Monday, December 04, 2006



Please select one of these questions and write a 5-6 page paper in response.
This is not a research paper, but make sure you properly cite your sources.
Here’s a website that offers some helpful direction in how to write a philosophy paper:
If all else fails, imagine you are talking to me, and that you are able to answer my question using your texts and notes, open-book style.

1. How can a person believe in the traditional theistic God when there is so much suffering and evil in the world? Discuss various responses that have been given in detail. How do you personally answer this question?

2. Explain and evaluate the various positions people take on the relationship of faith and reason. Which one do you find most convincing? Why? How would it pertain to the relationship of science and religion?

3. I Peter 3:15 says: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” How have Christians “answered” unbelievers? Be sure to explain and evaluate, in detail, at least three arguments for the existence of God. Do you find any of them convincing? If so, which one, and why? If not, why not?

4. Is it possible to talk meaningfully about God? Discuss some of the ways people have understood religious language. How would you respond?

5. W. Clifford said, “It is wrong, always, everywhere and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Explain what he meant, and its implications for religious belief. Do you agree with him? Why or why not?

6. You may have a topic that you would rather write upon than the ones above. If so, you must clear it with me by e-mail before Thursday at noon.

Please place your completed papers in my mailbox by 1:00 pm on THursday, December 14 in the Faculty Building. Steve will be picking them up for me that afternoon. Thanks so much for your participation in this class.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Problem of Miracles by WIlliam Craig

This is a portion of the entire article, available at
Craig's references to "Bilynskyj" are references to my husband Steve's 1982 dissertation, "The Concept of Miracle."

Assessment of the Debate

Natural Law and Miracles

It will be remembered that the world view that formed the backdrop to the Deist controversy was a model of the universe as a Newtonian world-machine that bound even the hands of God. So ironclad a view of natural law is, however, untenable. Natural law is today understood essentially as description, not prescription. This does not mean that it cannot serve as a basis for prediction, for it does; but our formulation of a natural law is never so certain as to be beyond reformulation under the force of observed facts. Thus an event cannot be ruled out simply because it does not accord with the regular pattern of events. The advance of modern physics over the Newtonian world-machine is not that natural law does not exist, but that our formulation of it is not absolutely final. After all, even quantum physics does not mean to assert that matter and energy do not possess certain properties, such that anything and everything can happen; even indeterminacy occurs within statistical limits and concerns only the microscopic level. On the macroscopic level, firm natural laws do obtain.{62} But the knowledge of these properties and laws is derived from and based on experience. The laws of nature are thus not 'laws' in the rigid, prescriptive sense, but inductive generalizations.

This would appear to bring some comfort to the modern believer in miracles, for now he may argue that one cannot rule out a priori the fact that a certain event has occurred which does not conform to known natural law, since our formulation of natural law is never final and so must take account of the fact in question. It seems to me, however, that while this more descriptive understanding of natural law re-opens the door of possibility to certain anomalous events in the world, it does not help much in settling the question of miracles. The advantage gained is that one cannot rule out the occurrence of a certain event a priori, but the evidence for it must be weighed. The defender of miracles has thus at least gained a hearing. But one is still operating under the assumption, it would appear, that if the event really did run contrary to natural law, then it would be impossible for it to have occurred. The defender of miracles appeals to the fact that our natural laws are only inductive generalizations and so never certain, in order to gain admittance for his anomalous event; but presumably if an omniscient mind knew with certainty the precise formulations of the natural laws describing our universe then he would know a priori whether the event was or was not actually possible, since a true law of nature could not be violated.

As Bilynskyj argues, whether one adopts a regularity theory of natural law (according to which laws are simply descriptive of events and have no special modal quality) or a necessitarian theory (according to which natural laws are not merely descriptive of events but possess a special sort of modality determining nomic necessity/possibility), still so long as natural laws are conceived of as universal inductive generalizations the notion of a 'violation of a law of nature' is incoherent.{63} For on the regularity theory, since a law is a generalized description of whatever occurs, it follows that an event which occurs cannot violate a law. And on the necessitarian theory, since laws are universal generalizations which state what is physically necessary, a violation of a law cannot occur if the generalization is to remain truly universal. So long as laws are conceived of as universal generalizations, it is logically impossible to have a violation of a true law of nature.

