Anthropologist William Sumner argues against the logical position when he says that “every attempt to win an outside standpoint from which to reduce the whole to an absolute philosophy of truth and right, based on an unalterable principle, is delusion.”[1] Authors Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl respond to this self-defeating claim by showing that Sumner is making a strong claim here about knowledge:

  • He says that all claims to know objective moral truth are false because we are all imprisoned in our own cultural and are incapable of seeing beyond the limits of our own biases. He concludes, therefore, that moral truth is relative to culture and that no objective standard exists. Sumner’s analysis falls victim to the same error committed by religious pluralists who see all religions as equally valid.[2]

The authors continue:

  • Sumner’s view, however, is self-refuting. In order for him to conclude that all moral claims are an illusion, he must first escape the illusion himself. He must have a full and accurate view of the entire picture…. Such a privileged view is precisely what Sumner denies. Objective assessments are illusions, he claims, but then he offers his own “objective” assessment. It is as if he were saying, “We’re all blind,” and then adds, “but I’ll tell you what the world really looks like.” This is clearly contradictory.[3]

[1] William Graham Sumner, Folkways (Chicago, IL: Ginn and Company, 1906), in Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Planted firmly in Mid-Air (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1998), 46-47.
[2] Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1998), 47.
[3] Ibid., 48

The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p 25

“Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.”

Avicenna, Great Medieval Philosopher

Determinism is self-stultifying. If my mental processes are totally determined, I am totally determined either to accept or to reject determinism. But if the sole reason for my believing or not believing X is that I am causally determined to believe it I have no ground for holding that my judgment is true or false.

J. P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), 241; Quoting: H.P. Owen, Christian Theism (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1984), 118.

He thus acknowledged the need for any theory to allow that humans have genuine freedom to recognize the truth. He (again, correctly) saw that if all thought, belief, feeling, and choice are determined (i.e., forced on humans by outside conditions) then so is the determinists’ acceptance of the theory of determinism forced on them by those same conditions. In that case they could never claim to know their theory is true since the theory making that claim would be self-referentially incoherent. In other words, the theory requires that no belief is ever a free judgment made on the basis of experience or reason, but is always a compulsion over which the believer has no control.

Roy A. Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2005), 174.

What merit would attach to moral virtue if the acts that form such habitual tendencies and dispositions were not acts of free choice on the part of the individual who was in the process of acquiring moral virtue? Persons of vicious moral character would have their characters formed in a manner no different from the way in which the character of a morally virtuous person was formed—by acts entirely determined, and that could not have been otherwise by freedom of choice.

Mortimer J. Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1985), 154.

If what he says is true, he says it merely as the result of his heredity and environment, and nothing else. He does not hold his determinist views because they are true, but because he has such-and-such stimuli; that is, not because the structure of the structure of the universe is such-and-such but only because the configuration of only part of the universe, together with the structure of the determinist’s brain, is such as to produce that result…. They [determinists – I would posit any philosophical naturalist] want to be considered as rational agents arguing with other rational agents; they want their beliefs to be construed as beliefs, and subjected to rational assessment; and they want to secure the rational assent of those they argue with, not a brainwashed repetition of acquiescent pattern. Consistent determinists should regard it as all one whether they induce conformity to their doctrines by auditory stimuli or a suitable injection of hallucinogens: but in practice they show a welcome reluctance to get out their syringes, which does equal credit to their humanity and discredit to their views. Determinism, therefore, cannot be true, because if it was, we should not take the determinists’ arguments as being really arguments, but as being only conditioned reflexes. Their statements should not be regarded as really claiming to be true, but only as seeking to cause us to respond in some way desired by them.

J. R. Lucas, The Freedom of the Will (New York: NY: Oxford University Press, 1970), 114, 115.

Let’s consider a basic question: Why does the natural world make any sense to begin with? Albert Einstein once remarked that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. Why should we be able to grasp the beauty, elegance, and complexity of our universe?

Einstein understood a basic truth about science, namely, that it relies upon certain philosophical assumptions about the natural world. These assumptions include the existence of an external world that is orderly and rational, and the trustworthiness of our minds to grasp that world. Science cannot proceed apart from these assumptions, even though they cannot be independently proven. Oxford professor John C. Lennox asks a penetrating question, “At the heart of all science lies the conviction that the universe is orderly. Without this deep conviction science would not be possible. So we are entitled to ask: Where does the conviction come from?”” Why is the world orderly? And why do our minds comprehend this order?

