Politics, philosophy, religion, and other things

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"The Trust" by Ellen Bryant Voigt

The NYRB has an article by Charles Simic on Robert Padgett, with whom I wasn't familiar, and one of my favorite poets, Ellen Bryant Voigt. It's a nice little overview of their work (I'm definitely going to read some of Padgett's poetry), but I mainly wanted to use it as an excuse to post one of the poems by Bryant that Simic discusses.

Something was killing sheep
but it was sheep this dog attended on the farm—
a black-and-white border collie, patrolling his fold
like a parish priest. The second time the neighbor came,
claiming to have spotted the dog at night, a crouched figure
slithering toward the pen on the far side of the county,
the farmer let him witness how the dog,
alert and steady, mended the frayed
edge of the flock, the clumped sheep calm
as they drifted together along the stony hill.
But still more sheep across the glen were slaughtered,
and the man returned more confident. This time,
the master called his dog forward,
and stroking the eager head, prized open the mouth to find,
wound around the base of the back teeth—squat molars
the paws can't reach to clean—small coils of wool,
fine and stiff, like threads from his own jacket.
So he took down the rifle from the rack
and shot the dog and buried him,
his best companion in the field for seven years.
Once satisfied, the appetite is never dulled again.
Night after night, its sweet insistent promise
drives the animal under the rail fence and miles away
for a fresh kill; and with guilty cunning brings him back
to his familiar charges, just now stirring in the early light,
brings him home to his proud husbandry.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief Pt. 1

One of the reasons I initially began studying philosophy was through studying Christian apologetics. Apologetics has a long history, and many eminent theologians have written apologetic works. However, it is unfortunately true that a lot of the bestselling contemporary apologetics books are really bad. So it's worth paying attention to the good ones. This is why I decided to read Warranted Christian Belief, by Alvin Plantinga.

Plantinga, a philosopher at Notre Dame, is one of the most well-known and interesting writers in contemporary philosophy of religion. He was one of the earliest proponents of "Reformed Epistemology." According to this view, it is within the bounds of rationality to believe in God, and even to be a Christian, in the absence of proofs or evidence for these beliefs. More recently, he has published a three book series laying out a complete epistemological system. The last book in this series, published in 2000, is Warranted Christian Belief (WCB).

Essentially, this book is an application of his epistemological theory to Christianity. Thus, it is not directly a book of apologetics--at least as traditionally conceived. Apologetics, which literally refers to a defence or apology for a doctrine, focuses on responding to two types of objections. The first, which Plantinga calls de facto objections, are objections to the truth of Christian belief. The most well-known de facto objection is the problem from evil--which if successful is a proof that God doesn't exist.

The other kind of objections are de jure objections. These objections do not attempt to show that Christian beliefs are false, but that there is something irrational, unjustified, or unwarranted in accepting Christian beliefs. For instance, if I formed the belief that the Seattle Mariners would win the World Series next year, not because I thought there team was really good, but just from sheer fandom, we would say that I don't have any warrant or justification for that belief. However, that is not the same thing as saying the belief is false, as it could end up being true.

In WCB, Plantinga proposes to just focus on de jure objections. The reason he gives for this is that he thinks both the critics and defenders fail to show that Christian belief is, or is not, true. Thus, we must decide whether we should, or should not, or whether it is permissible to accept Christian belief in the absence of certainty.

This seems to me like an interesting question. Like Plantinga, I don't think that the atheist or the theist have really shown adequate de facto reasons for belief. However, I've tended to assume that the appropriate response is agnosticism or a form of modest atheism. So I'll go through this book, somewhat corresponding to the sections, and put down my thoughts and responses.

I'll address Part 1 in my next posting on the book. In it, Plantinga asks whether there even is a question about the justification of Christian belief. If, as some have claimed, Christian beliefs, and religious beliefs in general, are not propositional, then the question as to the de jure nature of Christian beliefs doesn't exist.