Sunday, February 05, 2006

Vantilianism

Dr. Reppert has responded. The quality of the dialogue is on the upswing.

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I want to first focus on the issue of whether, based on the Bad Faith Theory of atheism, we can reasonably say that there are no atheists. In other words, let me concede for the sake of argument, that all atheism stems from a suppression of the truth, by that meaning that if the atheist formed beliefs in the way that he ought rationally to form beliefs, he would be a believer and not an atheist.

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Fine.

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In other words we ought to distinguish the question of whether or not someone is an atheist from the question of whether that person has become an atheist in an intellectually honest way.

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That’s a valid distinction.

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It may be a nice rhetorical flourish for presuppositionalist to say that there are not atheists, but it is linguistically inaccurate and highly misleading. Vantillianism is better off without it.

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Frankly, this aspect of the debate bores me. I only jumped in because I thought there was some merit in this particular aspect of the Van Tilian position, even if it’s a question of limited value. If it has an element of truth, then it ought to be defended, regardless of its relative importance.

I also felt that this particular aspect of the Van Tilian position had been misconstrued, and we needed to correct the misinterpretation.

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After all the Bible does not directly say that there are no atheists. But maybe I should type the phrase into a Bible program to see if maybe I missed a verse somewhere. Maybe it's hidden away somewhere in the Book of Hezekiah. On the assumption that Ps 14:1 is talking about atheists, it seems pretty clear that the Bible teaches that there are fools who say in their hearts that there is no God.

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The biblical basis of the Van Tilian position at this juncture goes to the Biblical diagnosis of unbelief, with special reference to idolatry, which is the paradigmatic sin in Scripture.

The locus classicus is Rom 1. However, Rom 1 doesn’t fall out of the sky. Paul is merely summarizing a recurrent OT motif.

What is more, you can find the same theme in other NT writers. One of the subthemes of the Fourth Gospel is the way in which unbelievers turn away from the light (e.g. Jn 1:10-11; 3:19-20; 9:39-41; 12:37ff.; 15:22).

We can debate how vital this insight may be in doing apologetics, but it is a pervasive theme in Scripture.

Scripture not only has an explanation for why some people are believers. It also has an explanation for why other people are unbelievers.

And this is a serious issue in apologetics. One of the objections to the exclusive claims of Christianity is the phenomenon of religious pluralism. If only one religion is true, then how do we account for the existence of all the rival religions?

The Bible is not caught off guard by that objection. It has an answer.

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Nevertheless, if that is the case, you still have to say that these self-deceived people are atheists, by any reasonable analysis of "S believes that P." You can't say that a person doesn't really believe something if he professes and acts on the belief.

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This continues to ignore the distinctions I’ve already drawn.

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I am a little bit concerned by Gene's implied claim that there cannot be evidence against a claim clearly taught by Scripture. By his account, nothing could count as evidence against any biblical claim, because all experience must be interpreted by Scripture and not vice versa. At this point you are running afoul of what I think is right in Flew's falsification challenge. An atheist can just as easily say that his experience must be judged in light of atheism, in which case nothing we can say can possibly count as evidence against it. This is why Vantillianism is often perceived as a form of fideism.

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Well, I’ll leave it to Gene to be his own interpreter, but speaking for myself, I’d say the following:

i) There is something inherently artificial in constructing symmetrical versions of atheism and theism. Since they can’t both be right, they can’t both enjoy the same global epistemic resources.

ii) An obvious problem with Flew’s parable is that he’s rigged the outcome such that we have no positive evidence for theism, whereas everything is consistent with naturalism. When Reppert refers to what is right in Flew’s challenge, I assume he doesn’t include that tendentious illustration.

iii) Presumably, Reppert is referring to Flew’s tag-line: “what would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute disprove of the love of, or of the existence of, God?”

There are, however, some rocky shoals submerged beneath the placid surface of this deceptively simply question.

a) Flew’s objection conflates the factual question of what would count for or against the truth of the faith with the psychological question of what would undermine our confidence in the faith. But these are two distinct questions.

b) The answer to the latter question is bound up with how you first answer a related question. Is saving faith a particular mode of knowledge? If so, then nothing could destroy our faith in God.

Or is faith a particular subset of beliefs which, like other provisional beliefs, never rises above the level of defeasible opinion, however well warranted? If so, then various things could destroy our faith in God.

Calvinism generally classifies saving faith as a mode of knowledge. Within that framework, faith is indefeasible.

So the question would have to shift to the framework itself. Is the framework falsifiable?

c) In addition, suppose I don’t have any doubts about the faith. So what am I supposed to do with Flew’s hypothetical? Pretend that something is dubious even though I really don’t harbor any doubts about it?

d) The answer to the former question is bound up with your religious epistemology and/or general epistemology.

If you think the purpose of revelation is pretty much limited to communicating a saving knowledge of God, then the claims of revelation are contingent upon a broader conceptual scheme, and can be falsified by the standards of that conceptual scheme.