Suppose that one attempts to rescue the notion of a 'violation' by introducing into the law certain ceteris paribus conditions, for example, that the law holds only if either (1) there are no other causally relevant natural forces interfering, or (2) there are no other causally relevant natural or supernatural forces interfering. Now clearly, (1) will not do the trick, for even if there were no natural forces interfering, the events predicted by the law might not occur because God would interfere. Hence, the alleged law, as a purportedly universal generalization, would not be true, and so a law of nature would not be violated should God interfere. But if, as (2) suggests, we include supernatural forces among the ceteris paribus conditions, it is equally impossible to violate the law. For now the statement of the law itself includes the condition that what the law predicts will occur only if God does not intervene, so that if he does the law is not violated. Hence, so long as natural laws are construed as universal generalizations about events, it is incoherent to speak of miracles as 'violations' of such laws.

The upshot of Bilynskyj's discussion is that either natural laws ought not to be construed as universal generalizations about events or that miracles should not be characterized as violations of nature's laws. He opts for the first alternative, arguing that laws of nature are really about the dispositional properties of things based on the kinds of things they are.{64} He observes that most laws today, when taken as universal generalizations, are literally not true. They must include certain ceteris paribus clauses about conditions which seldom or perhaps never obtain, so that laws become subjunctive conditionals concerning what would occur under certain idealized conditions. But that means that laws are true counterfactuals with no application to the real world. Moreover, if laws are merely descriptive generalizations, then they do not really explain anything; rather than telling why some event occurs, they only serve to tell us how things are. Bilynskyj therefore proposes that natural laws ought to be formulated as singular statements about certain kinds of things and their dispositional properties: things of kind A have a disposition to manifest quality F in conditions C, in virtue of being of nature N.{65} Laws can be stated, however, as universal dispositions, for example, 'All potassium has a disposition to ignite when exposed to oxygen.' On this understanding, to assert that an event is physically impossible is not to say that it is a violation of a law of nature, since dispositional laws are not violated when the predisposed behavior does not occur; rather an event F is not produced at a time t by the powers (dispositions) of the natural agents which are causally relevant to F at t.{66} Accordingly, a miracle is an act of God which is physically impossible and religiously significant.{67} On Bilynskyj's version of the proper form of natural laws, then, miracles turn out to be physically impossible, but still not violations of those laws.

I have a great deal of sympathy for Bilynskyj's understanding of natural law and physical impossibility. So as not to create unnecessary stumbling blocks, however, the defender of miracles might ask whether one might not be able to retain the standard necessitarian theory of natural laws as universal generalizations, while jettisoning the old characterization of miracles as 'violations of the laws of nature' in favor of 'events which lie outside the productive capacity of nature.' That is to say, why may we not take a necessitarian theory of natural law according to which laws contain ceteris paribus conditions precluding the interference of both natural and supernatural forces and hold that a miracle is not, therefore, a violation of a law of nature, but an event which cannot be accounted for wholly by reference to relevant natural forces? Natural laws are not violated by such events because they state what will occur only if God does not intervene; nevertheless, the events are still naturally impossible because the relevant natural causal forces do not suffice to bring about the event. Bilynskyj's objections to this view do not seem insuperable.{68} He thinks that on such a view it becomes difficult to distinguish between miracles and God's general providence, since according to the latter doctrine every event has in a sense a supernatural cause. This misgiving does not seem insurmountable, however, for we might construe God's providence as Bilynskyj himself does, as God's conservation of (and, we might add, concurrence with) all secondary causes and effects in being, while reserving only his immediate and extra-concurrent causal activity in the world for inclusion in a law's ceteris paribus conditions. Bilynskyj also objects that the physical impossibility of a miracle is the reason we attribute it to supernatural causation, not vice versa. To define physical impossibility in terms of supernatural causation thwarts the motivation for having the concept of physical impossibility in the first place. But my suggestion is not to define physical impossibility in terms of supernatural causation, but, as Bilynskyj himself does, in terms of what cannot be brought about wholly by natural causes. One may argue that some event E is not a violation of a natural law, but that E is naturally impossible. Therefore, it requires a supernatural cause. It seems to me, therefore, that even on the necessitarian theory of natural law, we may rid ourselves of the incoherent notion of 'violation of the laws of nature' and retain the concept of the naturally impossible as the proper characterization of miracle.

