Does the Universe Have a Purpose? A Review of the Panel Debate with Craig and Dawkins

On November 13, the Festival Internacional de Mentes Brillantes (“International Festival of Great Minds”) in Mexico hosted a panel debate between several atheists and theists to discuss the question “Does the universe have a purpose? Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer, and Richard Dawkins defended the atheist perspective while Rabbi David Wolpe, William Lane Craig, and R. Douglas Geivett fronted for the theistic worldview. The debate was notable for several reasons – for one, it was held, of all places, in a boxing ring, but more importantly, it represented the first occasion that William Lane Craig and Richard Dawkins have publicly crossed swords (in the past, Dawkins has refused to debate Craig).

The video of the panel has been uploaded onto YouTube, which you can watch below.

For those interested, here are my own thoughts on the opening arguments of the debate. I have dealt only with the opening arguments of the debates speakers because going into any more depth would, I think be inconsiderate.

Matt Ridley was the first to speak. He hashed out two key points:

1. Darwin had shown us that what looked like “design” could be achieved through a bottom up process without resorting to postulating a designer.

2. The problem of evil. Unlike more philosophically sophisticated forms of the so called “problem of evil” Ridley drew on Voltaire’s novel “Candide” where he criticized Leibniz’ claim that this was the best of all worlds.

Bill Craig was the next to speak. He completely side stepped the issue of biological design (as Dawkins later noted but failed to address himself) and presented his standard arguments i.e. the origin and fine tuning of the universe as well as a thoroughly abbreviated form of the moral argument. In an argument rarely used by theistic philosophers, Craig responded to Ridley’s “problem” of evil by arguing that the presence of evil actually furnishes evidence FOR rather than against the existence of God. He stated “I maintain that evil is a departure from the way things ought to be, I can think of no more reasonable definition of evil that captures our shared intuitions. But, if we agree that there is evil in the world, and that evil is a departure from the way things ought to be, then we have to agree that there is a way things ought to be. But if there is a way things ought to be, then there must be some transcendent design plan or purpose that determines how things ought to be. And so, there must be some transcendent designer, a Creator in fact, whose will is the basis for how things ought to be, and hence evil is actually evidence that God does exist“. Now the latter half of Craig’s comments, i.e. the inference that if evil exists then God exists was not strictly necessary to the debate. After all, the debate was not about whether or not God exists (as it happened to turn out) but whether or not there is a purpose in the universe. Strictly speaking it was going beyond the burden of proof required by the moot of the debate to explain how that purpose is instantiated (achieved), it could (for all we know) be instantiated by abstract objects locked in Plato’s heaven. On that count, there needn’t have been any dispute between the theists and the atheists (unless the term “atheist” is implausibly restricted to “naturalists”). For the purposes of the debate, Craig could simply have pointed out that if his definition of evil is correct, then there is a way in which things ought to be and that would have been sufficient to show that some objective purpose existed. He didn’t need to explain out how that “ought” came to be instantiated. As it happened though, Craig’s argument here became relevant because Ridley had stated that evil was a problem for theism and as we discovered with the debate between Matt Flannagan and Ray Bradley, letting irrelevant comments go is sometimes not the best tactic if winning the audience is your goal (note that that’s not a dig against you Matt, but the fickle nature of audiences and their tendency to believe that things are relevant when they’re not).

Michael Shermer (the editor of Skeptic Magazine) was the next to speak. He basically started with a series of appalling straw men. He stated “once you believe that the universe somehow has a designed purpose for us and us alone, that I can have anything I want, alls I have to do is wish for it, ask for it, that it will appear, the Mercedes in my driveway, the healing of my aunts cancer, for miracles to appear upon my wish, that’s just pure nonsense“. Well sure! It’s nonsense! But whoever said that miracles occur upon my wish? Whoever said that I can have whatever I want? So far as I know, Christian monotheism says no such thing! In-fact, Christian monotheism predicts that most times, in-fact 99% of the time, I won’t get what I want. The miracles and healings that do occur are by God’s wish alone, they are part of HIS providential plan, not our whim. Hence on that front Shermer’s arguments tackle straw men. But even if we grant that Christian monotheism does predict that we can have anything we want, Shermer’s arguments in this respect would still fail on two counts: 1) it would be irrelevant to the debate. The moot of the debate is “does the universe have a purpose?”, but Shermer confuses this for the question “how is that purpose instantiated?” Suppose we were to claim that some vague deity that does not interfere in the universe was its designer. In such a possible world, the universe would still have a purpose! So on that count, Shermer’s argument is logically invalid. The implied conclusion “the universe has no purpose” would not follow. What’s worse for Shermer is that it isn’t self evident that without God there would be no purpose. Suppose we were atheistic Platonists. Atheistic Platonism holds that the order and purpose in the Universe is instantiated by abstract objects, locked in Plato’s heaven, imposing themselves on uncreated matter. In such a possible world we might still say that the universe had a purpose! So again, Shermer’s argument is logically invalid. Now I don’t hold to atheistic Platonism, in-fact I hold that purpose without God is metaphysically (that is de re) impossible. But all we need to grant is the mere logical possibility of atheistic Platonism and we’ve still won the debate. Sadly, this was not a point raised by any of the theists, they instead stuck to their modus tollens argument that if God does not exist then there is no objective purpose to the universe. This in my view was a strategic error on the theists behalf since it placed a far heavier burden of proof on them than was required of them by the wording of the moot.

