Hume on Skepticism

David Hume (1711 – 1776) was the king of the skeptics. Many, if not most, of the modern skeptical attacks on Christianity are warmed-over versions of what David Hume said more powerfully. Here are a couple of interesting tidbits that Hume wrote that are relevant to other arguments for Christianity.

In his work An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume lays out his system of attack on religion in general and Christian claims in particular. In the midst of his skeptical work, he makes the following claim:

The Cartesian doubt, therefore, were it ever possible to be attained by any human creature (as it plainly is not) would be entirely incurable; and no reasoning could ever bring us to a state of assurance and conviction upon any subject. (Enquiry, p.159)

This is interesting. Hume is the same man who claimed that we cannot know cause and effect, not even that of knowing the cause of movement when one billiard ball strikes another. Hume was so thorough in his skepticism that he was willing to give up knowing cause and effect entirely, a quite high price to pay. Yet in the quote above he claims we cannot get to the point where we completely doubt our senses such as in Rene Descartes’ famous mental exercise of doubting all sense perceptions. The point is that even the king of the skeptics, David Hume, holds that full skepticism leads to not being able to know anything . . . presumably including the skeptical conclusions in Hume’s books. Thus Hume trusts his mind enough to make his points about skepticism, but conveniently mistrusts his mind when it comes to making conclusions about the existence of God.

Next, Hume touches on the nature of infinite regress, which is a point important in the Kalam cosmological argument. The Kalam says, briefly, that all effects require causes, the universe is an effect, and therefore the universe requires a cause. It quickly follows by saying that infinite regresses are impossible, therefore when we trace the cause of the universe, we end up with a first, original cause. Hume’s comment is as follows:

An infinite number of real parts of time, passing in succession, and exhausted one after another, appears so evident a contradiction, that no man, one should think, whose judgement is not corrupted, instead of being improved, by the sciences, would ever be able to admit of it. (Enquiry, 157)

It would appear then that the king of the skeptics, the fount from which most of the modern attacks on Christianity spring, would look upon the modern atheists who hold to actual infinites and say their judgement is corrupted.

Perhaps the most ironic of Hume’s statements in the book is found in the last sentence of the book, drawing his conclusion:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity of school of metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experiential reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. (Enquiry, 165).

Hume is giving a skepticism that most modern atheists would support. Can a person’s statement be measured in quantity? No. Can it be demonstrated so we can experience a physical test? No. Then commit it to the flames, for it is but illusion.

Let’s put Hume’s book and his skepticism to the test, and most modern skepticism along with it. Does Hume’s book contain quantity and measurement? No. Does Hume’s book show demonstration of things on which we can perform an experiment? No. Then commit Hume’s book to the flames, and his skepticism along with it, for it is but sophistry and illusion.

In conclusion, such skepticism is either self-refuting, inconsistent, or both. If we want to know truth, we should look to the New Testament, specifically John 14:6.

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Does the Euthyphro Dilemma Disprove God? (Part 4, final)

This is the last in a series of posts about a moral question called the Euthyphro Dilemma, which is sometimes given as a challenge to God. See the first three parts for an explanation of the problem and the first four responses.

 

Fifth, the skeptic’s use of the Euthyphro Dilemma does not explain how the concept of good can exist in a materialist world. If God does not exist, then only natural forces exist, and ‘good’ can only be the result of natural forces. But natural forces such as electromagnetism or gravity are morally neutral, and have no concept of good or evil. In a materialist world, natural forces have no choice but to exist and cannot be different than they are. Moral commands tell us that an immoral person ought to act differently, but a materialist world can only produce things that must act the way they do. Therefore natural forces in a materialist world cannot be held morally accountable for anything. Whence cometh good and evil? Forces without the ability to act differently cannot be held responsible for acting as they do.

If, as the critic claims, Euthyphro somehow eliminates God from existing, then all we have left are natural forces that must exist and good is eliminated. For all of atheist author Richard Dawkins’ logical flaws, he understands this point, for he has stated “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” But if good is eliminated, the main prerequisites of Euthyphro are eliminated with it. In a naturalist universe, the effects of nutrition would be the same, but the effects would not be morally good, for good would not exist.

My sixth objection to Euthyphro is given by Edward Feser. The first horn of the dilemma deals with divine command theory, saying that if things are good because God commanded it, then the command could be arbitrary.

