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Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Fourth of July and Christian Apologetics

Moosebugs and I were discussing the Declaration of Independence over a couple of Yuenglings. ("He was killing off Yuenglings!") I don't know if many actually read this document but I want to argue that Jefferson's argument for independence for the American British colonies as free and independent states is a model example of a cummulative case approach to Christian apologetics.

Jefferson argues:

(1) The Crown has denied to American British citizens there basic human rights endowed to them by their Creator (God) and thus have failed to fulfil its purpose in governing and its contracted mandate to its citizens.

(2) Such violations of rights are frequent enough, egregious enough, and regular enough such that no population can both be prudent and continue to tolerate them without response.

(3) All other peaceful attempts to preserve the bond of citizenship (such as appealing to the crown and the British citizens in England) have been attempted and have not rectified the situation.

(4) Therefore, the American Colonists have the tright and duty to desolve the bond of citizenship and declare themselves to be free and independent states (possessing to themselves the right of states to wage war in their own defense).

Various objections can be raised to this argument (e.g. Divine Right Theorists will reject (1) and political conservatives will reject the social contract element of (1) is illegitimate but unnecessary since the Crown's failure to fulfil its purpose is sufficient to meet the condition that (1) claims to satisfy. Also, the argument assumes that it addresses all the necessary and suffcient conditions to legitimate independence and that there are contrary to argument other such conditions), but let us go ahead and grant that it is at least a valid argument, that is that if the premises were true the conclusion must be also.

I want to focus on the way Jefferson argues for premise (2). This takes up most of the Declaration. Jefferson proceeds by itemizing a long list of abuses, increasing in severity as the list goes on, to justify the claim that even a prudent person would not tolerate all this without action. Jefferson makes explicit that, even though a violation of any one natural right would constitute a failure of a government to live up to its natural and contractual mandate, to react to any one violation and throw off a government rather than tolerate the violation and preserve the bond would be imprudent. A decent population will not be hasty in trying to get rod of government since such governments are important to us and none of them are perfect in fulfilling their duties.

So Jefferson wants to show that the pattern of abuses by the crown is not a drop in the bucket but significant enough to make a prudent person act to declare his independence. But how many of what sort of rights violations should count as enough reason to break the bond of citizenship? The question suggests that there is a definite line that must be crossed before such action is considered prudent. But therein lies the rub -- there is no such definite line that can be specified independently of the issue and verifibly determined when it is crossed. However, Jeffeson need not rely on the ability to specify what the line is. He can at least attempt to show to a watching world that the amount and natures off the abuses are such as constitute a paradigm case of a situation where the line has definitely been crossed. In other words, where the list of the crown's abuses leads judgenment is well beyond the murky shadowland of what is not clearly prudent or imprudent but is well within the area of clearly prudent to disolve the bond. We may well wonder if Don Johnson on 'Miami Vice' had a beard but it is clear that Charles Darwin had a beard.

All this is tacit in Jefferson's argument. He simply proves his point by listing the abuses of the crown, confident that tthe world will judge that so many of such abuses are a clear case of an unjust government. Consequently, Jefferson is confident that he has provided an adequate account to justify the action of the Declaration.

What I want to say is that Jefferson's support for (2) is a good example of what we (or at least I) mean by a cummulative case argument. A cummulative case argument is not a demonstration that independently absolutely proves that a claim is true. It is rather an accumulation of evidences the combined weight of which provides sufficient warrant to justify acting in a specific way rather than another from the point of view of some agent. How much weight is necessary cannot be specified beforehand. But that does not mean that there is no fact of the matter about whether or not a certain amount of weight is sufficient to justify an action for an agent. Further, cummulative case arguments are not immune to sceptical doubts. The sceptic can give philosophically interesting reasons for the view that what a person does on the basis a cummulative case is based on an illusion. However, in the practical sphere, these sceptical reasons have no point. (A person can philosophically doubt whether he really sees a door in front of him but he will still open the door before he leaves the room.) Further, sceptical reasons do not show that we do not or cannot know.

The way I have characterized cummulative case arguments, they are clearly arguments in the sphere of practical reason, not theoretical reason -- the give sufficient weight for actions, not theories. But Christianity is at least necessarily a belief in a set of doctrines. So how does a cummulative case argument help it? The answer is that Christianity requires that it's doctrines are to be accepted on the by faith in a credible testimony. This shows that the idea of 'belief' in Christianity is such a notion that believing is subject to choice. We are commended to believe the gospel, which is to say that we are required to commit ourselves to a lifetime of acting on the basis of the gospel being held true. The evidence for such a belief is the evidence that supports the credibility and authority of those who attest to it for us and such evidence is the sort that it might be a satisfactory incidence of a cummulative case argument.