Ignoring this and Craig’s points on the issue, Shermer’s next complaint re-hashed the problem of evil, complaining that if God exists then God could create new limbs for the victims of land mines in the Iraq war. Again, this argument is not strictly relevant to the debate since the moot isn’t “Does God exist?”, but “Is there a purpose to the Universe”. We might grant that Shermer’s point here does mitigate God’s existence (although ultimately it’s a complete non sequitur) but still hold that there’s purpose in the universe. After all, if Craig’s definition of evil is correct (which I think it is), and evil is a departure from the way things ought to be, then the presence of evil (in this case the suffering of limbless soldiers) would actually show that there is objective purpose in the universe! But I think more fatally is that this suffers from the sort of fallacious reasoning that I find many popularisers of atheism use with almost uniform regularity. They make some statement like “well why doesn’t God just do x? And then claim that if God did x then they’d believe in Him. For example, in the 1998 debate between Eddie Tabash and William Lane Craig, Tabash asked Craig why Jesus didn’t come to earth to die for our sins in the modern era when we have the benefits of modern technology. In Shermer’s case it was to ask why it is that God doesn’t re-grow the limbs of soldiers that have lost those appendages in battle. The problem is that these sort of arguments suffer from something very much like the anachronistic fallacy. I have begun calling such fallacies the “angelic fallacy” wherein one is so presumptuous as to suppose that he knows how a perfectly good God with omnipotence and foreknowledge would act. One decidedly memorable instance of this was when an atheist got up and asked “why wasn’t Jesus a woman?!?!?!” and then proceeded to determine that Jesus wasn’t the Christ by virtue of the fact that he was a man rather than a woman! There was no engagement with the evidence presented, merely an emotionalist appeal to how the Church is responsible for so much of history’s chauvinism all because Jesus was a man! I hope you are sufficiently intelligent to see the abject failure of relevance in such “arguments”. Nonetheless, supposing that this weren’t so abjectly fallacious in the sense defined, it would still be a failure of relevance insofar as it betrays the faulty assumption that God merely wants us to believe in Him. Note the claim “if God did x then I’d believe in him”, well sure! You may believe in Him, but how do you know that if God did x that it would bring you into a saving, loving relationship with Him? Given the scriptural data on the issue, it’s immediately clear that God’s purpose is not so much to have us believe in Him, but to be in a saving relationship with Him.

Shermer’s last complaint was to bash the theists (Craig, Wolpe and Geivett) and complain that they immorally discriminate against homosexuality. Now this argument is just flagrantly fallacious, it has nothing to do with the moot of the debate and instead attacks something of the character of the theists. This kind of fallacy is more technically known as a circumstantial ad hominem fallacy. But furthermore, it betrays the assumption that there is a purpose to the universe (the moot of the debate). As I’ve repeatedly stated, if evil is a departure from the way things ought to be and (in this case) to discriminate against homosexuality is evil, then it would follow that a) there is an objective purpose to the universe and b) that the wrongness of discriminating against homosexuals is part of that purpose.

The next to speak was the Rabbi David Wolpe. Now I confess that before this debate, I’d never heard of Wolpe and to be honest I wasn’t entirely impressed with him. He struck as ultimately more bombast than solid reasoning (unlike Craig and Geivett). Nevertheless, he did make two interesting points: The first was that experiment is not the only way of knowing things and second with respect to the problem of evil. With respect to the first, I must concede that he is right, unfortunately he only asserted it rather than giving any examples of knowledge we have that doesn’t come through experimentation. With respect to the second point, he argued that the theist is not committed to Leibniz’ claim that this was the best of all possible worlds. He didn’t really offer a great deal of argument on this point, but for the sake of charity we might bring in a point I made earlier which is that both Judaism and Christianity both predict that this is not the best of all possible worlds, after all, the best kind of world would have been one where Adam and Eve never ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now there are bigger issues at play here, and it may turn out that this point folds on closer scrutiny, but it nonetheless was an interesting point.

The last on the atheist side to speak was the infamous Richard Dawkins. Dawkins began by saying “it seems perfectly natural when presented with an object to say “whats it for?”, it starts in childhood. The psychologist Deborah Kellerman has investigated this very interestingly with children, offering them a question like “why do you think these rocks are pointy?”, is it because of some geological explanation or cause? or is it so that animals can scratch on them when they get itchy?” and below a certain age…I think it’s about 6…most children answer with the teleological answer…children then (mostly) grow out of that purposive way of looking at the world, not apparently everybody”. Aside from the implicit ad hominem attack at the end of Dawkins argument here, there are some much deeper problems associated with this claim. The problem is, is that it’s far too broad to be of any use to Dawkins! Dawkins rejects teleological reasoning in natural theology as “immature” and as such rejects such reasoning a priori. But if we a priori reject teleological reasoning in natural theology, then on what grounds can we accept teleological reasoning for the supposition that a book is written by an intentional, purposive human mind? That is to say, if we are to reject the teleological argument for Gods existence because such reasoning is (as Dawkins seems to suggest) “immature”, then on what grounds can we accept the obvious appearances of design in Dawkins’ own book “The God Delusion”? It may turn out a posteriori that there are perfectly good naturalistic explanations for the apparent design in the physical universe, but, contra Dawkins, teleological reasoning cannot be ruled out a priori.