It is a mistake to think that just because we have a command from God, it is somehow arbitrary or inconsistent. If we hold, along with Aquinas, that will follows the intellect, then God will always act in accordance with reason. Further, as Feser explains, the Euthyphro dilemma does not prove that God’s moral rationale is in any way independent of Him. The Euthyphro Dilemma, to be valid in proving anything about God, would have to show that God’s reasons for giving morally good commands are somehow based on something other than His own wisdom. No one really believes that God would command “Thou shalt steal” and make it so. Skeptics do not deal with this, but merely keep repeating the same old dilemma, as if it proved or disproved something about God. It does not. (for the rest of Feser’s ideas, see here).

God does command good. He does so because He is wise and the things He does reflect wisdom, and because His nature is good.

God is simple, i.e., not made of parts. What God has, He is. God does not have goodness, He is goodness. God does not have good properties, rather He is goodness itself. Therefore what God wills or commands is good, and must be so. He does not get this goodness from some other source, nor is it arbitrary as if He could will otherwise. When the skeptic presents Euthyphro, he must ignore the unity that is in God and present the dilemma as if 1) God could be arbitrary, and 2) goodness is separate from God’s essence. Neither are true, so Euthyphro is invalid.

Sixth, Euthyphro, and the criticisms of the Christian explanation, confuse the definition of goodness. In reality, things have natures, and good means that a thing fulfills its nature. Things are not good because we attribute to them a concept of goodness, but because they fulfill what their natures were designed for. As Edward Feser explains:

The actual situation, then, is this. What is good or bad for us is determined by the ends set for us by our nature, and given the essentialist metaphysics Aquinas is committed to, that means that there are certain things that are good or bad for us absolutely, which even God could not change (since God’s power does not extend to doing what is self-contradictory).

Therefore good is ultimately determined by whether we fulfill the potential set by our nature, not by comparing our actions to some external standard. Euthyphro seems to have no concept of this idea of good.

 

In summary, the following hold true:

  • Even if valid, which Euthyphro is not, the dilemma does not disprove God nor eliminate God’s moral standard.
  • The dilemma assumes that goodness is a property that can be applied to something, which is false. Things are not good merely because I can conceive of goodness in my mind, but rather good because their nature is good.
  • We naturally measure things in the world by an external standard of goodness which is separate from the things in the world. This is a premise in the moral argument for the existence of God.
  • The critic often assumes good, such as “good is something that benefits people,” when in fact the very question of what makes good is the point of all moral systems.
  • A materialist world has no sound explanation for the origin of the ideas of good and evil. The naturalist can tell us what is, but not what ought to be.
  • Euthyphro, and the analytic philosophy that supports it, has no answer for the metaphysical explanation of good being something that fulfills its nature.

 

The Bible tells us that “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father . . .” (James 1:17). It tells us God will “equip you in every good thing” (Hebrews 13:21) and help us to “abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8).  God’s commands are good because God is good. We would all do good to learn of God’s ways and submit to Him.

 

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Does the Euthyphro Dilemma Disprove God? (Part 3)

This is the latest in a series of posts about a moral question called the Euthyphro Dilemma, which is sometimes given as a challenge to God. See the first two parts for an explanation of the problem and the first two responses.

 

Third, as Aquinas pointed out in his fourth way, we cannot discern between good and better unless we have standard that is external to the objects being measured. I can only tell if one thing is whiter than another by having a measure of ultimate white to compare them to, for I would never know if one was closer to the ultimate unless I had some standard to measure all the objects by. If all I had were beings on earth to determine goodness, I would not be able to look at all of them and find moral flaws, for I measure them with a moral standard more perfect than all the beings . . . every human on earth has moral flaws. Therefore goodness cannot be determined by looking at flawed things on earth, which is the only option left to the materialist who tries to use Euthyphro to deny the existence of God.

Fourth, a critic might also reply: Goodness is when something benefits the individual person. Nutrition is good because it benefits someone, and sickness is evil because it hurts them. If God is the source of goodness, the Christian has to show how good things, such as nutrition, would not be good if God did not exist, or at least how God must exist for things like nutrition to exist. If things that positively benefit people can exist without God existing, then God is not necessary for good to exist. 

This is incorrect for several reasons. This criticism defines good as something that benefits people. Why is this so? What is inherently good about benefiting people? Some environmentalist might claim, as some undoubtedly have, that humans are a detriment to the earth and it would be ‘good’ if we all expired. Some atheists, like Richard Dawkins, tell us that the universe, at bottom, has no evil, no good, just blind pitiless indifference. So it is not universally accepted that good is something that benefits humans.

