Monthly Archives: March 2014

Improving the Best Possible World

Leibniz’s main contribution to the problem of evil and theodicy is the notion that the world we live in is the best possible world. Leibniz doesn’t derive the notion that the world we live in is the best possible from observation and reflection on the nature of the world; for him such an endeavour would be impossible for mere mortals limited in space, time, intelligence and insight. Rather, Leibniz’s belief that this is the best possible world flows from his belief that the creator is omnipotent and perfectly good.

One common criticism of Leibniz is that his theodicy leaves us without hope. If this is the best possible world then there is, so the argument goes, no hope of improvement. Arthur Lovejoy puts it: “It was possible to hope that in the fullness of time the Devil might be put under foot, and believers in revealed religion were assured that he would be; but logical necessities are eternal, and the evils which arise from them must therefore be perpetual.” Since we live in the best possible world, and this world unavoidably contains evils, then there is no hope of those evils being defeated. If they are defeated then that would be a better world.

Critics such as Lovejoy assume that if this is the best possible world then it cannot be improved. This assumption certainly appears, at least prima facie, to be reasonable. However, on closer examination it’s false and represents an unduly wooden interpretation of Leibniz.

Let W1 stand for our world. Further, let W1a stand for our world in 2014 and W1b stand for our world at some later time, say, 2064. For the sake of argument let’s suppose that by 2064 we have solved world hunger, ended wars, and drastically reduced criminality. Now, undoubtedly W1b represents a better state of affairs, all other things being equal, than W1a. Does not this refute Leibniz? Hardly! All it shows is failure to understand Leibniz. According to Leibniz, when God entertained all possible worlds as ideas in His mind, with a view to bringing the best into existence, he knew each world completely: past, present and, crucially, future. So, whilst W1b represents an improvement on W1a it is still the same world we are thinking about: W1.

By way of illustration imagine going to the theatre to see the best possible play. Perhaps scene one is incredibly boring, even confusing; maybe it’s horrendously sad, maddening, and altogether unpleasant. Should I despair? Should I lose hope that because this is the best possible play that it cannot get any better? Of course not! These early scenes might be laying an important foundation which contributes to the play’s being the best possible. Later scenes may well cast these earlier ones in a drastically different light. When we judge a play we judge it as a whole – beginning to end.

Those who argue a’ la Lovejoy treat the world statically – like a picture rather than a drama. In contrast to a drama a picture exists all at once, such that there can never be any improvement. The picture is as good as it’s ever going to be. However, this view totally ignores the time dimension to existence. Lovejoy mistakenly equates “best possible world” with some state of affairs at some particular time within that world.

There is therefore no reason whatsoever why, on Leibniz’s view, the world today can’t be a better place than it was yesterday. When we say “best possible world” we are referring to the entire state of affairs: past, present and future. Moreover, some evils might be necessary in the early stages of this world but that does not mean, contra Lovejoy, that they will be perpetual. It’s perfectly plausible and consistent with Leibniz’s theodicy to suggest that perhaps part of the reason why this world is the BPW is precisely because evil is not going to last forever; and of course Christianity does indeed envisage a future in which this becomes a reality.

And thus the criticism of Lovejoy fails. Once we allow for this the dynamic view of the world there is no reason at all why the best possible world could not be such that the state of affairs at time t2could indeed be better than it was at t1.

Stephen J Graham

For further details on Leibniz’s theodicy see my much longer essay:


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The Apologetics of Tongues-Speech

One of the hallmarks of Pentecostalism and the wider Charismatic Movement is “speaking in tongues,” or glossolalia. This modern phenomenon has its roots in the early 1900s when Pentecostalism as a movement within Christianity took root.

In 1901 a group of students who had been studying the Book of Acts and had come to view tongues as the sign of having been “baptised in the Spirit,” met together for prayer. Their leader, Charles Fox Parham, prayed for one of his group and she spoke in tongues; many others were to have similar experiences. The group believed that what they had experienced was the same as the first apostles had experienced on the day of Pentecost when, as Acts chapter 2 recounts, the Holy Spirit empowered them to speak in other languages previously unknown to them.

Parham’s group claimed to have been gifted in many languages: Chinese, Italian, Swedish, Spanish, Bohemian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, French, Norwegian, Japanese, and Russian. Parham then had a “light bulb” moment. If they had been empowered to speak in other languages, a la the apostles in Acts 2, then this would revolutionise missionary activity. No longer would missionaries have to study the language of the peoples they were seeking to evangelise. They could simply speak in tongues and communicate effectively without having to spend years studying French, or Russian, or Chinese. And thus with a spring in their step these new Pentecostal missionaries headed off to lands afar. They preached and they preached and they preached. Regrettably, not a single word was understood. The puzzled look on the faces of the “African savages” bore adequate testimony to the rank failure of the endeavour. Thus it was back to the drawing board for the Pentecostals, or at least back to language school.

These first Pentecostals were understandably a tad dejected by this failure. They were so sure they had been gifted in other tongues by the Holy Spirit. So, what were they to do? They could give up tongues speech, but they seemed to enjoy it too much. Thus they simply sought to reinterpret their experiences with a little theological jiggery pokery.

To this day it is unusual to find an intelligent Charismatic or Pentecostal who believes that glossolalia is another discernible human language. The reason is that linguistic study after experiment after linguistic study has been something of an acid bath for such claims. The first Pentecostals soon discovered through experience that they didn’t speak human languages. Modern Charismatics have discovered through linguistic studies that tongues aren’t human languages either. Linguists tend to be confident that tongues speech represents no known natural language that is or ever will be spoken by humans. The structure tends to be very different from human languages, and in most cases there isn’t enough variation in sounds to be a language at all. In the incredibly few cases where linguists have discovered a tongues speaker speaking an actual human language it transpires that the person was previously exposed to the language in question.