But if you think the purpose of revelation, above and beyond the knowledge of salvation, is to supply a necessary precondition of our knowing the world at large, then revealed theology is not falsifiable since it contains a truth-condition for our general knowledge of the world, without which many truths would be impossible or inaccessible.

For example, if indirect realism is true, then there’s a gap between appearance and reality. And there’s no natural way to bridge the gap.

Yet revelation could bridge the gap. For God’s knowledge of the world is not dependent on perception. And God can communicate to us his knowledge of the world. So revelation pierces the veil of perception.

e) To say something is not falsifiable is not to say that it is unverifiable. The proof of a truth-condition is that you cannot properly reason without it.

f) The Bible includes a number of propositions that are counterfactually falsifiable. 1 Cor 15:14 is a classic case in point. But, of course, Paul is presenting that, not as a live option, but as a contrary-to-fact hypothetical.

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There are serious and difficult objections to Christianity. There are Scripture passages that are hard to reconcile with one another, we lack overwhelmingly strong arguments for theism (including the ones that I've defended in print), why God permits evil is difficult to understand, etc. There are also sinful motivations for not wanting to be a Christian, and there is plenty of evidence that these are at work (Oedipal hatred, desire for sexual freedom, an unwillingness to submit to a supreme being, etc) in many cases, surely, but I know other atheists with stable marriages and good father-relationships.

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I’ll pass on this.

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There is a further problem with this "hermeneutic of suspicion" directed toward the unbeliever. According to logic, once an argument is on the table, it is the subject of discussion, not the reason why someone might be putting the argument forward. Once you say "I don't believe in God for such and such a reason," it commits the ad hominem fallacy to say "You're only saying that because you don't want to submit to a supreme being."

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We’ve been over this same ground several times now.

5 comments:

  1. Maybe this comment is a little out of line for this thread, but...

    In my limited understanding of VanTillian apologetics and presuppositionalistic methods in general the proponents seem to put a great deal of weight on the self-deception issue. But as I read Merold Westphal's Suspicion & Faith he makes, via Freud's critique of religion, an observation that seems disturbingly accurate to me. That self-deception runs deep in believers, too. What subconscious motives are driving our service and worship? Could much of our righteousness be filthy rags as well? I'd be interested in pursuing this either in this thread or in another that is more appropriate.

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  2. By his account, nothing could count as evidence against any biblical claim, because all experience must be interpreted by Scripture and not vice versa.

    This, of course, is not what I said.

    My response, sir, is indexed to your statements. If I can keep up with them, then you should be able to do so as well.

    What I responded to was this:

    “I can see believing that all atheism results from the unrighteous suppression of the truth by faith on the basis of Scripture, but my best reasoning tells me the weight of the evidence is against it. That means I will much prefer an interpretation of the relevant passages that is more in line with my experience.”

    My point here is that the Bible offers its own explanation of the phenomenon in question, viz. unbelief. I did not say we should interpret the whole of our experience by the Bible alone as if this is some sort of universalizing priniciple, and I am not arguing for a high Scripturalism that denies the reality of the senses, etc. You'll have to look elsewhere than I to grind that axe.

    I said that, if pressed, this position would interpret the Bible through the lens of experience and is little different than the arguments that unbelievers themselves use against Scripture based upon their assumed naturlism. Why stop at unbelief? What not all natural phenomena? Why not history? etc.

    When the Bible offers a theology of the unbelievers unbelief, then it seems to me that we should inform the way we interpret our experience of his unbelief gained in our interaction with him through the grid of what the Word of God itself says about it. This, is, I would think an evangelistic enterprise. Unbelief is not simply a matter of a lack of information. The Bible denies that very thing. It is a matter of the will, of the heart, of the fallen nature of man. Like, Steve, I find that Scripture's diagnosis of the evidence is very accurate, and this informs the way I approach the unbeliever.

    So, I repeat: As a Christian apologist, you are bound first the Word of God and what it says about man's condition and the reasons for it. Your experience is to be interpreted by Scripture not vice versa. That is your basis for the activity in which you are engaged. One fails to see how viewing believers in any other manner is preferable. In fact, it panders to the unbeliever's self-interest. Why should I pander to his self-interest in my approach to him?

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  3. r10b,

    Interesting comment. Two quick replies:

    i)Plantinga has addressed the issues raised by Westphal in chap. 5 of Warranted Christian Belief. You may or may not agree with Plantinga's reply, but that's one place to start.

    ii)Since you presumably have some concrete examples in mind of Christian self-deception, perhaps you could spell these out so that we have something specific to respond to.

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  4. Thanks for taking up my issue, Steve. I'll need more time than I can spare now (at work) to respond lest I generate a new case of self-deception on the fly. In the mean time a question. I've been considering buying Warranted Christian Belief but I was concerned that I would need to have read the other books in the Warranted series to get the full impact (and I don't have the $ or time to read them all anytime soon). Can you recommend Warranted Christian Belief standing alone; and, does he write that book in the same accessible style exhibited in the articles of his that are available online (e.g., When Faith and Reason Clash, Theism, Atheism and Rationality)? Thanks.

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  5. WCB is more accessible than the previous to books in the trilogy, and it reads well as a stand-alone study.

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