Further, this fourth criticism assumes that benefiting someone is good, it does not prove this is so. Defining what is good is one of the basic questions, and this fourth objection assumes good from the beginning. Next, if we look at an act and say that act benefited someone, therefore it it is good, we have measured the act against a moral standard that is independent of us, the individual, and the act.  There must therefore be a moral code independent of the world.

Also, this objection presents a false challenge. The challenge is not whether nutrition can exist without God, but whether nutrition itself is good, and where the concept of good came from in the first place. The king of the skeptics, David Hume, stated that people always seem to sneak in the concept that something ought to be, and do so without proving it.

 

The next post will have more explanations of why the Euthyphro Dilemma is a false dilemma as it relates to God.

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Does the Euthyphro Dilemma Disprove God? (Part 2)

This post is part of a series dealing with a moral question called the Euthyphro Dilemma. The questions were set up in Part 1. This continues the response.

 

Second, the critic might say something like “Good” is a property that we can apply independently of God. If I can conceive of the property of good, and apply it to things independently of God, then God is not necessary for the concept of good, and the euthyphro dilemma stands. 

This second criticism is not valid. One key flaw is that it deals with conceiving of a property and mentally applying it. By its own admission it deals with the concept of good. It assumes that if we can conceive of a concept and predicate it mentally, existence must follow. This is a false conclusion. In reality, good has actual existence; things are good, or things are not good, in a very real sense. If concepts were true merely because I were able to conceive of them, the ontological argument for the existence of God would be proved valid, which most skeptics would deny. (for more on the ontological argument, see here.) In reality, my thinking that a thing has goodness does not make it so.

Next, this criticism is only half true, but nevertheless pointless. While it is true that we can distinguish good as a concept, but mere distinguishing a concept does not demonstrate ontological or moral grounding. I can think of the idea of applying good to an object, but this does not prove that actual goodness is independent of God. As an example, merely because I can think of grayness independent of any actual gray object does not mean gray can actually exist without there being a gray object somewhere in existence. Likewise, I can pretend to think of good and apply it to created things in my mind, but I have not explained where good and evil arise from in a non-transcendent, material world. Goodness is not merely a conceptual property like a platonic ideal of good, but rather an actual thing that an object has. I can say “Bob did a good thing by helping someone in trouble. therefore Bob is a good man.” This is not evidence that goodness can be applied independent of God, for what makes helping someone a good thing to do? I knew helping someone is a good thing before I ever applied it to Bob. Goodness therefore is not something I can invent in my mind, or a property that exists apart from a being that it is found in. Goodness needs an ontological grounding in a being. The question is not whether I can conceive of the idea of applying goodness to objects, but where I got the idea of goodness in the first place and how it is grounded.

Therefore simply because I can say “This meal is good” or “This person is good” does not mean I have grounded good in something other than God, for meals and persons are not inherently good, but obtained goodness because they can be compared to some standard of goodness that I already know exists. We are then back to determining the source of good.

It does no good for the critic to merely repeat, “I can apply good as a property independent of God,” for this statement speaks of goodness as a concept that needs no ontological basis, which it does. The Christian answer to Euthyphro deals with ontology, and this second criticism is in a different category, how to apply properties. This second criticism is one of the flaws of analytic philosophy, while the Christian answer comes from a realist philosophy.

Future posts in this series will deal with several more related ideas of goodness, including whether we can ground goodness in the material world.

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Does the Euthyphro Dilemma Disprove God? (Part 1)

Plato posed a moral question that is today known as the Euthyphro Dilemma. Skeptics have used this moral dilemma to try to draw conclusions about God. The general idea is that since this dilemma presents a moral problem for God, then we can ignore God and all He stands for.

My response is lengthy enough that I will put it in several posts, of which this is the first.

Edward Feser gives a good summary of the Euthyphro Dilemma:

God commands us to do what is good. But is something good simply because God commands it, or does He command it because it is already good? If we take the first option, then it seems we are committed to the possibility that God could make it good for us to torture babies just for fun, simply by commanding it. If we take the second option, then it seems we are committed to saying that there is a standard of goodness independent of God, to which He refers us when He commands. Neither option seems a good one from the point of view of theism. The first makes morality arbitrary, and the claim that God is good completely trivial. The second conflicts with the core theistic claims that God is the ultimate cause of all things, and in particular the source of all goodness.

