Saturday, July 21, 2012

CONTINUING THE THINKING PROCESS: AUTHORITY IN CHURCH DOCTRINE AND PRACTICE


I have been writing some thoughts on Authority for Church Doctrine and Practice. Recently it crossed my mind that the Canon of scripture might be more important for the subject than I had previously thought. In other words, Protestants advance the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, but, the question must be asked, what counts as scripture? If the books, which Protestants refer to as Apocryphal, are indeed inspired scripture, then, perhaps, Protestants need to “return to the scriptures”. When we come to the question of the Canon there seems to be a difficulty for the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura, namely, without the canon, what is scripture? Prior to the establishment of the canon how did Christians know what was doctrinally right? I’ve already mentioned this problem in other posts. I have to say, at the outset, that I am not a huge fan of the way sola scriptura is commonly explained; it seems to be ignorant of the fact of interpretation (regardless of which books are canonical, inspired, etc. they are ALL interpreted, which means that the bigger question is not about the canon but about authority on deciding appropriate interpretation for scripture.). Furthermore, I am much more dependent on tradition than your average Protestant; I think that it is the church universal's role to protect the proper interpretation of scripture. However, it is a fallacy to claim that because the majority thinks X, that X is therefore true. At the same time, I think that it is a pretty good rule of thumb that when you come up with something that no one in the church has ever thought of before you need to be very careful. Granted that there are problems with Sola Scriptura, I also think that there are some problems with the Catholic position, as I understand it, which claims that the Bible as interpreted by tradition is the authority.

First of all, I find it is interesting that the council of Trent (1546) accepted Augustine's (354-430) view of the Canon, which gave equal authority to the apocrypha as to the rest of the "canonical" books of the Bible, rather than Jerome's (347-420) view of the Canon, which denied, absolutely, that the apocryphal books had any authority on church doctrine and practice. Jerome is the church father who translated the entire Bible from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek into Latin (known as the Latin Vulgate). Both Augustine and Jerome were great exegetes.

I say this is interesting because it seems a little too convenient. “Tradition” prior to Augustine certainly seemed to agree that the Apocryphal books were neither inspired nor authoritative, Jerome is as much a part of “Tradition” as Augustine, and Jerome was, at least (if not more), as qualified as Augustine to make a pronouncement concerning which books were canonical and which weren’t. Furthermore, Jerome, not Augustine, was in agreement with the general thoughts of the church of the preceding centuries. It all seems a little TOO convenient.

We might reply that church councils in the 4th century made pronouncements on the canon. I've gone over (rapidly) all of the decisions made by the Major church councils between the 4th and 8th centuries and haven't seen anything concerning the canon of the Bible. The Councils (there were a lot of them) of Carthage did make pronouncements on the Canon of Scripture. However, the Councils of Carthage were not major church councils. They were all local councils held in Africa and were not universally accepted (until, interestingly enough, they were ratified at the council of Trent). As such we cannot say that they represented, necessarily, the teaching of the universal church. It is interesting to note that they were all influenced by Augustine, who, as I mentioned above, accepted the books written after the end of the prophetic period.

It seems to me that individual councils (especially local councils such as those from Carthage), have as much authority as any one church father on any given subject, because they are still only a part of the “Tradition” of the Church.

It might be claimed that the Jews had two canons, and that the Catholic Church simply accepted the broadest of the canons. Perhaps I'm being overly cautious here, but, it seems to be claiming too much to say that the Jews had two canons (so I won't refer to a deutero-canon). The only thing that I am able to find on that subject is that the sect of the Essenes accepted the books written after the prophetic period had closed as part of their sacred writings. However, to my knowledge the Jews, in general, did not accept these books as inspired or prophetic. It would be like saying that due to the fact that certain church fathers accepted the Gnostic gospels, that they are canonical. I'd like to see Jewish writings that put the books written after the prophetic period on the same par as their other scriptures.

