Let them call you a bigot and rejoice

Christians today are so afraid of being called a bigot.  Or a hater.  Or a believer in fairy tales.  Or just being thought of as plain weird.  I am as bad as anybody.

Why are we?  Christ specifically said that we are blessed if we are reviled and persecuted.  He says we should rejoice!

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
    For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:10-13

Why don’t we believe him?  Why do we cower before mere insults and primary school name calling?

Look at the example of St Polycarp (69-155AD) who was martyred.  He went willingly into the arena, and was repeatedly told to denounce Christ, being threatened by a cruel death of wild animals, and then being burnt alive.  The proconsul offered to spare him – all he had to do was cry out “down with the atheists!” – by which the proconsul meant the Christians, who refused to worship the pantheon of pagan gods.  Polycarp turned instead to the crowd, and pointing, defiantly yelling out “down with the atheists!”.


St Polycarp’s martyrdom – By Pvasiliadis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

When they threatened him with fire, he said “Why are you waiting? Bring on whatever you want”.

Where is the fire that burned within the earliest Christians today?  Can you imagine Polycarp cowering before mere insults?  We are too comfortable, too concerned of our positions in this world, and as such, by remaining silent, we doom those who are ignorant of Christ to lives of despair and potentially worse in the next life.  How can we not speak up when our children are being corrupted?

We need to know that we are right and dedicate our lives to the Truth.  Is our cowardice fueled in part, I wonder, at a nagging doubt that perhaps we are wrong?  We are not – we have reason, science, morality, meaning, virtue and beauty on our side.  Be confident of that, and if you are not, dedicate yourself to learning the very best Christian apologetics.

The reason we are called all sorts of names is that our opponents have no good arguments against us, so they resort to name calling.  Let’s ignore it, and forge on expounding the truth in charity.

Pray for me, that I may be courageous, as I will pray for you to be likewise.

Is Christianity overrated?

Here is a recent response that I have provided on Quora in response to the question posed in the title.  Hope it is of some help.


Mother Teresa – © 1986 Túrelio (via Wikimedia-Commons), 1986 / , via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps to many it may seem so. Often these days it is considered a wacky, even sometimes dangerous, belief system that you are best to keep to yourself.

That’s crap though. As our countries become more and more secular, so the misunderstandings grow and grow. Despite what the real haters say, Christianity is the religion of love. Real love – the desire for the good of the other even at the expense of yourself – not the modern definition which is all about fleeting feelings. Christianity is about the infinite love that God has for each of us – yes, that’s right – infinite, with no limit. It is about this love of God being so strong that God Himself was willing to come and live among us, we who are often so cruel to ourselves and one another, and actually allow us to kill Him in a terrible, horrific way. All so He could convince us how much He loves us.

Sure, some of you will scoff at this. This is easy to do when the behaviour of Christians is often so poor. However I think when you judge a belief system you should judge it based on its most faithful adherents, not its least faithful. Its most faithful adherents are the saints – Mother Teresa, St Francis of Assisi, St Vincent De Paul, St Elizabeth of Hungary, William Wilberforce – seriously I could fill up the page with examples of people who have communicated Christ’s love to the poorest and weakest among us, always at great costs to themselves.

It is easy to “love” when it costs you nothing, it is something else when it costs you everything – even your life. That is what Christianity is about – displaying Christ’s limitless love to others through your whole being, even if it costs you your life.

So in summary, no, I don’t think Christianity is overrated. I don’t think Christianity is rated highly enough

The best cosmological argument? Electrons, essense, existence and… puppies

St Thomas Aquinas’ 2nd Way, the second argument that he makes for the existence of God in the Summa Theologica, is an incredibly deep argument.  The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that it is one of the best cosmological arguments around.  In fact, I think at a certain level, it even encompasses the very popular Kalam Cosmological Argument within it.  It is based, at its core, around existence and what it is for something to exist, to be.

What makes something exist?

Consider a new puppy.  Sure, make it cute if that helps.  Prior to that puppy existing, there was the potential for a new dog.


Now that is cute

This is undeniable – the universe has an inherent puppyness.  Given the way the matter in the universe works, and the evolutionary history of life, the universe now has the ability to bring forth puppies.

So we have puppies in potential, and a certain act – the mating of a male and female dog – actualises that potential.  In philosophical parlance we have an essence – the puppiness – and an act of existence which brings an instance of that essence into being.  You can think of essence as the nature of a type of thing.  So:

Essence + existence = a new being

You take away the existence of that puppy and the particular puppy goes out of existence.  Yet, the potential for puppiness, the essence remains in the universe – it is still possible for new puppies to be born.

Is all this philosophical stuff necessary?  Don’t we just have atoms and molecules in motion?

Perhaps there is something to this objection.  After all, does a puppy essence really exist, or is it simply the combination of atoms and molecules? Is all that exists really just fundamental particles, combining in different shapes and forms?

There are two things to say to this objection.  First, the fundamental particles themselves have distinct essences, and come into being via some sort of actualisation.  For instance, electrons come into being when two photons of sufficient energy interact to form an electron-positron pair.  Secondly, the form of a thing (for our purposes, a form can be considered approximately equivalent to an essence) is indispensible in looking at the world.  A pile of meat may have the same number and types of atoms as a live puppy, but each can have vastly different causal effects – no one will blame the chewed shoes on a pile of meat.

In summary then, these abstractions such as essence (and form) and existence ring true.

The chain of being

If we observe the world around us, we can see that new things come into existence through the mediation or action of other already existing things. Those things in turn are brought into being by the action of other already existing things – and so on. We see contingent things, beings that don’t have to exist, give existence to other contingent beings.

There are two ways this chain of being plays out – back through time, and down through the present moment.  Most people only think of the chain of being back in time, and from this leads the Kalam Cosmological Argument.  However, there is another chain that drills down through the present. For just as a causal action is required to bring something into existence, similarly a chain of causes must also act at all moments to maintain something in existence.links-of-the-chain-517550_1920.jpg

Consider, if all the electrons were instantaneously removed from the puppy’s body, it would literally cease to exist as a puppy.  At that point – it would fall apart. The electrons support the molecular structure, the molecular structure makes up all the bones and muscle, blood and hair, and all of those components make up the puppy.  Who knows what supports the electrons in existence? So both back in time and down through the present, we have a chain of being, with each contingent link in that chain being suspended by other contingent links.

