This is the twentieth installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 and 19. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.
This interview is with Tyler Dalton McNabb, PhD student and tutor at the University of Glasgow.
Can you tell me something about your current academic position and work, and your religious affiliation/self-identification?
I am currently a tutor at the University of Glasgow. I also teach online as an Adjunct Instructor at Southeastern University. Given that I’ll be turning in my PhD thesis in a few weeks, I am currently looking for a full-time position. Speaking of my PhD thesis, now might be a good time to address my work. My thesis and recent publications pertain to defending both Plantinga’s proper functionalism and his Reformed epistemology.
I grew up in Texas and like all good Protestant Texans, I was raised a Southern Baptist. My family wasn’t the most devout family (though they were one of the most loving!) though. We would go to church off and on and there were times where we went a very long time without going. This being so, there was still a sense of needing to honour Christ in one’s actions.
This would change a bit in my senior year of high school where I began to struggle with doubt. I found myself convinced (and I am still convinced) of the following conditional: if atheism is true, then nihilism is true. I started really asking the ‘big’ questions about God’s existence and the resurrection of Jesus.
Though I always felt naturally inclined to just believe that God exists, I didn’t have a good argument (which I thought I had to have) for believing in theism or Christianity. One day, I told God that if He wouldn’t reveal Himself to me that I would become a nihilist. That night, through the internet, I came across what theologians call ‘Messianic prophecy’ and I found myself believing that passages like Isaiah 53 spoke of Jesus. I immediately believed that Jesus was the Messiah and that the Bible was God’s Word. The next day, being that I was already late to school, I figured that I would pull over and take out my Bible. I prayed to God and asked Him if Jesus was indeed the Second Person of the Trinity. I did that unpardonable sin and randomly flipped open the Bible. As Providence would have it, I read a verse that to me, clearly reflected Jesus’ deity. It was from this point on that I began to have a great love for God and I immediately felt convicted to share the Gospel with strangers. In total, from the time of getting right with God to starting my street evangelism career, there was about 2 months.
I ended up going to a theologically liberal Baptist college after high school and I was quickly forced to again confront scepticism. I began to study apologetics which would eventually lead me to philosophy. I ended up going to Israel to share the Gospel and there, I would be forced to put what I learned into action. At the end of the trip, I felt God asking or calling me to share and defend my faith on a larger scale. I told God that as long as I didn’t lose my faith in the process that I would accept His call. And while I didn’t lose my faith, I did struggle with great doubt for about a year soon after. This was partly due to having Cartesian epistemology. Though through this time I had a couple of occasions where I did feel God’s presence in incredible ways. I believe God let me experience His presence like this in order to preserve my faith during this time of doubt. It was eventually through the work of William Lane Craig and especially Alvin Plantinga (surprising to you, I’m sure) that the season of doubt ended and my desire to be a professional philosopher began.
While I now feel very confident in my Christian faith, I have struggled with which Christian tradition I should belong to. In fact, I have now had the pleasure of belonging to almost all of the main Christian traditions. I believe that, my warrant for my belief that Christianity is true is very high, while my belief in the so called ‘secondary doctrines’ carries significantly lower warrant (though still enough for knowledge, I think). Because of this, I feel most comfortable calling myself an Evangelical Christian before anything else. The struggle hasn’t prevented me from evangelism or pursuing a long philosophy career though. Fast forward to current times, I am not only teaching philosophy, but I am using philosophy to help share the Gospel through open air preaching and personal evangelism.
I’ve recently been wondering whether atheism – the belief that God does not exist – could be properly basic. By that, I mean whether it could be a belief that is not based on arguments, but nonetheless formed by a reliable mechanism that is truth-oriented.
I doubt whether atheism could be properly basic. If I am right, then, in order for atheism to be warranted (or maybe even merely rational; see below), atheism has to be based on arguments—whereas, perhaps, such a thing is not required for theism.
Now, here’s my line of thought. It seems we need to consider two mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive scenarios: one in which God exists and one in which he does not.
We can be rather short about the first scenario. If God exists, then it seems impossible that humans have a truth-oriented reliable mechanism that produces the basic belief that God does not exist. Such a mechanism could never be both truth-oriented and reliable, for all of its deliverances – each instance of the basic belief that God does not exist – would be false.
Thomas Nagel writes a review of Alvin Plantinga’s recent book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, which James Beebe has also nicely reviewed here at Prosblogion.
Nagel’s review is well-written and charitable. He covers much territory by summarizing large swathes of Plantinga-philosophy in succinct paragraphs, all without sacrificing accuracy. (He even appears to have carefully read footnotes from Plantinga’s other works.) His only objection seemed to be that Plantinga does not consider naturalist theories of mental content. Plantinga doesn’t cover them in this book, but he deals with a number of them in a recent PPR paper.
So, as one very familiar with Plantinga’s work, I was impressed with Nagel’s review.
In Where the Conflict Really Lies, which James Beebe has nicely reviewed, Alvin Plantinga discusses nomological necessity, the necessity had by physical laws. As he (and everybody else) points out, propositions like
2) Every sphere made of gold is less than 1/2 mile in diameter
are true and universal. However, there is a clear sense in which (2) is not necessary in the sense required for lawhood (the sort of necessity we call ‘nomological necessity’). On the other hand, the proposition that no object can increase from a velocity less than the speed of light to a velocity more than the speed of light is nomologically necessary. Also, it does not seem that this proposition is necessary in the broadly logical or metaphysical sense; the law seems contingent.