Toward the end of The God Delusion, Dawkins admits that since we are the product of natural selection, our senses cannot be fully trusted. After all, according to Darwinian evolution, our senses have been formed to aid survival, not necessarily to deliver true belief. Since a human being has been cobbled together through the blind process of natural selection acting on random mutation, says Dawkins, it’s unlikely that our views of the world are completely true. Outspoken philosopher of neuro-science Patricia Churchland agrees:

The principle chore of brains is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive. Improvements in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a fancier style of representing [the world] is advantageous so long as it… enhances the organism’s chances for survival. Truth, whatever that is, takes the hindmost.

Dawkins is on the right track to suggest that naturalism should lead people to be skeptical about trusting their senses. Dawkins just doesn’t take his skepticism far enough. In Miracles, C. S. Lewis points out that knowledge depends upon the reliability of our mental faculties. If human reasoning is not trustworthy, then no scientific conclusions can be considered true or false. In fact, we couldn’t have any knowledge about the world, period. Our senses must be reliable to acquire knowledge of the world, and our reasoning faculties must be reliable to process the acquired knowledge. But this raises a particularly thorny dilemma for atheism. If the mind has developed through the blind, irrational, and material process of Darwinian evolution, then why should we trust it at all? Why should we believe that the human brain—the outcome of an accidental process—actually puts us in touch with reality? Science cannot be used as an answer to this question, because science itself relies upon these very assumptions.

Even Charles Darwin was aware of this problem: “The horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust the conviction of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” If Darwinian evolution is true, we should distrust the cognitive faculties that make science possible.

Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow, Is God Just a Human Invention? And Seventeen Other Questions Raised by the New Atheists (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2010), 37-38.

If we were free persons, with faculties which we might carelessly use or wilfully misuse, the fact might be explained; but the pre-established harmony excludes this supposition. And since our faculties lead us into error, when shall we trust them? Which of the many opinions they have produced is really true? By hypothesis, they all ought to be true, but, as they contradict one another, all cannot be true. How, then, distinguish between the true and the false? By taking a vote? That cannot be, for, as determined, we have not the power to take a vote. Shall we reach the truth by reasoning? This we might do, if reasoning were a self-poised, self verifying process; but this it cannot be in a deterministic system. Reasoning implies the power to control one’s thoughts, to resist the processes of association, to suspend judgment until the transparent order of reason has been readied. It implies freedom, therefore. In a mind which is controlled by its states, instead of controlling them, there is no reasoning, but only a succession of one state upon another. There is no deduction from grounds, but only production by causes. No belief has any logical advantage over any other, for logic is no longer possible.

Borden P Bowne, Metaphysics: A Study In First Principles (originally published in 1882; London: Sampson Low, Searle & Rivington, 2005), 105.

One of the most intriguing aspects mentioned by Ravi Zacharias of a lecture he attended entitled Determinism – Is Man a Slave or the Master of His Fate, given by Stephen Hawking, who is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, Isaac Newton’s chair, was this admission by Dr. Hawking’s, was Hawking’s admission that if “we are the random products of chance, and hence, not free, or whether God had designed these laws within which we are free.”[1] In other words, do we have the ability to make choices, or do we simply follow a chemical reaction induced by millions of mutational collisions of free atoms?[2] Michael Polyni mentions that this “reduction of the world to its atomic elements acting blindly in terms of equilibrations of forces,” a belief that has prevailed “since the birth of modern science, has made any sort of teleological view of the cosmos seem unscientific…. [to] the contemporary mind.”[3]

  1. Ravi Zacharias, The Real Face of Atheism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 118, 119.
  2. My summation.
  3. Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch, Meaning (Chicago, IL: Chicago university Press, 1977), 162.