Now there are two possibilities here:

  1. The chain of contingent beings, which rely on other contingent beings for their creation and continued existence, continues on to infinity
  2. The chain of contingent beings at some point ceases, or is grounded in, a being that is non-contingent, and does not depend on anything else for its existence.  A necessary being

Notice – (2) isn’t some ad-hoc addition to this argument. It is simply the only other possibility to (1) – it is what is required to exhaust all the possibilities.

The infinity problem

As discussed above, the infinity problem back in time is addressed in the various arguments of the Kalam Cosmological Argument.  I think the most powerful argument against an infinite past is that it results in the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) being false. I’m not going to go into the problems of an infinite past in this post – rather I am going to look at the problems of an infinite series of sustaining causes, down through the present moment.  The PSR objection to this series being infinite works too, but in this case, I’m going to take a different tack.

Let’s go back to our puppy.  As I mentioned above, for the puppy to continue to exist at any given moment, it has a series of sustaining causes, all of which must be active at any given time.  For instance, the puppy requires its bone and muscular structure.  These in turn depend on various molecular structures which comprise them – in turn, the molecular structure depends on the actions and properties of atoms within this structure.  Finally, atoms in turn depend on the action of various sub-atomic particles.  These particles are currently considered either “elementary”, such as electrons, or in turn have more constituent parts, like protons and the quarks that make them up.

Now the question is – can this chain of sustaining causes go on forever, or do we reach a source of being that doesn’t require anything else for its own existence?

What atheists must accept

If you want to allow that an infinite regress of sustaining causes exists, it seems to me you are faced with being comfortable with the following positions:

Never ending science

There is no such thing as an elementary particle or substrate in the universe.  Scientists will never arrive at a complete physical description of matter, as there will always be another layer of new matter beneath whatever they currently consider to be elementary.  Its turtles all the way down.

Under no condition!

You must allow that there is no complete set of conditions for anything to exist.  Consider – the full conditions for the existence of our puppy are never met.  If there is always another sustaining cause that is required for the puppy to exist, then you can never have a complete set of conditions.  With an infinity of sustaining causes, you can always add one more, and therefore you never have a complete set.  However if all the conditions for something to exist are not met, then that thing will not exist.  Yet things obviously do exist.  So you have a contradiction.

Links in a chain

Each element in the series maintains the next element in being, which also has the effect of enabling the causal powers of the next element.  These causal powers then allow the next element to maintain the element proceeding it in being, and so on.  This type of causal relation is called an essentially ordered series.  It is opposed to something called an accidentally ordered series.

An accidentally ordered series is like the relationship between grandfathers, fathers and sons – the grandfather caused the father to be, and the father caused the son to be, but the son will still be around if either the grandfather or the father passes away (or both).  You can visualise this relationship like follows (including the great-grandfather – GGF):

(GGF -> GF) -> (GF -> F) -> (F -> S)

An essentially ordered series is more like a pot hanging from a roof by a chain – what causes the pot to remain in the air is the continued action of all the links in the chain.  If any one is removed or breaks, the pot falls to the ground.  In these series, causal power is transferred through each element – no individual element has power in isolation to the preceding elements.  This is also the type of series which keeps the puppy in existence.  Again, a way of visualising this is with the following (starting at sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, cells, bones and ending at the puppy P):


Take away any of these elements and the puppy ceases to be.  Now, if you are an atheist you have to think this type of essentially ordered, sustaining series of causes could go on to infinity – without a first, independent source of this causal power.  But then you’d have to also be comfortable with the idea of a pot happily hanging in mid-air with an infinite chain and no anchor point.  Or an infinite train of carriages, with no locomotive, still moving despite lacking a source of power.

All three of these positions are extremely unpalatable, and therefore we should accept (2) above – that there exists a being which doesn’t rely on anything else for its existence.  This being is also the source of all contingent things.

What is this self-subsistent being?

Hold on, the atheist may say, perhaps there is a self-subsistent being, but why should we consider this being to be God?  Why can’t it be the elementary physical laws of the universe?

Can physical laws create anything?galaxies-597905_1920.jpg

The physical laws of the universe are simply mathematical descriptions of the way matter and energy usually behave.  It makes no sense for some abstract mathematical description to create or have any causal power at all.  I can write down all the laws of quantum field theory on a piece of paper, and it doesn’t automatically start generating what it describes.  No, a mind (to hold the law in thought) with causal powers sufficient to enact the law is required.

What is it then?

Perhaps it’s not a law, but some eternal, physical substrate that exists and supplies causal power to the sustaining series of causation.  Does this make sense though?  There is something terribly contingent about physical reality – all physical things seem to be able to have their essence separated from their existence.  In other words, it is possible for them to go out of existence, even if they exist at all times.  But if this is possible, then this physical being cannot be self-subsistent.

Something with an essence distinct from its existence cannot sustain itself – nothing can cause itself to be.  That would entail the being to exist prior to its existence, which is absurd.  If that’s the case though, there must be something prior to the being in question, and therefore it cannot be the terminus of the chain of sustaining causes.

That only leaves us with one option.

Being itself

Let’s summarise where we are at:

  1. Everything we observe in day to day life has an essence that is different from its existence i.e. it can go out of existence
  2. All physical things that we know of require a series of sustaining causes to keep them in existence
  3. That series of sustaining causes cannot be infinite
  4. Therefore there must be a first cause that is self-sustaining
  5. Anything whose essense is seperate, or not equal to its existence, cannot be self-sustaining
  6. Therefore the first cause must have an essence that just is its existence

What on earth does (6) mean?  It means that the first cause just is its existence.  Therefore, the first cause can’t fail to exist.  It is Being Itself, from which all other things derive their being, via the series of sustaining (or secondary) causes.

Notice, that the self-subsistent existence of the first cause isn’t just an ad-hoc assumption.  I have shown it in two ways – first that there has to be a sustaining first cause to avoid the infinity problem, and second, that this sustaining cause has to be Being Itself.

Is Being Itself God?

This post is already really long, so I will just cover off briefly on a few properties of Being Itself (BI) to show that this entity is God.

Being Itself is eternal and therefore transcends time

BI cannot fail to exist, and also, because all existing things in time derive their being from BI, BI must transcend, or stand outside of, time.

Being Itself is really powerful

BI is the sustaining cause of the entire universe and therefore is obviously extremely powerful.  Another argument can be made to show that BI has infinite power, but I won’t go there at the moment in the interest of space.

Being Itself is immaterial

All material things have essences that are separate from their existence, therefore BI cannot be material.  Also, BI creates and sustains all material things, and so must transcend materiality.

Being Itself is independent

If BI is prior (both in time and ontologically) to all things, then it is radically independent from all other beings.  As such, nothing could compel or control BI.

