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Back from San Francisco: A Belated Report

February 3rd, 2012 by Matt

MandM has been quite of late, this is because Madeleine and I have been very busy.  With moving house in the midst of Christmas and New Years and Madeleine working part-time in a law firm and so on, we’ve had little time to blog. We are now set up, to some extent, and so this post will be a belated comment on my recent trip to San Francisco.

In November I flew to San Francisco where I attended I attended the  Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), The Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society (EPS), The Evangelical Philosophical Society Apologetics Conference and The Annual Meeting of the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL) and American academy of religion.(AAR). While I would love to give detailed commentary on each session, to do so would require several blog posts of inordinate length, instead I will simply summarise what went down.

I arrived in San Francisco at around 4pm  on the 15th. I presented my first paper at 8:30am the next morning. My paper was a critique of Walter Sinnott Armstrong’s arguments against divine command theory meta-ethics. Armstrong contends that the nature of moral obligation is best explained by identifying moral obligations with the natural property of harming others without justification, and, focusing largely on Craig’s work, argues this is superior to divine command ethics. I argued: (a) his argument fails to note the conditional nature of Craig’s (his main target’s) contention that if theism is true moral obligations are best explained as divinecommands (b) Armstrong’s does not provide a better account of moral objectivity (c) Armstrong’s account is not more economical than a divine command theory. (d) Even if it were an economical account, it does not explain various features of obligation such as (i) the social nature of moral obligations (ii) the fact that moral obligations constitute a decisive reason for acting and (iii) the specific moral content of obligations; as well as a divine command theory. All in around 30 minutes!!! The paper was very well received, with several people asking me to forward them a copy. I plan to get it published later this year.

The rest of the morning was filled with me hearing various papers on moral theory and philosophy of religion all of which were interesting and stimulating. These panellists all shared similar perspectives yet were astutely critical of each other’s arguments. Particularly interesting was the dialogue between Baggett and Craig. Some of the issues here were technical and deserve further discussion so I plan to blog on this dialogue in more detail in the future. But in sum: Craig has defended a counterfactual: if God did not exist then moral obligations would not exist. Baggett  argued for various reasons that this is too strong; if God, the creator and sustainer of the universe, did not exist, the universe would not exist. To make sense, Craig’s claim needs to envisage a compossible world, which is like the actual world in all respects except that God does not exist, if it’s like the world in all other respects however, then it has all the features of the world God has created – and hence the resources for something like moral obligations to exist. Instead, Baggett contended, one should argue that a world with God provides a better explanation of the nature and existence of moral obligations than a world without God does. This means the theist does not have to argue, with Craig, that there is no adequate secular account of the existence of moral obligations, only that a divine command theory is more plausible than such accounts. Both Craig and Baggett made telling points which I will have to elaborate on some other time. highlight of Wednesday was the afternoon session. A panel discussion of David Baggett and Jerry Wall’s new book “Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality”. This book is the latest defence of divine command theory ethics, recently published by Oxford University Press. Baggett and Walls sketched briefly the content of the book and Paul Copan and William Lane Craig offered critical commentary, to which Baggett and Walls responded.

Thursday started with an excellent critique of evolutionary ethics by Angus Menuge, exploring the relationship between evolved moral dispositions and moral obligations. This was an excellent paper, though I was critical of some aspects of the argument. Next was Frank Beckwith, arguing that the standard liberal view of religion and public life applied consistently rules out state recognition of same sex marriage. I think Frank is correct on this, because, as I have argued elsewhere, the liberal view rules out almost any substantive position on any controversial issue.

However, for me the highlight for me on Thursday was a sparsely attended lecture entitled. The intensionality problems for divine command Divine command theory. The author of this paper offered a very novel and rigorous critique of divine command meta ethics. Seeing there were very few in attendance, I was able to have a really good back and forth discussion with the presenters where I offered several arguments as to why I thought their critique failed. This was probably the most constructive of sessions for myself, and also I suspect, for the authors of the paper.

This was followed by Michael Licona’s response to Norman Geisler.  To those who have not followed this debate, Liccona’s recent book on the historicity of the resurrection had raised the ire of Geisler because it suggested that one passage in the Gospel of Matthew might contain apocalyptic imagery and so was not intended by the author to be a literal description of what occurred. Licona gave a pointed rebuttal of Geisler’s position, noting that the claim that the author did not intend to speak literally on a given occasion is not the same as the claim that he spoke falsely.

Thursday afternoon saw Dallas Willard’s keynote address on moral formation.

Friday saw things begin to wind down a bit. Instead of starting at 8:30 the sessions began at 9:45 enabling me to get some much needed rest in the morning. At 9:45 I attended a stimulating session and discussion on the distinction between active and passive euthanasia. This was followed by Mike Austin and Doug Geivett presenting their new moral argument for theism. Jeremy Evans gave a paper on the defeat of evil, and the conference finished, for me, with a very technical but interesting discussion of Michael Tooley’s deontological argument from evil. I tried to contribute significantly to the discussion at most of these sessions, and believe I was able to give good feedback as well as sharpen my own thinking considerably.

Apologetics Conference
After Willard’s address on Thursday.  I was driven to the first Presbyterian church in Berkley for the beginning of the annual EPS apologetics conference. The plenary session took place in a two storied auditorium and overflow lectures were also set up outside in the hall.  As one of the speakers I was given a meal, and then along with other speakers like Paul Copan, William Lane Craig,  were given front row seats to watch Willard’s opening address.

After this I attended a breakout session by Richard Hess, an eminent Old Testament scholar. Hess had been on the panel discussion with me in Atlanta last year, and delivered a talk similar to his one in Atlanta. Hess argued the command in to destroy the Canaanites is, directed towards those in the cities. Unlike modern societies, an ancient agrarian society vast majority of people lived in the countryside and only the elite lived in the cities. He argues further that many “cities” mentioned in Joshua such as Ai and Jericho were probably forts. I have reservations about the plausibility of this position, but took the opportunity to discuss some of these with Hess and while I am not completely convinced of his whole thesis I am more sympathetic now to some aspects of it.

On Saturday I gave my address to the apologetics conference. My session was at the same time as Paul Copan and Douglas Geivett’s, so I did not expect a massive turnout. To my considerable surprise, not only the entire room full, but many people had to stand out and crowds even overflowed out of the room into the hall. After my session several students instead of attending the next session stayed with me for almost another hour asking me questions.  I felt really humbled that so many people wanted to hear the thoughts of an obscure theologian from New Zealand. What stood out about this conference however was the passion and commitment of the audience. They genuinely wanted to learn and you felt you were really helping and assisting them with what you did.  Often in NZ when I speak the audience is secular and hostile, or Christians more concerned with emotion than intellect; it was invigorating to find lay Christians passionate for intellectual stimulation of this sort.

Society of Biblical Literature
Only a few hours after my talk at the EPS apologetics conference I was part of a panel on theological blogging for the society of biblical literature (SBL). The SBL conference was enormous, and took place over at least three hotels and a three storied conference centre in San Francisco. Almost everyone of any stature in the US or UK who studied anything to do with biblical literature was present.

My talk at the SBL was very different two the previous two. My audience were mostly theologians or bible scholars who were into the latest electronic gadgets, and my paper was largely reflective on my experience as a blogger. The panel also was a bit disjointed, the speaker before me was speaking on “Is Blogging at 3 am scholarship”  but instead she spent around 15 minutes talking about occupy wall street and the occupation of Palestine and added that  her blogging on these issues lead to her writing columns for the  Huffington post. The speaker after me had been unable to turn up, so instead we got a demonstration of some new technology, followed by an interview with the founder of academia.edu. Both Joel Watts and Jim West have blogged their thoughts on my session.

So that’s a very brief summary of my trip: I attended several other interesting and stimulating sessions but space prevents elaboration. The week proved to be very productive. While there I was asked to contribute to an upcoming book on virtue ethics, and one publisher expressed interest in a possible book by myself and Paul Copan. I also, to my considerable surprise, received word an article of mine will be published in the Westminster Theological, and a short time later I discovered a second is to be published in Philosophia Christi. The conference has also given me several ideas for different papers. As I joke to my friends I have so much writing to do that all I need is a college to provide me with institutional backing.

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  • Sorry to miss your paper at ETS, Matt. I did, however, see a stimulating (yet not finally compelling) paper by Gregory T.K. Wong on the amour of Goliath, and a good paper by Michael Heiser on polytheism in the Old Testament. Hope to see one of your papers in future years.