Thursday, January 27, 2005

Budziszewski, Part II

The essay I discussed in the previous post contained a link to other columns Budziszweski has written. This one caught my eye.

The essay is written as a fictional exchange between a student and a professor. The opening sets the stage nicely:

Are you busy?

I'm about to be — with you. Do you want to talk about something?

Yes, about Christianity. You're the only Christian professor I know.

What's your question?

I've been wondering if I'm stupid or something.

You did fine in my course last semester.

That was different. I'm wondering if I'm stupid to have faith.

Faith about what? Whether God is real, whether the Resurrection happened — something like that?

No. My problem isn't with faith in this or that — it's with faith in general. I feel like I'm being bombarded.

One suspects that Budziszewski is building up to some argument about why faith is a wonderful thing. One would be right. Here it comes:

Sure. The chain has to end somewhere. There has to be a Highest Standard.

Right. Something absolutely trustworthy.

Something you trust not for the sake of some still higher standard, but for itself.
THAT'S where faith comes in.


You have to accept the Highest Standard on faith, because there isn't any higher one to test it with and the chain can't go on forever.

So demanding that things be tested doesn't rule out faith after all!

Nope. In fact, it depends on faith.

I sure didn't expect that.

It is a little mind-boggling.

But faith in what?

We ought to give absolute trust only to what deserves trust absolutely.

What deserves trust absolutely?

God does. And His Word does.

But secular people don't believe in God.

No, they don't.

So does that mean they can't test things?

Not at all. They use what they trust more to test what they trust less, just like everyone does.

But for them, there's nothing at the end of their chain. They don't have a Highest Standard.

Sure they do. They just end the chain too soon.

What do you mean?

A secular person treats as the Highest Standard something that isn't the Highest Standard. He puts faith in something that can't support his faith.

Like what?

Usually something God has made. He trusts the “creature” instead of the Creator.

Could you give an example?

Sure. Let's take the T.A. in your physics class. What do you think he'd say about miracles?

He'd reject them.

And why?

He'd say they violate the laws of nature.

So his standard for testing belief in miracles is...

The laws of nature.

How does he test his standard?

I don't think he does test it. He said once in class that “nature is all there is.” When I asked him how he knew, he said, “It just is.”

So are the laws of nature his Highest Standard?


Then that's where he places his faith.

I think he'd be surprised to hear himself described as a man of faith.

I'm sure he would.

But don't Christians believe in the laws of nature too?

Certainly we do, but they aren't our Highest Standard. The Creator is. If He made the laws of nature, He can suspend them.

And later:

Then my physics T.A. said he's an atheist because science demands proof, and there's no proof of God.

Ask him what proof he has that there isn't any.

Doesn't that reduce everything to the level of “I say, you say”?

Sure it does, if you stop there. I'm not suggesting a way to end the conversation, but to begin it. He needs to realize that he has a faith commitment too.

What about what my resident assistant said?

What did he say again?

That the difference between philosophy and religion is that religion depends on faith but philosophy depends on reasoning.

That's just nonsense. Reasoning itself depends on faith.

How could that be?

Think. What do you do to construct a defense of reasoning?

You reason.

So you defend reasoning by reasoning?


Then your defense is circular. It proves that reasoning works only if you already know that reasoning works.

So reasoning can't justify reasoning!

Right. You have to accept reasoning by faith. The only question is the one you asked earlier — “Faith in what?”

I'll never understand people like Budzszewski. This isn't some mindless fundamentalist, gleefully thumping his Bible to avoid having to think about unpleasant realities. This is someone who has invested a lot of time and effort thinking about important questions, and trying to devise good arguments to defend what he believes. Judging from his position at a good school like UT-Austin, this is someone who has been successful in an environment in which making good arguments is essential.

But for all of that the argument he is offering here is so transparently stupid a child should see through it. Does he really not understand that some leaps of faith are more reasonable than others?