One of the most famous tongues researchers was William Samarin, linguistics professor at the University of Toronto, who engaged in years of research all over the globe. His conclusion: “There is no mystery about glossolalia. . . They always turn out to be the same thing: strings of syllables, made up of sounds taken from among all those that the speaker knows, put together more or less haphazardly but which nevertheless emerge as word-like and sentence-like units because of realistic, language-like rhythm and melody. . . glossolalia is fundamentally not language.”

Pentecostals and charismatics – at least those who are well-informed – can no longer claim to be speaking actual human languages. There just is no evidence that they are, and lots of evidence against.

But, of course, that hasn’t stopped them moving the goalposts in order to save their experience from refutation. If glossolalia isn’t human language, what is it? Well, it’s heavenly language of course, the “tongues of angels!” That’s why it sounds like gibberish to linguists!

We should have no tolerance for such a claim as there are weighty considerations against it. For one thing, it’s nothing other than an ad hoc saving hypothesis. There aren’t even any biblical instances of the tongues of angels. In fact whenever angels speak in the Bible it’s a known language. All we have is one obscure reference by Paul in a passage where the theme is love – not supernatural gifts. That’s hardly good grounds for building a theology of angelic tongues speech upon.

In any event there are also good linguistic reasons for rejecting this theory. Linguists who have studied tongues speech as it occurs in different language groups around the globe have noticed that tongues-speakers typically use sounds closely associated with their native language. In his research on English speaking tongues-speakers James Jaquith concluded, “There is no evidence that these glossolalic utterances have been generated by constituent subcodes of any natural language other than English.” The sounds are constructed from those the speaker knows. So, Indians will effectively speak an “Indian” version of tongues, Mandarin speakers will typically use a “Mandarin” version of tongues. That’s consistent with a psychological explanation for the phenomena and disconfirms the angelic language thesis. If it was an angelic language would we not expect something totally different? Or for those from totally different language backgrounds to speak a similar way that wasn’t obviously based in their own natural language? What appears to be going on in tongues-speech, from a psychological and linguistic perspective, is that the speaker is chopping up sounds from his own language and using them to create something new, something that sounds like another language when in fact it isn’t.

But rather than accept this, tongue-speakers have tended to shift the goalposts again. This has given rise to the rather unsightly spectacle of usually sensible theologians inventing an even more perplexing explanation: maybe tongues-speech is code! Further, maybe these language codes are unbreakable by linguists! Maybe only those who have the “key” for the code supernaturally bestowed on them are able to tell what it means!

That otherwise sober academics concoct such ridiculous theories to save a practice from conclusive refutation speaks volumes in itself. But for the fact that some exponents of this theory are well-respected academics their defence of tongues-speech would be laughed out of church. In any event, again we note the rather ad hoc nature of this thesis, not to mention the complete lack of any theological or philosophical reason for adopting it aside from saving tongues-speech from conclusive refutation. Moreover, those who claim to be gifted “code breakers” – who claim to have the “gift of interpretation” – don’t seem to perform very well when tested. James Randi once played a tape of tongues-speech to one charismatic minister, who interpreted it. Once the interpretation had been given, Randi informed him that the sample of tongues-speech had come from the ministers own church only a few weeks previously, and on that occasion the minister himself had given a completely different interpretation to what he was now giving to Randi. This is not an isolated example either. Others have gone to churches and spoke in Greek or Hebrew only to have their words interpreted very differently from the actual meaning. Thus, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of reason to put much trust in those who claim to be able to interpret tongues-speech or to “crack the code.”

In the final analysis tongues speech appears very much to be a psychological phenomenon. This should come as no surprise since tongues-speech is actually incredibly common. It occurs in children, in people with mental illnesses, as well as in many other religions: African voodoo, forms of Buddhism, sects of Mormonism, African animism, and Hinduism. There are even records of it occurring in ancient religions such as Greco-Roman mystery religions and many forms of paganism. The constant goalpost-shifting of charismatic apologists is really rather tiresome. Their increasingly implausible explanations are more to be pitied than laughed at. There is no reason whatsoever to think tongues-speech is a human language, an angelic language, or a secret code – and good reason to reject all such explanations.

Charismatics claim that their experiences mirror those of the Bible. The only detailed instance of tongues-speech occurred on the day of Pentecost, and on that occasion the apostles spoke in a variety of human languages. When charismatics start speaking of heavenly codes they have moved a long way from Acts 2. They might think they are engaging on something sacred, but when all the evidence is in it seems it’s little more than a big game of Let’s Pretend.

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Leibniz’s Best Possible World


Karth Barth accused Leibniz of having no serious interest in the problem of evil. Barth was wrong about many things, and such is the case here also. The problem of evil was of concern to Leibniz from his youth, and his thinking on the problem culminated in his influential work, “Theodicy.”

The central thesis of Leibniz’s work is the notion that the world in which we live is the best possible world (BPW). The concept of the BPW is a slippery one, often left ill-defined as if those who use it expect their listeners to instinctively know what it means. Unfortunately it is used differently by different thinkers, and, as we will see, criticisms of one understanding do not necessarily apply to others. According to Leibniz the BPW is that state of affairs – or combination of possibilities – which allows the maximization of being, in terms of both quantity and quality. His idea here has echoes of Neo-Platonism’s so called “principle of plenitude;”in creating God intends to manifest his goodness beyond the bounds of his own being, and such purposes are best served by creating a rich variety of finite beings, as opposed to a mere quantitative maximum of the same sort of being: “To multiply one and the same thing only would be superfluity, and poverty too. . . to eat nothing but partridges, to drink only Hungarian or Shiraz wine – would one call that reason?

In developing his notion of the BPW Leibniz also points out that while X, Y, Z might be individually possible, they may not be “compossible” – capable of existing in the same reality. For instance, it’s possible for Dodos to exist in the year 2014 and it’s possible that Dodos be extinct by 2014. But we can’t have one reality in which Dodos exist in 2014 and are extinct in 2014. One excludes the other. So, God must choose which set of coherent possibilities to actualize. Leibniz pictures an infinite number of possible universes present as ideas in God’s mind: W1…Wn. These universes exhaust all possibilities, such that any change in W1 would render it identical to, say, W2. From surveying each possible universe God applied his creative power to bring one into existence. The combination of God’s omnipotence, perfect understanding, and perfect goodness leads him to choose the best world.