Dawkins’ second point was to re-hash the Darwinian argument against theism. That the greatest achievement of modern science was to show that the impulse we have to see purpose in anything doesn’t work. Now hold on a second! Earlier Bill Craig made the point that an argument for the existence of God can be made from the origin and fine tuning of the universe. Now as far as I know (which isn’t very much), Darwin dealt with biological organisms. But cosmology and biological organisms are clearly not the same thing. A Darwinian attack on Cosmological arguments against the existence of God would simply be a category mistake! As Dinesh D’Souza stated in his debated with John Loftus, arguments from cosmological evidence are completely immune to Darwinian attack. Thankfully, Dawkins seemed to recognize this and argued that the theists have been “forced back” into explaining things like the origin of the cosmos and the apparent fine tuning of the universe. He said, that theists like to say “well science can’t explain things like the big bang therefore God did it“. There are two points to be made: 1. in actual fact we have not been “forced back”, theologians and theistic philosophers have for eons been making arguments from cosmology, take for example the Islamic, Medieval philosopher and mystic “Al Ghazali” or perhaps the Jewish philosopher Moses Nachmanides. Theologians and philosophers have by no means been “forced back” into anything. Dawkins claim that we used to stay away from astronomy in our teleological arguments (as Paley suggested) is simply false. 2. His argument here is simply a straw man. Theologians and theistic philosophers that use the cosmological argument (because there are those that don’t (e.g. Peter van Inwagen) don’t merely conclude that “Goddunit” just because we can’t explain the big bang. Actually, they draw on the causal principle i.e. that everything which begins to exist has a cause and conclude that because modern cosmology predicts that the universe began to exist that it must therefore have a cause. They then try to show that the best possible explanation of that cause is a prime mover with the ability to act such as to bring into existence a temporal effect. This is hardly the God of the gaps hypothesis that Dawkins wants to make the cosmological argument out to be. Still unimpressed by this, Dawkins reverts to his age old saying “well scientists are working on it!” and even better, that “one day physics will answer those questions”. Well sure! one day physics might answer those question and one day that might answer turn out to be God! who’s to say that the answer can’t be God? alternatively, one day physics might show us that there is a good naturalistic explanation of the universe. If there is, that’s fine, but at least on the present evidence it seems that there isn’t. On the present evidence (which points to the beginning of the universe in a massive flash of light) our best explanation is that a transcendent, timeless, changeless, immaterial person exists that brought our universe into existence. Now, that explanation may change as the evidence changes, but it’s a fantastic bit of warped logic (which fundamentally destroys the precepts of the scientific method) to conclude that the present hypothesis is false merely because the evidence may one day change. After all, the evidence for evolution may possibly one change one day, but does that possibility mean we should reject evolution? I highly doubt that Dawkins would accept such reasoning from Creationists! Still unimpressed by this, Dawkins ends his speech with the question “even if science can’t explain these things, what on earth makes you think that religion can?” Well again, this is strictly irrelevant to the moot of the debate since the debate only concerns whether or not there is a purpose to the universe. Nevertheless, the theist might respond as I did earlier, which is that anything capable of bringing a temporal effect, in this case the universe, into existence is necessarily (de re) an entity capable of free action.

The last to speak was Douglas Geivett who re-emphasized Craig’s earlier point that if God does not exist then personal meaning is merely what we make of it artificially. Given atheism, any belief that life has purpose rests upon an arbitrary existential choice at best. After this point, he attempted to develop something that sounds much like the argument from consciousness which, I confess, is not something I understand. The basic gist of his argument though, was that naturalism cannot take seriously the experience of human freedom and volition, nor can it make sense of any perception of intention or purpose.

With 3,000 attending the debate and 2 million people viewing it on Mexican television, it is really encouraging to have such a large audience exposed to this important question. It was unfortunate that the debaters had to break their speeches down into 6 minute sound bites, as such a format doesn’t lend itself to a substantive and meaningful debate. Nonetheless, it was fascinating exchange and, in my uneducated opinion, the atheists got thrashed.

“Bad things shouldn’t happen to good people”—why this argument fails against Christianity

Continuing a discussion with ‘Upandatom’ in a previous thread, I’d like to address his argument that:

Bad things shouldn’t happen to good people. And it would not be hard at all for god to create a world where everyone gets what they deserve.

Upandatom: I think I can accept your statement that “bad things shouldn’t happen to good people” at face value. That seems intuitively obvious. But there are a few problems with trying to use this as a reason to think God doesn’t exist.

1. Maximum good seems logically impossible without evil

Do you think there’s a corresponding principle that “good things should happen to good people”? If so, we can easily imagine a situation where God wants something exceptionally good to happen to a good person, but where it’s logically impossible for that good thing to happen (or happen “properly”) without something bad happening first.

For example, imagine God wanted to give you unending happiness. Do you think you’d appreciate that more if you knew first-hand what it was like to be miserable? I know I would. We tend to take things for granted if we don’t know what life is like without them. It’s a basic truth about human beings that we value things far more highly, and enjoy them far more, when to get them in the first place we have to work hard, make sacrifices, experience loss. Marriage seems much better if you’ve been lonely before; a good meal tastes better when you’re ravenous.

It seems clear that without suffering, joy is diluted. So on this principle alone, isn’t it pretty plausible that God would allow bad things to happen to good people, precisely because he wants them to experience good things afterwards in the fullest way possible?

Remember also: God is capable of taking away any residual suffering we may experience as a result of evil. People with post-traumatic stress disorder in this life won’t have PTSD in heaven. So it’s not as if the evil we experience has a lasting effect. It’s just a temporary means for us to experience a greater good.

2. People are not good

It’s a core supposition of your argument that people are good—but the Bible is exceptionally clear that people are actually evil. See, for example, Romans 3:9 and onward. Christianity holds that people are naturally inclined to do evil, rather than good—that’s what it means to be a sinner. So although I agree, in a general sense, that “bad things shouldn’t happen to good people”, it’s not a relevant consideration in this case.

After all, you seem to be trying to show that God wouldn’t do something that Christianity says he would, to prove that therefore Christianity is false. But to do that, you have to stick to what Christianity says. You can’t say “the God of Christianity wouldn’t allow evil to happen to good people; bad things do happen to good people; therefore Christianity is false”…if in fact Christianity holds that people are not good. That would be a strawman, because under Christianity, bad things don’t happen to good people.

3. The statement “bad things shouldn’t happen to good people” either presupposes that God exists, or it’s just an opinion with no force

On the other hand, maybe you’re not trying to make the argument I think you’re making. Maybe you’re just saying that you believe people are good, that you believe bad things shouldn’t happen to them, and you believe God wouldn’t allow it.

But in that case, your argument doesn’t have any force. Your own opinion about what the Christian God would or wouldn’t do, etc, has no necessary bearing on what he’d actually do, right? Just like your opinion about what I would or wouldn’t do might not necessarily be accurate. It’s not like your opinion about God trumps his opinion about himself!

If you’re just trying to convince us that God allowing evil would be immoral of him, without using Christian morality to prove it, then you’re just begging the question: relying on the assumption that God doesn’t exist in order to supposedly prove he doesn’t exist. Because obviously if he did exist, it wouldn’t be immoral for him to cause suffering!

The problem here is: you apparently do believe that bad things shouldn’t happen to good people. You seem to think this is a universal law; something that is true regardless of what other people believe (even God!) But where would such a truth come from, if not from God himself? So your argument, while seeming on the face of it to offer evidence against God’s existence, on closer examination seems to support it.

I’d welcome your thoughts in the comments below.