Being Itself is a mind

As BI is independent, there was nothing forcing BI to create and sustain dependent beings.  The only entity that we are aware of that can freely act, without compulsion or externally applied necessity, is a person with a mind.

Conclusion – a great cosmological argument

So there we have it.  I have shown a number of things in this post.  First, that all the things we see around us are combinations of an essence and an act of existence.  Second, that all these things are sustained in being by a series of sustaining causes.  Third, that this series, or chain of being, cannot be infinitely long.  Fourth, that the required first cause must be something whose essence just is its existence – Being Itself.  Finally, that Being Itself is what we understand to be God.

This is a long post, but it is my hope that it gives a convincing demonstration that God exists.  I think an atheist who denies some of the premises will find themselves in a very uncomfortable intellectual position in denying them.  I also hope that the arguments made make it clear that God is not posited as a necessary being in an ad-hoc fashion, but rather that this outcome is simply the only other alternative available, once we rule out an infinite regress of sustaining causes.

God bless.



Simple pro-life – in less than 500 words

I want to try and make the pro-life argument as simply as possible in this post, in as few words as possible.  Why?  Simplication often exposes the core issues.  It is my belief that the evil of abortion is so obvious, and that most convoluted arguments in its favour simply confuse the bare, naked truth – abortion is a terrible evil that must be ended.

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil

So here goes…

  1. It is always wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings
  2. Unborn children, at any time after conception, are human beings
  3. Therefore it is always wrong to intentionally kill unborn human beings

It is always wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings

I don’t know oviews_of_a_foetus_in_the_womb_detailf a truth that is much clearer than this.  Supporters of abortion import the concept of personhood into this argument – it is only wrong to kill innocent persons.  It is ok to kill human beings who aren’t persons.  What’s the difference?

Personhood is an attribute that is added to human beings based on some abitrary property that a human being possesses.  A human being only becomes a person once they are capable of pain, for instance.  Or when they have a heartbeat.  Or when they experience consciousness.  Or when they reach some level of intelligence.  Or when they are wanted by their mothers.

This definition removes the inherent dignity of human beings, and is an abhorent notion that leads to social Darwinism (which was very influential in Nazi Germany) and other horrors.  We get to define which humans are valuable and which aren’t, and therefore which humans we can kill without scruple.

What about in cases where the mother’s life is at risk?  In this day and age, this circumstance is actually very rare.  Nevertheless, when a doctor removes a damaged uterus or fallopian tube to save a woman’s life, in the process unintentionally killing the unborn child, this is a vastly different intention than the desire to directly kill the unborn child.  The doctor is not intentionally trying to directly kill the unborn child.

Unborn children, at any time after conception, are human beings

Are embryoes really human beings or are they just a cluster of cells, a clump of tissue and so on?  Of course they are human beings – what else could they be?  They are simply the earliest stage of a human being’s life.  If left to develop in the mother’s womb, and nothing goes wrong, this small human being will develop into a big human being.  It has the DNA of a unique, new, human.  If an embyro isn’t a human being, what else is it exactly? A virus, a cancer cell, a baby hippo?  Of course not.

Don’t take my word for it.  Pick up any embryology textbook and see for yourself.  This is a matter of established science.

Therefore it is always wrong to intentionally kill unborn human beings

This conclusion follows validly from the premises.  It doesn’t matter if the mother or father want the baby, if it doesn’t yet have a heart beat or can’t feel pain, or if the baby is disabled in some way – he or she is a human being, and it is abhorent to intentionally kill him or her.  We should do everything we ethically can to stop this practice.  It’s underlying philosophy endangers us all – both born and unborn.

Well, there ends my attempt at outlining the pro-life position in 500 words or less.  I understand that many women find themselves in very difficult situations where they see abortion as the only solution to their problem – my heart goes out to them.  But committing an evil action can never be condoned in an attempt to arrive at some supposed good.

For any woman who is sorry for having had an abortion – remember that there is a God, and He loves you so very much.  He is eager to forgive you if you throw yourself into His arms of mercy.



Christians rise up! 

The time for comfortable Christianity is over. Truly, it never began.

Comfortable Christianity has led us to a world where the idea of God is openly mocked.  It has led us to a world where millions of innocent children have been killed in their mother’s wombs. It has led us to a world where marriage is a meaningless contract, not an unbreakable covenant. It has led us to a world which delights in corrupting our precious, innocent children.

Christ carrying His cross

How can I stay silent and frightened any longer? How will I explain to my young daughters that I have done nothing to try and change our culture – the culture where their potential future husbands are “men” who are consumed with lust and pornography, who don’t know how to love and be honourable but only how to use and abuse? How will I explain to them that I’ve sat on my hands while forces of darkness rise up which will savagely persecute them in the future for what they believe?

How will I explain myself to God that I have enjoyed the good life and said nothing while so many of his children are led astray into misery and damnation?

We may wish we were born in easier times. Well, we haven’t been – God chose us to be alive at just this time in history. He planned it from all eternity. This is the time we must serve Him. When the curtain closes on our lives, we don’t get to come back and relive our chance at serving Him and giving Him glory. We don’t get another chance at being heroic for Him who was so heroic on the cross for us.

The culture has hoodwinked us. They have cowed us into thinking that somehow we have got it wrong. They have tempted us to believe that we don’t have the truth.

We do. Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We are right and they are wrong, it is as simple as that. Let us not deprive our brothers and sisters of their chance at joy in these truths.

Let’s be brave, and mighty forces will come to our aid.

The different types of atheism

Richard Dawkins - author of the 7 different types of belief/atheism

Richard Dawkins – Image by Marty Stone

It’s useful when debating atheists to understand how they consider their atheism, or what it means to them.  This can help avoid misunderstanding, which is the mother of all fruitless discussions, straight from the get go.  Now, it used to be that an atheist is someone who held the position “there is no God”.  An agnostic used to be someone who held the position “there is no way of knowing whether God exists or not”.  Finally, a theist was someone who held the position “there is a God”.  Nowadays, however, after the rise of the New Atheists, these delineations no longer apply in popular discussions.

Rather, atheists now commonly classify themselves as simply “lacking a belief in God”. There are a couple of points to consider with this new classification.  The original classification of atheism (someone who holds the position “there is no God”) is propositional in nature – in other words, it describes someone who believes a certain proposition to be true – “there is no God”.  Such a person would have to defend their belief in the given proposition, as belief in a proposition is an affirmative, positive act – in other words, they would bear a certain burden of proof.