It is Leibniz’s notion of compossibility – or noncompossibility – that means that whilst God chooses the BPW, this world still contains a great deal of evil. God’s creative activity is thus limited by inherent compatibility issues. There are, however, countless possibilities from which God can choose. He compares them – perfections and imperfections, weaknesses and strengths, goods and evils – and then in His wisdom chooses the best “in order to satisfy goodness completely.”

So, God surveys all the possible worlds he could make: W1 to Wn. According to Leibniz God knows these possible worlds exhaustively, including all the free decisions of any beings he could create in whatever circumstances he chooses to create them. Moreover, God sees each world as a completed whole. So, in terms of the idea of our own world in the divine mind, He knew about the Fall and its corrupting effects, about the redemption of Christ, and about the choices of each person which leads them to either salvation or damnation. God doesn’t determine these choices; He simply decrees the existence of this world and its entire history.

Here we meet the first common criticism of Leibniz: that the universe is just as rigidly determined as Spinoza’s, despite Leibniz’s protestations to the contrary. In fact, Charles Werner accuses Leibniz of presenting us with “a perfect and devastating image of necessity.” After all, in Leibniz’s scheme, God has decreed a complete sequence of events; what room then for human freedom?

This criticism is much too hasty, as Leibniz’s view needn’t exclude genuine free will. If – as many philosophers of religion think – God has so-called “middle knowledge,” then He knows what any creature He might create would do under any set of circumstances in which God might place him. These circumstances are “freedom-permitting” circumstances. For example, under the particular circumstances God knew that Peter would freely deny Christ three times. God’s knowing this does not, however, make the actions any less free – even in the libertarian sense. So, when our world was considered in its totality in the divine mind, this included all the free actions of free agents within it. God does not determine the agents to act as they do, but rather He knows how they will freely act in the circumstances in which they find themselves.

On the Leibnizian view we notice that evil is unavoidable. Evil – for Leibniz – is very real, though always a privation of something good. No matter what form evils come in – whether metaphysical evils in terms of finitude and imperfection, physical evils in terms of pain and suffering, or moral evils in terms of human sins – they are part of the BPW by virtue of being inter-connected with certain goods. Leibniz here agrees with Augustine that the universe as a whole is good despite containing elements that, when considered in isolation, are bad: “Not only does [God] derive from [evils] greater goods, but he finds them connected with the greatest goods of all those that are possible: so that it would be a fault not to permit them.”

Leibniz thus approves of the ancient hymn which translates as “O fortunate sin that merits such and so great a redeemer,” to illustrate this principle, and writes: “all the evils of the world contribute, in ways which generally we cannot now trace, to the character of the whole as the best of all possible universes.” But, what about tiny evils? Couldn’t we do away with even just one of them and so make a better world than this? Leibniz answers: “if the smallest evil that comes to pass in the world were missing in it, it would no longer be this world; which, with nothing omitted and all allowance made, was found best by the Creator who chose it.”

It’s crucial to understand that Leibniz does not think we can derive the conclusion that this is the BPW simply by reflecting on how it appears to us. This, reckons Leibniz, would be impossible: “For can I know and can I present infinities to you and compare them together?” We have no way to know what the BPW is, except in so far as we might arrive at this conclusion by reflection on the existence of a perfectly good creator. Being perfectly good (and omnipotent) means that – having freely chosen to create (as an expression of over-flowing goodness creatively expressing itself to creatures) – God will create the best possible world: “supreme wisdom, united to a goodness that is no less infinite, cannot but have chosen the best.” Leibniz, then, would be utterly unimpressed by recent atheistic arguments which attempt to show that God does not exist because this is not the best possible world. Leibniz was all too aware that he wasn’t nearly omniscient enough to draw such a conclusion!

This brings us to another criticism of Leibniz’s position: the coherence, or lack thereof, of the concept of “best possible world.”

Certain theologians, following Aquinas, have argued that the “best possible world” is by definition unrealizable – like the fastest possible speed. Charles Journet argued that regardless of what world God makes he could always make a better one, and thus: “To demand that God, to be above reproach, must make the best of all possible worlds is to demand him to make what is not feasible, and to give existence to something absurd.”

It seems to me that Journet has failed to grasp the sense in which Leibniz uses the term. Following the Thomist tradition Journet holds that there is a scale of possible universes from non-being to God, but that this scale contains an infinity of steps, and that between any two universes there is always the possibility of another. This means that no matter what universe God creates there is always the possibility of there being one that is better but still less than God. If the Thomist tradition is correct then the concept of the best possible world is indeed incoherent, since there cannot be a best possible world in the sense of a closest approximation to perfection within an infinite series of such approximations.

However, this is not how Leibniz uses the term. Leibniz agreed that there could well be an unlimited range of possible worlds; however there is one which – though not particularly close to the level of God – is such as to be the most superior compossible system, in so far as it best satisfies some given criterion of excellence. Thus, Journet’s criticism misfires.

Journet then levels a second criticism at Leibniz, one with which many other commentators concur. Journet accuses Leibniz of effectively denying God’s omnipotence, and setting up a form of dualism. According to Leibniz, once God has freely chosen to create he is limited by fixed possibilities and compossibilities, and therefore even in the BPW there may well be a lot of evil. And since He is limited in these ways, God is not omnipotent.

To my mind accusing Leibniz of denying God’s omnipotence or advocating a dualist solution to the problem of evil is quite unfair. Philosophers of religion have typically argued that there are certain things which God logically cannot do. God cannot create a world in which it always rains everywhere and in which it never rains anywhere. Moreover, there are logically possible worlds that even an omnipotent God cannot create. For example, it’s possible under the conditions he finds himself in that Judas not betray Christ. But God can’t create a world with exactly those conditions in which Judas does not betray Christ, because Judas will freely choose to betray Christ under those circumstances. Such a world is not feasible for God to create despite its being a possible world.

