philosopher at New York University said something very revealing in his book The Last Word:

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that (Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), 130-131.

Nagel seems to be speaking for many when he reveals what the root problem is—an unwillingness to acknowledge God’s lordship in his life. Note too how Nagel admits that a lot of smart people he knows are believers, which makes him very uncomfortable.

Let me mention another book that addresses the will in relationship to God and the available evidence. Christian philosopher Paul Moser’s book The Elusive God (Cambridge University Press), or from his 2008 EPS plenary paper, directs us to the need to consider the role of the will and “perfectly authoritative purposively available evidence” from God. Moser, with whom I have had the pleasure of co-editing The Rationality of Theism (Routledge) has been writing for some time on the dangers of cognitive idolatry and mere “spectator evidence” for God that fails to engage the will. We can easily treat discussions about God with non-believers as mere armchair theorizing rather than a topic of potentially life-altering significance. Notice the priority of the will in Jesus’ words in John 7:17: “Whoever chooses to do his will shall know whether my teaching is from God or whether I speak on my own.”

Sometime ago I spoke at an open forum at the University of South Carolina on “God’s Existence and Why It Matters.” Below is a list of questions I raised at the beginning of my talk. I spoke of evidence, but I also addressed the topic of human need for outside assistance (“grace”) and that God has taken initiative in the person of Jesus to identify with us in our broken human condition and to bring us into a filial relationship with God. In my talk, I pointed out the deep interconnection of God, the will, and evidence. Here are some of the questions I raised to start the conversation:

  • Could it be that I am looking at the evidence for God in the wrong way—like the duck-rabbit scenario? Perhaps God seems hidden from humans because we aren’t paying attention or because we don’t want God’s authority “interfering” with our lives or because we’ve determined the height of the bar over which God must “jump”?
  • If a good God exists, what would God’s goals be? If God exists, what does God have to do with me?
  • If a good, perfectly authoritative God exists, am I willing to acknowledge my unworthiness to receive this God’s grace? Do I make demands of God (“if God exists, then he ought to put on a display of divine pyrotechnics”) rather than ask, “What demands does God have on me?
  • Do I have a right to demand evidence of God if I am unwilling to go undergo personal transformation?
  • Am I open to evidence for God in whatever form it comes—or do I insist that evidence must be a certain way?
  • Does my will have anything to do with my actually benefiting from evidence?
  • If God exists, how would this impact my life? Is it possible to intellectually believe God exists but my life to remain unchanged by knowing this intellectual fact? What’s the point if my life remains unchanged and self-centered rather than God-centered? What’s the point of evidence if I’m not willing to be transformed by the reality of God?
  • Does God want more than just an acknowledgment of his existence? What if God wants an I-you relationship with individual humans?
  • What kind of an attitude does truth-seeking require? Does the fact that people want to disprove evidence for God actually reveal an attitude of non-truth-seeking?
  • Is it possible that some people might hate God all the more as one piece of evidence for God is stacked on another? Is it possible for me to believe God exists and still hate God (James 2:19)?
  • Can my will interfere with God’s goals for me—to relate to me and to change me from being self-centered to being God-centered and other-person-centered? Are we willing to do what a loving God wants for me so that I might find out what life really is?
  • Must God leave us unavoidable evidence before I believe—or might he leave me avoidable evidence that reveals whether I am genuinely truth-seeking?
  • Wouldn’t it be a strange God who made no demands on us or who didn’t care if we had our way over against God’s?

What if accessing relationship-producing evidence is like that of tuning a radio dial to seek out universally—but not necessarily immediately available dismissible armchair evidence?
God isn’t interested in just changing our beliefs. He’s interested in changing *us*! A loving, authoritative God made us to relate to us. Are we willing to receive evidence on God’s terms?

These are some of the themes in Moser’s thought-provoking book. Whatever one thinks of Moser’s views on, say, natural theology, he is surely right to direct us to the centrality of the will and to the very goal of God’s self-revelation—namely, to reveal God personally to human beings so that we might experience intimate, personal knowledge of God through his Spirit, by whom we cry out, “Abba! Father!”