It is certainly true that if you are going to reason about anything you need to start from foundational assumptions that can not themselves be proved. Any high school class in Euclidean geometry covers this point, and you will be hard-pressed to find a college student incapable of realizing it for himself.

But that hardly means that one leap of faith is as good as any other. I accept on faith that my car won't blow up when I turn the key. Seems reasonable, based on past experience and on the collective experiences of ocuntless other drivers. But I do not accept on faith that the law of gravitation will be suspended for me when I step off a cliff. One leap of faith is reasonable, the other is not.

In using science and mathematics to study the world you are accepting certain unproved assumptions. But these assumptions have proven their value through centuries of progress in science. If the goal is to understand the workings of nature than the assumptions scientists make about the world have proven themselves superior to the assumptions theologians make.

To put it another way, having faith that the laws of nature will not be spontaneously violated is based on centuries of human experience. The assumption that the universe is presided over by a being capable of suspending natural laws at his whim is based on nothing at all.

Now it is possible that Budziszewski buys into various ID arguments, and would therefore argue that the assumption of a higher power does let us make sense out of certain data. I don't agree with such claims, but at any rate that is not the argument he is making here.

He might also reply that religious assumptions have proven themselves useful by all the people who have changed their lives for the better by converting to Christianity. But of course, many other people have been moved to do great evil as the result of their religious conversion, and countless others have improved their lives for the better by abandoning their faith.

Accepting certain assumptions about the world because they fit well with everyday expereince makes sense. Conjuring supernatural beings into existence for no reason does not make sense.

Finally, we can't let slide his question about proving God does not exist. Now, as it happens, I think the problem of evil and suffering is a pretty effective refutation of the idea that an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God exists. But leaving that aside, surely the burden of proof lies with those who claim there is a God. I can't prove that unicorns don't exist, but it's the person who claims they do who has to produce some evidence.


At 4:51 PM, Blogger PZ Myers said...

I think there is a super-god, who is the boss of his god. Jesus is just some kind of underling.

Budziszweski's morality is inferior to mine, because he doesn't follow the Highest Standard.

At 5:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe his argument is a version of presuppositionalism. As I understand it, presuppositionalism is the claim that even to reason about whether God exists or not is to presuppose the existence of God, since God is the basis of reason and logic. Of course, this idea that reason depends on God is nothing more than a bare assertion, for which the presuppositionalist doesn’t feel compelled to offer any proof – how could he, since he’s claiming that the very notion of proof presupposes God?

Which is just plain silly for any number of reasons. You touch on some of them in your comments, Jason – I like your point about some leaps of faith being more reasonable than others – but I’m not sure if it’s necessary to concede even that much. Is reason really ultimately based on faith? Take the law of non-contradiction, for instance. Is this something we accept on faith? Or, as presuppositionalism would seem to imply, do we need God to enforce it? Are we to believe that without a Supreme Being to run the show, our propositions would throw off all restraint and there’d be nothing to stop them from running around being both true and false at the same time?

Or, conversely, if God exists, can even He violate the law of non-contradiction? Can He, for instance, both exist and not exist at the same time? Of course not. It’s literally unthinkable. The reason the law of non-contradiction is a fundamental principle, it seems to me, is that it’s impossible even to imagine how it could be otherwise, and God and faith have nothing to do with it.

-- Steve S. (Too lazy to register)

At 6:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post (I really like this blog), but what's the one thing that caught my eye as I read this?


Freudian slip? ;) ;)

At 8:16 PM, Blogger 386sx said...

Steve S: Or, conversely, if God exists, can even He violate the law of non-contradiction?

I think Mr. Budziszewski would probably say some thing like, "The flaw in the way that is posed is that it takes God and the law of non-contradiction to be different things, so that either God is greater than the law of non-contradiction, or the law of non-contradiction is greater than God. But God and the law of non-contradiction are not different things. The solution is a third alternative: God Himself is the supreme law of non-contradiction."