Some critics go further and accuse Leibniz’s system of being one that leaves us without hope. Why? Well, if this is the best possible world then there is no hope of improvement. Arthur Lovejoy writes, “It was possible to hope that in the fullness of time the Devil might be put under foot, and believers in revealed religion were assured that he would be; but logical necessities are eternal, and the evils which arise from them must therefore be perpetual.” Or, as Voltaire’s Candide asks in a spirit of hopelessness: “Si c’est ici le meilleur des mondes possible, que sont donc les autres?” (“If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?”)

This, however, represents an unduly wooden interpretation of Leibniz. This is best illustrated by differentiating between two other concepts: a static view of the world and a dynamic view of the world. The static view treats the world like a picture – existing all at once, such that if this is the BPW then there can never be any improvement. The picture is as good as it’s ever going to be. However, this view totally ignores the time dimension to existence. By contrast, the dynamic view treats the world more like a drama, moving across time. In fact, the best possible drama might start off incredibly boring, but such boredom may well be setting the foundation for later scenes of the play. After scene one should I despair that because this is the “best possible play” that it therefore can’t get any better? Not at all! The same holds for Leibniz’s concept of the BPW. With this dynamic view we can see that the BPW can improve as time goes on. The world today can be a better place than it was yesterday and yet it would still be true that the world is the BPW. When we say “best possible world” we are referring to the entire state of affairs: past, present and future. Moreover, some evils might be necessary in the early stages of this world but that does not mean they will be perpetual. It’s perfectly plausible and consistent with Leibniz’s theodicy to suggest that perhaps part of the reason why this world is the BPW is precisely because evil is not going to last forever; and of course Christianity does indeed envisage a future in which this becomes a reality.

And thus the criticisms of Lovejoy and Voltaire fail. Once we adopt the dynamic view there is no reason at all why the best possible world could not be such that it is better at time t2 than it was at t1.

Admittedly this notion of a dynamic view of the universe is not explicit in Leibniz. When he speaks of the universe as the BPW he is referring to its adequacy – as a complex whole – as an expression of the overflowing creativity of God. As such the criticism of Leibniz above is understandable, since arguably he may have thought that the universe at t2 could not in any way be better than it was at t1. At both times, for Leibniz, the world perfectly reflects God’s goodness. However, as I have argued, his view can be easily interpreted, or at least modified, in precisely the way I have outlined.

Such criticisms further expose the need to carefully define what “best possible world” means. The BPW, as I have said, is certainly a slippery concept and often different thinkers mean different things when they use the term. Some, with Leibniz, understand the term along the lines of the universe’s being the best expression of the overflowing goodness and creativity of God. Others – particularly modern atheist critics – use the term in an ontological sense to mean a world containing only “perfect” types of being. However, on the back of the dynamic view outlined above we can find another understanding of the term, one which fits neatly within an orthodox Christian view. This understanding we might call “instrumental,” and recognizes that it’s impossible to make any claims about what would be the best possible world aside from dealing with the prior question of what God is trying to achieve through creation. What are God’s purposes?

This then brings us to the question of why God created the world. We need not disagree with Leibniz that the world is the expression of the overflowing creativity of God who desires to communicate his being beyond Himself. However, on the Christian understanding of God there is more to creation than that. In fact it seems that whether or not this is the BPW ultimately depends on a prior question: why did God create us and place us in the sort of world in which we find ourselves? The BPW, then, is that state of affairs which best serves the purposes that God wishes to fulfill through it. The early church father Irenaeus seemed to think along such lines (though not in any kind of systematic way). Put simply, Irenaeus thought that man is an unfinished creature – not created in perfection, as Augustinian theologians often suggest. Human beings – as autonomous moral agents – must be developed. The world then is the “vale of soul-making,” a place built for this process, a place in which human beings can exercise and grow in virtues, but by necessity also a place where vices and real evils exist.

I will expand on this Irenaean idea in a later essay, but for now we notice what this exposes about the nature of the real divide between theists and atheists when it comes to the notion of “best possible world.” Atheists and agnostics – represented philosophically by the likes of Hume, Mill and Russell – tend to assume that if an omnipotent and perfectly good being exists then its purpose is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the creatures it creates. The BPW will therefore be that which works best to this end. Since this world is almost certainly not that kind of world, then God almost certainly does not exist. By contrast the Christian view is not at all like this. The highest good in Christianity is the knowledge of God – not the maximization of earthly pleasure. In other words the world is designed as an environment for the development of finite persons, and in this world they have real and significant freedom to engage in real and significant acts of good or evil.

This brings us back to Leibniz: how do we know that this is the BPW? For Leibniz, as we have seen, there is a reasonable answer: because it is the creation of an omnipotent, perfectly good God. For the atheist, how do we know that if an omnipotent, perfectly good God exists that He would create a better world than this one? I don’t see how the atheist can answer that question. It requires knowing that there is a world which is better than this one. But how can we know a thing like that? To paraphrase Leibniz: Can the atheist know and can he present infinities to us and compare them together? Most atheist arguments here take the form “If God existed he would/would not do this or that.” Unfortunately this amounts to little more than crass presumption, as if such a being might have the same values, goals and purposes as a modern day atheist, and no higher level of insight into reality. Such arguments would have been regarded as sheer folly by Leibniz, and rightly so.

It seems to me that Leibniz was certainly on to something in his central notion that we live in the best possible world. Even Christian philosophers who claim to reject Leibniz end up affirming his core thesis in some shape or form. For instance, in Evil and the God of Love, John Hick rejects Leibniz’s position, and yet his own position strikes me as inherently Leibnizian, with the exception that he defines “best” in more explicitly instrumental terms. Others make a similar move, implicitly accepting that if God exists with the attributes Christianity claims He possesses, then in some sense this must be the best possible world. And so they should, since if an omnipotent and perfectly good God exists and has a purpose for his creation it would be inexplicable why He didn’t create the world that would be best suited for achieving it.