What to do when skeptics attack libertarian free will—become a Calvinist

By way of backstory…

This is a continuation of the discussion started with Stuart in his article ‘Openness Theology (Part 2)’. I realize it’ll go over the heads of some, and I apologize for that—but I think these issues are interesting and important enough to warrant bringing them to the front page. Interesting because, for more philosophically-inclined Christians, they raise questions about our own natures and our relationship to God; important because the answers to these questions have a lot of ramifications for not just our theology, but also our apologetics.

For example, a fairly standard line of attack for skeptics is to draw out the inconsistencies between holding to both God’s definite foreknowledge (DFK) and libertarian free will—which many Christians do. As a skeptic of LFW, though a believer in DFK, I took this line of attack in the comments thread of Stuart’s article:

P = “God knows that an agent S will choose A rather than ¬A”
Q = “S will choose A rather than ¬A”
[A] = the principle of accidental necessity (PAN)
[L] = the principle of logical necessity

  1. [A]P
  2. [L](P → Q)
  3. [A]Q

This precludes the possibility of S’s choosing ¬A. Since LFW typically relies on the principle of alternative possibility (PAP), this argument suffices to disprove the standard libertarian view.

Stuart, however, resolves the difficulty by rejecting the principle of alternate possibility while still holding to libertarian freedom: namely, that our choices are causally unrestrained. To justify rejecting PAP, he cites a hypothetical scenario where it seems that PAP is false, but agent S still has free will. This kind of scenario was first proposed by a philosopher named Harry Frankfurt, and is so called a Frankfurt Counterexample.

At this point, I’m gonna start talking to Stuart directly:

Continuing the discussion…

Stu: I think it’s interesting that you object to PAP using a Frankfurt Counterexample. Frankfurt being a compatibilist and all (: But I take it you’re adopting the Molinist position, ala William Lane Craig.

I think that’s problematic, because ultimately it collapses into a pure Reformed theology. PAP is necessary to liberterian free will (LFW), because without it there’s no obvious distinction between incompatibilism and compatibilism; and without that, there’s no reason to believe in LFW and be a Molinist!

For example, imagine a choice between A and ¬A, where God foreknows the outcome A. Compatibilists, who hold to theological determinism, believe something like the following:

  1. Principle of Volition (PV): Agent S can consciously contemplate A or ¬A and choose one
  2. Principle of Accidental Necessity (PAN): S cannot choose ¬A because his choice of A is accidentally necessary
  3. Principle of Compatibilistic Free Will (CFW): S freely chooses A

But what’s the difference between these beliefs, taken together, and what a libertarian would believe sans PAP? Perhaps you’d say (2) is incomplete, and that completing it creates the relevant distinction:

2C: S cannot choose ¬A because his choice of A is accidentally necessary AND causally restrained
2L: S cannot choose ¬A because his choice of A is accidentally necessary though NOT causally restrained

But the difference being suggested here only gains its force by trading on an equivocation in the concept of causality. (2L) cannot be true as a blanket statement under traditional Christianity. And (2C) need not be true, depending on what kind of causation you have in view.

If any kind of causation is in view, then presumably the libertarian and the compatibilist would both agree that (2C) must be true, and together reject (2L)—because the mechanics of God’s creative act necessitate at least three causal restraints on contingent choices:

CR1. Prior to creation, God surveyed all possible worlds and chose to create this one (call it W1)
CR2. God initially instantiated W1 in reality by speaking it into being
CR3. God continually upholds the instantiation of W1 in reality moment to moment

Any Christian must believe all three of these propositions, and all three of them constitute causal restraints on our choices.

A bit of explanation re these three causal restraints Christianity implies

Statement (CR1) entails a causal restraint on our choices, because God’s ability to know true facts about choices in worlds which have not been instantiated logically entails that his knowledge is not grounded on any choices’ actually obtaining. But if his knowledge is not grounded on the choices’ obtaining, yet he still has definite foreknowledge of their outcomes, it follows they must be causally determined. Were they not—were they indeterminate—then by definition he could not know their outcomes.

Statement (CR2) entails a causal restraint on human choices, since S’s choice of A is conditioned on God’s instantiation of W1. Indeed, every choice made in W1 occurs inevitably as God determined when he chose to instantiate W1.

Statement (CR3) entails a causal restraint on human choices, because we know that God alone instantiates things in reality. This instantiative power is a kind of causation, though not a natural causation (aka secondary causation). It’s an existential or primary causation. By definition, only God has this power; it’s sui generis, and a non-communicable attribute. Were God not exercising this power continually, the universe would simply fail to exist. Thus we know that whenever something is real, God alone instantiates it in reality; and since S’s choice to A is real, God alone therefore instantiates it in reality. It’s arguable whether this is merely a restatement of (CR2) or not; I don’t have a considered opinion on that.

The upshot (which is threefold):

Firstly, we must be careful when, in (2C) and (2L) above, we talk about S’s choice being “causally restrained”. Do we mean that it’s restrained in a natural sense, in an existential sense, or both? Any Christian must, of necessity, acknowledge that our choices are existentially causally restrained. But then there is no disagreement between the libertarian and the compatibilist, and their views appear to be the same. On the other hand, if we’re only talking about natural causal restraint, the compatibilist need not (to my knowledge) affirm that our choices are restrained at all; ie, he may agree with the libertarian that the only causally relevant factor in S’s choice is the action of S’s own will.

Secondly, because libertarianism without PAP implies a closed future, and acknowledges God’s definite foreknowledge even of non-instantiated worlds, it therefore necessarily entails theistic determinism:

TD. Theistic determinism is true if, and only if, for an agent (S) choosing whether A, the outcome A or ¬A is actualized inevitably because of a prior action on the part of God.

Thirdly, libertarianism with PAP necessarily entails the opposite: ie, it implies an open future, which in turn requires a denial of God’s definite foreknowledge, since there is literally nothing for him to know about human choices logically prior to their obtaining.