[A note on the term apocrypha. R. K. Harrison notes that the term apocrypha "means 'hidden things,' and when applied to books it described those works which religious authorities wished to be concealed from the reading public." (R. K. Harrison, 'Old Testament and New Testament Apocrypha,' in The Origin of the Bible, ed. Philip Wesley Comfort (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992), 83.) He goes on to say that the term became, later, synonymous with books which were non-canonical (p. 84), and that, therefore, should be kept away from church members. (By the way, on the subject of a second Jewish canon he says, "Earlier scholars suggested that the so-called 'council of Jamnia,' held in Palestine about A.D. 100, was responsible for drawing up a list of Old Testament books suitable for use by the faithful. However, subsequent studies have thrown considerable doubt upon the historicity of such a council, at the same time showing that the Jewish authorities of that period considered their noncanonical writings to be more of an obstacle than a help to devotion." (p. 85). In the article to which I am referring he then goes on to survey, briefly, the main ideas and problems with the books written after the prophetic period. ]

Secondly, I am under the impression, currently, that councils are not enough. (On a side note the catholic definition of tradition seems vague to me. Is tradition only councils? I read Josef Pieper's book on the subject and it seems that tradition is much larger than just councils.) Rather, I have been informed by some friends of mine, who are Dominicans, that for a council to be authoritative it has to be ratified by the Pope Ex Cathedra. (Now this implies an interpretation of the Bible that has been debated for a very long time.) Perhaps I am missing something here, but, it seems to me that there are problems with the doctrine of Ex Cathedra. For example: 1. A Pope is infallible when he speaks Ex Cathedra. 2. A Pope speaks Ex Cathedra when he makes a pronouncement on church doctrine or practice. 3. There have been Pope's - Honorius comes to mind - who have made heretical pronouncements and were declared Heretics by later Pope's and councils. 4. The heretical pronouncements concerned church doctrine and practice. 5. Therefore, 1 is false. We might respond to this argument by claiming that the Pope speaks Ex Cathedra when he makes an infallible pronouncement on Church Doctrine or Practice. This, however, seems to be circular reasoning. If it is the Pope that is supposed to be able to make infallible pronouncements when speaking Ex Cathedra, but, his pronouncements are only Ex Cathedra when they are infallible, then how can we ever know that the Pope has made an infallible pronouncement, that is, how will we know when it is Ex Cathedra? It is Ex Cathedra when it is infallible and it is infallible when it is Ex Cathedra. Perhaps we know that a pronouncement is infallible and, therefore, Ex Cathedra, only when a later Pope ratifies the previous Pope’s pronouncements. But, then, how do we know that this later Pope’s ratification of the previous Pope’s pronouncement is infallible and therefore Ex Cathedra? We seem to run into a vicious circle. Furthermore, if it is the Pope that ratifies the Councils, how, then, will we ever know that a Council has been infallibly ratified?

Either way, whether it be church councils, or ratification by a Pope, the problem of interpretation persists, the claims of councils, Popes and church fathers are as open to false interpretation as the scriptures themselves. Which means that we need to have a method of interpretation that can be universally verified, that can be used as much on the pronouncements of Popes, councils, and church fathers as on the Bible and which will be sufficient to sift between true and false interpretations. Regardless of which canon is used, the interpretations can always be debated.

Provisional conclusion? The question of canonicity does not help answer the problem of authority in church doctrine and practice.

           Anyways, those are some of the thoughts that I'm still working through.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Thomistic View of the Divine Sovereignty and Human Free-will


Introduction

            In his article, “Divine Providence”, due to constraints of space, Flint equated the thomistic view with the Calvinistic view, as one of those Christian views which abandons the libertarian view of freedom. “…Some Christians have suggested that the problems arise from our assuming a misguided picture of freedom—that which is often called libertarianism. Abandon this picture…and our problems dissolve; human freedom, properly understood, is fully compatible with God’s complete control and universal foreknowledge.”[1] As we will soon see in detail, and as should already be evident from the definitions, Calvinism and Thomism are in two completely different camps on this issue. As most thomists will agree, attempting to explain the thomistic doctrine of sovereignty and free will in just a couple of pages is an almost hopeless endeavor, because Thomism is a system, and as such, its parts are intricately intertwined. However, with great caution, we will attempt to briefly explain the thomistic position and show why the thomistic position is the only view that can truly answer the problem that is engendered by free will and divine sovereignty.[2]