Filed under Atheism, God, Leibniz, Problem of Evil, Theism

How Not to Argue for Inerrancy

William Lane Craig teaches a Sunday school class in his church, Johnson Ferry Baptist, which seeks to equip Christians to know what they believe and why. There is no doubt that Craig is incredibly skilled as a teacher, and this series – called “Defenders” – is actually a great introduction for anyone wanting to learn about what Christians believe and why.

Whilst Craig’s strengths as a philosopher, theologian, teacher, and communicator are well showcased in this series, I found his section on inerrancy surprisingly weak. Granted, this series isn’t supposed to be academically highbrow, but his argument for inerrancy falls short by the standard of the rest of the series itself.

Very basically Craig gives a two step argument for inerrancy. The first step runs like so:

(1) Whatever God teaches is true.
(2) Jesus is God.
(3) Therefore whatever Jesus teaches is true.

The second step builds on this:

(4) Whatever Jesus teaches is true.
(5) Jesus taught that the scriptures are inerrant.
(6) Therefore the scriptures are the inerrant word of God.

Now, keep in mind that Craig is here addressing Christians. (1) plausibly follows from the Christian conception of God. (2) is reasonably deducted – reckons Craig – on historical grounds (prophecies, the life and claims of Christ, and his resurrection which affirmed those claims), and (3) follows by logical deduction. (4) is simply conclusion (3) plugged in as the first premise of the second step of the argument. (5) is a reasonable deduction from what we know about the life and claims of Christ, and (6) a logical deduction.

While many will quibble with one or more of the premises, I think the problem is more fundamental. Take premise (5) – Jesus taught that the scriptures are inerrant. But what does “scriptures” mean here? It can only refer to the Old Testament. Christ made no claims about any collection of writings that would be written about him subsequently. When he spoke of the scriptures he meant the Old Testament. But now consider conclusion (6). In (6) Craig wants to use “scriptures” to mean the 66 books of the Protestant canon. However, this is a different sense of the term than what appeared in premise (5). And thus what we appear to have here is a case of what logicians call the fallacy of equivocation. This fallacy occurs when a term used in an argument has one meaning in one part of the argument and then a different meaning in another part of the argument.

In Craig’s case the term “scriptures” in one part of his argument means “The Old Testament” while in the conclusion the word scripture means “The 66 books of the Protestant canon.” Whether the premises are true or not the argument is logically invalid.

There may of course be good arguments in favour of inerrancy, but this isn’t one of them.

Stephen J Graham

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Filed under Bible, Equivocation, William Lane Craig

Divine Healing & my Charismatic Deconversion

I’ve been having a lot of discussions lately with Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians about the so-called “spiritual gifts” mentioned in the Bible, and in particular tongues, knowledge, prophecy and healing. Now, the reader should note that for 10 years of my life I was part of this Christian subculture myself, drawn to it because of Charismatic and Pentecostal claims to have frequent supernatural experiences, with such spiritual gifts in regular operation. I was, I confess, desperate to see God at work. I wanted to experience and witness the supernatural. I truly hoped that God did regularly heal people, that he did regularly communicate his will in words of knowledge and prophecy. I went to these churches wanting it to be true. Looking out for it.

Just over a decade later I left the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement, incredibly disappointed and disillusioned. My hopes felt crushed. After more than 10 years I couldn’t point to a single case of any of these gifts that I can truly say was genuine. In fact the majority was at best play-acting and at worst malicious deception, fraud and trickery. I didn’t go to these churches to “play the sceptic,” either. I went because I was desperately seeking God. I was willing to believe. However, I’m also an incredibly analytical person and I’m not willing to believe something just because everyone else does or even because things seem a certain way on the face of it. I dig deeper. But if God is genuinely operating in the ways that Charismatics and Pentecostals claim he regularly acts then surely it should survive my analytical mind? As it is I found that a cursory look beneath the surface unmasked what appeared to be largely a case of adults engaging in Let’s Pretend. My abiding image of the movement is watching sick people fall – being “slain in the Spirit,” as Charismatics say – only to get up off the floor a short time later just as sick as they were when they went down. Is that really the power of God?

I must also admit there were a few instances that certainly made me wonder. One involved my own mother-in-law who is one of the most genuine godly people I have ever met. I have no question that what she reports is true. The facts are as follows. For a long period of time she experienced severe incapacitating migraines. One night she attended a Christian meeting and the migraines struck. She was about to go home when it was suggested to her to go forward for prayer. She went forward, got prayed for, and not only did the migraine lift, but she has never had another one to this day – years later.

What are we to make of this? I have absolutely no quibble with the facts. Nor do I have any beef with the notion that God healed her of migraines. God, being omnipotent, can easily heal a human being of any condition he chooses to. It’s not therefore an issue of can God heal, but rather did God heal. Do we have good reason to think God healed her that night?

Discussing this the other night, my wife, who comes from a Pentecostal background, says yes. I don’t think so. Why not? Isn’t what happened so incredibly improbable as to provide good reason to believe God healed her? Again, no. In fact, I would argue that such events are in fact statistically highly probable. Bear in mind that around the world at any given time millions of people are being prayed for. Remember also that virtually every report of healing concerns a condition which we know can spontaneously disappear. Moreover, the vast majority of healing testimonies concern conditions that we know respond well to the placebo effect. Lastly, many such episodes of healing occur under conditions in which the placebo effect is known to work – such as the charged emotionalism of a healing crusade. Now, with this additional background knowledge it should be relatively clear that it would be odd if such coincidences didn’t happen. Some people will experience the remission – that’s just a natural fact about lots of ailments. Most people, though, will not, and go home disappointed.

An example should illustrate the point. Think of the national lottery. Bob has just won the £7.5 million jackpot. The odds of his winning the lottery stand (generally) at around 1 in 14 million. In other words, if we look solely at Bob we might think “wow, that’s incredibly improbable!” And so it is. But, when we factor in that millions around the country play the lottery every week someone winning the jackpot is highly probable. As with the lottery so with healings – that some people report spontaneous healing after prayer is only to be expected! What would be unexpected is if the spontaneous remission occurred in a disease or ailment which we know does not naturally behave this way.