How are we to understand nomological necessity? Plantinga suggests:
But numbers and sets themselves make a great deal more sense from the point of view of theism than from that of naturalism. Now there are two quite different but widely shared intuitions about the nature of numbers and sets. First, we think of numbers and sets as abstract objects, the same sort of thing as propositions, properties, states of affairs and the like… On the other hand, there is another equally widely shared intuition about these things: most people who have thought about the question, think it incredible that these abstract objects should just exist, just be there, whether or not they are ever thought by anyone. Platonism with respect to these objects is the position that they do exist in that way, that is, in such a way as to be independent of mind… But there have been very few real Platonists, perhaps none besides Plato and Frege, if indeed Plato and Frege were real Platonists (and even Frege, that alleged arch-Platonist, referred to propositions as gedanken, thoughts). It is therefore extremely tempting to think of abstract objects as ontologically dependent upon mental or intellectual activity in such a way that either they just are thoughts, or else at any rate couldn’t exist if not thought of. (287-288)
I am inclined to think that there are numbers and that they are abstract objects, but I don’t have the second intuition that they must be thought. Is there something I’m missing? I do have the intuition that contingently existing objects must have a cause for their existence, but I don’t have the intuition that abstract objects must be thought, which, if they exist, necessarily exist.
Maybe somebody could help motivate this intuition for me? Or is this intuition not very widely shared (contra Plantinga’s remark)?
Just learned about this. A great web resource. It is kicked off by Alvin Plantinga, and they have Michael Murray, Eleonore Stump and others lined up for the next two years. Lecture notes are also included.
Perhaps spurred on by the release of and subsequent discussion of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, there seem to have been from Christian sources a lot of recent expressions of hope that all people will be saved. In case you missed it, one example of such an expression (though one quite independent from the Love Wins brouhaha) that will be of interest to many readers of this blog came from Alvin Plantinga, in this interview. Money quote:
That’s called universalism. And I don’t myself quite believe it, but I don’t disbelieve it either. I think it’s something that a Christian should at least hope for.
As far as what he thinks is true, Plantinga seems here to be leaning toward universalism. At least that’s how I’m inclined to read the above bit, given the “quite” in the “I don’t myself quite believe it,” and the absence of such a “quite” in what comes next. And the rest of what Plantinga says also inclines me to such a understanding. (He discusses universalism at 2:10 – 4:45 of the video.) But the endorsement of hope in the last sentence of the above is equally interesting.
But also in the air these days are reactions against such hope. In a blog post that is itself an enthusiastic endorsement of hope on this matter (but also a denial that more than hope is called for – and the post also seems to me to contain a little lapse in modal logic), Paul Griffiths notes:
Bell has been excoriated, scarified, and cast into the outer darkness by some in the evangelical world for defending such a hope. They are the ones who are quite sure that universalism can’t be true, and that to affirm it is to reject orthodoxy.
As I know from recent facebook discussions, some Christians (as well as interested non-Christians) are dumbfounded that any Christians would reject even hope on this matter. In subsequent posts, I hope (!) to address what might be thought to be wrong with such a hope, answer such worries, and discuss the role of hope in the Christian life a bit.
Here I just want to set up that discussion by making an important preliminary point. In many Christian churches, communities, and institutions, one can get into trouble for being a universalist, and this drives a lot of Christian universalism (and openness to universalism) underground (as I discussed a bit several years ago here). And this may cause suspicion that some of those who express hope, but not belief or acceptance, that all will be saved may really believe or accept universalism, and are expressing mere hope here in order to avoid trouble. And I have little doubt that that’s so in at least some cases. But certainly not in all cases — and I would certainly think, for example, not in the case of Plantinga. Many seem to genuinely hope that all will be saved, while quite genuinely finding the reasons for thinking that hope will be realized to fall short of justifying acceptance of universalism. The hope-without-acceptance position may constitute an effective shelter for underground universalists from the heretic hunters (in some segments of Christianity), but it does so in part because it’s a reasonable position to more genuinely occupy – and a position that many reasonable Christians genuinely do occupy. At any rate, I will be discussing the hope-without-acceptance position as a genuine stance a Christian might take, and not as position to publicly adopt while more privately holding something else.
Azusa Pacific University, Azusa California
This forum aims at promoting the project of Christian philosophy and recognizing those who have substantially contributed to that project.
This year recognizes the work of Dr. Alvin Plantinga. He will be presenting two lectures:
“Science and Religion: Where the Conflict Really Lies”
Is there a conflict between Christian belief and evolution or is the conflict between Christian belief and naturalism? What is the proper framework for Christians to think about these issues?
“Evolutionary Psychology and Scripture Scholarship: More Alike Than you Might Have Thought”.
Given that Christians ought to be enthusiastic about science, how should Christians think about some theories of evolutionary psychology and some types of scripture scholarship? Should Christian beliefs that conflict with such scientific theories be given up?
For details go to: