Author: Nathan Richard

Weariness and the Existence of God

2015 proved to be one of the most wearying years of my life. As a family we had to contend with my father having a major illness that eventually led to his death in August and the aftermath of that event as we put his affairs in order. Personally, I was involved in teaching multiple classes at church and on a local college campus, doing maintenance both at home and at my parent’s house since my dad was too sick to do so himself, and involved in a major writing project that required six months of intense research. On top of this I also changed jobs after eleven years in the same position.

As we closed in on Christmas it was a fair assessment to say that I was weary. Not the weariness that comes after a hard day’s work, but the weariness that extends all the way to the soul. The weariness that eliminates the desire to do anything of importance. The weariness that robs the mind and heart of strength and desire. The weeks before and after Christmas proved to be a blessing as the focus on Christ’s incarnation and future return helped to rejuvenate and refresh my soul. (more…)

Advertisements

Reformation Day

Luther 95 theses“Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place.”[1]

So begins a series of 95 propositions posted by Martin Luther on the church door in Wittenburg on October 31, 1517. Luther’s intent with the 95 Theses was not to start a reform movement or to cause what would eventually become the Protestant movement. Rather, he wanted to debate the validity of the sale of indulgences. Luther was personally invested in this issue because, as a monk, he was responsible for the care and nourishment of his parishioners. Among these he saw those who had bought indulgences in outside of dioceses return home, enter confession, and demand remittance of sin without showing any remorse or repentance. Luther’s goal was the salvation and nourishment of his flock’s souls.

Luther’s willingness to call out the corruption and errors within the church led to a burgeoning movement within his native Saxony that spread within a few short years to the whole of Europe. For centuries the church had cycled through periods of intense devotion and service to God followed by bleak periods of corruption. Others had worked for and accomplished some reforms within the church before, but, more often than not, those seeking piety would be outweighed by those seeking power. So, the cycle continued, often with the periods of corruption becoming worse than they had been before.

Luther himself was a devout though flawed Christian. Early in his life as a monk he seized upon the belief that it was by faith alone that man is justified before God. This belief, which ran contrary to the official teachings of the church at the time, prompted Luther to delve into the writings of Augustine and the other early church fathers, and, most importantly, Scripture itself. And so it was that Luther began to place his convictions not on the decrees of councils or church officials but on the authority of Scripture alone.

It is on these convictions that Luther based his closing statement at the Diet of Worms in 1521. “Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scripture, or by manifest evidence (for I put no faith in the mere authority of the pope, or of councils, which have often been mistaken, and which have often contradicted one another, recognizing, as I do, no other guide than the Bible, the Word of God), I cannot and will not retract, for we must never act contrary to our conscience.”[2]

We often stop here. Luther has made his declaration. He has set in motion the Protestant Reformation. But we would be remiss if we did not continue in the proceedings of the Diet of Worms and see the reaction that Luther’s statement had upon the clergy gathered there. Johann Eck was the papal legate in charge of the Diet, and in his response to Luther he provides these words,

You have resuscitated dogmas which have been distinctly condemned by the council of Constance, and you demand to be convicted thereupon out of the Scriptures. But if every one were at liberty to bring back into discussion points which for ages have been settled by the church and by councils, nothing would be certain and fixed, doctrine or dogma, and there would be no belief which men must adhere to under pain of eternal damnation. You, for instance, who today reject the authority of the council of Constance, tomorrow may, in like manner, proscribe all councils together, and next the fathers, and the doctors; and there would remain no authority whatever, but that individual word which you call to witness, and which we also invoke.[3]

What is to be made of this? Jacque Barzun, historian and author, dated the beginning of the decline of Western civilization to the events set in motion by Luther’s statement at Worms. Luther’s call for the supremacy of the conscience in obedience was both a blessing and, in some ways, a curse. A blessing because it freed a people from the institutionalized dogmas of a body that had fallen into nepotism, simony, and debasement and which had held the doctrines of grace captive in favor of a salvation of works for far too long. A curse because it began the dissolution of Christendom from a unified body into disparate bodies separated by individual calls to conscience.

This Reformation Day let us all look to the teachings of Scripture, and be grateful that the events Luther set in motion almost 500 years ago have allowed us access to Scripture and salvation in a way that our progenitors did not know. But also let us reflect on the loss that occurred and pray for the day when we will once more be unified in the Kingdom of Christ.

_________________________________

[1] http://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html

[2] http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/luther/lutherbyluther.html#secondnarrative

[3] Ibid.