If healings were far more frequent or concerned conditions that we know do not naturally go into remission – say, missing eyes or limbs, or quadriplegia – then we might have more reason to accept such healing instances as divine in origin. As it is, instances of supposed divine healing (1) almost always concern illnesses which do occasionally go into remission on their own; (2) almost always concern illnesses which are known to respond to placebo; (3) typically occur in the emotionally charged atmosphere of a healing crusade or worship service which makes them more conducive to the placebo effect, and, frankly, alters people’s perception of reality (many subsequently report that they were not healed as they thought they were at the time); and (4) do not happen anywhere near frequently enough to make one think there’s anything other than coincidence at work.

I’m delighted my mother-in-law no longer experiences migraines. But I’m not convinced that we have any reason to suppose it was a genuine divine healing. Of course, it might well have been – I have no idea – but the point is there doesn’t appear to be good grounds to suggest that a genuine healing did take place.

Stephen J Graham

For more on this see:


Filed under Charismatic Movement, Faith-Healing

Responding to Philosophical Arguments – The High Road & The Low Road

I want to look at two different ways of responding to philosophical arguments: one I call the “High Road” and the other the “Low Road.” “What do these terms mean, Stephen?” I’m very glad you asked dear Reader. I’ll briefly discuss each with appropriate examples.

William Lane Craig’s Challenge

In his debates it’s common for Craig to present an argument such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore the universe has a cause.
4. [And Craig goes on to argue that this cause must be timeless, incorporeal, and personal]

Craig then throws down the gauntlet to his opponent: you need to defeat this argument by saying which of the premises you are rejecting and why. Now, I suspect this might be a debate tactic on Craig’s part, but it seems as if he thinks that in order to rationally reject an argument you must dispute or falsify at least one of the premises, or at least show that it’s not as plausible as its negation. But, this is incorrect. We don’t necessarily have to dispute the premises of an argument to be justified in rejecting the conclusion.

Take the Kalam argument above (which I’m incredibly fond of). The atheist might not know which premise is wrong. In fact, both might strike him as prima facie true. But, does that mean he must accept the conclusion on pain of irrationality? I don’t think so. He might not be able to claim: “Not (1),” or be able to demonstrate “Not (2),” however, he might still be within his rational rights in asserting: “Not (1) and (2).”

At first glance this might strike someone as suspect, but it’s perfectly legitimate and incredibly common. In the case above the atheist who doesn’t know how to challenge premise 1 or 2 might still have other overriding evidence or reasons against the conclusion. For example, perhaps he holds there is good reason to think the concept of a timeless incorporeal person is incoherent. Therefore, since this argument leads to the existence of a timeless incorporeal person it must be defective somewhere, even though he might be stumped as to precisely which premise is wrong.

The Low Road

What this example illustrates is the “low road” approach to responding to philosophical arguments: rejecting the conclusion without attacking a specific premise.

Take another example, this time from Justin Schieber, co-host at Reasonable Doubts. In his debate last year with Max Andrews, Schieber offered this argument against the existence of the Christian God:

(1) If the Christian God exists, then “GodWorld” [a world containing no non-God objects] is the unique Best Possible World.
(2) If GodWorld is the unique Best Possible World, then the Christian God would maintain GodWorld.
(3) GodWorld is false because the universe exists
(4) Therefore the Christian God does not exist.

Now, here again the “low road” approach can be utilized. We can illustrate this by the following Leibnizian counter-argument:

(5) If GodWorld is the unique best possible world, then the Christian God would maintain GodWorld.
(6) The Christian God has not maintained GodWorld
(7) Therefore GodWorld is not the unique best possible world.

Leibniz is approaching the question from a different position altogether. Leibniz’s notion that we live in the BPW follows from his belief in an omnipotent and perfectly good creator. Leibniz is also famous for a contingency argument in favour of God, and many other Christians have offered a variety of other arguments in favour of their worldview. Some claim particular religious experiences; others that their belief is in some way “basic.” Before such types Schieber’s argument is likely to fall flat. Why? Because even if they can’t say where his argument goes wrong, they may have reason to reject the conclusion. They can, in effect, say “there’s something wrong here because 4 is in fact false.” Such Christians might well be stumped as to precisely where the argument goes wrong, but that it goes wrong they may well be fairly confident.

The Leibnizian counter-argument, then, effectively flips Schieber’s argument: agreeing that God will create the best possible world, but arguing that because this universe exists then GodWorld is not in fact the unique best possible world.

The High Road

But, of course, Leibniz wouldn’t leave the matter there. He would also adopt what I call the “high road.” The reader can probably already guess what this is: rejecting an argument by undercutting at least one of the premises. Leibniz, I think, would agree with premise (2) of Schieber’s argument – and in fact his own theodicy turns on the fact that God has made the best possible world – so would turn his fire on premise (1). Leibniz might point out that God is inherently creative, desiring to create in order share his goodness beyond the bounds of his own being. So, if the Christian God exists then non-God objects are precisely the kinds of things to be expected, and premise 1 would be patently false. So, if God exists and desires to create finite beings to express his creativity and love then GodWorld would not be the unique Best Possible World.

Other philosophers – Aquinas, for example – would attack premises (1) and (2) for using what Aquinas regarded as an incoherent notion: the “best possible world.” I disagree with Aquinas on this point, but his comments are instructive if only to illumine just how slippery the concept of the “best possible world” actually is. How are worlds to be compared in order to judge World 1 better than World 2? Anyone seeking to make use of the concept needs to give a precise definition and account of what they mean by the term. Some people mean a world that contains no creaturely imperfection. Others mean a world in which the greatest number of compossible beings exist. In fact, how are we to understand the word “best”? Best for whom? For God? For the beings that exist in some given world? Or do we mean best in some kind of impersonal ontological sense like “most perfect kinds of being?” We quickly see that the concept of the best possible world is typically laden with all kinds of assumptions and value judgements (not to mention confusions!). In fact, I think John Hick is ultimately quite right when he says: “The question whether this is the best possible world will…depend upon a prior question concerning God’s purpose in creating man and setting him within the kind of world in which he finds himself. The best possible world will be that which best serves the purpose that God is seeking to fulfill by means of it.” This view of “best” is instrumental in nature and inextricably linked to God’s purposes. If Hick is correct – and there’s much to unpack here – then asking the question about the best possible world aside from any consideration of God’s purpose in creating will always misfire.