Make a choice: Calvinism or Open Theism

This is why an Arminian theology will either collapse into a Reformed theology or an Open theology when you push its premises to be consistent with one another. Once you’ve discarded PAP you’re most of the way there, since you’re essentially adopting a compatibilist view already—making theological determinism a lot easier to swallow.

On the other hand, if your intuitions were to refuse to let you discard PAP—as I’ve seen be the case for many Arminians, despite the PAP counterexample God conveniently provided for us right in the Bible itself (Exodus 7ff)—then if you want to align all your beliefs to be consistent you have to let go of God’s definite foreknowledge.

I look forward to your thoughts (:

Matthew Flannagan to speak at EPS and SBL

Thinking Matters is proud to have one its close associates represented at the Evangelical Philosophers Society and the Society of Biblical Literature Conferences in Atlanta, Georgia this month. Matthew Flannagan, together with his wife Madeline, have from the first been a great support for the ministry of Thinking Matters, which in part seeks to promote and encourage apologetics in New Zealand. As we sought to draw the community of people active in the field of apologetics in New Zealand together, they both were filled with ideas and an energy to make things happen, which we all really admire. We are hopeful that this trip and speaking engagements will open doors of opportunity for him and his family – doors that New Zealand has a lack of – and send Matt off with our best wishes and prayers for whatever the future holds. We look forward to hearing what God can accomplish through you, and for you, in the coming months and years.

At the EPS Apologetics Conference, Matt will speak on “God and the Genocide of the Canaanites” (full details here). The following day he will join Palm Beach Atlantic University Professor of Philosophy  and Ethics and EPS President Paul Copan, Denver Seminary Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages Richard Hess and Taylor University Associate Professor of Historical Theology Randal Rauser at the SBL Annual Meeting for a panel discussion entitled “Navigating Old Testament Ethics”

To learn more about Matt and his work, we encourage you to follow these links.

Georgia on my mind

An up-to-date story from Matt of how he came to be invited to speak at the Conferences and became acquainted with the topic he is speaking on.

Inter-continental developments – Matt to speak in the US

Up and coming projects where you will find either Matt or his work.


A selection of Matt’s work published on his blog at MandM.

Why there can’t be two gods

A good long time ago now, a fellow named Albert emailed me asking some questions. I promised to respond to these questions on Thinking Matters…but got very busy with work and haven’t had a chance until now. Albert, for that I apologize. Let me dive right in and quote the original email:

Hey, since you are a philosophy student, please prove to me why there almost certainly must be only one god if god must exist. Why cant there be two eternal gods? Both with free choice who are all good or all evil.

That seems to explain away the problem of evil since the birth of handicapped people, natural disasters, near destruction of the entire human race in the ice ages, extinction of dinosaurs etc cannot be the work of an all good god.

Also, prove to me why god must be omnipotent? Couldn’t both gods have an equal amount of power? Or maybe one has more power over the other but not enough for destruction of the other

If god was eternal, without a beginning cant we say that these gods needed no cause and that they just were?

These are just the first of several questions Albert asks, but I’ll deal with the others in later posts. Today I’ll just look at why there “almost certainly” must be only one God if God exists.

I like that Albert uses the term “almost certainly”. I think that’s wise. There’s very little we can prove with complete certainty. But I think we can show to a high degree of certainty that, if God exists, then he must be one. There can’t be more than one god. To show this, we just need to have a bit of a think about the nature of good and evil…

How the nature of good and evil makes an evil second god impossible

The idea of two gods, one good and one evil, is very old. It’s called dualism. But it suffers from a profound problem:

Just as a shadow is not something in the way a lamp is, evil is not something in the way good is

Lemme explain. We have a sense that certain things are good, and certain other things are bad. But when we think about the bad things, we see that they’re bad because they contradict how things should be. For example, we know that murder is bad because people should be allowed to live. Put another way, we see that things are bad because they negate something of value. For example, we know that murder is bad because life is valuable.

When we think of good things, though, we don’t see any similar kind of explanations for their goodness. Rather, they seem to “just be good”. We find that goodness isn’t defined by anything except itself. Words like “valuable” and “should” really can’t be further explained. We can’t define them in terms of anything else. Their meaning is very basic. In fact, if you try to explain them further, you end up robbing them of their original meaning.

So while bad or evil can be explained in terms of good things, and in fact demand such explanations, good things can’t be equally explained in terms of bad. We can’t say that not murdering is good because murdering is bad, for example—because that in turn raises the question of why murdering is bad to begin with. We find that ultimately all explanations about badness reduce down to explanations about goodness.

This is why theologians have traditionally defined evil as a “privation” of good. That is, evil only exists in the sense that volitional creatures, like humans and demons, are able to choose to not be good. They can choose to defy what ought to be done, and thus do what ought not to be done.

Evil is defined by what is good

Simply put, evil only exists because good exists. It’s like a shadow cast by a lamp. Without the lamp, there’d be no shadow. So if a second, evil god did exist, he would only be ‘shadow’ of the good God. And just as a shadow can’t exist without a lamp, the existence of an evil god would be dependent on the prior existence of a good God.

And because his existence would rely on God, he’d have to be created by God in the first place. Which is exactly what Christianity says about Satan. This also answers your question about why God must be omnipotent in such a situation, and why a second god could not be eternal.

The problem of evil

As to your statement that evil “cannot be the work of an all good god”, let me quickly address this. I’ll do so by simply asking: if an all good God wanted to achieve something outstandingly good, but the only way to do that was by causing the existence of evil, would he not be good to do so? If evil were a means to a good end, then why would it be wrong for God to use it as such?

Apologetics is the Answer to Everything

Anthony Horvath, a pro-life advocate and Executive Director of Athanatos Christian Ministries, has written a provocative post about the importance of apologetics for the witness of the church in the post-Christian world:

“Some Christians will begin seeing red just from reading the title of this entry.  They will be angry and annoyed and may even jump up out of their seats.  Therefore, let me say it again:  apologetics is the answer to everything.

