Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Many thanks again to Connie at Crossway Books for this review copy.  Continued apologies to Connie and Danny that this is long overdue.

For this portion of my review of William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith, I will focus on the topic to which Craig devotes his largest section:  De Deo.  (You can find my introduction comments here, and part 1 of my review here.)  These 100+ pages Craig devotes to the existence of God contain the 14 figures in Craig’s text, the Cyclic Ekpyrotic Scenario inclusive.  In my opinion, these chapters, while still full of useful information, are among the most difficult to read.  I can easily envision a reader getting stuck here, and putting the book down for, let’s say, a year or so.  Said reader would be especially susceptible to this if he or she were easily seduced by other books. Ahem.  Moving on.

Craig divides De Deo into two sections.  The first opens up with a brief history of the four major arguments for God’s existence that he addresses:  The ontological argument, the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and the moral argument.  The remainder of the first sections addresses the cosmological argument in two forms: that proposed by Leibnitz, and the Kalam cosmological argument.  As the cosmological argument his admitted favorite (p.194), it is no real surprise that he spends 50 pages discussing it (c.f., 10 pages on the moral argument, and this despite the fact that in his experience the moral argument is most effective when witnessing to others, p.194).

Around seventy percent of his section on the cosmological argument are arguably introductory texts in cosmology, as Craig labors to show that the universe began to exist.  While critical to the cosmological argument, in my opinion, Craig’s text dives too deeply into the mind-bending waters of multiverses, black holes, and other areas of physics, to actually edify his intended audience (a seminary level apologetics class, p.12).  Instead, I would guess that most would walk away just taking his word for it.  I consider myself fairly comfortable with the sciences, having two technical degrees that both required a good deal of mathematics, chemistry and physics, but through most of this chapter, I was…(wait for it)…lost in space.

Physics and astronomy aside, there is much to commend Craig’s treatment of the existence of God.  For example, in Craig’s discussion on the nature of the first cause (i.e., Kalam Cosmological argument), he explores the high probability that the cause is personal (pp.152-154).  His treatment is highly edifying, and in my opinion a much needed addendum to the many of the arguments for God, since some of them leave room for an impersonal god, or creative force.

I was also impressed by Craig’s closing section of practical applications (pp.189-196).  Consider the following:

What we aspire to show is that atheism is false, not that it is irrational for anybody to hold.  We do that by presenting good arguments for theism.  Remember:  persons are rational; arguments are sound.  We’re interested in whether there are sound arguments for God’s existence based on premises which are more plausible than their denials.  We don’t need to make a personal judgment on the rationality or irrationality of non-theists.

This quote typifies Craig’s ability to keep the reader’s eye on the ball, as it were, and his text is rife with paragraphs reminding us of what we are, and are not trying to prove or do.  Anybody who has engaged in a conversation with a non-theist has experienced the tendency to drift from the matter at hand, engaging in goose chases that only distract from the original point.  In his book, and on his website, Craig exemplifies the ability to keep a focus on issues (i.e., not people), and avoid the quasi-related (if at all) peripheral concepts that can easily blow up a conversation.

While not a slam dunk, De Deo is ultimately worth the effort.  Though some of the text may be outside of my grasp, as Craig himself states, “In order to recognize an explanation as the best, one needn’t be able to explain the explanation” (p. 171).

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Many, many thanks to Connie at Crossway Books for this review copy.  Thanks and apologies to Connie and Danny that it’s taken me a year to get around to a review of this book, a delinquency for which I have no good excuse, save several weak ones that perhaps taken together…

 I am as intimidated as I am happy at the chance to review William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith, which Craig himself supposes to be his “signature book” (p.11).  I have already commented on the excellent introduction to this book here, and would commend it to anyone who would question prima facie the merit Christian apologetics.

The purpose of the book, Craig states, is to focus primarily on the theoretical issues of Christian apologetics, as opposed to offering a manual of “how to’s” (p.23).  Pragmatists (among whom I count myself) needn’t worry, however.  While Craig does indeed focus on theory, he touches down often enough to help the reader apply what has been discussed.  That said, make no mistake that this is not a light read.  This is a book for study and careful reflection, not a cozy morning on the porch.  Consider, for example, some titles taken from the table of figures (p.9):  “Cyclic Ekpyrotic Scenario,” “Oscillating Model with entropy increase,” and “Bubbles of true vacuum in a sea of false vacuum.” 