Contrast this with the new common definition of atheism as simply “lacking a belief in God”.  This is no longer about a positive belief in a certain proposition – rather it is the revelation of a certain subjective state of mind, a self-description, if you will, that the person lacks a belief in the proposition “there is a God”.  Such a description is quite broad, and therefore absorbs both the agnostic and atheist definitions of the past.  I actually think this position is a bit of a cop out and can be used to be intellectually lazy.  For example, an atheist who holds this position can sit back and take “pot shots” at theistic arguments, without ever having to defend any position of their own which is much more intellectually difficult.  I would argue that this is actually impossible, for in rejecting the theistic arguments they are affirming the denial of one or more of the premises (for example, by denying the Principle of Sufficient Reason, they are basically affirming that contingent events / beings can occur for no reason) – and this can lead to significant problems with the consistency of their worldview.  In any case, that’s the topic for a future blog post.

In order to cater for the aforementioned broadness, Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion gives 7 different stages or types of belief possible – ranging from “100%” theist to “100%” atheist.  These stages are (from the Wikipedia article):

  1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung: “I do not believe, I know.”
  2. De factotheist. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. “I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”
  3. Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”
  4. Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent. “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”
  5. Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. “I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.”
  6. De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
  7. Strong atheist. “I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one.”

I’m not that fond of trying to assign “probabilities” to levels of conviction – convictions are clearly not easily amenable to mathematical analysis (this way of looking at things probably stems from Dawkins’ scientism), but I suppose it does the job.  You’ll likely come across (6) most commonly among internet atheists, with a few brave souls even trying to defend (7).  Usually those trying to defend (7) will attempt to show a fundamental logical inconsistency between God’s attributes (i.e. some issue relating to his eternal nature, his omniscience, his omnipotence and so on).  However, rest assured such attributes have been defended successfully for centuries, and the defender of (7) will usually  be holding to some sort of misunderstanding about what the given attributes mean.

For someone who holds to (6), your best strategies are to, obviously, present a robust defence of an argument for God’s existence.  Once you have done so, I’d recommend trying to expose the consequences of the atheist’s rejection of the premises of the argument. As stated above, usually their rejection of such premises will cause major problems of coherence within their worldview.

So the next time you’re debating an atheist, try to keep in mind the divisions above and exactly what type of atheist you are debating with.  As always, remember to keep the discussion respectful and charitable, even if your opponent doesn’t do so (though, you’d be surprised – if you’re respectful, they often will be too).

Recommended reading

Trent Horn has a good discussion of this issue in – Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity


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When were the Gospels written?

640px-Brooklyn_Museum_-_Jesus_Stilling_the_Tempest_(Jésus_calmant_la_tempête)_-_James_Tissot_-_overallThe Gospels are often portrayed in popular media and on-line sources as being written long after Jesus died, probably by old men whose memories were failing them in the dying days of the first century.  The implication is that their accounts of the events of Jesus’ life can’t really be trusted, and they may even contain mythological and legendary developments written by anonymous authors (see how those claims – anonymity and legendary- can be answered here and here).  Are such portrayals correct?  When were the Gospels actually written?  There are good reasons to believe that they were written closer to Jesus’ death than is currently popularly believed. In fact, as will be seen, there are good reasons to believe that the first Gospel accounts were written before 62AD – less than 30 years after Jesus’ death!

So let’s go through some popular thinking as to the dates of the Gospels, then I’ll talk about why we have good reasons to think that they were written earlier.  (Note: this post follows along the same lines as Brant Pitre’s chapter on this topic in the recommended reading section below).

The current view

The current view of most scholars is that Mark was written first around 70AD, and then Matthew and Luke were written after, both around 80-90AD.  John is universally believed to  have been compiled last, sometime between 90-100AD.  What are the reasons for this ordering?  This is an important question, as the traditional ordering of Gospels was Matthew being written first, with Mark, Luke and finally John following.  However, this ordering is not unanimous among the Church Fathers, so there is reasonable doubt about the traditional account of order.  I’ll get into this discussion briefly later in this post, as it is required to date whichever Gospels followed the first.  However, first I’ll discuss the date of the first written Gospel, which we will presume to be Mark to remain consistent with current thought.  It turns out this date is the hinge on which at least the other synoptic Gospels (Matthew and Luke) are dated.

When was Mark written?

It turns out that the idea of Mark being written around 70AD rests on only one historical reference point – the destruction of the Jewish temple and the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans.  What was this event, and how does it relate to the dating of Mark?  The first Jewish revolt against the Roman occupation of the area started in 66AD by a sect called the Zealots.  After some initial victories against the Roman forces, a civil war broke out amongst the Israelites which finally led to the siege of Jerusalem by the future Roman emperor Titus.  This siege was terribly brutal and involved mass starvation and crucifixions of those city occupants who tried to escape (up to 500 a day).  Eventually the Romans broke in and a massacre occurred, with the whole city and the temple being razed to the ground.  This occurred in 70AD.

In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus prophesizes this terrible event – including descriptions of the temple being destroyed, the people being slaughtered and the city being hemmed in on all sides by armies.  This is the major piece of evidence for the date of when Mark was written – there are no other historical markers in the text.  The argument is as follows:

  1. Mark, purportedly writing what Jesus said, couldn’t have accurately predicted the destruction of Jerusalem with any accuracy before it occurred
  2. Mark’s (and Matthew’s and Luke’s) writings did accurately predict the destruction of Jerusalem
  3. Therefore, Mark wrote his Gospel after or contemporaneously with the siege and fall of Jerusalem

This argument therefore places the writing of the Gospel around or after 70AD.  Now, the key premise is clearly (1), and at the same time is the most controversial.  Its truth could hold under the two following conditions (there could be more, but these seem to be the main ones):

a. Jesus was not God, and therefore could not accurately predict events in the future

b. Mark (or Jesus) couldn’t predict the destruction of Jerusalem via natural means

Let’s have a look at each of these in turn.

Jesus was not God

It is understandable that non-Christian scholars do not want to operate under the assumption that Jesus is God.  This means, however, that if Jesus is/was God, they will not be able to arrive at the true version of historical events.  However that is another story – the main point is when, say, an atheist wishes to argue along the following lines:

  1. Jesus is not God
  2. Therefore the Gospels were written long after his death (from (1)-(3)), and cannot be trusted to give accurate versions of the events that took place, including the various miracle claims, other proofs of his divinity etc.
  3. Therefore, Jesus is not God

As one can see, the above argument is terribly circular.  So the next time someone you are debating with tries to use the late dating of the Gospels to show that we can’t trust them, let them know that the only reason the Gospels are dated late is under the assumption that Jesus isn’t God and that they are therefore arguing in a circle.