Whether it be the rapid decline of the Christian Church in America, the brisk acceptance of homosexual ‘marriage,’ the prevailing and deepening culture of death, the shallow spirituality of many of the Christians who actually remain in the Church- and certainly much of the lack of action- and many other issues can track back to nothing less than disobedience, for the Scriptures themselves command:  “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”  1 Peter 3:15

Horvath argues that our proclamation of the Gospel has been harmed by an abandonment of an assumption that was central to the witness of the early Christians:

“What is this assumption that the apostles carried with them wherever they went and the unbelieving world they interacted with shared, and generally still tends to share, yet many Christians today have jettisoned?

It is simply this:  that what is objectively true and real in the world requires our assent in mind, body, and soul.

In short, apologetics rejects the relativistic and post-modern notions that we all get to make up our own ‘truth’ as we go.   Apologetics carries with it the assumption that what is described in the Bible really happened.  Jesus, to his very own disciples, appealed to the fact that they themselves had witnessed miracles- that really happened.  The Bereans strove to show that what Paul was saying really happened was really consistent with their Scriptures.  Paul directed Agrippa to investigate what had really happened.  If Jesus did not really rise from the dead, we are to be pitied more than all men.

Horvath suggests that, in contrast to the early church, we have succumbed to the postmodern denial of both the existence of objective truth and human access to it. This has consequences:

“If you walked around thinking that your articles of faith were in fact nothing more than articles of faith without any grounding in reality, how willing would you be to share your views?   If this is what you thought, how excited would you be to evangelize?  Easily answered:  not very.”

What is his solution?

“Apologetics is the answer to everything- in the sense that knowing what you believe and why you believe it is that which gives you the confidence to act in a society that does not share your values and beliefs.   The notion that the Church should confine itself to ‘spiritual’ issues has more than passing resemblance to the gnostic heresy.    God created ‘earthly’ things, too, and said they were good!  Ah, but is that just an article of faith, or is it an actual truth?

The apologetically minded individual tends to be someone who believes that what he is presenting and defending is an actual truth about the real state of affairs.   Not presenting and defending the Christian faith implies to Christian and nonChristian alike that Christianity is a collection of arbitrary dogmas.  Merely asserting those dogmas accomplishes the same thing.  Defending the Christian faith poorly cements the notion in people’s minds (Christians as well!) that ‘faith is believing what we know isn’t true.’”

You may not agree with everything he says, but it is worth taking the time to read the whole thing.

Openness Theology (Part Two)

A thorough refutation of OT will have to engage at least three different areas. These will be, (1) Hermeneutics and the scriptural data, (2) Theological consequences,[1] and (3) Philosophical objections. In this short essay I advance my own brief analysis as to why GOT is philosophically flawed.

Open Theism is in many respects a reaction to hard-line Calvinism and the theological determinism that it implies. OT takes libertarian freedom as axiomatic. Accordingly, because of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge and atemporality, EC incompatibility is thought to follow. Pinnock states:

“I found that I could not shake off the intuition that such a total omniscience would necessarily mean that everything we will ever choose in the future will have been already spelled out in the divine knowledge register, and consequently the belief that we have truly significant choices to make would seem to be mistaken.”[2]

It is clear that by “truly significant” Pinnock means undetermined.[3] But why should exhaustive foreknowledge preclude libertarian freedom as Pinnock intuits? There is a distinct lack in the literature explicating this presupposition. Indeed, no argument for theological determinism can be advanced that is not logically fallacious. Consider the following syllogism:

1)     Necessarily, if God knows x (where x is a future event), x will happen.

2)     God knows everything (this includes x).

Therefore, (modus ponems, 1&2)

3) Necessarily, x will happen.

In other words, if God knows a person’s future choice, that person must make that choice. We can immediately see that this argument must be false – even if we don’t know how. For just by merit of knowing something will occur, doesn’t mean that it must occur. I know that I am going to have Subway™ for lunch. That doesn’t mean I have to have Subway™ for lunch. I could have Noodles. Or skip lunch entirely.

Let us turn to an examination of the premises. Premise (1) is necessary because it is no more than a truism. It is not because it is God doing the knowing, but because x is simply “known,” for to know x requires x to be true: you cannot know x if x is false. We could replace “God” as the knower with anyone we wanted, such as “the gods,”[4] or “the whether man,” or “Big Bird.” It could be anyone doing the knowing and (1) would still be a necessary truth.

Premise (2) is true by merit of God’s omniscience, and classical theism is committed to this proposition. It is on this ground that the OT believes (3) to flow logically from the premises, that leads her to deny (2). Since according to the classical theist both the premises are true, if he is to deny the conclusion the only option left for him is to show that (3) does not flow logically from the premises.

And indeed, what follows from the premises is not (3) but,

3`) x will happen.

Which is to say, x won’t fail to occur, but it could fail to occur. If x fails to happen, we can be assured that God did not know x. This is not to deny (O). It is to say that x was false. That is why Hodge can say:

“…as free acts are in their nature uncertain, as they may not be, they cannot be known before they occur. […] This whole difficulty arises out the assumption that contingency is essential to free agency. [But] If an act may be certain as to its occurrence, and yet free as to the mode of its occurrence, the difficulty vanishes.”[5] [brackets and italics mine]

Thus, an essential presupposition of OT is founded upon a modally fallacious inference. Deprived of a successful proof of EC incompatibility, and with no disproof of concurrence formulations of Divine sovereignty and libertarian freedom,[6] it follows – from a purely philosophical point of view – that GOT is not to be preferred.

Further, GOT appear to be prima facie dubious. Given the strong case for all future contingent propositions being either true or false, Bivalent and Non-Bivalent variants of OT appear unfounded.[7] Moreover, Steven C. Roy, in his comprehensive biblical study of divine foreknowledge identifies 2,323 predictive prophecies concerning CCFs creating a powerful quantitative argument against any limitation of divine foreknowledge.[8] The OT may still object by qualifying God’s foreknowledge is existentially quantitative. However, in the light of the number, variety and precision of the 300 representative predictive prophesies from scripture involving future free decisions detailed by Roy, the burden of proof is firmly placed on the OTs shoulders to show that God’s knowledge of CCFs is not universally quantified.