So although an initial advantage has been won by the construal of natural laws as descriptive, not prescriptive, this advantage evaporates unless one abandons the incoherent characterization of a miracle as a 'violation of a law of nature' and adopts instead the notion of an event which is naturally impossible. Now the question which must be asked is how an event could occur which lies outside the productive capacity of natural causes. It would seem to be of no avail to answer with Clarke that matter has no properties and that the pattern of events is simply God's acting consistently, for, contrary to his assertion, physics does hold that matter possesses certain properties and that certain forces such as gravitation and electromagnetism are real operating forces in the world. Bilynskyj points out that Clarke's view entails a thorough-going occasionalism, according to which fire does not really burn nor water quench, which runs strongly counter to common sense.{69} Nor will it seem to help to answer with Sherlock and Houtteville that nature may contain within itself the power to produce events contrary to its normal operation, for this would not seem to be the case when the properties of matter and energy are sufficiently well-known so as to preclude to a reasonably high degree of certainty the occurrence of the event in question. Moreover, though this might secure the possibility of the event, so as to permit a historical investigation, it at the same time reduces the event to a freak of nature, the result of pure chance, not an act of God. It seems most reasonable to agree with modern science that events like the feeding of the 5000, the cleansing of the leper, and Jesus' resurrection really do lie outside the capability of natural causes.

But that being admitted, what has actually been proved? All that the scientist conceivably has the right to say is that such an event is naturally impossible. But with that conclusion the defender of miracles may readily agree. We must not confuse the realms of logical and natural possibility. Is the occurrence of a miracle logically impossible? No, for such an event involves no logical contradiction. Is the occurrence naturally impossible? Yes, for it cannot be produced by natural causes; indeed, this is a tautology, since to lie outside the productive capacity of natural causes is to be naturally impossible.

The question is: what could conceivably make miracles not just logically possible, but really, historically possible? Clearly the answer is the personal God of theism. For if a personal God exists, then he serves as the transcendent cause to produce events in the universe which are incapable of being produced bycauses within the universe (that is to say, events which are naturally impossible. But it is to such a personal, transcendent God that the orthodox defenders of miracles appealed. Given a God who conserves the world in being moment by moment (Vernet, Houtteville), who is omnipotent (Clarke), and free to act as He wills (Vernet, Less), the orthodox thinkers seem to be entirely justified in asserting that miracles are really possible. The question is whether given such a God miracles are possible, and the answer seems obviously, yes. It must be remembered that even their Deist opponents did not dispute God's existence, and Clarke and Paley offered elaborate defenses for their theism. But more than that: if the existence of such a God is even possible, then one must be open to the historical possibility of miracles. Only an atheist can deny the historical possibility of miracles, for even an agnostic must grant that if it is possible that a transcendent, personal God exists, then it is equally possible that He has acted in the universe. Hence, it seems that the orthodox protagonists in the classical debate argued in the main correctly against their Newtonian opponents and that their response has been only strengthened by the contemporary understanding of natural law.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Schedule for remainder of term

Tuesday, Nov. 21

Steve Bilynskyj, guest speaker
Hume - The Evidence for Miracles is Weak (p. 417-425)
Swinburne - Miracles and Historical Evidence (p. 426-434)

Thursday, Nov. 23

NO CLASS- Thanksgiving

Tuesday Nov. 28

The Finality of Death—Russell (handout)
The Soul Needs a Brain to Continue to Function—Swinburne, p. 457-468

Thursday, Nov. 30


A Defense of Religious Exclusivism --Alvin Plantinga (handout) Religious Pluralism—John Hick p. 560-67

Jesus and the World Religions
—de Noia,

Tuesday, December 5

A Lecture by Richard Dawkins, with Q and A
Pass out take-home final

Thursday, Dec. 7

Use this day to prepare for your take-home final

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

To Help You Get Though Plantinga's Free Will Defense

Check out this website for a study guide to help you make your way through the Plantinga article:

Comments on Alvin Plantinga's "Free Will Defense"by Dr. Scott H. Moore, Department of Philosophy, Baylor University

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Religious langugage: Noncognitivist, but meaningful

"David Freidrich Strauss: Miracle and Myth" by Marcus Borg

In this article, Borg approves of Strauss' move to reject both the rationalist and supernaturalist reading of scripture, in favor of a non-cognitivist, subjective reading. It would seem that his position is very much like Hare's: religious language is non-cognitive (not a matter of statements and truth or falsity) but it is meaningful (true for me). Note that this "metaphorical" theory of religious language differs from THomas Aquinas analogy theory of religious language. Strauss and Borg are non-cognitivists; Thomas is a cognitivist.

Unfortuantely, due to copyright restrictions, I cannot reproduce the article here, but it is an extremely well-written, clear exposition of a non-cognitivist view.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Modern Biblical Scholarship, Philosophy of Religion and Traditional Christianity

by Professor Eleonore Stump
Stump is currently the Robert J. Henle, S.J. Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louis University. She obtained her bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College in 1969, her master’s degrees from Harvard University in 1971 and Cornell University in 1973, and her Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1975. She is the 2005–06 president and 2003–04 vice president of the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association, and past president of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Catholic Philosophical Association. Stump’s research interests include the philosophy of religion, metaphysics and medieval philosophy. She was also a recent Gifford Lecturer.
In recent decades biblical scholarship as practiced in secular universities has been dominated by a certain historical approach to biblical studies. I have in mind the sort of biblical studies represented by the work of F. M. Cross, O. Cullmann, E. Haenchen, E. Kasemann, and G. E. Wright, for example. Operating in conjunction with the related disciplines of archaeology, classical languages, and near-Eastern studies, this approach has made significant contributions to our understanding of the historical context in which the biblical texts were composed. But to many outsiders what has been at least equally noteworthy about this approach is the havoc it has wreaked on traditional Christian and Jewish beliefs. In their effort to discover and present what is historically authentic in the Bible, the practitioners of this approach have in effect rewritten the Bible. They have cut the Old and New Testaments into a variety of snippets; some they have discarded entirely as not historically authentic, and others they have reassembled in new ways to form what these scholars consider the truly original historical documents or traditions. They have denied the traditional authorship of certain books of the Bible-for example, they tend to hold that the pastoral apostles (the one to Titus and the two to Timothy) were not really written by Paul-and they have claimed to find the sources for other biblical texts in such clearly human products as Hittite suzerainty treaties and Hellenistic philosophy. The general result of such scholarship is, for example, that a text which a church father such as Augustine may have used to support a particular theological doctrine on the grounds that the text was composed by a disciple of Jesus who was an eye-witness to the events recorded may now be classified as a much later document fabricated by certain anonymous Christians for theological motives and derived by them from identifiable pagan sources. But if the biblical passages on which traditional doctrines are based are truly of such a character, they provide no credible support for the doctrines. And so the general effect of this approach to biblical studies has been a powerful undermining of classical Christian doctrines and a powerful impetus to religious skepticism....

read the entire article at

Saturday, September 23, 2006

An Interview With Al Plantinga

An Interview with Professor Alvin Plantingam by Roy Varghese, executive editor of Truth on "Theism as a Properly Basic Belief"

Q. If we accept belief in God as rational on the grounds which you have presented, how do we also know that this belief is true?

A. You have to think about that in the context of the same question with respect to perception or memory or other minds. Fundamentally, in these cases it is a matter of trusting one's cognitive faculties, I guess. It seems true. One's inclined to believe in other minds, one's inclined to believe in the past, one's inclined to believe in immaterial objects and many of us are also under certain circumstances inclined to believe in God. I don't know if there's any way of getting outside of our faculties in these cases and sort of checking the matter independently. I don't know how one would do this.

Q. Some English philosophers-Farrer, Mascall, Trethowan, Owen, Lewis-see belief in God as being a fundamental insight triggered by certain experiences or under certain circumstances instead of seeing it as the end-product of an inferential process.

A. I'd go along with that. But I would say that for many people it's not so much a matter of coming to an insight by virtue of long hard thinking. It's more a matter of just being inclined, as Calvin says, under various circumstances, to form this belief about God.