Mark/Jesus could have predicted the destruction of Jerusalem naturally

In any case, even without divinity or inspiration, Jesus could have predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.  It is not as if this would be an unprecedented event – in 586BC the first temple, built by King Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonians.  This destruction is detailed in 2 Kings in a similar way as Jesus describes it.  The idea of an overpowering foe destroying the temple is therefore hardly a new idea, and the Romans were certainly an overpowering foe.  Not only that, but there was much unrest in Israel about the occupation by the Romans, so a rebellion that led to a relatively predictable outcome such as the destruction of Jerusalem would not be a big stretch of the imagination.  In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus discusses a man named Jesus the son of Ananias who in 66AD used the book of Jeremiah to foretell of the destruction of Jerusa640px-Ercole_de_Roberti_Destruction_of_Jerusalem_Fighting_Fleeing_Marching_Slaying_Burning_Chemical_reactions_b.jpglem and the temple.

The destruction of the temple is never mentioned in the Gospels

If the temple was destroyed before Mark, Matthew and Luke penned the Gospels, why wasn’t it explicitly mentioned as a fulfilled prophesy?  Luke does this in Acts 11:27-28 for an unknown Christian prophet called Agabus who correctly predicted a great famine at the time.  Yet none of the Gospels mention the fall of the temple and Jerusalem as a validation of the prophesies of Jesus.  Not only that, but the destruction and siege of Jerusalem was reported by Josephus as having claimed the lives of over a million people – this would have been a calamitous and greatly disturbing event for the early Christians.  Why would it not be mentioned?  Given all these facts, the most likely explanation for this is that they were written before 70AD.

Note: it may be argued that John’s Gospel, which was definitely written after 70AD, doesn’t mention the fall of Jerusalem, so why would the others.  The answer is that John’s Gospel is different in style to the Synoptic Gospels and it may simply be that John is less concerned with historical events and prophesies and more concerned with theological matters surrounding the events and sayings of Jesus’ life.

In summary, the considerations above give us good reasons to reject the in-vogue dating of the Gospel of Mark to around 70AD – it could have been written much earlier.  If that’s the case, when might have the other synoptic Gospels have been written, with respect to Mark?  To understand this question, we need to delve into what is called the Synoptic problem.

The Synoptic Problem and the Two-Source Theory


The various commonalities between the Synoptic Gospels – By Alecmconroy

The Synoptic problem is a problem relating to the common material present in the Synoptic Gospels, and what this says about the order of their being written.  As can be seen in the diagram on the left, a significant amount of material is shared between the three Synoptic Gospels (not word for word, but in terms of subject).  There is also a significant amount of Matthew and Luke which is common, along with material unique in each of the Gospels.  The most common hypothesis that explains this shared material is called the Two-Source theory, or the Q hypothesis.  This theory proposes that Mark was the original Gospel and that Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily both from it and a hypothetical “Q” document.  This separate document is what is used to explain the commonality between Matthew and Luke.

This Two-Source hypothesis is used to explain the dates of Matthew and Luke with respect to Mark.  It would take at least ten to twenty years for the Gospel of Mark to make the rounds of the ancient Mediterranean, so the theory goes, in order to be incorporated into Luke and Matthew, so if Mark was written around 70AD, then Luke and Matthew must have been written no earlier than 80-90AD.

While the Two-Source hypothesis is the most popular scholarly theory at present, it has some significant problems with it.  First and foremost, the Q document has never been found, and was never mentioned by any of the Church Fathers, unlike the other Gospels (see Who wrote the Gospels?).  There is literally no evidence for it, apart from the textual arguments of modern scholars.  In addition to this, there is a plethora of other solutions to the Synoptic problem that don’t rely on the existence of Q, see the big table in the Wikipedia page on the Synoptic Gospels.  Other theories have every possible combination of dependence between the Synoptic Gospels, without the existence of a Q document.  In any case, whatever the truth of the matter, the point is that the Two-Source hypothesis is not exactly a reliable methodology of dating the Gospels.

The ending of Acts

It is without question that Luke (or if you’re sceptical, whoever authored Luke) wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.  In addition to this, no matter what approach you take to the Synoptic problem, Luke is never proposed as being the first Gospel written – this is because Luke says in his Gospel that there were other writings already in circulation about Jesus.  Now, it turns out that the end of Acts gives us a clue as to the date of its writing.  Acts ends by Luke describing his and Paul’s arrival in Rome, and Paul’s subsequent house arrest there.  Now, why does the Gospel stop so abruptly with these events – around 62AD?  If Luke was written later, why wouldn’t he have chronicled Paul’s final years in Rome, as he spread the faith around the capital of the ancient world?  And why wouldn’t he have detailed the martyrdom of Paul under Emperor Nero in the late 60s (Nero’s rein lasted until 68AD)?

It makes no sense that he doesn’t do so.  Someone may raise Bart Ehrman’s claim that Acts was only supposed to document Christianity’s spread to Rome, but this implausible as Luke mentions that he and Paul were met by brethren, i.e. other Christians, who were already in Rome.

This is quite remarkable, as this places the writing of Luke’s Gospel and Acts around 62AD. Because Luke is thought to have been written after either Mark or Matthew, or both, this means that at least one of these other Gospels was written even earlier.  This puts the writing of the Gospels within two to three decades of Jesus’ death (at the latest)!  This squashes any attempt to claim that they are mere mythologies or legendary accounts, compiled by anonymous authors and eventually only given titles to execute some fictitious power play in the early Church – there simply wasn’t enough time for such things to occur.

In summary then, as one can see, we have very good reasons to reject the late dating of the Gospels, given the weak evidence for the late dating and the comparatively strong evidence in Acts for a much earlier dating.  I hope this information arms you the next time you come up against this objection to the historicity of the Gospels.

Recommended reading

The above points are summaries taken from the excellent work by Brant Pitre – The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ

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The Principle of Sufficient Reason

Leibniz - main proponent of the Principle of Sufficient Reason

Leibniz sporting some seriously impressive locks

In a previous post on the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA), I mentioned the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) in defence of the second premise of the KCA. The PSR traditionally hasn’t had much to do with the KCA, but the more I think about it, the more powerful I believe it do be. As history would have it, there is a cosmological argument that relies more heavily on the PSR and therefore affords me the opportunity to defend it more at length. This argument was proposed by the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), but here I will defend a more modern version of the argument as detailed by philosopher Alexander Pruss (see recommended reading section below). The form of this argument is the following, with the PSR expressed in the first premise.