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Aseity, Fictionalism and Moral Values

At ReasonableFaith.org, I recently received a questions about the topic of divine aseity in light of my understanding of fictionalism and abstract objects:
  1. What are morals according to the fictionalist? Can the fictionalist hold to objective morality without having to be a command theorist? If not, then how can the fictionalist account for arbitrary commands from God (e.g., torturing little children is okay if God commands it to be so)?
  2. My second question is: can we interpret John 1:3 with a quantifying restriction. That is, can we interpret John saying something like the following: "Through him all things were made [except for abstract objects]; without him nothing was made that has been made." Why or why not?

These are excellent questions, which have confronted me in the course of my study of divine aseity (self-existence). For readers who might lack the background of these questions, let me first say that the problem here is what many philosophers, usually called Platonists, think that in addition to concrete objects like tables and people and stars, there exist abstract objects like numbers, properties, and propositions. The problem is that many (though, interestingly, not all) abstract objects exist necessarily and so were never created by God, and many are what we might call "uncreatables," that is to say, they cannot be created, since in order to be created, they would have to exist already, so that one winds up with a vicious circularity (see my and Paul Copan's Creation out of Nothing, chap. 5). The Fictionalist solves the problem by denying that abstract objects really exist—they're just useful fictions (like the average American family with 2.5 children).

With that bit of background, let's take question (2) first. The motivation behind this question is, I think, to ask whether biblically there's really anything problematic about holding that there are uncreated abstract objects, things other than God that also exist a se (through themselves alone). It seems to me that Platonism is so problematic theologically as to be deeply unchristian. It postulates an incomprehensible number of beings, real objects in the mind-independent world, which exist independently of God, so that God becomes just one being among many. It thus espouses a metaphysical pluralism which robs God of His ultimacy and primacy as Creator.

So even if John did not have abstract objects consciously in mind when he wrote that "all things came into being through him (i.e., the Word)," I am confident that if a Platonist were to sit down with John and explain to him just what numbers and sets and functions are on a Platonic ontology and explain to him the metaphysical status of propositions and properties according to Platonism, until John had a clear grasp of Platonist ontology, then John would have said, "If such things really do exist as robustly as concrete objects, then certainly they, too, were created by the Word!" It would have been pointless to affirm the Word's creation of the infinitesimally tiny realm of concrete objects while allowing most of being to exist independently of God. What good does it do theologically to affirm the Word's creation of all concrete objects when these are a mere triviality in comparison to the infinity of infinities of uncreated beings with which God finds Himself confronted? To allow such an ontology would be to rob John's prologue of its theological force.

Moreover, —and this is really interesting!—it's not implausible that John actually did have such abstract objects in mind when he wrote his prologue extolling Christ as the divine Logos (Word). For the Logos is not original with John. The figure of the creative Logos of God is also found in the writing of John's contemporary, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. - A.D. 50). In his On the Creation of the Cosmos according to Moses, Philo explains that on the first day of creation God marked out, like an architect designing a city, an intelligible cosmos to use as an ideal model for the sensible cosmos (16). Philo admonishes that "To declare or suppose that the cosmos composed of the Ideas exists in some place is not permissible" (17). Therefore,
Just as the city that was marked out beforehand in the architect had no location outside but had been engraved in the soul of the craftsman, in the same way the cosmos composed of the Ideas would have no other place than the divine Logos who gives these (Ideas) their ordered disposition (20).
In short,
If you would wish to use a formulation that has been stripped down to the essentials, you might say that the intelligible cosmos is nothing else than the Logos of God as He is actually engaged in making the cosmos. For the intelligible city, too, is nothing else than the reasoning of the architect as he is actually engaged in planning the foundation of the city. This is the doctrine of Moses, not my own (24-25).
In Philo's philosophy of religion we see the confluence of Judaism and Greek Platonic philosophy. Plato's realm of Ideas, what we today would call abstract objects, is not a realm external to God but has been moved into the mind of God where it serves as the archetype of creation by the divine Logos.

John's Prologue breathes this same atmosphere of Middle Platonism, as it is called, and it is not at all implausible to think that John imagines the realm of abstract objects to exist in the mind of the Logos. This is to espouse Conceptualism, not Platonism. On Conceptualism abstract objects exist as ideas in God's mind, not as independently existing entities.