Craig explains:

“The problem with Boyd’s procedure . . . is that the defender of divine foreknowledge need only show that God knows just one future contingent proposition or CCF, for in that case (1) there is no logical incompatibility between divine foreknowledge and future continents, (2) the Principle of Bivalence does not fail for such propositions, and (3) it becomes ad hoc to claim that other such propositions are not also true and known to God.”[9]

The contemporary debate surrounding the perfection of God’s knowledge, specifically his prescience of contingent events, or the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs) continues today. There are many aspect of the debate I have not covered, including the theological consequences; such as what OT offers and undermines in theodicy, and hermeneutical considerations; such as anthropopathy in narrative genres and the role of systematic theology in interpretation. I have not been concerned in this essay with the religious backlash OT has engendered. I have been concerned with the truth of OT, by exploring the arguments for and against. Though most proponents of OT prefer to argue on biblical grounds rather than philosophical grounds,[10] there is enough reason here to think that OT is, at the level of its core commitments, false. God, it seems, still does not play dice.


[1] And what does and does not constitute unacceptable theological consequences.

[2] […] I feared if we view God as timeless and omniscient, we will land back in the camp of theological determinism where these notions naturally belong. See Clark H. Pinnock, “From Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology” The Grace of God and the Will of Man, (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1989), 9.

[3] Undetermined choices are important for Pinnock, for the following three reasons. “It astonishes me that people can defend the “glory of God” [exhaustive foreknowledge] so vehemently when that glory includes God’s sovereign authorship of every rape and murder, his closing down the future to any meaningful creaturely contribution, and his holding people accountable for deeds he predestined them to do and they could not but do.” See Clark Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness, (Grand Rapids, Mi.; Baker Academic, 2001), 16.

[4] Indeed, this argument is nothing more than the argument for old-line Greek fatalism.

[5] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology. Vol. 1., (Oak Harbor, WA: James Clark & Co., 1997), 401,

[6] Possible options here include Luis De Molina’s formulation of the doctrine of Middle Knowledge. Or James Arminius’ confessed ignorance.

[7] Strong reasons must be given before preferring Peircean semantics over the popular and common sense Ockhamist semantics that allows propositions like “I am going to have Subway for lunch,” to be either true or false. For further information see, See “Generic Open Theism and Some Variants Thereof,” Religious Studies 44 (2008): 233.

[8] Steven C. Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow? A Comprehensive Biblical Study (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006).  See also “How Much Does God Foreknow? Online Supplement” at

[9] William Lane Craig, “A middle-knowledge Response,” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, ed. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001), 57.

[10] See Appendix A for a brief defence against the Openness criticism of the influence of Greek thought on the conception of God.


Battle, John A. “Some Biblical Arguments used by Openness Theology” WRS Journal 12/1 (February 2005): 15-20.

Beilby, James K. and Paul R. Eddy, eds., Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001.

Craig, William Lane, Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom: The Coherence of theism: Omniscience, vol. 19. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1991.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York: MacMillan, 1960.

Erickson, Millard J., What Does God Know and When Does He Know It? The current Controversy over Divine Foreknowledge, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003.

Hasker, William. God, TIme and Knowledge, Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology, vol. 1. London: James Clark & Co, 1960.

Geisler, Norman L. and H. Wayne House, The Battle For God: Responding to the Challenge of Neotheism, Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001.

Pinnock, Clark. Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness, Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001.

____________. “From Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology,” The Grace of God and the Will of Man, Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1989.

Rhoda, Alan R. “Generic Open Theism and Some Variants Thereof,” Religious Studies 44 (2008): 263

Roy, Steven C. How Much Does God Foreknow? A Comprehensive Biblical Study, Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006.

Sanders, John. “Open Theism Explained.” No pages. Cited 3 October 2010. Online:

Thomas, Robert L. “The Hermeneutics of ‘Open Theism’” The Master’s Seminary Journal 12/2 (Fall 2001): 179-202.

Wright , R. K. McGregor. No Place for Sovereignty: Whats Wrong with Freewill Theism, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Openness Theology (Part One)

On 4 December 1926, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to Max Born describing his difficulties coming to terms with Quantum mechanics. In it he said, “God does not play dice with the universe.”[1] The quip that often follows is, “If he did, he’d win.”

That is the basic idea people have of God. C. S. Lewis says, “Everyone who believes in God at all, believes that He knows what you and I are going to do tomorrow.”[2] Traditional Christian theism has always affirmed the scope or perfection of God’s knowledge includes the future.

In the last thirty years there have been a growing number of theologians calling themselves mainstream evangelicals, who are challenging this conception. Their claim is that God does not have exhaustive knowledge of the future contingent propositions: God’s mind is, as it were, not settled on some questions regarding what will happen, but open. Thus the name they have chosen for themselves is Open Theism or Openness Theology (OT). The specific type of future contingent propositions they have in mind are the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs).[3] Moreover, they think this idea is more faithful to the revelation given in scripture than the traditional view.

Outspoken scholarly proponents of Open Theism include Gregory Boyd, John Sanders, David Basinger, William Hasker and, most famously, Clark Pinnock. Historically what is new is that this view is no longer isolated to a small area of Christendom or on the periphery of Christian thought and discussion.

Before turning to a refutation, it will be worthwhile taking the advice of Alan R. Rhoda, of the University of Navada, Las Vagas. In his paper, Generic Open Theism and Some Variants Thereof, he warns of conflating commitments of specific variants of Open Theism with what he calls Generic Open Theism (GOT). For this he distinguishes five minimal commitments for Openness Theology. The first four are: (1) Theism, [4] (2) Future Contingency, (3) Divine Epistemic Openness, and (4) EC incompatibility.

The third is implicitly affirmed by the defining characteristics of (1), (2) and (4), yet needs to be made explicit because it has been made “the central dialectic” of the debate.[5] For clarity we can construct a syllogism.

1)     God exists.
2)     There are future contingents. (i.e. The future is causally open).[6]
4)     It is impossible that the future be epistemically settled for God in any respect in which it is causally open. (i.e. If the future is causally open, it is impossible for God to know the future).

Therefore, (modus ponems, 2&4)

3)     The future is epistemically open for God.