1. Every contingent fact has an explanation
2. There is a contingent fact that includes all other contingent facts
3. Therefore, there is an explanation of this fact
4. This explanation must involve a necessary being
5. This necessary being is God

The defence of premise (1) is lengthy on its own, so this post will be dedicated to defending only it.  A future post will cover the rest of the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument (LCA).

Every contingent fact has an explanation

As mentioned above, this premise is a restatement of the PSR. In order to defend this premise, I have to define some terms. If a being or event is contingent, this means that it is possible for that being or event to not have existed / occurred. This is opposed to a necessary being or event, which by necessity must have be or have occurred – it is said to occur in every possible world, that is, in every possible way the world could be. By “fact” I mean a true proposition, like “the sky is blue”. By the word “explanation” I mean the common usage of the term, something like “a reason for why something is, or a reason for why an event has occurred”. For p to be an explanation of q, then p must also be true – in other words, a proposed explanation which is plainly false is not an explanation at all.

So why think that the Principle of Sufficient Reason is true? There are a number of reasons, which I’ll explain below.

Without it, knowledge is impossible

Knowledge is generally thought to be “justified true belief”. In other words, I know something if my belief is both true and I’m justified in believing it. However, if the PSR is false, I am not justified in believing anything. If the PSR is false, all my beliefs could have occurred for no reason at all. What’s more, it’s hard to see how I could be justified in thinking that such a situation (my thoughts appearing ex nihilo – from nothing) is unlikely. Likelihoods are judged based on our understanding of how the physical world works – i.e. it is unlikely that the moon will crash into the Earth in ten minutes because of what we know about gravity. If we say the PSR is false, then we have no basis whatsoever to think that our beliefs coming into being for no reason at all is unlikely. Therefore, if we hold this belief (that the PSR is false) along with all our other beliefs, we have lost the justification of all our beliefs. The whole exercise becomes self-contradictory and self-defeating.

We can’t have recourse to the best explanation

If the PSR is false, we can never really say what the best explanation of a certain phenomena is. Say we have a trial where a man is convicted of murdering their mother-in-law by stabbing. We have his fingerprints on the murder weapon, along with an obvious motivation (being his mother-in-law after all). Usually, one would weigh up all the possible options and assess the probability or likelihood of each of them. The most likely option is that he killed his mother-in-law, the least likely option is that he was framed by his father-in-law who wanted to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak (if my mother-in-law ever reads this, let her know that I hardly ever have homicidal thoughts about her). But what if the PSR is false? We now have a third option – that the knife ended up in the mother-in-law multiple times for no reason at all. What’s the likelihood of such an option? As discussed above, we have no way of saying how likely this is or not. If such were the case, we would be obliged to empty all our prisons – after all maybe that convenience store money just teleported itself into my garage for no reason, your honour.

Why should we believe Principle of Sufficient Reason to be false?

Really, why would anyone doubt the PSR apart from trying to avoid the outcome of cosmological arguments like this one? It is so hard to believe that the PSR is false that we would struggle vociferously against that proposition in practice – imagine a unicorn popped into existence into your bedroom tonight. What do you think you’d consider to be more likely: 1. That you were dreaming or hallucinating 2. That some strange race of alien unicorns had invented cross-galaxy teleportation or 3. that the unicorn popped into existence from nothing, for no reason at all. My guess is that it wouldn’t be 3.

As a matter of fact though, some philosophers have tried to show the PSR to be false, so I need to address those arguments here in case they come up in any of your discussions. Fair warning, the philosophy gets a little dense here, so if you are satisfied with the above points and already are basking in the warm afterglow of understanding that the PSR is indeed true, feel free to skip to the next premise.

The Humean imagination argument

Philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) suggested the PSR was false because of his notion that the cause and effect of some event could be separated conceptually, and therefore, there appeared to be no necessary connection between the two. In other words, if one could imagine some effect occurring without a cause, then it follows that this is possible and therefore the PSR is false. By my reckoning, here is how the argument would look:

6. Whatever can be imagined is in reality possible
7. I can imagine an effect without its attendant cause
8. Therefore the imagined effect can occur without a cause

I think (6) is plainly false. But in addition to that, I think the argument is invalid. In order for it to be valid, (8) should actually be:

8a. Therefore the imagined effect can occur without its attendant cause

In order for (8) and not (8a) to be reached, premise (7) should be:

7a. I can imagine an effect with no cause

(7a) is very much doubtful. I can imagine a brick popping into existence, but to imagine this occurring with no cause would require me to imagine it without any of the immeasurably imaginable causes – a ghostly brick maker, alien race A with teleportation technology, alien race B with even better teleportation technology, angels, demons, etc. That is beyond anybodies imagination, and therefore (7a) is false, along with the Humean imagination argument.

The Van Inwagen modal argument

Philosopher Peter Van Inwagen has devised a reductio ad absurdum of the PSR using modal logic. A reductio ad absurdum argument is one in which the premise that is being defeated is included as a premise to the argument in such a way as to lead the argument into some clear absurdity, thus showing the premise to be incorrect. Modal logic is logical argumentation involving concepts like possibility/contingency and necessity. Pruss (in the recommended reading) expresses this argument in 13 premises, but I’ll try to explain it more simply while still getting to the main meaning / recommendations. For the argument, let p be the conjunction of all contingent truths (so all things that are contingently true). This could be, say, all the true propositions about the universe.

9. No necessary truth can explain a contingent truth
10. No contingent truth can explain itself
11. The PSR is true (for the reductio)
12. q, the explanation of p, is itself a contingent truth (from (9) and (10))
13. But then q is member of p (p is the conjunction of all contingent truths)
14. q then explains itself, but it can’t given (10), therefore we have an absurdity

So in less formal terms, if we have all the contingent truths (p), and we try to explain it by another contingent truth (q), then q becomes a part of p and then is the explanation of itself, which is a problem for contingent truths (more on what is possible for necessary truths later). So what’s the problem with (9) to (14)?

(9) is the biggest problem. What is the intuition behind it? For something to be a necessary truth, it must be true in every possible way the world could be. An example of a necessary truth is 2+2=4 – it is true in every possible way the world could be, or could have turned out. So even if the world collapsed back in on itself in some huge black hole after the big bang, it would still be the case that 2+2=4 (along with all the other truths of mathematics). The problem that (9) attempts to address is that if a necessary cause q was present in every possible world, then, so the argument goes, the effect p would also be present in every possible world. But then the truth of p would be necessary, rather than contingent (contingent means that there are some possible ways the world could be that don’t include the contingent truth), hence (9).

So (9) is actually dependent on another sub-premise:

(15) If it is possible for q to be true with p false, then q does not explain p.

(15) applies to a necessary cause q and a contingent truth p, according to the argument against the PSR. Reformulating (15) in another way gives:

(16) If q explains p, then q entails p

(Note: (15) and (16) are taken verbatim from the recommended reading)

The word “entails” means to follow necessarily from – so, if q, then p will necessarily occur. If we can show that (16) is false, we can show that Van Inwagen’s objection fails. One counter example is immediately obvious from modern science which involves statistical effects. Take, for instance, the decay of a certain type of atom. When an unstable atom decays, it releases some form of radiation (in particle or electromagnetic form). The thing is, according to quantum theory, there is no way to say precisely when an atom will decay – the only thing that can be said is the statistical likelihood any given atom will decay within a certain time. So let q be equal to “the laws of nature are operative and we have a newly created Tritium atom” and p be “the Tritium atom decayed within 10 years” and lets substitute those in (16):

(16a) If the laws of nature are operative and we have a newly created Tritium atom, and this fact explains that the Tritium atom decayed within 10 years, then the laws of nature and the existence of the Tritium atom means that the Tritium atom will decay in 10 years necessarily

(16a) is false as the laws of nature can be operative and the Tritium atom could have decayed in, say, 20 years, not 10. Yet q in this case surely is a reasonable explanation of p. Therefore (16) is false and so is Van Inwagen’s argument.

However, we can show this to be the case in an even more interesting way. If beings can have free will, then that also makes (16) false. How does this work? Let’s say that q in this instance stands for “Fred’s favourite ice-cream flavour is banana” and p stands for “Fred chooses a banana flavoured ice-cream at the store”. q is a good and true explanation for p. But does this mean that q necessarily leads to p? In other words, is there no possible way the world could be if q is true but p isn’t? Yes, there is. Fred could have really wanted a banana ice-cream as it is his favourite but, because his daughter prefers strawberry and wanted to share, he freely chose strawberry instead (note that if he had chosen banana regardless of his daughter, q would still have been a true explanation of p). Therefore (16) is also false with respect to the free choices of agents (note that God is typically considered an agent with total freedom of His will).

The indeterminacy of quantum mechanics

In the quantum world, events can only be predicted with probability calculations. As in the example above, the time it takes for any particular atom to decay cannot be predicted with certainty – in other words, we can’t say that atom X will decay in precisely 5 years time, only that atom X has, say, a 25% chance of decaying within that time (note that these probability predictions are extremely precise and experimentally demonstrated by quantum theory – they are not “random”). Does this fact defeat the PSR? No, at least not the PSR in the form required for cosmological arguments. Leibniz had a stronger form of the PSR that resulted in (16), which, as discussed above falls afoul of quantum theory. This stronger form involves logical entailment – if q explains p, then necessarily if q occurs so will p. However, this strong version of the PSR is not required for cosmological arguments or the sound operation of reason. Philosopher John Haldane says that all is required is “an ‘explanation enough'” – in other words an explanation that truthfully captures some aspect of the causal picture. As mentioned above, the explanation for a quantum event such as the decay of an atom at a certain time can consist of the experimental set-up plus the properties of atoms and the laws of nature. This type of explanation is completely sufficient for the Leibnizian cosmological argument, and for the proper operation of reason.

Therefore, quantum indeterminacy is also not a threat to the PSR.

The taxicab objection

One final objection that I will address is that the PSR described as “Every contingent fact has an explanation” is somewhat ad-hoc and is only set up exclusively for contingent facts so that a necessary fact (or a necessary being, i.e. God) can enter the picture later to form a cosmological argument. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer compared the PSR to a taxicab, you call it when you want it (i.e. when dealing with contingent facts) and then get rid of it when you’re done (i.e. you don’t apply it to necessary facts / beings, which is ad-hoc). The objector may ask, why not express the PSR in the following form?

(17) Every fact has an explanation

It turns out that this restriction isn’t ad-hoc though, as (17) isn’t obviously true. For starters, it isn’t clear how the necessary truth 1=1 is to be explained. It is an expression of the law of identity, but how can we explain the law of identity? It isn’t at all clear – perhaps it is self-explanatory. Likewise, say we take the fact that a necessary being exists – does this need to be explained? The atheist would probably say yes, but I’d offer the following. If we take God to just be existence, Being Itself (from which everything else derives its own being), which is the classical definition of God flowing from St Thomas Aquinas’ arguments, then God’s essence (what God is) is the same as His existence. Such a being can’t cease to exist, in every possible world such a being would exist. Again, it is unclear that the existence of such a being can in principle be explained, in the same way that the necessary truth 1=1 can’t be explained.

The atheist may claim that, somehow, the universe also explains itself, that its nature is such that it includes necessary existence. However, as far as any of us can tell, the whole stuff of the universe is contingent – it seems entirely plausible that there are possible worlds in which the universe doesn’t exist, especially seeing that every element of the universe (even space and time) is clearly contingent. If, therefore, it is possible for the universe not to exist, its essence (what it is) is not the same as its existence, and it does not explain itself. This however, is a digression and will be discussed more in the future post on the Leibnizian cosmological argument.

In summary then, we have very good reasons to accept the Principle of Sufficient Reason, as defined above. This post should cover you against a significant array of the common objections to the PSR – so good luck.

Recommended Reading

Alexander Pruss’ version of the Leibnizian argument, from which this post draws heavily, can be found in the following excellent compilation – The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology


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Are the Gospels folklore?


The Gospel of Mark – biography or fairy tale?

In the early 20th century a movement instigated by the likes of German Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann began to claim that the Gospel accounts were not biographical in nature (as had been assumed prior to that point in Christian history) but rather were more closely related to the genre of folklore. The genre of any particular writing is crucial in understanding what it is trying to tell us. If future researchers were investigating the history of World War 2, they would be substantially led astray if they mischaracterised a fictional account of the calamity as true history. The question to ask, then, is whether the Gospels should be considered as biographical in genre, or whether they contain mythological components that we should reject. To do that, we need to examine how closely the Gospels relate in form to ancient Greco-Roman biographical accounts that were undoubtedly biographical in nature.

What did the early Christians say?

Should we listen more to what modern scholars think of the genre of the Gospels, or the early Christians who were closest in time and space? I would think, when we have the writings of the early Christians on hand, we should prefer their opinions. St Justin Martyr in around 150AD wrote that the Gospels were memoirs of the apostles and their successors. Papias in 130AD wrote that Mark wrote down all the things that Peter recalled to him about what Jesus said and did. St Clement of Alexandria wrote in 200AD that Matthew and John left their “recollections” of “what was done by Christ”. St Augustine said that the Gospels were “trustworthy testimonies” of the words and deeds of Christ. So it seems the early Church, right from the beginning, considered the Gospels to be recollections of Jesus life, words and deeds, not a mere folkish account.

Ancient biographies focused on the same parts of life as the Gospels

Ancient Greco-Roman biographies generally focused on the birth and childhood, public life and finally the death of a certain individual. This sequence mirrors the Gospels – it is not unusual that the “hidden years” between Jesus’ childhood and the start of his public ministry are missing, the public life of other ancient individuals are also all that is recorded. Ancient biographies also focused on the life of an individual rather than the events of a nation or people.

The lengths are roughly the same

The average length of an ancient biography is between 10,000 and 20,000 words. The length of the Gospels also fall within this range.

Ancient biographies often start with genealogies

For example, Josephus’ autobiography and Lucian’s biography of Demonax both begin with their ancestry. Likewise, so do two of the Gospels (Matthew and Luke).

Ancient biographies don’t cover every little detail of the person’s life

We are used to modern biographies going into precise details about their subject’s lives, and these details being in strict chronological order. However, ancient biographies weren’t like that. Plutarch in his life of Alexander the Great explicitly mentions that he doesn’t cover all the deeds of the man, as does Lucian in his aforementioned life of Demonax. What’s more, ancient authors weren’t overly concerned with getting things in the right order, or exactly recording the words that their subject spoke. Rather, they were more concerned with the substance of the message.

Ancient biographies also have internal attestations to speaking the truth

Lucian and Josephus in their respective biographies both attest to speaking the truth in their writings, in the same way that both Luke and John claim that what they say is accurate.

Given all of the above parallels between the Gospels and other ancient biographies, what reason is there to think that the Gospels are mere fairy stories or folklore? Would modern historians consider, say, the autobiography of Josephus to be folklore? Of course not. So what’s the difference, considering the fact that the Gospels mirror ancient biographies in so many ways?

The difference is that the Gospels contain supernatural elements and religious content. This is what makes modern scholars uncomfortable and this is clearly what drives them to reject the Gospels as genuine biographies. Without such ideological baggage, there is no real justification to consider the Gospels as any genre other than what they clearly are – historical biographies.

Recommended reading

The above points are summaries taken from the excellent work by Brant Pitre – The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ

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Internet apologetics tip #1 – Super syllogisms!


Aristotle – helping internet apologists since 350BC

Over the years I’ve done a lot of debating online, especially with atheists. This post is the first in a series dedicated to supplying some tips about the best strategies on how to engage with unbelievers online, in a charitable and collegial way. One of the biggest problems I see during discussions online is the tendency to talk past one another, with neither side truly understanding what the other person is saying. This post shares a strategy I try to use (which you can see in action here) to attempt to avoid such fruitless situations – that strategy is to break down your opponents points into syllogisms.

What’s a syllogism? It’s a structured argument outlined by Aristotle, way back when, that consists of a major premise, a minor premise, then a conclusion. The seminal example of a syllogism is:

1. All men are mortal (major premise)
2. Socrates is a man (minor premise)
3. Socrates is mortal (conclusion)

Don’t worry too much about the major, minor premise stuff. The main idea is to break your “opponent’s” arguments down into bite sized pieces so you can understand where they are coming from. Another example of the syllogistic form is the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

1. Everything that begins to exist had a cause
2. The universe began to exist
3. Therefore, the universe had a cause

The above arguments are of the type “All Ps Are Qs, P, therefore Q”. However, you can also break down arguments to the following if-then form.

1. If P, then Q
2. P
3. Therefore Q

As I said, I try to do this exercise often when I’m debating someone online, so that I tease out all the explicit as well as implicit premises or assumptions that they are working from. I can then bring these assumptions to light and hopefully get to the core issues of the debate, rather than getting diverted down lots of tangents and everyone getting frustrated.

Below is an example reply I received in response to a first cause argument I was making in a forum. The first cause argument in question was St Thomas Aquinas’ First Way, a very powerful argument that I will address in a future post. The main idea of the argument is that, in our experience, whenever something changes, the agent causing the change is also changed, and so on. This can’t go on to infinity, therefore there must be a first cause Who is an unchanged changer. The quote below is a response from another poster on the forum trying to grapple with the idea of an unchanged changer.

Here’s an oddity: If nothing can change itself, and there is no infinite series of changers, then how could the unchanged changer perform its first action? No changer could have caused it to, and it could not have caused itself to. So, its first action must have been entirely random. i.e., irrational.

The first thing to try to understand here is the major conclusion that the poster is trying to drive at. The conclusion that the post is trying to arrive at here is that the unchanged changer must act randomly, or without foresight, thereby making the unchanged changer a mere random force of some sort, rather than a person. Here is the syllogism as I would see it:

1. If an agent is not changed by another agent, or cannot change itself while acting, then any change it causes is random
2. The unchanged changer is not changed by another agent, and cannot change itself while acting
3. Therefore, the unchanged changer acts randomly

Once the argument is laid out like the above, it becomes more straight-forward to determine what is one’s best response. I think  (1) is false, and therefore I need to figure out a way in which to show how.  Premise (1) hopes to exhaust all possible cases of the unchanged changer’s actions, so all one has to do is show that the options presented are not exhaustive, and there is an exception.

In this case, we could say that (1) is false if an agent can perform a single, unified eternal action. This eternal action could be intentional (i.e. it isn’t random), and, because it is eternal, the action involves no “internal” change. Lastly, a person can act without being acted upon by someone or something else. So by replying in this way, one can show that the classical conception of God, who is eternal, unchanging and a person, is an exception to their conclusion.

Now, I’m not suggesting you necessarily approach every discussion in such a formalised fashion. A lot of the time you’ll probably be performing this exercise on the fly, without bothering to go through the above exercise. However, I’d recommend it if you end up getting in a back and forth discussion that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, or if you get stumped and you’re not sure of which way to proceed. Also, sometimes it may be useful to show the syllogism that you have derived to the person you are talking with, to see if they agree with your characterisation (it would probably get annoying if you did it all the time though!). Seeing their argument formalised in such a way may in some cases help them to see the underlying assumptions that they didn’t realise they had.

I hope this apologetics tip is some help in your next evangelistic online discussion!

Recommended reading:
If you’d like to read more about God’s eternal action and how He interacts with events in time, I’d recommend the following great read by Elenore Stump (beware – lots of philosophy!): Aquinas (Arguments of the Philosophers)

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