PZ Myers: I think there is a super-god, who is the boss of his god.

PseudoBudziszewski: Ah, so to disprove God you must first acknowledge his existence and then resort to circular reasoning, guffaw and harrrrrumph!

At 10:58 PM, Blogger Davis said...

Your statements regarding faith appear to rest on some errors as to the nature of faith as traditionally understood. Your examples implicating faith when starting your car or with respect to the “laws” of nature fail because neither involves faith as that term has been employed in the Western tradition. Rather, they are examples of how we employ our common experience gained through the process of living in the world. Just because they don’t involve the special experience gained through investigation of the sort engaged in by scientists doesn’t make them any less the result of the employment of human reason. Thus, your use of the term faith can be said to be equivocal at best. It is little errors in the beginning like this, Aristotle would say, that become multiplied in the end.

You’re not the first, of course, to address this issue. Seven hundred years ago, Thomas Aquinas (among countless other philosophers) addressed such issues as whether objects of faith are anything that can be observed, measured or quantified (by common or special experience). By contrast, as Blaise Pascal said, “faith has its reasons which reason does not know.”

Your statement that “I think the problem of evil and suffering is a pretty effective refutation of the idea that an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God exists” may reveal more about your lack of understanding of the nature of evil, theologically speaking, than anything else. Indeed, it would be the absence of evil and suffering that could just as easily lead you to your conclusion. Evil is, among other things deemed a defect or failure (in the agent, etc.) or “non-being”, causing Aquinas, inter alia, to ask such questions as whether “the supreme good, God, is the cause of evil”. Evil, properly understood, lays the essential groundwork for an understanding of human free will, and many other things.

All of this is said, not for their truth, but to point out that you appear to have breezily passed judgment on matters with which you seem to have no awareness of the opposing arguments.

Finally, you seem to have made the typically modern mistake of confusing issues of the existence of God with those concerning whether God loves humanity. The former is often (but not always) considered an object of reason, while only the latter always requires the instrument of faith. Thus, it’s possible to believe in God’s existence, but lack faith in God’s love. Failure to separate these two matters leads to many serious errors in philosophical theology.

One of your commenters also displayed his lack of knowledge of the usual philosophical arguments concerning God’s power, including concerns with the principle of noncontradiction. (They aren’t what the commenter suggests.) In addition, for nearly a millennium, questions have been asked about God’s power to make the past to not have been, whether God can do what He does not, etc.

Davis Nelson
Legal Philosophy Blog

At 4:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The arguments listed here are a form of the TAG (Transcendental Argument for God), which itself is a form of Christian Presuppositionalism. In the modern era, it was first popularized by a theologian named Cornelius Van Til and later defended by people like Greg Bahnsen and John Frame.

There are more detailed criticisms of the arguments available online in places like the sec web and in phil writing.

Unfortunately, while the TAG enjoys some popularity in some circles, like Christian Reconstructionists, it isn't something often seen in the philisophical journals (because so few can take it seriously), so you might have a harder time hunting down literature there.

What the argument attempts to do and how a TAGist will typically argue aren't neccessarily one in the same, which leads to confusion in how to criticize it. The TAG, properly articulated, isn't circular. It's essentially a form of foundationalist epistemology that holds only God allows the neccessary preconditions to make human reason intelligible. It's an attempt at a legit transcendental argument.

Arguing with TAGists is a blast. And by blast, I mean taking like taking a nail-gun to your forehead. The main strategy, in my experience, is for them to assert over and over and over again their stance without ever actually defending it. Like a voodoo mantra. Additionally a lot of special pleading occurs in which God is excepted from the dillema they propose. So, Budziszewski says the naturalist cannot explain why there is existence rather than not. Which is true. It is what we call a "brute fact" of reality. However, saying "God makes existence exist" doesn't actually explain it. For one, it fails account for why God exists. God's existence is a brute fact in his system and nothing has been gained, except attaching "existence" to all these other needless properties also assigned to God. We are still left with the same brute fact of that existence just is. In many cases, this will be an effective criticism of sub-arguments the TAGist might use. Burying epistemic foundations in a fiat defintion of God is an empty shell game, which people should be able to see. The moral aspect of the argument is responded to like any moral argument is, which typically is the Euthyphro dillema criticism of divine command theory followed by a discourse in modern ethical theory. And so on and so on. Look it up.

