Most people expect that my philosophy room would have a lot of pictures of famous philosophers. I have a few, but not many. They are surprised, however, at how many comic strips and cartoon books I have on the shelves. One of my favorites is The Quintessential Porcine History of Philosophy and Religion. It simply has drawings of pigs whose enlightening poses represent all kinds of philosophical people and positions. Philosophers need “down time,” and this is one way to get it.
I have three graduate degrees in philosophy, so I could spend a lot of time in this room. However, this tour through my house in the Christian subdivision is just a walk through, so I will point to just two items in this room: epistemology and morality. (The tour narration may be a little more difficult here, because it’s … well, it’s philosophical. Yet I’m convinced that philosophy forces us to wrestle with very practical and personal matters, so I hope you’ll stay with me in this room for a bit.)
(1) Epistemology is the fancy word for saying “study of knowledge.” It asks difficult questions about whether we can know anything; and if so, what and how? Complete skepticism—the idea that we cannot know anything—seems absurd and therefore unacceptable. How could anyone ever know or claim that skepticism is true? (Think about that for a second…. It wouldn’t make much sense to say that you know for sure that no one can know anything for sure.) Talking to complete and consistent skeptics would be pointless: such skeptics could not know what you are saying, and they could not even know what they are saying! How could such a skeptic argue about anything? The very process of “argument” presumes that one can at least know what one is arguing. Complete skepticism, even if it were true, could not be communicated. As a result, and in fact, although a number of people claim to be skeptics, they are not complete and consistent skeptics. They are much more selective about what they’re skeptical about. They are typically skeptical of what other people believe.
However, in this room, I want to emphasize the point that humans have the capacity to know a lot. I am amazed, as you probably are as well, at how much we know about the world. The impressive advances in science and medical technology illustrate this. But a key question is this: how do we know anything?
The general answer from the Bible and Christianity is that we have been created in the image of God with such capacities. God even gave us the obligation and the prerogative to “rule” and “subdue” the earth and its creatures (Genesis 1:26-28). He created nature to be orderly and understandable; and He designed us to be able to comprehend it. As a result, the account of creation explains how science itself is possible, and it presents a positive motivation for doing science.
However, without God, how do we explain our knowledge of the world? We must begin with absolutely no intelligence in a universe without any purpose or direction. Presumably, the universe began somehow “on its own”; our galaxy and solar system formed through physical principles that “just happened” to be as they are; the first living cell or organism arose “spontaneously”; humans eventually evolved through the purely blind processes of genetic mutation and natural selection; and humans evolved an amazing brain to “know things” through the same non-intelligent, undirected processes.
But wait a minute. There are a lot of big jumps in here. One huge jump is the jump to intelligence from absolutely no intelligence. That is not a small problem! Furthermore, why would a brain, even if it did evolve through totally non-intelligent processes, ever be interested in, or capable of, genuine truth about the world that goes far beyond the need for mere survival in Darwin’s sense? At best, it might produce a brain that could react to threatening stimuli, but why and how could it generate a brain that comprehends the connection, for example, between energy, mass, and the speed of light (E=MC^2)? How and why can our amazing mathematical mental capabilities (e.g. to contemplate black holes) somehow correlate truly with the way nature is? Einstein himself once put it this way: “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible” (Einstein: A Biography by Antonina Vallentin, p. 24).
It seems to me that the acquisition of such genuine knowledge—a correspondence between our mind’s concepts and reality—is deeply problematic for any explanation that rejects an ultimate intelligence. It makes much more sense to accept an intelligence that not only created the natural world to be rational, but our minds to be rational as well.
(2) The problem of morality constitutes a similar difficulty for any philosophical view that rejects an ultimate ground (like God) for what is good and, by consequence, what is evil. In spite of claims that some people make about how nothing is right or wrong for everybody, this is a lot easier to say than it is to live. In fact, my sense is that no one actually lives that way. If you ever encounter someone who claims that nothing is absolutely right or wrong, steal their purse, shoot them in the leg, tell them you intend to rape their daughter or sexually abuse their son. (You know that I don’t really mean for you to do these things, right?) If they are consistent with their own claims, they may not “like” what you might do, but they cannot call them “wrong” in any genuinely moral sense.
I think a strong case can be made that people universally do recognize some actions as categorically right or wrong. But why? Without God—without some ultimate and transcendent basis for morality—why do we have such a strong moral sense? What justifies our moral condemnation of those in other countries and cultures for things like infanticide and genocide, especially if right and wrong are simply determined by culture? If the Darwinian struggle for survival is the fundamental operating principle, how is anything genuinely “evil”? How is anything genuinely “good”—other than whatever facilitates survival?
I must make one important qualification before we leave this room. I am not at all claiming that those who do not accept God are not, and cannot be, generally moral in their actions. I do suggest, however, that their motivations to be moral do not consistently arise from their philosophical position. Moreover, their philosophical position does not provide a consistent and adequate basis for them to believe that the “good” they are doing is “really good,” because it offers no objective standard that could justify that moral quality. If those who accept no God have knowledge of what is good—and I believe they do—it’s because of the moral sense that God instilled within them as creatures in His image, not because of their own professed naturalistic worldview.
In sum, the existence of a transcendent Creator whose very nature is Good helps me make sense of our human capacities to know the world and to know what is really right and wrong. Furthermore, it motivates me to do what is right and gives me a basis to oppose what is wrong.