Religious belief should be assessed as a rounded whole rather than taken in stark isolation, Christianity, for example, like other world faiths, is a complex, large-scale system of belief which must be seen as a whole before it is assessed. To break it up into disconnected parts is to mutilate and distort its true character. We can, of course, distinguish certain elements in the Christian faith, but we must still stand back and see it as a complex interaction of these elements. We need to see it as a metaphysical system, as a worldview, that is total in its scope and range

Michael J. Murray and Michael C. Rae, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Cambridge Introductions to Philosophy


Here’s the first of Pennock’s arguments against methodological naturalism that I’ll consider:

allowing appeal to supernatural powers in science would make the scientist’s task too easy, because one would always be able to call upon the gods for quick theoretical assistance…. Indeed, all empirical investigation beyond the purely descriptive could cease, for scientists would have a ready-made answer for everything.

This argument strikes me as unfair. Consider a particular empirical phenomenon, like a chemical reaction, and imagine that scientists are trying to figure out why the reaction happened. Pennock would say that scientists who allow appeal to supernatural powers would have a ready-made answer: God did it. While it may be that that’s the only true explanation that can be given, a good scientist-including a good theistic scientist—would wonder whether there’s more to be said. Even if God were ultimately the cause of the reaction, one would still wonder if the proximate cause is a result of the chemicals that went into the reaction, and a good scientist—even a good theistic scientist—would investigate whether such a naturalistic account could be given.

To drive the point home, an analogy might be helpful. With the advent of quantum mechanics, scientists have become comfortable with indeterministic events. For example, when asked why a particular radioactive atom decayed at the exact time that it did, most physicists would say that there’s no reason it decayed at that particular time; it was just an indeterministic event!’ One could imagine an opponent of indeterminism giving an argument that’s analogous to Pennock’s:

allowing appeal to indeterministic processes in science would make the scientist’s task too easy, because one would always be able to call upon chance for quick theoretical assistance…. Indeed, all empirical investigation beyond the purely descriptive could cease, for scientists would have a ready-made answer for everything.

It is certainly possible that, for every event that happens, scientists could simply say “that’s the result of an indeterministic chancy process; there’s no further explanation for why the event happened that way.” But this would clearly be doing bad science: just because the option of appealing to indeterminism is there, it doesn’t follow that the option should always be used. The same holds for the option of appealing to supernatural powers.

As further evidence against Pennock, it’s worth pointing out that prominent scientists in the past have appealed to supernatural powers, without using them as a ready-made answer for everything. Newton is a good example of this—he is a devout theist, in addition to being a great scientist, and he thinks that God sometimes intervenes in the world. Pennock falsely implies that this is not the case:

God may have underwritten the active principles that govern the world described in [Newton’s] Principia and the Opticks, but He did not interrupt any of the equations or regularities therein. Johnson and other creationists who want to dismiss methodological naturalism would do well to consult Newton’s own rules of reasoning….

But in fact, Newton does not endorse methodological naturalism. In his Opticks, Newton claims that God sometimes intervenes in the world. Specifically, Newton thinks that, according to his laws of motion, the orbits of planets in our solar system are not stable over long periods of time, and his solution to this problem is to postulate that God occasionally adjusts the motions of the planets so as to ensure the continued stability of their orbits. Here’s a relevant passage from Newton. (It’s not completely obvious that Newton is saying that God will intervene but my interpretation is the standard one.)

God in the Beginning form’d Matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable Particles … it became him who created them to set them in order. And if he did so, it’s unphilosophical to seek for any other Origin of the World, or to pretend that it might arise out of a Chaos by the mere Laws of Nature; though being once form’d, it may continue by those Laws for many Ages. For while Comets move in very excentrick Orbs in all manner of Positions, blind Fate could never make all the Planets move one and the same way in Orbs concentrick, some inconsiderable Irregularities excepted, which may have risen from the mutual Actions of Comets and Planets upon one another, and which will be apt to increase, till this System wants a Reformation…. [God is] able by his Will to move the Bodies within his boundless uniform Sensorium, and thereby to form and reform the Parts of the Universe….

A scientist who writes this way does not sound like a scientist who is following methodological naturalism.

It’s worth noting that some contemporaries of Newton took issue with his view of God occasionally intervening in the universe. For example, Leibniz writes:

Sir Isaac Newton and his followers also have a very odd opinion concerning the work of God. According to them, God Almighty needs to wind up his watch from time to time; otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion.”

Note, though, that Leibniz also thought that God intervened in the world:

I hold that when God works miracles, he does not do it in order to supply the wants of nature, but those of grace.

Later investigation revealed that in fact planetary orbits are more stable than Newton thought, so Newton’s appeal to supernatural powers wasn’t needed. But the key point is that Newton is willing to appeal to supernatural powers, without using the appeal to supernatural powers as a ready-made answer for everything.

Pennock says that “Without the binding assumption of uninterruptible natural law there would be absolute chaos in the scientific worldview.” Newton’s own approach to physics provides a good counterexample to this—Newton is a leading contributor to the scientific worldview, and yet he does not bind himself by the assumption of uninterruptible natural law.

Bradley Monton, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, pp.62-64.

Cicero (106–43 BC), used this concept in his book De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods) to challenge the evolutionary ideas of the philosophers of his day.

The two main schools of philosophy then were Epicureanism and Stoicism. The Epicureans sought happiness through bodily pleasures and freedom from pain and anxiety. The two chief causes of anxiety were fear of the gods and fear of death, so Epicurus sought to nullify both of these by teaching an evolutionary atomic theory.

He denied that there was any purpose in nature, because everything was composed of particles (atoma: atoms), all falling downwards. He said that these sometimes spontaneously “swerved” to coalesce and form bodies — non-living, living, human, and divine. The gods were made of finer atoms than humankind. They did not create the world or have any control over it, so they were not concerned with human affairs, and there was therefore no need for man to fear them. At death, the soul disintegrated and became non-existent, so there was no need to fear death or the prospect of judgment after death.

Cicero used the Stoic character in his book to refute these ideas with arguments from design, aimed to show that the universe is governed by an intelligent designer. He argued that a conscious purpose was needed to express art (e.g. to make a picture or a statue) and so, because nature was more perfect than art, nature showed purpose also. He reasoned that the movement of a ship was guided by skilled intelligence, and a sundial or water clock told the time by design rather than by chance. He said that even the barbarians of Britain or Scythia could not fail to see that a model which showed the movements of the sun, stars and planets was the product of conscious intelligence.

Cicero continued his challenge to the evolutionism of Epicurus by marvelling that anyone could persuade himself that chance collisions of particles could form anything as beautiful as the world. He said that this was on a par with believing that if the letters of the alphabet were thrown on the ground often enough they would spell out the Annals of Ennius.

And he asked: if chance collisions of particles could make a world, why then cannot they build much less difficult objects, like a colonnade, a temple, a house, or a city?

Russell Grigg, A Brief History of Design

But if the structure of the world in all its parts is such that it could not have been better whether in point of utility or beauty, let us consider whether this is the result of chance, or whether on the contrary the parts of the world are in such a condition that they could not possibly have cohered together if they were not controlled by intelligence and by divine providence. If then the products of nature are better than those of art, and if art produces nothing without reason, nature too cannot be deemed to be without reason. When you see a statue or a painting, you recognize the exercise of art; when you observe from a distance the course of a ship, you do not hesitate to assume that its motion is guided by reason and by art; when you look at a sun-dial or a water-clock, you infer that it tells the time by art and not by chance; how then can it be consistent to suppose that the world, which includes both the works of art in question, the craftsmen who made them, and everything else besides, can be devoid of purpose and of reason? Suppose a traveller to carry into Scythia or Britain the orrery recently constructed by our friend Posidonius, which at each revolution reproduces the same motions of the sun, the moon and the five planets that take place in the heavens every twenty-four hours, would any single native doubt that this orrery was the work of a rational being? These thinkers however raise doubts about the world itself from which all things arise and have their being, and debate whether it is the product of chance or necessity of some sort, or of divine reason and intelligence;

Cicero, Nature of the Gods, Translated by H. Rackam, pp. 207-209

A little philosophy inclineth a man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.

Francis Bacon

  • All truth is relative! (Is that a relative truth?);
  • There are no absolutes! (Are you absolutely sure?);
  • Its true for you but not for me! (Is that statement true just for you, or is it for everyone?)

In short, contrary beliefs are possible, but contrary truths are not possible.

Paul Copan

I believe Christianity is the only logical, consistent faith in the world

Mortimer J. Adler

When a statement fails to satisfy itself (i.e., to conform to its own criteria of validity or acceptability), it is self-refuting…. Consider some examples. ‘I cannot say a word in English’ is self-refuting when uttered in English. ‘I do not exist’ is self-refuting, for one must exist to utter it. The claim ‘there are no truths’ is self-refuting. If it is false, then it is false. But is it is true, then it is false as well, for in that case there would be no truths, including the statement itself.