The dude.

At 12:09 PM, Blogger 386sx said...

One of your commenters also displayed his lack of knowledge of the usual philosophical arguments concerning God’s power, including concerns with the principle of noncontradiction. (They aren’t what the commenter suggests.)It doesn't matter whet the usual philosophical arguments are, because you can have a God that is whatever you want it to be. He can be a God who created evil, or a God who didn't create evil. He can be a God who created logic, or a God who didn't create logic. He can be a God who is omnipotent, or a God who is not. Pretty much whatever you want.

In addition, for nearly a millennium, questions have been asked about God’s power to make the past to not have been, whether God can do what He does not, etc.

So flip a coin or something.

At 1:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a conversation with an Anglican guy last night where I tried to figure out what he meant by "faith," and why he claimed to have it. Went nowhere. He isn't very smart.

If anybody has a reference to an explanation of why people claim to have faith, but can't offer any reason for it, I'd appreciate the help. No matter how many times I asked, "yes, but WHY do you have faith--you could have faith in ANY unprovable fantasy, why choose this one?" I never got a straight answer. But I'll bet there's somebody out there who can explain it to me.


At 2:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One point that deserves clarification regarding the "problem of evil" - Jason stated the problem of evil was a problem with an "omnipotent, omnibenevolent God." Thus, contrary to Davis's assertion, there is no need to seperate the existence of God from his love of humanity since the latter is included in the term ominbenevolent.

Obviously, the positions "God exists but he is indifferent to humanity" or "God exists but he has a sick sense of humor from humanities standpoint" would not be refuted by the problem of evil per se. Likewise, "God exists but he is a demiurge with limited powers" (contra the omnipotent) would not be refuted by the problem of evil.

The appeal to free will is weak, in my opinion. If all "evil" in the world were due to the action of man it would be reasonable, but natural tragedies are "acts of God" and the free will of humans is irrelevant to their occurence. I think the "problem of evil" - as generally supposed - is not only a question of the existence of problems caused by free will (e.g., man's [woman's] inhumanity to his[her] fellow man[woman]) but also the problem of tragedies like, say, a tsunami wiping out men, women, and children who are innocent. Either God is omnibenevolent but impotent to stop such events, omnipotent but unwilling to stop such events, or simply indifferent to human suffering due to a profound disconnection with humanity. Not really the type of God that helps you pass your 3rd grade spelling test or cures your sick puppy when you pray to him/her, is it?

At 8:16 PM, Blogger Davis said...

One small comment about the comment from Anonymous to the effect that "there is no need to seperate the existence of God from his love of humanity since the latter is included in the term ominbenevolent." In philosophical (not sacred) theology, as in philosophy generally, questions about existence always precede questions about essence. Thus, all questions about God's essence, will, powers, etc., must follow those concerning God's existence. The main reason for this is that saying God is (or is not) omnibenevolent would beg the question of God's existence.

Prerequisites for a cautious and critical inquiry concerning God's existence require a cautious and critical appraisal of how far that inquiry can go and the means available so as not to beg the question under consideration.

You may recall the great dispute in the 18th century between the deists and the orthodox theologians over the question whether the Deity that both affirmed was one who cared about his creatures. In the last century, the eminent Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset once pointed out that there's a world of difference between believing that God exists and believing in God--confiding in him and having hope in him. The first question may or may not be bridgeable by reason alone, but the second is bridgeable only by faith.

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