Craig is very thorough, and very technical, but the diligent reader needn’t worry; let not the titles above scare you away.  Like many (most?) matters in study, the reward you will reap from careful reading of this book is well worth a few trips to the dictionary, or re-reads of a paragraph.  To be fair, I should also mention that text isn’t all cyclic ekpyrotic scenarios, either, and Craig often explains the terms he uses in the lucid, frank prose that makes him one of my favorite apologists.  At the very worst, while you not come away being able to describe why the cyclic ekpyrotic scenario fails to explain the universe, should you find yourself witnessing to an astrophysicist who has interest in such matters, boy do you have the book for him!

Craig’s book is broken down into five major sections, an arrangement inspired by some of the principal themes of post-Reformation Protestant theology:  faith, man, God, creation and Christ (or de fide, de homine, de Deo, de creatione, and de Christo, as Craig titles them, much to the pleasure of my nerdliness).  I shall break down this review roughly along these lines, so as to keep each post managable.

Each section begins with a historical background viz., how have other thinkers addressed this issue?  These are immesely helpful, and well-written.  They also do well to remind us, in the tradition of Isaac Newton, that we stand on the shoulders of thousands upon thousands of great minds.  Craig’s development is chronological, and lays the groundwork for his own, present day “assessment,” which follows.

In De Fide, Craig makes an important distinction:  There is a difference between knowing the Christian faith to be true and showing the Christian faith to be true.  He goes on to explore both of these topics at length, fleshing out the details of each.  For Craig, the heart of knowing Christianity to be true is the work of Holy Spirit testifying that it is true (e.g., pp. 43, 46).  Craig’s support for this is a perfect blend of  copious  Scriptural support (e.g., 1 Jn. 3:24; 4:13) and well-reasoned arguments.  This mixture is seasoned with rebuttals to common objections.

Consider, for example, Craig’s response to the “objection” that some neuro-scientists can artifically stimulate certain areas of the brain to induce “religious experiences.”   A believer’s experience of the witness of the Holy Spirit, then, is not a function of the Holy Spirit so much as a physiological phenomenon.  It follows, that we ought not to trust this “sense.”  Craig notes, however, that other senses, such as hearing and vision, are clearly associated with certain parts of the brain, and they are also manipulable to induce sounds and sights that do not truly exist.  Do we therefore dismiss our vision and hearing as unreliable?  (p.50)  Even more, that there is an area of the brain associated with religious experience could actually be taken to testify that God made us that way.

De Homine, which is easily my favorite chapter, examines “the Absurdity of Life without God.”  I’ve lightly touched on this issue before, but Craig dives in with a full bore, exploring “the disastrous consequences for human existence, society, and culture if Christianity should be false” (p.65).  Put simply, this is the best chapter I’ve ever read on the topic.  Craig holds no punches, and explicitly spells out exactly how hopeless, meaningless and, well, absurd, human life is without God.  This of course does not prove that there is a God, but it does show the inconsistency of a happy atheist.  Frequent quotes of popular atheists often make Craig’s point for him, such as his embarassment of Richard Dawkins on pp.80-81.  (N.b., This is not the only time Craig makes Dawkins look like a hack; the interested reader could also consult reviews of Dawkins’ work by Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton or Christian philospher Alvin Plantinga).

My review is a scant 90 pages into this 400+ page book, but in my opinion, it is already well worth the price of admission.  In part 2, I will tackle the two lengthy chapters that comprise De Deo.  I promise that it will take less than one year for me to do so.

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In the second volume of the Christianity & Western Thought series, co-authors Steven Wilkens and Alan Padgett set out to capture the major philosophical ideas and personalities of the 19th century. Considering the wealth of material encompassed by such an endeavor, the task is a formidable one.

The text begins by declaring Immanuel Kant to be the transitional figure and “agenda setter” for the 19th century. Thereafter, Wilkens and Padgett, in rough chronology, describe the major philosophical movements of the 19th century, starting with Romanticism and Idealism.  The text ends just inside the 20th century with the rise of social sciences.

The formula followed by Wilkens and Padgett is simple and effective: Each chapter, which encompasses one overarching set of ideas (e.g., Romanticism and Idealism), focuses largely on the people behind these ideas. A major figure is first presented through a brief biography. Next, the major works of the figure are examined with a noticeable bent towards objectivity. Direct quotes from the person’s works are prevalent, and often hard to distinguish from the author’s own summaries.  One is certainly left with the impression that every effort was made to present the historical figure faithfully, and on their own terms.  Finally, a section describing the figure’s contribution or influence to philosophy and religion is given, often with common criticisms of their work.

This formula is repeated for each person, from Hegel to Kierkegaard to Marx to Freud, with an occasional paragraph linking certain individuals or setting a broader context. The text concludes with four brief (and admittedly “arbitrary”) observations about the 19th century, and an almost playful comparison of the 19th century to our own adolescence: “it [19th century philosophy] was fun and exciting while it lasted.”

Most striking to me in this text was the optimistic view of humanity held by most of the figures it discusses. The general notion that humankind, through science and rational thought, can free itself from society’s ills, is amazing.  Marx’s communism, James’ pragmatism, and Spencer’s social evolution all drip of optimism in humanity or natural processes. Feuerbach seems to epitomize faith in mankind by claiming that man, with his “united powers” will “create a better life.” The ultimate exaltation of man is in Feuerbach’s exhortation to “replace the love of God with the love of man,” (sounds familiar!)  Some exceptions to optimism dot the way, however, in the more pessimistic existentialism of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Freud also appears a bit more balanced, perhaps due to his having one foot in each world war.

Standing in the 21st century, I am reminded that each of us is profoundly affected by our environment, culture and times. This seemed especially obvious for a man like Comte, whose theories drew from the 19th century’s love for the scientific method. Indeed, from my standpoint on the other side of two world wars, Hiroshima, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and 9/11, it is difficult to place faith in the facilities of man or science.  I do not know what minds like Hegel or Feuerbach would invent if they were alive today, but I would guess their faith in humankind to be significantly diminished.

Lastly, it was noteworthy that most critics of Christianity presented in this text seemed to treat the gospels superficially, if at all. Strauss seems most guilty of this type of treatment by broadly defining myths and applying them to the gospels, without any discussion as to why Jesus’ immediate followers would propagate such “myths.” Marx and Freud seem to go a step further by just lumping Christianity in with “religion,” and painting very broad strokes as to its origins and purposes, ignoring the immense wealth of complexity and history in religious thought. In Freud’s treatment of religion, he is ultimately left with no other option than to declare all of the religious (and therefore the majority of the world) as “neurotic.” If his treatment of theistic origins (i.e., “totem”) were true, I would agree; instead, it is perhaps wiser to peer deeper into the history of belief, perhaps reaching a different conclusion.

In all, this is an excellent text to introduce the genesis of much of the modern thinking that still saturates our culture today.  Faith in science and reason is indeed no new worldview.  It is simply white-washed with new names and advocates.  The other principle difference is that it has much, much less to commend it, a few centuries of bloody history to wit.

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One of the first courses I downloaded from biblicaltraining.org was the late Dr. Ron Nash’s foundations lecture, History of Philosophy. The series consists of seven lectures of about 30 minutes each.  The course is very much introductory, and decidely limited in scope.  However, please do not take this as a negative comment. This series is a great appetizer, as it were, for further study on these important topics. To that end, Dr. Nash frequently plugs his book Life’s Ultimate Questions, and the longer, similarly-titled lecture series offered in the “Leadership” section of biblicaltraining.org.

I once heard a preacher joke that philosophers seek to answer all the questions that nobody really asks. To wit: When did you last wonder how you know what you know? For most people, the answer is “never.” However, the philisophical topic of epistemology is very much conerned with this question. Why does this matter? In his first lecture, and in the lectures that follow, Nash fleshes out some of the practical implications of such topics.  Have you ever heard somebody say that they don’t believe in God because there is no way to prove He exists? What is at stake here is fundamentally a question of (drum roll) epistemology: How do we know?  The person demanding proof of God’s existence is also making a statement about their worldview: They believe the only way one can know anything is through proof.  Nash notes that this worldview, however, is self-defeating.  Why?  Because it cannot stand up to its own terms.  Namely, you cannot prove that the only way to know something is by proving it.

I would commend the class to anybody looking to whet their appetite for philosophy, theology and apologetics.  Understanding the basic components of a worldview, and thinking through the resulting implications, can be a powerful witness to unbelievers, and often a much needed corrective to our own views.  Nash is an easy listen, and does well to keep the technical jargon to a minimum, and well-explained when necessary.  At the very, very worst, you’ll be a hit at parties when you squeeze the word “epistemology” into a casual conversation.  And by “hit” I mean “geek.”  Welcome to our world.

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