Thus the proponent of OT will accept both (2) and (4) and therefore (3), and the objector to OT will reject (3) and therefore must deny either (2) or (4). By denying (2) one sides with the determinist school of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. By denying (4) one sides with the EC incompatabilist school of Ockham, Molina, or Arminius. Under Rhoda’s schema, GOT is placed between both schools by affirming what each school denies, namely (2) and (4).

Millard J. Erickson, could well agree with Rhoda’s warning and clarification. He would however protest positioning OT in the middle ground between Calvin and Ariminius, for GOT steps beyond the bounds of orthodoxy by denying that which unites both schools: that God’s knowledge of future contingents is exhaustive.[7]

At least two important corollaries follow from Rhoda’s clarification. Firstly, GOT is committed to divine temporality with creation. This is because God undergoes intrinsic change as his knowledge changes. This happens either when any state of affair X at future time t* comes to pass, or becomes causally closed. Second, GOT is committed to divine passability in as far as God must undergo intrinsic change as his epistemic states change.[8]

Thus if you have reason to think that God is either atemporal with creation or impassable in his epistemic states, you have reason to believe that Open Theism is false. Norman Geisler argues against OT with this method on Scriptural grounds with Thomistic arguments.[9]

A fifth and important distinctive of Generic Open Theism remains, namely;

5)     AC incompatibility.

This condition states that future contingent propositions cannot be alethically settled and causally open. In other words, if X is at t* causally open, then X is neither true nor false. Insofar as there are future contingents, to affirm (5) one either needs to deny the Principle of Bivalence applies to X at t*, or else affirm that X at t* is not contradictory at all, but only contrary. Alternatively, some Open Theists have rejected (5) by affirming that future contingent propositions are alethically settled and epistemically open for they cannot be known in principle.

This last alternative is labeled limited foreknowledge, and entails a redefining of omniscience. Instead of God knowing all and only true propositions (O), God only knows all propositions that it is logically possible to know (O“). William Hasker has defended this variant of OT.[10] William Lane Craig explains how this is an unacceptable “cooking of the books.” First, he states that any adequate definition must accord with the intuitive understanding of the concept. Second, he points out that omniscience is a categorical and not a modal notion. It is not merely the capability of knowing all truths, but actually knowing all truths. Third, he states that the only sufficient condition for a proposition to be known is that it is true, thus (O“) collapses back into (O).[11] One therefore should be honest and simply deny that God has maximal knowledge, thus entailing a denial of (1).

In addition, a principled limitation of God’s foreknowledge (without a denial that future contingent propositions have a truth-value or are uniformly false) requires a denial that “Truth supervenes of Being.” Since this entails a denial of the correspondence theory of truth, most OTs reject limited foreknowledge, for the consequence is far too heavy to bear.[12]

The second and third variety of OT are labeled Non-bivalentist and Bivalentist. Each view accepts that God’s foreknowledge is exhaustive. It can do this by denying “X at t*” and “¬X at t*” is either true or false. The Non-bivalentist OT accomplishes this by denying Bivalence and contending that the ‘future’ is a set of multitudes of unsettled branches of possibilities rather than a specific sequence of events. For further support different appeals have been made to the A-theory of time, Presentism and Quantum Indeterminacy.[13] The Bivalentist OT accepts the standard logic but maintains “X at t*” and “¬X at t*” are both false. Instead, “either X or ¬X might obtain at t*” is true. Consequently, Gregory A. Boyd argues that the contemporary debate has more to do with the doctrine of creation than it does the doctrine of God. Specifically, about what constitutes the content of creation rather than the content of God’s foreknowledge.[14]

A thorough refutation of OT will have to engage at least three different areas. These will be, (1) Hermeneutics and the scriptural data, (2) Theological consequences,[15] and (3) Philosophical objections. In the next installment I will advance my own brief analysis as to why GOT is philosophically flawed.


[1] This quotation is actually a paraphrased version of the following excerpt. “Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the ‘old one’. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.” The Born-Einstein Letters (translated by Irene Born) (Walker and Company, New York, 1971).

[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan, 1960), 148.

[3] CCF = def. What any creature Y would freely do if placed in any circumstance S.

[4] By which he means classical monotheism, “God exists necessarily and possesses a maximal set of compossible great-making properties, including maximal power, knowledge, and goodness. He created the world ex nihilo and can unilaterally intervene in it as he pleases.” Alan R. Rhoda, “Generic Open Theism and Some Variants Thereof,” Religious Studies 44 (2008): 227

[5] Ibid., 229

[6] Rhoda explains, “the future is causally open at time t with respect to state of affairs X and future time t* if and only if, given all that exists as of time t, it is really possible both that X obtains at t* and that X does not obtain at t*. (In other words, whether X obtains at t* or not is, as of t, a future contingent.)” See “Generic Open Theism and Some Variants Thereof,” Religious Studies 44 (2008): 228.

[7] Millard J. Erickson, What Does God Know and When Does He Know It? The current Controversy over Divine Foreknowledge (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 13.

[8] Whether God can change with respect to his will, his feelings, or his nature is optional, it not being a distinctive of GOT. Rhoda notes that GOT is not committed to impassibility in God’s nature, for it is committed to Theism. This however, this doesn’t seem to me to follow. He must therefore mean by “Theism,” a monotheism conjoined with a specific element of the doctrine of impassibility.

[9] See Norman Geisler, Creating God in the Image of Man? (Rockville, MD: Bethany House, 1997). See also, Norman L. Geisler and H. Wayne House, The Battle For God: Responding to the Challenge of Neotheism (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001).

[10] William Hasker God, Time, and Knowledge (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 187; idem ‘The foreknowledge conundrum’, International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 50 (2001), 97-114, esp. 110-111.

[11] James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy, eds., Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 138.

[12] Alan R. Rhoda, “Generic Open Theism and Some Variants Thereof,” Religious Studies 44 (2008): 263

[13] Gregory A. Boyd, “An Open-Theism Response,” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, ed. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001), 111.

[14] Gregory A. Boyd, “The Open-Theism View,” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, 13-14.

[15] And what does and does not constitute unacceptable theological consequences.