Divine Sovereignty

            In order to explain the thomistic view of sovereignty we must first consider three preliminary points. First of all, a final end is that for which a thing exists, its purpose or goal, and it is that towards which a thing tends. In the Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas Aquinas says, “the ultimate end is that beyond which the agent seeks nothing else.”[3]

            Secondly, God is the final, or ultimate end, of all things, even humans.[4] Humans are distinguished from all other created things by the fact that they are rational animals. As Aristotle said, “All men by nature desire to know.”[5] Aquinas shows how reason, that by which humans are distinguished from all other created things, helps us to identify what man’s ultimate end is. “Hence, this must be the end of the intellectual creature, namely, to understand God.”[6] Therefore, the ultimate end of all things, that to which they tend, is God.

            The third thing that plays into Aquinas’s view of Divine Sovereignty is that, “Whenever certain things are ordered to a definite end they all come under the control of the one to whom the end primarily belongs.”[7]

            With these three preliminary points in mind, it follows that God is fully sovereign because he is the ultimate end of all things. “So, since all things are ordered to divine goodness as an end, as we showed, it follows that God, to Whom this goodness primarily belongs, as something substantially possessed and known, and loved, must be the governor of all things.”[8] God, therefore, is sovereign because “everything that happens does so in accordance with what God intends,”[9] and because “he orders all things to an end. He makes them to be and he directs them to their end.”[10]


Freedom of Will

            According to Thomas Aquinas, humans are necessarily free because they are rational creatures.[11] What does Aquinas mean by this? Before we attempt to explain Aquinas’ notion of the will we would do well to hear a word of caution, “Aquinas give a complicated analysis of several acts of will associated with any free action of a person. Scholars sometimes pick out a subset of these acts or even just one of them as if for Aquinas freedom were lodged in that sort of act of will alone.”[12] As Eleonore Stump notes, Aquinas’s analysis of will is multi-faceted, and must be treated carefully so as not to cause confusion.

            The first thing we must note is that the will, for Aquinas, is the tendency, or the desire, towards the good.  As he says in the Summa Contra Gentiles, “things that know their end are always ordered to the good as an end, for the will, which is the appetite for a foreknown end, inclines towards something only if it has the rational character of a good, which is its object.”[13]

            Secondly, it is important to note that for Aquinas, the will and intellect are intimately connected. As Stump explains, “the will is not independent of the intellect. On the contrary, the dynamic interactions of intellect and will yield freedom as an emergent property or a systems-level feature.”[14] Aquinas says that “things cause movement in one way as ends, and this is the way that the intellect moves the will, since understood goods are the object of the will and move the will as ends.”[15]

            With these things in mind, we can say that what Aquinas means, when he says that man is necessarily free due to the fact that he is rational, is that man freely decides which goods to pursue, and freely acts upon his decision. The intellect informs the will of the goods to be obtained, and the will moves the agent to the obtaining of them. Any type of coercive influence by which man is determined to a certain act removes his freedom.[16]

            Davies says that “Aquinas takes this passage [Ecclesiasticus 15:14] as ascribing to people the freedom to decide. And, in general he reads Scripture as teaching, or implying, that people can act with freedom.”[17]

            Whereas Calvinism claimed that God determines the will, Aquinas claims that both man’s will and his actions are free. Whereas libertarians would claim that no antecedent state of affairs can determine the decision of the free agent, Aquinas would claim that there are many things that do in fact determine the will. Our actions are determined by our will, and our will is determined to its end by the intellect, which informs the will of the good to be pursued. The end that is chosen by the intellect is determined by what is available, that is to say, by the mind-exterior reality. For example, I cannot decide to drive my Porsche to the local bookstore and buy a book, because I do not own a Porsche. Therefore, whether or not I “will” to drive “my Porsche”, my action, and my “willing” are determined by the fact that I simply cannot drive any car which corresponds to “my Porsche”. If there were no roads, and no bookstore, then I could not drive to the bookstore in the car that I do own. This seems obvious enough, but all of these facts about the world, are part of the antecedent state of affairs which determines my choice.