Q. I would think these philosophers would hold that an unlettered farmer in touch with nature would be better endowed in coming to such an insight than a sophisticated city-dweller.

A. I have no objection to that. In Reason and Belief in God I mention a bunch of circumstances that according to Calvin-and I think he's right-call forth belief in God: gratitude, a sense of contingency, just beholding the beauties of nature sometimes- mountains, flowers and the like of that-being in danger. All sorts of things.

Q. These philosophers, as I understand them, would compare this fundamental insight to something like visual perception: its truth cannot be checked with reference to external criteria: you see it to be true: it is self-guaranteeing or self- authenticating.

A. I don't think it's self-authenticating or self- guaranteeing in any of these cases. In the case of perception, for example, it could be we're all mistaken, it could be we're being deceived by a Cartesian demon or something like that.

Q. But at least we can be certain that we are having an apparent perception.

A. It's logically possible that these other things are so. I don't for a minute think that they are so, and I don't think that the fact that these are logically possible means that we don't know any of these. One question is whether you know these things. And another question is what's your evidence or how do you prove these things. I think you know something when that belief is true and when it's produced in you by your faculties working properly. God has created us with a lot of faculties and I know a perceptual belief is a true proposition when I believe it and it's true and it's produced in me by my faculties working the way they were designed to work. But that doesn't mean I can prove it to some sceptic. That's a whole different question. Knowledge is one thing, being able to prove it to a sceptic is a wholly different thing.

Q. The fact you can't prove the truth of it does not mean you haven't had an insight or that the insight isn't valid.

A. It doesn't mean you don't it know either. It's not as if in order to know it you have to be able to prove it to the sceptic.

Q. Doesn't an inferential argument for God's existence already presuppose this fundamental insight? The conclusion is implicit in the premises.

A. The argument might be a probabilistic one of some kind like Swinburne's. I guess it wouldn't have to be the case that the argument somehow presupposes the belief to start off with. But an argument always presupposes that you trust or that you're relying upon some other faculties or some other belief-producing processes or cognitive processes. You reason from them to the one in question.

Q. How do you relate this belief to common sense or common experience; God's existence has seemed obvious to the vast majority of mankind.

A. It has seemed true to the vast majority of mankind that some being worthy of worship, whom we all worship and who is responsible for our existence and the like, that some such being does exist. I think that has been obvious to the bulk of mankind. That's fundamentally what Calvin is saying when he speaks of the sensus divinitatis.

Q. So would you say you're remaining faithful to common sense and the common experience of mankind?

A. Yes. Right, I would. I don't have any objection to giving the arguments [for God's existence] and the arguments are no doubt useful in some contexts. All I say is they're not necessary either for rationality or for knowledge.

Q. Arguments may be useful in triggering off the insight into God's existence.

A. They may be useful for that. Well, they could be useful, I suppose, in a variety of ways. They reveal connections between other things one already believes like the ontological argument. And maybe they move certain people closer to belief in God.

Q. Some critics of this approach claim that the examples of properly basic beliefs you cite (e.g. seeing a tree) are not sufficiently similar to belief in God for the latter to qualify as properly basic. For one thing, they say, belief in God is not universal like some of the other beliefs.

A. People have said that, but I don't know why I should believe that. That is, I'm not arguing that belief in God is properly basic because it so greatly resembles such experience. I was just trying to point out various analogies, illustrating points about proper basicality of theistic belief by pointing to similar things in the case of sense-experience. It was an illustration or analogy rather than a matter of arguing from its similarity to a sense-experience to its being properly basic like sense-experience. Things that are properly basic come in a wide variety of forms. Memory, a priori reasoning, what you're taught or told by other people, and so on.

Q. How do you think the "theism as a properly basic belief" approach should be presented in the philosophical community?

A. It's not a presentation of theism as such. To present theism is to say what God is like-about His attributes, knowledge, foreknowledge, middle knowledge, power, whether He's simple. It's not that. It has to do, rather, with what might be called epistemology of religious belief.

Q. Do you think this is the most fruitful approach?

A. I think it is. I think it's true anyway and so, I guess, most fruitful.

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