Now I want to go further and argue that this is not only the case in a reasonable faith in special revelation but also in natural revelation. The evidences that are called upon to support a cummulative case argument for the authority of the gospel message may in turn depend in part for their credibility on other propositons held to be true or 'believed' in the same sense that the gospel is to be believed. More specificly, the plausibility if miracle accounts may depend on the prior plausibility of a theistic interpretation of life. The usual response to this sensed need is to appeal to natural theology and theistic arguments. But often these arguments are appealed to as philosophical and theoretical demonstrations. But as such they fail to demostrate that God exists and leave the question moot. We wind up with a scepticism about the God question that is more philosophically interesting and philosophically satisfying than the arguments for God's existence.

But the tradition that introduces us to theistic arguments, introduces them as vias or ways to God. They are formalized recipes that reconstruct the natural ways our intellegence is led to think about God and show that we can and do think about him. While as proofs, the theitic arguments can be abstracted to form absolute metaphysical hypothesis of merit (although inconclusive), as vias they bear on the personal commitments an agent makes from an agent's point of view. They show how from the point of view of what is subjectively intelligent to us, nature has wired us necessarily to think of God. Granting that we are such creatures as essentially cannot know if God exists by philosophical demonstration (and therefore God is not to faulted, pace Russell, for not providing such evidence as He cannot provide) God may provide such evidence to an agent making personal commitments to warrant "Christian style" belief in Him, even to the point that should the agent refuse such evidence, he is thus held accountable. This conceives the theistic arguments not as theoretical demonstrations of the claim "God exists" but as cummulative case practical arguments that conclude that God is making Himself known to me, the agent, in nature and in my mind (and thus I must suppose that He exists).

This seems to be supported by Paul's account in Romans 1, that the eternal power and divine nature a clearly known through the things that are made so that they are without excuse. This cannot mean that all men are accountable for failing to be sophisticated enough philosophers to complete a formal demonstration, since clearly only a few meet that description, but rather that humans failed to believe in God based on the "testimony" of nature and as a result of choosing not to believe God (aknowledging Him) they were given up to immorality. In this sense, their sin is similar to the sin of the first couple, whose disobedience was a form of unbelief in what God told them (both about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil but also about the tree of life). The sin of humanity is their rejection of the goodness of God by their unbelief, first in natural revelation, then in special revelation. This is also illustrated repeatedly in the Psalms, "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God'". That is the fool -- the vain and futile person, from the center of his agency and self-consciousness as an agent -- his heart -- chooses to believe that God does not exist rather than to believ e that He does. The fool could be either an atheist, an agnostic, or a professing theist and still satisfy this discription. He does this in the face of the fact that everyday the heavens pour forth speech of the goodness and glory of God. Natural revelation supports the faith in the joint conjunction that God exists and is the rewarder of those who seek Him, even if it cannot tell us if God has in fact so rewarded that search.

Another comment to make is that we see this emphasis on the agent's point of view clearly implied in just about any formulation of classical apologetics you can think of. In the old Princeton method, it is called "common sense", in Gerstner, it is called "self-consciousness", in Geisler it is called the (non-analytically) undeniable and the (non-analytically) unaffirmable. While not denying the role of logic and philosophy, all thes approaches make the agent's point of view an essential starting point and precisely because the arguments for God's existence are inconclusive and without grip without this. The starting point of classical apologetics essentially intergrates the obligation of personal commitment, the agent's point of view, logical consistency, and the necessary features of thought as the testimony of nature.

Consequently, natural theology is continuous with sacred theology and provide converging lines of evidence within a cummulative case for Christian Theism, when so conceived as guiding the personally commited agent to faith. This makes faith and reason less distinct (if reason is construed as resorting to good cummulative case arguments). Christian faith is an instance of practical reasoning. It also argues that our "must" in being a Christian is the "must" of being obliged to be personally commited in life in a practical enviroment and confronted with theistic and Christian evidences. This also makes clear that Christian apologetics is apologetics and not philosophy but also not bad. And it shows in what sense we can have a "positive" as well as a negative apologetic.