            Aquinas, however, goes much further than that. We are not just determined by our goals, or our ends. As mentioned above, all that exists, rational or not, tends towards the ultimate end which is God. The end of a rational creature is happiness; which can only be found in intellectual union with God. In pursuing any temporal end, by which the rational agent is pursuing their own happiness, the rational agent is really seeking God (though they may be going about it in the wrong way, and may, in fact, never arrive). Aquinas explains how in every temporal pursuit God alone is the ultimate fulfillment of that temporal end.[18]

            For Aquinas, therefore, man is free because man is a rational agent, a knowing originator—he is the source of his action and knows that he is the source of his action. In willing and acting, man is determined by the ends that he chooses, and is free to choose and pursue whatever temporal end he desires. However, man, as with all things that exist, tends towards God as his ultimate end, as we showed above.


Fitting Thomistic Sovereignty and Free Will Together

            Hopefully by now it has become clear that Thomism preserves all of the main elements which are necessary to a full account of divine sovereignty. Thomism, as with Molinism, has the problem of fitting together freedom and sovereignty. Aquinas provides a solution to the problem that is nothing like any of the other views.

            First of all, it is important to note that Aquinas vehemently denies any form of causal determinism. “I answer that we must admit without qualification that God operates in the operations of nature and will. Some, however, through failing to understand this aright fell into error, and ascribed to God every operation of nature in the sense that nature does nothing at all by its own power.”[19]

            Secondly, it must be noted that Aquinas’s view of God’s a-temporality, impassibility, and God’s relation to his creation come into the explanation, though we will not have time to fully explain what these doctrines mean for Aquinas, or how they fit into his explanation.

            How then should we understand how God can be fully sovereign and yet allow humans to possess and exercise free will? We will look at two aspects of God’s sovereignty.

First of all, how is it that God knows what is future to us, without removing our freedom? For Aquinas such a question implies a number of previous questions, such as, Can God know? How does God Know? Can God know singulars? Can God know individuals? In De Veritate Aquinas rejects two views that are still held today. “Some wishing to pronounce upon divine knowledge from the viewpoint of our own way of knowing have said that God does not know future contingents…Consequently, others have said that God has knowledge of all futures, but that all take place necessarily, otherwise His knowledge of them would be subject to error.”[20] Having rejected these two options Aquinas concludes that God must know all futures in such a way that futures are still contingent.

This is possible because God knows all things, first of all, by knowing himself. Quoting Dionysius as his authority he says, “Dionysius declares: ‘By knowing itself, the divine wisdom knows all else.’”[21] How does God know all things by knowing himself? “Since God is the principle of things through His essence, by knowing His essence He knows creatures.”[22] God knows things by knowing himself because he is the formal exemplary cause of everything that exists.[23] Therefore, God knows all things by being the cause of all things. It is therefore appropriate to say that God does not know us because we exist; rather because he knows us we exist.

How, then, is it possible for God to know all contingent things infallibly, one might even say, necessarily, without removing their contingency? First of all, there is no problem with having necessary knowledge of contingent things. “God knows all things to the extent that the model of all things is in Him. But the divine model for the contingent and necessary can be immutable, just as it is an immaterial model for the material and a simple model for the composite.”[24] Secondly, God’s knowledge is not at all like ours, that is to say, it is not dependent upon the object known (it is the cause of the object known), it is not discursive (it knows all in one eternal act of knowledge), and it is not restrained, limited, or measured by time (rather it contains time). “It is clear that a contingent can be known as future by no cognition that excludes all falsity and possibility of falsity; and since there is no falsity or possibility of falsity in the divine knowledge, it would be impossible for God to have knowledge of future contingents if He knew them as future…but the relation of the divine knowledge to anything whatsoever is like that of present to present.”[25] God is not measured by time, and therefore knows all things as present, even those things which are future to temporal entities. Aquinas notes that, “the fact that our sense of sight is never deceived when it sees contingents when they are present does not prevent the contingents themselves from happening contingently.”[26] It is evident, then, that if God sees all contingents as present to him, then he can know all things, past, present and future to us, infallibly, necessarily, without removing their contingency, or our freedom.

Secondly, how is it that God can be said to be the cause of everything, without removing the freedom of the creature? Based upon what has been said already, Aquinas concludes the following, “Therefore God is the cause of everything’s action in as much as he gives everything power to act, and preserves it in being, and applies it to action, and inasmuch as by his power every other power acts.”[27]

            Different scholars have interpreted the phrase “God is the cause of everything’s action”, differently, sometimes holding opposite views. Suffice it to say, that Aquinas sees God as actively causing in every act (and even thought), whether the act is voluntary or not. However, it is not, as we noted above, such a causation that removes the efficient causation of the agent.[28] Rather, we should understand Aquinas to be saying that God is active in every free act as first cause because, the agent that is acting freely receives the ability to act, and to act freely, from God (“he gives everything power to act”). The agent is kept in existence throughout the deliberation and the action by God (“preserves it in being”). The agent was created by God in order to freely act, that is, as a voluntary agent (“applies it to action”). All agents, free or not, have the power to act only because God gives them the power to act (“by His power every other power acts”). Simply put, the only reason a voluntary agent can freely choose and freely act upon that choice is that God is acting to give that agent existence, the power to act, the intellect to deliberate, the will which tends towards the good, and the ability to do it all freely.



[1]Ibid., 263.

[2]Admittedly there are many different opinions even amongst thomistic scholars concerning how to interpret different aspects of Aquinas’s position; such as how to interpret Aquinas’s statement that God causes all things, including contingents. There is not enough space in this article to expose all the debates, and views, and it is not the intent of the author to do so. The author hopes to expound the least debatable position on Aquinas’s views.

[3]SCG 3:1, Ch. 2, A. 3, p. 35.

[4]SCG 3:1, Ch. 64, A. 1, p. 209.

[5]Met., Bk. I, 1, 980a20.

[6]SCG 3:1, Ch. 25, A. 1, p. 97.

[7]SCG 3:1, Ch. 64, A. 2, p. 209-10.

[8]SCG 3:1, Ch. 64, A. 2, p. 210.

[9]Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 159.

[10]Ibid.

[11]ST I, Q. 83, A.1.

[12]Eleonore Stump, Aquinas (London: Routledge, 2003), 277.

[13]SCG 3:1, Ch. 16, A. 4, p. 70.

[14]Stump, 277.

[15]ST 1, Q. 82, A. 4.

[16]ST 1, Q. 82, A. 1.

[17]Brian Davies, Aquinas (London: Continuum, 2002), 106.

[18]SCG 3 :1, Ch. 63, p. 206-9.

[19]De Pot., Q.3, A. 7, p. 127.

[20]De Ver., Q. 2, A. 12, p. 118.

[21]De Ver., Q. 2, A. 2, p. 61.

[22]De Ver., Q. 2, A. 3, p. 69.

[23]De Ver., Q. 2, A. 3, p. 70.

[24]De Ver., Q. 2, A. 12, p. 118.

[25]De Ver., Q. 2, A. 12, p. 119. Italics added by author.

[26]Ibid.

[27]De Pot., Q. 3, A. 7, p. 133.

[28]This claim is given an interesting twist by Koons, who claims that due to dual Agency, Thomists are truly able to be indeterminists. This is because God’s causation takes place not before the agents’ causation, but at the same time. Therefore the agent’s freedom is not removed. Koons, 403-8.

Friday, July 6, 2012

An Interesting Problem with Open Theism: Is Our Faith in God Well-Placed?


One of the main proponents of Open Theism is John Sanders who wrote the book, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence.[1] In this book Sanders points out that his main worry, in his theological endeavor, is to preserve the relationship of true love between God and his creatures.[2] The Open Theist view depends upon placing God within time,[3] and claiming that God actually interacts with man exactly as the Bible portrays his interactions.[4] This means that God does not truly know the future, aside from certain events that He pre-ordained. He is, in fact, just as surprised as we are by each and every event of our lives.

Interestingly enough the proponents of Open Theism insist on a literal hermeneutic which interprets all descriptions of God, in the Bible, as literal descriptions of God. Therefore, when God, in the garden, called out to Adam and Eve, asking for their whereabouts, God really had no idea where they were.[5] Proponents of this view claim that it is not only faithful to the Bible, but that it is also practical for pastoral counseling.[6] There are a number of problems with this view, which I outlined in a previous blog post. These problems include the validity of their hermeneutical method, and the limitations that they place on God.