Now as to the first question above, there are Fictionalists who advocate an "error theory" of ethics: moral statements are all of them false but nonetheless useful and important for human relations. By contrast, the theist will affirm moral truths, but he will not adopt some sort of Platonism as the basis of their truth. For God Himself, who is a concrete object, is the paradigm of moral goodness, just as the meter bar in Paris once served as the paradigm of a meter, rather than some abstract mathematical object. The divine command theory of ethics which I have embraced thus fits perfectly with anti-Platonism. Indeed, it was crafted, in part, precisely to avoid the Platonistic horn of the Euthyphro dilemma of Plato (For more info, see here and here).

Can we hold to objective morality without being divine command theorists? Perhaps, if we can find some other way to ground moral values and duties in God, say, by imagining the natural moral law to exist in God's mind. What we cannot do is adopt some Platonist account of moral values.

The last question of (1)—if objective morality necessitates divine command theory, then how can the Fictionalist account for arbitrary commands from God?—seems to be confused. Does it mean how can a Fictionalist avoid arbitrary commands from God? That just is the other horn of the Euthyphro dilemma answered in the above questions. God's commands are reflections of His nature, so that God cannot issue commands arbitrarily. So the Good is not some abstract object existing apart from God; rather God Himself is the Good and the source of our moral duties via His commands to us.

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Why Universals Matter

I just returned from a trip to Eastern Europe where I have been going for 15 years. As usual the trip involved giving lectures at state and national universities in addition to presenting a paper at two conferences on Charles Darwin. I lectured on moral philosophy with political implications and worldviews & the arts. It is rather exciting to see young university students in this rather atheistic context make connections that, for the most part, have been ignored or denied by those in the academy. At one point in the lecture titled “Worldviews and the Arts” we discussed Paul Gaugin’s work titled Whence Come We? What Are We? Whither Do We Go? The question this posed was how to answer these three important questions if nature is all there is. I had made the point that without the transcendent in which our values, ideals, morals were grounded, it was impossible to find meaning in life. One young lady wondered why she could not live by her own ideals. But another replied, that they would still not be universal (or transcendent) as they would only be hers. In addition, she was asked, how would she live with others who had different ideals to which she had no answer. The conclusion was that particulars alone are insufficient to answer the questions of meaning in general and the three questions in particular. In fact, it became clear as responses were pushed to their logical conclusion all that would be left is relativism.

This highlights what I believe to be a very important point, a point which I wonder if evangelicals fully appreciate or understand. If all that exists are particulars, then it is impossible to ground any universal meaning in particulars as particulars by definition are changing. I think Richard Weaver was right when he wrote: “The denial of universals carries with it the denial of everything transcending experience. The denial of everything transcending experience means inevitably – though ways are found to hedge on this – the denial of truth. With the denial of objective truth there is no escape from the relativism of ‘man the measure of all things.’” (Ideas Have Consequences). Philosophically the name given to the denial of universals is nominalism. While I think most Christians would affirm the idea of universals (and I would hope this includes the idea of essences) I fear that too often our response to the naturalistic arguments fail to make use of this point.

There are implications that go beyond the questions of morality and meaning. This discussion touches the evolutionist claim that the process of evolution is able to bring about new species. I have been arguing for some time that this claim would only take root where the idea of that which transcends experience has faded from view. That is, the Platonic notion of the Forms, or what I would call essences (one does not have to accept all the details of Plato’s Forms to accept the idea—as Augustine did). Aristotle was right when he spoke of the formal cause, namely, a thing is what its essence determines it to be. I was amazed this week as I was reading Dawkins new assault on theism—The Greatest Show on Earth. He quotes the late Ernest Mayr's suspicion as to why it took evolution so long to find acceptance. His thought was, according to Dawkins: “The culprit was the ancient philosophical doctrine of---to give it its modern name—essentialism. The discovery of evolution was held back by the dead hand of Plato [Dawkins' language]” He is precisely on point. I think Mayr’s suspicion that the notion of essences was the philosophical foundation for the idea of fixity of species. The conclusion of Enlightenment thinking is there is nothing existing above experience.

I wonder at times if evangelicals really understand the critical importance of their own affirmation of universals as understood within a Christian worldview.

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