But I digress. The point here isn’t to refute Schieber’s argument, but rather to illustrate the different strategies that could be employed in such a refutation. Ideally I think we should always strive for a “high road” response. The “low road,” whilst perfectly intellectually feasible still leaves us with the puzzle of where some argument goes wrong. That might satisfy some people, but it shouldn’t be enough for those of us with some degree of intellectual curiosity.

Stephen J Graham

The Andrews v Schieber debate can be listened to here:

Blogger SKepticism First has written a companion piece to this article, which can be read here:


Filed under Philosophy

Lego & Philosophy

Most of my philosophical teaching and learning occurs in all-adult contexts. But the past few months I’ve discovered how wonderful a tool Lego is for firing the philosophical imaginations and musings of kids. I’ll illustrate a few simple examples from my own experience of playing with my 7 year old son, who’s played with nothing but Lego for about 9 months now – mostly Lego Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Fine by me! (My nickname for my son is “Mo Chara” which is Irish for “my friend.”)

Lego has presented quite a few lead-ins to philosophical thought. Here are four examples of conversations I’ve had with Mo Chara.

1. Creation

This is probably the most obvious connection. When we play with Lego we are the gods of the Lego world. Nothing gets built but at our hands. Here is a pile of bricks. Here is another pile of bricks, this time in the form of a house. How did that happen? Did mummy empty the box and the bricks by chance came out already built into a house? Nope, reckons Mo Chara. That must’ve been built by someone. Does this concept transfer over to the universe itself? Is the universe the sort of thing we look at and draw similar conclusions about? Mo Chara thinks the answer to that question is fairly obvious. This isn’t surprising since there is psychological research which shows that – contrary to the typical Internet Atheist claims that children are born atheists – children readily and naturally attribute all manner of phenomena to agency, as if such an intuition is hard-wired.

2. Personal Identity

What is a person? What makes me me and you you? If you lose a leg are you still you or just partly you? If we take Darth Vader’s head and swap it with Darth Maul’s head which one is Darth Vader and which one is Darth Maul? Likewise, if my brain goes into your body and vice versa, then which one is me and which one is you? Mo Chara’s current solution is that neither Darth Vader nor Darth Maul exist any longer; we have simply created two new creatures: Darth Mader and Darth Vaul.

3. Providence & Freedom

In discussion with a “strong” Calvinist I once parodied his view of God’s providence over the world by comparing it to my providence over the Lego world. The orcs kidnap elves because I make them do so. Dwarves wipe out orcs at my command. When I call out the storm troopers they cometh from the east and the west. When I send Yoda into battle, into battle does he go. When I command Saruman’s Uruk Hai to attack Rivendell, the trees crash like the mighty cedars of Lebanon. It all happens because I make it happen. So, what room then for responsibility? Are the orcs responsible for what they do? Aren’t we unjust to have them punished by Gandalf? Mo Chara disagrees with me on this point. He seems to think that while the orcs only do what they do because we make them do it; they are bad by nature and would do bad things anyway. So, punish away Gandalf. Thy judgment is just.

4. Ownership & Property

I built a cave out of Lego bricks last week. Do I own the cave? Well, the bricks weren’t mine to begin with. But, then again, the fact that the cave now exists is due to my time and effort spent in developing it. Does that give me ownership rights over the cave? We live in a world full of natural resources. Who owns those resources and why? I confess to being a tad put out when Mo Chara pulled my cave to bits to build a pyramid without so much as a by your leave. “I own the Lego, because it’s in my toy room.” “But I bought the Lego and the room is in the house.” “Shut up Daddy. It’s mine!” Well, you can’t expect them to be philosophical all the time!

But it’s all good…the conversations aren’t forced…it’s part of the fun…who’d have thought Lego could turn out to be so philosophically friendly? If only you could construct a worldview out of it.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Free Will, God, Lego

Saint Augustine’s God’s Eye View on Evil

St Augustine is considered by many to be the fountainhead of so much of Western Christianity and his thinking on the problem of evil is no exception. Insofar as the problem of evil involves a wider sphere of Christian doctrines – creation, the fall, redemption, and providence – the shadow cast by Augustine is long indeed.

When it comes to the problem of evil there are numerous strands of Augustinian thought, all intricately woven together into a complex fabric that remains influential 1500 years later. Augustine is probably most famously remembered for his privative account of evil, but in this article I want to focus on a different strand of Augustine’s thought: what some scholars call the “aesthetic theme,” but what I prefer to call the “God’s eye view theme.” The idea here is that God sees the universe in its totality and from that perspective it is wholly good. As finite creatures we lack the necessary perspective on the universe and consider much that is evil which actually contributes to the good of the universe as a whole. Augustine here conceives of God as the cosmic Artisan, and the universe is His work of art, containing both gradations and contrasts to make it all the more beautiful in God’s sight.

The influence of Neo-Platonist writers on Augustine is well documented, and we find this same influence here. Consider the following passage from Plotinus:

We are like people ignorant of painting who complain that the colours are not beautiful everywhere in the picture: but the Artist has laid on the appropriate tint to every spot. . . Again, we are censuring a drama because the persons are not all heroes but include a servant and a rustic and some scurrilous clown; yet take away the low characters and the power of the drama is gone; these are part and parcel of it.”