In addressing the relation between faith and reason I recently discovered, what appears to be, another problem with Open Theism. As I have noted in previous blogs faith is voluntary consent to a truth claim made by a recognized authority (faith is a passive action made by an individual, so when I say that the truth claim is made by a recognized authority, I mean a person or group that is recognized, by the individual, as an authority or authorities). Faith, as voluntary consent to the truth of an affirmation, can be placed in anybody who is recognized by person X as an authority (regardless of whether or not they are authorities. For example, quite frequently children put faith in the claims of their friends who have no idea what they are talking about.)

When I place my faith in someone, that is, when I voluntarily give my consent to a truth claim, it is faith only when I have no knowledge of the truth of the claim. For example, I have never been to Australia; however, I have a friend who lives there. I have also seen geography books, atlases, maps and movies that claim that Australia exists. Now, until I experience through sense perception the existence of Australia (I go there or fly over it, or drive by in a boat, etc.) I have no knowledge of the existence of Australia. I only believe that it exists based upon the authority and trustworthiness of others. You could bring me all kinds of evidence (bumper stickers, license plates, pictures, videos, etc.) but it is still only faith until I experience it. Faith based on evidence is faith that is based upon evidence that the authority that I am believing is worthy of my belief, the authority can give me all kinds of tangible proofs, but until I see it, I still only believe. So, the point is, faith based on evidence is always just that, voluntary consent to the truth of an affirmation, based upon the trustworthiness of the authority.

There is a sense in which faith is blind. That is, it does not see the truth of the affirmation believed. However, it is not blind in the sense that it believes in spite of the evidence. Going back to my Australia example, we might say that the Christian who believes that the Bible is true and that Jesus is God is like me when it comes to Australia. My friend comes back and shows me a bunch of bumper stickers, a license plate, pictures and a couple videos. Then another friend who denies outright the existence of Australia comes along, and, seeing the evidence that my Australian buddy has shown me, says, "well, you probably had the bumper stickers and license plate made in the US, maybe at Disney Land. The pictures look like they were taken in Nevada, and maybe California. That video of the beach definitely was taken in Myrtle Beach, SC." Doubt can be cast upon the evidence, or the evidence could be reinterpreted in a different way, but it is still faith based upon evidence that has been offered by a credible authority.

When it comes to human authorities, there is a well-known philosophical fallacy that says, rightly so, that an appeal to authority is the worst possible argument. Why is this so? Human authorities are notoriously fallible. As confident as they might be, as much as they might know, there is always a chance that they might be wrong. Furthermore, human authorities consistently contradict each other. The fallibility of human authorities is due to the limitations of human nature. We are limited physically and temporally (one place at a time, we can’t know the future, and we only have a short period of time in which to live and learn), as well as intellectually (There is only so much that we can know, and much of what we think we know can be doubted. We can learn from others, but, as most scholars would admit, there’s not enough time to learn all they want to learn.). In spite of the limitations intrinsic to human nature we still place our faith in those men and women whom we consider to be worthy of our trust. We know we may be deceived or let down, by even the most trustworthy people, yet we place our faith in them anyways.

When it comes to the Bible, we are presented with some very important claims and promises. “…that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life…Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”[7] We also note the promise in Romans 10, “because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’”[8] Our salvation is based upon the faith that we put in God that when he says that we simply need to believe that Jesus is God, and confess that God raised Jesus from the dead, in order to be saved it is true and that by doing so we will indeed be saved.

We are coming, now, to the point of this critique. We are saved by faith, faith placed in the claims made by an authority – God. As we noted above when we place our faith in a fallible authority, such as a human, there is always a chance that we are being deceived or that we will be let down. The God of Open Theism is not omniscient, nor all powerful. The God of Open Theism is something like an eternal human. If God is not omniscient, if God could lie, or be deceived, then my faith is not necessarily well placed. That is, God is not more trustworthy than any other human authority. Is my salvation based upon the word of a fallible, eternal being? For the Open Theist, God doesn’t know the future any more than I do, if this is the case, then I have no reason to believe him, anymore than any other authority, when he makes a promise about the future. To claim the contrary seems to be somewhat gratuitous, and a case of special pleading. There does not seem to be any basis for thinking that God is more trustworthy than any other human authority. (The attempt to base the claim that God IS more trustworthy than any other human authority upon the Bible, God’s word, appears to be circular reasoning. 1. The Bible is the word of God. 2. The Bible says X about God. 3. Therefore God is X.) It would appear, therefore, that we have no reason to trust Gods words (the God of Open Theism) any more than the words of an intelligent and virtuous human being.