Is Belief in God Properly Basic? – Part 3

In our two previous posts we looked at Alvin Plantinga’s argument for the knowledge of God being properly basic and an objection raised by Stewart C. Goetz to Plantinga’s argument. Now we turn to a possible solution to how we have an innate knowledge of God that is founded upon innate knowledge rather than on properly basic knowledge.

If Goetz is correct in his assessment of Plantinga’s argument, then the existence of God being inferred from our own existence is indeed problematic for Plantinga’s argument. However, Goetz assessment correlates quite well to Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz’ proposal for innate knowledge. In looking at Leibniz’ conception of innate knowledge it is important to understand that it is not the same conception that was argued against by the rationalists such as John Locke. The argument that Locke puts forward against innate knowledge rests upon refuting universal assent of ideas among a wide diversity of people. For Locke, innate knowledge cannot possibly be true because if ideas are innate we would expect to see the same ideas within the great majority of peoples. He maintains innate knowledge cannot be true because among a multiplicity of people we do not see this widespread agreement of ideas, nor would a widespread agreement prove that an idea is innate. It would only prove that it is widely accepted

Leibniz, in responding to Locke’s argument, bases his theory of innate ideas not upon universal assent but upon the nature of the human soul. Pertinent to our discussion is that Leibniz maintains that the exact nature of the human soul is the means by which we recognize God. He states, “…the inclination we have to recognize the idea of God is in human nature…the readiness which men have always shown to receive this doctrine comes from the nature of their souls.”[1] To analogize his thoughts, he compares the human soul to a block of marble with veins running through it, which determines the shape of the sculpture, rather than a tabula rasa that accepts whatever is imprinted upon it. In a similar way the human soul shapes and recognizes necessary truths because of the shape of the soul rather than receiving all ideas from sense perception. This is so because the human soul has its origination and is shaped by the,

Supreme and Universal Mind, which cannot fail to exist, whose understanding, to speak truly, is the region of eternal truths…these necessary truths being anterior to the existence of contingent beings, must be grounded in the existence of a necessary substance. Here it is that I find the original of the ideas and truths which are graven in our souls, not in the form of propositions, but as the sources out of which application and occasion will cause actual judgments to arise.[2]

The soul is capable of this action because the rational part of it, crafted in the imago dei, can recognize necessary truths about God, the nature of the created order, and the logical coherence and necessity of necessary truths.  It is important to note that innate ideas are not contained within the soul on Leibniz’ view. Rather, the soul can come to recognize necessary truths by reflecting upon its own nature, which is comprised of “being, unity, substance, duration, change, action, perception, pleasure, and a thousand other objects of our intellectual ideas.”[3] Thus the mind is capable of reflective knowledge of ideas concerning its own makeup based upon the fact that it recognizes the properties that it has in itself.

Leibniz further contends that the soul must be the origination of necessary truths and ideas because sense perception is incapable of showing the necessity of such properties. Sense perception functions only in a receptive faculty and is, therefore, indeterminate in helping to discern necessary truths. Such truths must then come from a disposition of the mind though our senses provide occasions for us to learn these truths by directing the rational part of the soul to reflect on a previously unnoticed aspect of its makeup. Knowledge can thus come from both the rational mind and through the senses, but it is only because of the action of the mind in recognizing properties that it holds in itself that “whatever particular number of experiences we may have of a universal truth, we could not be assured of it forever by induction without knowing its necessity through the reason.”[4] Leibniz further expands his theory of innate knowledge to include principles of logic and moral laws as also being rooted in the nature of the soul. An exploration of both of these areas would further strengthen the argument that belief in God is best explained as being innate, however, space constrains me from exploring these areas in depth.

It is at this point that I believe a connection between Goetz’ contention that knowledge of God requires recognizing our own contingency and Leibniz’ theory of innate knowledge being based on the nature of the soul can be drawn. My contention is that knowing that God exists is an operation of the soul whereby it knows its own nature and recognizes that a being could exist that has the properties of the soul, but maintains them in perfection. This bears a strong correspondence to the ontological argument in that the mind is capable of recognizing the existence of certain properties and extrapolating from those properties to a necessary being which must exist because it holds those properties in perfection. On this point it could be contended that Leibniz (though he never specifically says so), Goetz, and St. Anselm are in agreement that recognizing the contingency and mutability of the human soul is a necessary requirement for recognizing God’s existence. Anselm maintains that knowledge of God’s existence rests upon that fact that “everything else there is, except [God] alone, can be thought of not existing. [God] alone, then, of all things most truly exists and therefore of all things possess[es] existence to the highest degree…why then did ‘the Fool say in his heart there is no God’…when it is so evident to any rational mind that you of all things exist to the highest degree?”[5]