Compare this with Augustine:

All have their offices and limits laid down so as to ensure the beauty of the universe. That which we abhor in any part of it gives us the greatest pleasure when we consider the universe as a whole. The very reason why some things are inferior is that though the parts may be imperfect the whole is perfect. . . The black colour in a picture may very well be beautiful if you take the picture as a whole.”

In fact, Augustine goes as far as to say, “To thee [God] there is no such thing as evil.” God, reckoned Augustine, has appointed the order of the universe in all its various elements, and when understood properly we see that the entire thing is just as it ought to be, and nothing can spoil it. Even those things we regard as evil have their divinely appointed place in the grand scheme of things. Human beings, as part of the picture, don’t see the whole thing and thus incorrectly judge everything not in accordance with their value in God’s sight but rather on the basis of their usefulness or harmfulness to themselves. The evils we might abolish from the world would be abolished in ignorance of the place they have and the role they play in making the big picture perfect.

Augustine saw beauty in the organic processes of nature: the decay of vegetation and even the devouring of animals by other animals. This is where we find one of the weaknesses in Augustine’s theodicy: his downplaying of the cruelty of nature. Sure enough we can naturally see beauty in the change and decay in, say, leaves during autumn which give rise to wonderful reds, browns, yellows and purples. But leaves feel no pain. The idea isn’t so readily transferable to a deer torn to pieces by a pack of hyenas. Unfortunately Augustine isn’t terribly helpful here because his writing displays a crude insensitivity towards non-human animals. The most useful thing he has to say is that nature is like a great organism which ebbs and flows and continually changes, as individual units die and are replaced by others: “Of this order the beauty does not strike us, because by our mortal frailty we are so involved in a part of it, that we cannot perceive the whole, in which these fragments that offend us are harmonized with the most accurate fitness and beauty.” That said, Augustine’s doctrine here makes better sense of the non-animal world, but leaves much of the pain of nature unillumined and shrouded in mystery.

We might also wonder what Augustine makes of moral evil. How does that fit into his system? If the “universe is perfect” and “to thee there is no such thing as evil,” what are we to make of human sins? Augustine simply squeezes the moral failings of humans into his grand scheme with the shoehorn of “moral balance.” Sin is not permitted by God to ruin the perfection of the universe, and thus each sin is balanced out, so to speak, by appropriate punishment. In Augustine’s mind a universe with no sin, and thus no punishment, is not superior to one containing sin and appropriate punishment: “the penalty of sin corrects the dishonour of sin,” and that, “. . . as the beauty of a picture is increased by well-managed shadows, so, to the eye that has skill to discern it, the universe is beautified even by sinners, though, considered by themselves, their deformity is a sad blemish.” Ultimately humans are morally culpable for their sin, but God uses sinners to further his own good purposes, and thus the overall beauty of the universe remains intact. “God,” writes Augustine, “judged it better to bring good out of evil, than to suffer no evil to exist.”

That last insight holds great promise for attempts at theodicy, and has been incorporated into many various theodicies over the centuries which have sought to improve upon the Augustinian picture where weaknesses have been perceived. One such weakness that subsequent thinkers have detected in Augustine’s idea is that it seems to slip over into monism; in other words evil seems to disappear entirely, as if it doesn’t – contrary to all creaturely experience – really exist at all. However, Augustine’s idea can be modified using a better analogy than that of a picture, and thus blunt the force of this criticism. Perhaps we should think of a piece of music or a drama – some art-form containing elements of duration and change. On this view evil could be likened to disagreeable clashes within a piece of music – these noises are indeed grating, but they add to the beauty of the piece in the end when we reach triumphant resolution which wouldn’t have been possible without the earlier discordant notes. On this different way of viewing the matter the perfection of the universe is not related to its state at any given point of time. At certain points the evil is stark, very much real and terrible. But given the entire panorama of existence – including the element of time – the universe will be brought to a justifying good in the end.

This, however, leads us to one of the most basic criticisms of Augustine’s theodicy: God’s relation to His creation appears to be cast primarily in impersonal or subpersonal terms. Augustine views the universe as a complex picture whose value lies in the totality of things rather than in individuals. But again it seems to me that Augustine’s theodicy can be modified to nullify this objection. God has freely desired to create personal beings, and one of the insights of modern theologians of all stripes is to stress the desire of God for personal relations with those beings. So, perhaps rather than stress the beauty of the universe in aesthetic terms we could instead stress its perfection in the sense of how well suited it is to fulfilling God’s desires and plans for such creatures, (though we should never forget that God may well have other purposes in creation besides this. The divine purposes may very well be multi-dimensionally complex). Thus, as John Hick puts it: “Instead, then, of thinking of the origin and fate of human personality as a function of an aesthetically valued whole, we should see the great frame of nature, with all its sources of evil, as the deliberately mysterious environment of finite personal life.”

It seems then that with certain modifications this aspect of Augustine’s theodicy still has potential as part of a Christian approach to the problem of evil. In fact, a similar notion appears also in the other major tradition of theodicy inspired by the thought of the Church Father Irenaeus. Irenaeus viewed the world as set up by God and in the process of perfection, a process in which we must participate as free agents. The world is not currently “perfect,” but it will achieve eschatological perfection in time. In this, Irenaeus regarded the work of creation as ongoing. Irenaeus also makes use of the notion cited above in which the universe is better viewed as a drama or piece of music than a picture. For Irenaeus the Kingdom of God was the completion of world history, and will be so great a good as to justify what has happened on the way to it. So, when the world is looked at from beginning to end – with a God’s Eye View – we will see that the entire cosmic drama is good. It fulfils its purpose. Evils, whilst real, are justified by the goods that God will work through them.

Whether we agree with the various twists these thinkers and those who followed them give to these ideas, the notion of a God’s Eye View at the very least reminds us that often things look very different with a different perspective. How often have we looked back in our own lives and viewed an event differently than we saw it at the time? When dealing with the complex interactions of free creatures, the magnitude of the created order, and the purposes of an omnipotent and omniscient God, it should be no surprise to find that there may well be a lot we don’t see.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under God, Problem of Evil, Saint Augustine