We seem, if we wish to embrace Theism, to be left with a difficult choice,[9] either we accept that God is as described by the Open Theists, and our salvation is no more certain that the politicians promise to lower taxes, or we reject the God of the Open Theists for the God of Classical Theism. The God of classical theism is worthy of trust because He is pure act, truth, beauty, the good, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal, infinite and sovereign over all creation. If such a God exists (see some blogs that I wrote demonstrating that God exists), then we know that our faith is well-placed, and our salvation secure.


[1]John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007).

[2]Ibid., 223.

[3]John Sanders, “Divine Suffering in an Openness of God Perspective”, in The Sovereignty of God Debate, ed. by D. Stephen Long and George Kalantzis (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 112.

[4]Sanders, The God Who Risks, 224.

[5]Gen. 3:9.

[6]Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible (2000; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2008), 153-156. Cf. Gregory A. Boyd, “The Open-Theism View”, in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, ed. by James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 27.

[7]Jn. 3:15-18.

[8]Rom. 10:9-11.

[9]I don’t want to create a false dilemma here. It does seem that if we begin removing the attributes of the God of classical Christian Theism, then we are, sooner or later, pushed into the God of Open Theism.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Bertrand Russell's Theory of Knowledge in "The Problems of Philosophy"


            In his book The Problems of Philosophy,[1] Bertrand Russell defends a Representationalist view of epistemology, and the realist claim that there is a mind-independent reality. In this short paper we will briefly summarize Russell’s claims about how we know, followed by an analysis of his claims.

            In the opening paragraph Russell claims that philosophy is searching for certainty.[2] We assume, uncritically, according to Russell, the certainty of many things, “which, on a closer scrutiny, are found to be so full of apparent contradictions that only a great amount of thought enables us to know what it is we really may believe.”[3] The more we learn about the world, this reality in which we find ourselves, the more we realize that we know very little for sure. The more we learn, the less we are certain about what we thought we knew.

            We think, says Russell, that we should begin, in our search for certainty, “with our present experiences, and in some sense, no doubt, knowledge is to be derived from them.”[4] However, as Russell goes on to claim, what we think that we are experiencing can easily be doubted. This doubt comes, primarily, from the problem of change.


The Problem of Change

            Russell brings up the age-old problem of change. This problem has plagued philosophers since the pre-socratics. In order to explain the problem of change Russell distinguishes between appearance and reality. This distinction results in what may be called sense-skepticism. In order to see Russell’s point, it is necessary to give some examples.

            In order to prove that what we think that we perceive, and what really is, are different, Russell gives examples that are based upon colour, texture, shape, and the physical constitution of things. Using the example of a table he shows us that our perception of its colour changes depending on the amount of light in the room, depending on where we are standing, depending on how close we are to the table and on how the light reflects off of the table towards our eyes.[5] There is, furthermore, a difference between our perception of the texture of the table, and the way that it really is. For example, we see the table and think that it is smooth, but when we touch it we realize that it has dents, ridges, crevasses, etc.[6]

            Things do not improve when we turn to shape. The shape of the table changes based upon our position. If we look directly down on it, from above, it seems to be a rectangle. However, if we look at it from the side, it’s shape changes. In fact, moving around the table we see it changing before our eyes.[7] The same is true of the physical constitution of the table. Russell says, “But the sensation we obtain depends on how hard we press the table and also upon what part of the body we press with.”[8]

            These facts of observation must lead, according to Russell, to a skepticism concerning the trust-worthiness of our senses. Russell expresses this sentiment as follows: “Thus it becomes evident that the real table, if there is one, is not the same as what we immediately experience by sight or touch or hearing. The real table, if there is one, is not immediately known to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known.”[9] We must doubt our senses, as they seem to deceive us. Russell is beginning his philosophical explorations in the same way that Descartes began. Russell, in fact, praises Descartes for having performed a great service to philosophy, “by inventing the method of doubt, and by showing that subjective things are the most certain.”[10]