If we take the first option (that things are right because God commands them), then further questions can be posed:

  • If morality comes from God’s command, then it seems God could have commanded anything, and morality seems arbitrary.
  • Nothing would be absolutely good or evil, for they are only good or evil because God willed them to be.
  • We seem to have no way to measure whether God’s commands are objectively goood, for the commands are only good because God says they are.

The other horn of the dilemma is that God commands it because it is right. This option seems to present the following problems:

  • The moral code is larger than God, and God is subject to this larger code, making God less than all-good and all-powerful.
  • God’s commands would seem somehow empty, since they are not God’s, but from somewhere else.

So the skeptics who use Euthyphro try to conclude that objective moral values exist independent of God. The implication is that God does not exist, or at the very least we can ignore God and His commands.

Thoughts On Euthyphro

I will show that the Euthyphro Dilemma poses no problems for the thoughtful Christian.

First, even if Euthyphro were valid, it would not disprove the existence of God. At worst, it would result in a God that we might not like, but it does not disprove His existence. Even when God is accurately described in the Bible, all humans at some point do not like God or His ways, which results in sin and rebellion towards God. So nothing is proved by the mere fact that God is presented in a way that we do not like. As R. C. Sproul has said, if we were to invent a God, we would not invent one that is holy, for we do not like to face holiness. Invented gods are gods that we like, not ones that make us uncomfortable.

So even if Euthyphro were true, it at the very most might pose some problems for classical Christian theology, but would not eliminate God, nor would it eliminate the moral commands God makes as invalid. It would seem that many skeptics are trying to say ‘Euthryphro presents a problem for how God could command morality, therefore God does not exist and the commands He gives are invalid. I am not held to them.’ Well, no, whether or not Euthyphro is true has nothing to do with whether I am living an immoral life, whether I am separated from God, and whether I am in need of a savior to reconcile me to God. I might not like what I am being commanded by God, and I might even disagree with why God commands what He does, but this is nothing new. Human nature naturally rebels against what God tells us, which has nothing to do with whether or not God is justified in what He tells us.  For this proof, merely read Romans, chapters 1 to 3, especially the last half of chapter 3, which tell us that “none are righteous, no not one.” 1 Corinthians 2:14 tells us that “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him.” So there is no surprise that we do not agree with what God tells us, but the fact that we disagree with God is not proof that there is anything wrong with what God tells me.

This is the first of several posts exploring aspects of the Euthyphro Dilemma.

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The Bible Holds True Against Attacks From Critics

The synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – tell the story of Jesus. These books present themselves as eyewitness accounts of historical fact. Critics of the gospels attack the gospels by telling us they are untrustworthy. Common criticisms include:

1. The gospel stories were passed down orally for a long time and therefore are untrustworthy.
2. The gospels copied from each other or from another single source.
3. The writers have accounts so different as to make the whole affair riddled with mistakes.

For several reasons, I find these criticisms weak at best. First, I do not see how 2 and 3 could both be true. If the accounts copied from each other so much that we can obviously tell that the copying happened, then it is difficult to see how there are so many differences that the accounts are sloppy. It would seem the claims for both of these contradict each other.

Second, it is difficult to see how 1 and 2 could both be true. If the account was passed on orally for long enough to make the account riddled with error, it would take more than one generation, indeed at least two to four generations. The claims of oral corruption are mere surface-level persuasion techniques by the critics with no credible argument behind it. I pose as an example my father, who this year turns 90. He spent his career in parts warehouses, manually stocking shelves and filling orders for parts. To this day he can repeat the inventory numbers for the parts he sold over 50 years ago, and do so with full accuracy. He has taken me to the spot where he grew up and described his farmhouse in detail, giving vivid descriptions of how he and his brothers played as children. These events happened 80 years ago, yet his memory is intact. We all can describe events that happened to us years ago. Indeed, for significant, life-changing events, we often cannot get the details out of our minds. How much more would we recall if we had seen and heard Jesus, the living God in human flesh.

Third, in support of the second, the manuscripts we now have do not allow oral tradition to have time enough to corrupt the account. Up to now the John Ryland fragment is held as the oldest (see here) dating to about 125 to 140 AD. Now, it appears that scholars have found copies of the gospels that date even earlier, one copy dating to about 90 AD, well into the first century (see here). First century dating put the existing written accounts into the lifetime of the authors and eyewitnesses. The number of Bible manuscripts, along with the early dating, do not allow for oral tradition to corrupt, nor do they allow enough time for oral tradition to finally allow a written copy, which was then used as a single source for the other gospels.