This highlights again the problem with Plantinga’s argument. While he wants us to accept that belief in God is loosely properly basic, the fact that it seems necessary to infer God’s existence from our own contingency leaves us without a means to have properly basic knowledge of God without first knowing ourselves. I believe this puts one too many links in the chain of our knowledge of God for it to be considered even loosely basic. Correlating this directly to Leibniz, we see that he considers such properties as being, unity, substance, duration, change, action, perception, and pleasure as being necessary components of the human soul that we can recognize. All of these properties can be recognized to be properties that could have been otherwise within ourselves or, paradoxically, be held in immutable perfection by another being. That I am who I am now does not preclude the reasoned inference that I could have been someone else or not been at all and further provokes the question of “what about a person necessarily exists or is immutable?” Thus, I believe that the initial conditions Leibniz proposes to demonstrate innate knowledge as being grounded in the soul are enough to show that a basic belief in God is best understood as coming from self-reflection rather than being properly basic.

—————————————————————–

[1] Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz, Ne Essays Concerning Human Understanding, (Chicago, IL: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1916), http://books.google.com/books?id=_MELAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false, (Accessed Dec. 2, 2013) 72.

[2] Ibid., 516-517.

[3] Leibniz, New Essays Concerning Human Understanding, 45.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Anselm of Canterbury, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G.R. Evans, (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), 88.

Is Belief in God Properly Basic? – Part 2

In our previous post we looked at the basic outline of Alvin Plantinga’s argument that belief in God is properly basic. While Plantinga’s argument appears to be sound, philosopher Stewart C. Goetz believes there is a fatal flaw in it. And it is to Goetz’ rebuttal of Plantinga’s argument that we now turn.

Goetz wants know if Plantinga is justified in correlating properly basic belief in perceptual objects, such as given in points (9)-(11) in the previous post, with propositions such as (1)-(5). Goetz contends that these propositions are not directly parallel and lead to a problem within Plantinga’s argument. Goetz notes that propositions (9)-(11) are direct statements of fact concerning our awareness of perceptual objects. If (9)-(11) and (1)-(5) are to be directly parallel and sustain Plantinga’s argument, then propositions (1)-(5) should be worded in such a way that they reflect our awareness of God. Accordingly, propositions (1)-(5) should be restated as:

(1´) I am aware of God speaking to me,

(2´) I am aware of God as having created all this,

(3´) I am aware of God disapproving of what I have done,

(4´) I am aware of God forgiving me,

(5´) I am aware that I should thank and praise God.[1]

A direct parallel can now be made between these propositions and propositions (9)-(11) as they all now included an awareness of the properties of the thing that is being perceived. This is a necessary part of perception as individuating an object requires being able to perceive some of its properties. In the case of (9)-(11) the observer is able, for instance, to perceive the tree’s shape and color, the individual’s body language that indicates pleasure, and a memory of a past event. Propositions (1´)-(5´) state our perceptions of activities of God that allow us to individuate Him as being a distinct person: God speaking, creating, disapproving, forgiving, and evoking worship.

It is this self-revelation of God that Goetz finds ultimately problematic for Plantinga’s argument. Self-revelation by God entails that prior to that self-revelation the person perceiving God’s activities has a concept of God by which he can determine if it is God or some other person that is revealing themselves. It is possible in each of the propositions given in (1´)-(5´) to substitute the identity of another person and recognize that the statement could be true of them as easily as it is of God, i.e., a friend could be speaking, an architect may have created all that I see around me, my parents could disapprove of what I’ve done, my wife may forgive me, and I could be aware that I need to thank the person that gave me a gift. To determine that each of these should be directed towards my perception of God it is necessary that I understand, minimally, the requisite properties of God that are applicable in each proposition. As Goetz states, “…if God is to successfully reveal himself to me (or Plantinga) and, just as important, if I am to recognize him, I must know certain of his individuating properties that will ground my assent to his being God, and one or more of these properties will have to be manifested in the revelatory situation.”[2] Indeed, biblical examples, such as with the boy Samuel[3] and the Apostle Paul,[4] indicate that even in instances of direct revelation by God some identifying marker may yet need to be given.

What then can serve as the bare minimum understanding of God that can serve to identify him in revelatory situations? Goetz proposes an individuating property in humans that necessarily implies the existence of God. Foundational to our self-knowledge is the properly basic proposition that:

(12) I exist,

which has the implication, based upon self-reflection, that while I exist I am not a necessary being. So that we can state:

(13) I am a contingent being.

If both of these statements are true they necessarily provide a means by which we can identify the person in propositions (1)-(5) as being God. Goetz points out that,

Proposition [(13)] is particularly important for it will prevent me from identifying myself with the being referred to in propositions [(1)-(5)]. But if proposition [(13)] is properly basic, can propositions [(1)-(5)] likewise be properly basic? I don’t think so…if proposition [(13)] is properly basic it automatically excludes [(1)-(5)] from that status because it entails and I infer from it propositions, at least one of which is identical with or contradictory to [the proposition “There is such a person as God”]. And if something is inferred it is not properly basic.[5]

——————————————————————-

[1] Stewart C. Goetz, “Belief in God is Not Properly Basic, Religious Studies Vol. 19, Issue 04 Dec. 1983, http://commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/Goetz-Belief-in-God-Is-Not-Properly-Basic.pdf, (accessed Nov. 26, 2013), 478-479.

[2] Ibid., 480.

[3] 1 Samuel 3:1-10.

[4] Acts 9:1-6.

[5] Goetz, Religious Studies, 482.

Is Belief in God Properly Basic? – Part 1

In 1981 philosopher Alvin Plantinga published a paper entitled, Is Belief in God Properly Basic? in which he argued that belief in God is internally and externally rational. Further he argued that this rational belief in God is non-inferentially warranted, i.e., that we can know God exists as a piece of a priori knowledge without inference from other beliefs. I want to take some time to examine Plantinga’s argument in this post, raise an objection to it in another post, and then offer a possible solution to that objection in a final post.

Plantinga builds his argument that belief in God is properly basic first noting that to claim a belief as properly basic is not to “say, of course, that there are no justifying circumstances for it, or that it is in that sense groundless or gratuitous.”[1] Rather, there is a disposition within humanity to see God working around and in us based upon such evidences as the beauty and complexity of nature and our own responses of guilt or gratitude. None of these dispositions is, of itself, the properly basic belief that God exists. However, each disposition is properly basic in what it describes concerning itself. Plantinga gives the following examples of such dispositions:

(1) God is speaking to me,

(2) God has created all this,

(3) God disapproves of what I have done,

(4) God forgives me,

(5) God is to be thanked and praised.[2]

These propositions are meant to serve as self-evidential proofs that God exists within the mind of person perceiving them as they delineate specific actions and attributes of God that are being sensed. Plantinga further posits that while the proposition “God exists” is not properly basic, it is so self-evidentially entailed by the proposed dispositions that it could be loosely considered to be properly basic. In support of this he compares our belief in God to our belief in the existence of perceptual objects. He provides the following propositions that a person may hold in regard to perceptual objects:

(6) There are trees,

(7) There are other persons,

(8) The world has existed for more than 5 minutes

Each of these is not properly basic, but is founded upon the properly basic propositions:

(9) I see a tree,

(10) That person is pleased,

(11) I had breakfast more than an hour ago.[3]

The properly basic propositions (9)-(11) entail a set of beliefs in perceptual objects that is self-evident and may be stated as in propositions (6)-(8). He correlates these propositions to belief in God by stating:

“Of course propositions of the latter sort [(9)-(11)] immediately and self-evidentially entail propositions of the former sort; and perhaps there is thus no harm in speaking of the former as properly basic…The same may be said about belief in God. We may say, speaking loosely, that belief in God is properly basic; strictly speaking, however, it is probably not that proposition but such propositions as [(1)-(5)] that enjoy that status.”[4]

In effect, Plantinga is asserting that our knowledge of certain properly basic propositions is so closely related to our knowledge of God that that knowledge of God may just as well be properly basic. But is this the case? Philosopher Stewart C. Goetz believes that there is a flaw in Plantinga’s argument and it is to this that we will turn next time.

—————————————————————–

[1] Alvin Plantinga, “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?”, Nous Vol. 15, No. 1, 1981 (Mar. 1981),

http://www.jstor.org/stable/2215239, (accessed Nov. 26, 2013), 46. I have re-ordered the propositions throughout to reflect the order within this paper rather than the order in which they are presented in Plantinga’s paper.

[2] Ibid., 46-47.

[3] Ibid., 47.

[4] Ibid., 47-48.