J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity, 92.

To say that we cannot know anything about God is to say something about God; it is to say that if there is a God, he is unknowable. But in that case, he is not entirely unknowable, for the agnostic certainly thinks that we can know one thing about him: That nothing else can be known about him. Unfortunately, the position that we can know exactly one thing about God – his unknowability in all respects except this – is equally unsupportable, for why should this one thing be an exception? How could we know that any possible God would be of such a nature that nothing else could be known about him? On what basis could we rule out his knowability in all other respects but this one? The very attempt to justify the claim confutes it, for the agnostic would have to know a great many things about God in order to know he that couldn’t know anything else about him.

J. Budziszewski, found in Norman Geisler & Paul Hoffman, eds., Why I Am a Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe, revised ed., 58

…most people assume that something exists. There may be someone, perhaps, who believes that nothing exists, but who would that person be? …. no one ever consciously tries to defend the position that nothing exists. It would be a useless endeavor since there would be no one to convince. Even more significantly, it would be impossible to defend that position since, if it were true, there would be no one to make the defense. So to defend the position that nothing exists seems immediately to be absurd and self-contradictory.

L. Russ Bush, A Handbook for Christian Philosophy, 70

As the professor waxed eloquent and expounded on the law of non-contradiction, he eventually drew his conclusion: ‘This [either/or logic] is a Western way of looking at reality. The real problem is that you are seeing contradictions as a Westerner when you should be approaching it as an Easterner. The both/and is the Eastern way of viewing reality.’ After he belabored these two ideas on either/or and both/and for some time, I finally asked if I could interrupt his unpunctuated train of thought and raise one question. I said, ‘Sir, are you telling me that when I am studying Hinduism I either use the both/and system of logic or nothing else?’ There was pin-drop silence for what seemed an eternity. I repeated my question: ‘Are you telling me that when I am studying Hinduism I either use the both/and logic or nothing else? Have I got that right?’ He threw his head back and said, ‘The either/or does seem to emerge, doesn’t it?’ ‘Indeed, it does emerge,’ I said. ‘And as a matter of fact, even in India we look both ways before we cross the street – it is either the bus or me, not both of us’.

Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God?, 128-129

The program of rejecting logic in order to accept mutually contradictory beliefs is not, however, just a harmless, whimsical hope that somehow logically incompatible beliefs can both be true…it results in nothing less than the destruction of any and every concept we could possess. Even the concept of rejecting the law of non-contradiction depends on assuming and using that law, since without it the concept of rejecting it could neither be thought nor stated.

Roy A. Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories, 178

Every subject we think about is filtered through our worldview. The picture of reality we hold in our minds is what we use at the most basic level to answer every question in life. This is especially true of big questions, like those pertaining to man’s origin, ethics, life’s meaning and ultimate destiny. This makes faith central to every aspect of our lives and being. The bigger question, of course, is whether or not the picture of reality we have is actually true…. This is a book about worldviews. Everybody has one, but most individuals never really pay much attention to their own personal philosophy of life. This is a tragedy because there is no state of awareness so fundamental to living life.

(Joseph R. Farinaccio, Faith with Reason: Why Christianity is True, 9-10)

The belief that all religions are ultimately expressions of the same transcendent reality is at best illusory and at worst oppressive – illusory because it lacks any substantiating basis and oppressive because it involves the systematic imposition of the agenda of those in positions of intellectual power on the religions and those who adhere to them. The illiberal imposition of this pluralistic metanarrative on religions is ultimately a claim to mastery – both in the sense of having a Nietzschean authority and power to mold material according to one’s will, and in the sense of being able to relativize all the religions by having access to a privileged standpoint.

Alister E. McGrath, Passion for Truth: the Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism, 239.

Metanarratives or Grand Narratives – “big stories, stories of mythic proportions – that claim to be able to account for, explain and subordinate all lesser, little, local, narratives.”

Jim Powell, Postmodernism for Beginners, 29.

A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely negative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.

Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey (New York, NY: Penguin Books, Reprint edition, 1996), 6.

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