Fourth, given the early dating of the existing manuscripts and the accuracy of firsthand oral testimony in a single generation, 1 and 3 above cannot both be held as true, at least not credibly. This is further supported by the number of original language Bible manuscripts. Greek manuscripts now number over 5,800.

Therefore, the attacks listed above are failures at attacking the Bible. Once again, the Christian scriptures withstand the attacks of the skeptics and critics, as they always have. A wise person will read them for what they are: eyewitness testimony of those who saw Jesus.

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Does the Existence of Evil Prove or Disprove God?

Many have used the existence of evil in the world to try to argue that an all-powerful, all-good God does not exist. The line of reasoning usually goes something like this:

1. If there is an all-powerful and all-good God then no evil exists.
2. Evil exists.
3. Therefore an all-powerful and wholly good God does not exist.

Sometimes another conclusion is added:

4. If a God does exist that allows evil, he would not be worthy of worship.

Few people will actually deny premise 2. Although such atheists as Richard Dawkins tell us that the universe has no evil nor good, they turn right around and call religion evil. The focus is instead on premise one, arguing that an all-powerful and all-good God would not allow evil such as we witness regularly in the world. The practical, everyday conclusion by many is:

1a. Since evil exists, God must not exist.

The driver behind such arguments is premise 1. I maintain, however, that this argument is primarily an emotional one and not a logical one. Most of those who believe it do so either because they have personal pain due to some evil act or because they are looking for an excuse to avoid answering to a holy God about their moral life. I maintain that 3, 4, and 1a are not held due to logical conclusions drawn from 1 and 2, for if people were looking at it with pure unemotional logic, the argument fails.

All that is necessary to show the logical failure is to demonstrate that premise 1 is false. By itself, 1 is an argument with a conclusion which holds that a good God would never allow any evil for any reason at any time. Further, the evil we are speaking about is what we, in our opinion, consider evil.

To defeat this argument from evil, we merely have to show the possibility that God might allow evil or can allow evil and still be all-powerful and all-good. Demonstrating this is straightforward.

First, the argument speaks nothing of the moral need for a greater good. It is better that bravery and courage exist than if they do not, but bravery and courage cannot exist except in situations that require them. Ditto for all other attributes requiring self-sacrifice. If there were no painful circumstances, away go heroism, nerve, tenacity, all Herculean achievements and fortitude, they all are eliminated when we bring in an idyllic world where there are no circumstances that require such things. It is difficult to even imagine what such a world would look like. It would be some sort of saccharine-sweet place where no one ever is allowed to smash their thumb with a hammer or get angry at the bratty neighbor kid.

Thus not only is it better that God allow situations requiring bravery and courage, but God is morally obligated to do so, for if He did not, he would be guilty of not being all-good. If God were to somehow create such a world that had no daunting circumstances, He would not be creating a good world, for any good world would have the best things, such as heroes and founders of orphanages.

Second, it might be the case that an all-wise God sees a greater purpose for allowing individuals to experience evil. When a mother takes away the baby’s candy and insists it eat vegetables, the child thinks it to be the end of the world, and no amount of reasoning will convince the child otherwise. Surely we see the benefits of the mother doing such things, and would not call her good if she did not cause the pain in the child. So what good could come of evil? If we avoid the emotional appeals and only look at it logically, we must at least admit this possibility, for surely we do not claim that we are all-wise.

Third, to determine that evil exists in premise 2 requires the existence of a standard of good and evil that we can measure all events in the world. Therefore this standard must be outside of the events in the world, and is a major premise in the moral argument for the existence of God, which goes like this:

A)  A universal moral law exists.
B)  Universal moral laws require a universal moral lawgiver.
C) A universal moral lawgiver exists. This we commonly call God.

Therefore if premise 2 is valid, then the major premise for moral argument for God, A), is true.

Merely saying something like “I see no purpose for this evil” or “How could a good God have a purpose that evil?” or appealing to other emotional arguments do not refute this line of reasoning, for we are neither all-good, all-wise, nor all-knowing, and those things we do know can find a purpose for some evil, therefore the original syllogism is false. I therefore submit that most critics who bring up the problem of evil as a case against God do so on emotional grounds, not logical ones.

For a more detailed explanation of why the current world is the best one God could have created, see here. 

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