            Following Descartes, Russell casts further doubt on our capacity to know, with certainty, anything about reality. He claims that “There is no logical impossibility in the supposition that the whole of life is a dream, in which we ourselves create all the objects that come before us.”[11] Russell’s conclusion concerning our knowledge of mind-exterior reality is that, “In one sense it must be admitted that we can never prove the existence of things other than ourselves and our experiences.”[12]

How we Know

           This entire project, by which doubt is thrown upon our capacity to know anything other than the interior of our minds, and our own sensations, is based upon a certain view of knowledge. Russell explains that our knowledge of mind-exterior reality is simply a series of inferences based upon our sensations of sense-data. Sense data, for Russell, are “the things that are immediately known in sensation.”[13] Sensation is “the experience of being immediately aware of these things.”[14] In the preceding sentence, when he says ‘these things’, Russell means the sense-data.

            According to this outline of man’s knowledge of the mind-exterior world, man cannot know it. “The colour [sense-data] is that of which we are immediately aware, and the awareness itself is the sensation.”[15] We are not, however, in direct contact with the things outside our minds. These things outside our minds, Russell says, are what we call ‘physical objects.’[16]

            The picture that is being painted by Russell, could, perhaps, be best understood by thinking about men in a submarine. They have no direct contact with anything outside of the submarine. Due to that fact, they are obliged to use highly specialized instruments in order to discover what is going on outside of the tin can in which they are living. Based upon the data which is collected by the instruments the sailors are able to infer the existence of things outside the submarine. Based upon whether or not the object is changing position, and at what speed it is changing position, the sailors are able to infer either that they are alone, or that they are in the company of a whale, perhaps, or another submarine. They cannot step outside of the submarine to verify that what their instruments are telling them is true. They must trust their instruments, and act upon what they are being told.

            If this is how man knows mind-exterior reality, then it is only appropriate to doubt our ability to really know anything precise about reality. We must, therefore, do as Russell does, and try to prove that there really is a mind-exterior reality. Of course, this is only an argument about probability, but it is the best we have.

Critiquing Russell’s Epistemology

            One of the problems that arise from Russell’s view of knowledge is that it is impossible to move from within the mind to the outside world. If we can only know sensations of sense-data, which are only appearances, and not reality itself, then how do we know that our sensations actually correspond to anything? In order to know that our inferences about reality are true, we have to get past our sensations, to reality itself, in order to see if our sensations correspond to what is out there. However, as Russell so aptly shows, this is impossible. If Russell is right, then his view seems to entail Idealism, or complete skepticism about a mind-exterior reality.

            It is not, however, necessary to accept such a view of how man gain’s knowledge. Russell’s doubts, about our capacity to sense reality rather than an appearance, based as they are upon change and our false assumptions about reality caused by our senses, seems to demonstrate that we do have direct contact with reality. The reason for this conclusion is that it is impossible to know that we are wrong, without first knowing what is right, or, at least, knowing how to discover what is right. Therefore, the fact that we sometimes come to false conclusions based upon the way we interpret our “sensations” demonstrates that we do arrive, most of the time, at right conclusions.

            Secondly, and along the same lines as the observation in the preceding paragraph, the only way to know that we are dreaming is to know what it is like to be awake. If Russell is right, in using dream states as proof that we cannot have direct access to the world, then he cannot ever know that he is not dreaming. It seems, therefore, that we have no reason to doubt our senses, or our experience of the real world, and, therefore, should abandon Russell’s theory.


[1]Bertrand Russell, “The Problems of Philosophy,” in Modern and Contemporary, vol. 2 of Classics of Philosophy, ed. Louis P. Pojman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 1086-1138.

[2]Ibid., 1086.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid., 1087.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Ibid.

[9]Ibid.

[10]Ibid., 1090.

[11]Ibid., 1091.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid., 1087.

[14]Ibid.

[15]Ibid.

[16]Ibid., 1088.