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A very belated report on my trip to San Diego

April 12th, 2015 by Matt

With trips to the US, Christmas, New Years, the summer break, Madeleine’s work, my preaching and juggling the family and the launch of my book, it has been a while since I blogged. Since the last post was about me going to the US I figured I should start by giving a very belated update on the trip before I get down to more run of the mill blog posts.

Last time Madeleine blogged it was Wednesday 19 November 2014, the day after I had flown out of Auckland. I arrived in Los Angeles at 10 am on Tuesday 18 November 2014 (love the international date line!) and I finally arrived in San Diego that afternoon where I had an enjoyable dinner with Moore College President Mark Thompson.

The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and Evangelical Philosophical Society (EPS)  meetings began the next day. The first session I attended was a very good paper by Richard Davis and Paul Franks critiquing Wes Morriston’s criticisms of divine command meta-ethics (DCM). This paper was technical so I’ll try to summarise: Morriston objects that if moral requirements are identical with God’s commands, and even if it’s impossible for a perfectly good God to command the random sacrifice of 3 years olds, DCM still entails that if this impossibility were actualised and God were to command the random slaughter of 3 year olds, then such slaughter is wrong.

This objection involves what is called a counter-possible, which is a hypothetical statement with an impossible antecedent. In this case the antecedent is that a perfectly good person could command the random sacrifice of children. According to the standard semantics for counter in modal logic all counter-possibles are  trivially true. Morriston argues this approach to standard semantics is mistaken; it is plausible that some counter possibles are false and that this counter-possible is one such example.

Davis and Franks, give an interesting and thoughtful reply to Morriston in their forthcoming article “Counterpossibles and the ‘Terrible’ Divine Command Deity“. They argue: (a) Morristons’ own criteria  for distinguishing true from false counter-possibles entails that the counter-possible, If God commanded random sacrifice then random sacrifice is morally required, is, in fact, true and not false. Second, (b) they argue that DCM does not entail this counter-possible.

To put their point in a nutshell: they argue that a world where God commands evil is a world where God ceases to be good; and since goodness is an essential property of God this entails that in such a world God would cease to exist. However, given God is the creator and sustainer of all that is distinct from him, a world where God does not exist is a world where nothing exists. Hence, it is false that if God commands evil, evil would be morally required. This was an excellent paper and I enjoyed some stimulating discussion with both of the authors during the Q&A and also at lunch.

Next up was a paper by Frank Beckwith discussing Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous article “A defence of abortion”. Thomson famously concedes for the sake of argument that a fetus is a human being and then argues, from analogy, that even if that is the case abortion is still permissible. Beckwith argued that, in fact, Thomson does not grant the personhood of the fetus in the way opponents of abortion understand it, but instead assumes a radically individualistic understanding of persons whereby people are not bound by any obligations to others which they do not willingly consent to, a picture which appears to rule out such things as parental duties to children or children’s duties to parents.

This was followed by Micheal Rea’s interesting paper on whether God is gendered and the use of masculine and feminine language and imagery in describing God. His argument was that God is not gendered and the fact that most imagery used in scripture to describe God is masculine does not justify conceptualising God is exclusively masculine terms.

In the break I had some very good fellowship and discussion over pizza with members of the Facebook group, Christian Apologetics Alliance.

In the afternoon I took part in the ethics session of the ETS. The session kicked off with an interesting paper on how capital punishment is practiced in the US. The author, Ken Magnuson, made several disturbing observations about the fact that wealthy people almost always escape capital murder charges whereas the poor do not. This paper was unclear on what the nature of the core problem was: was it that innocent poor people were executed, or that the guilty escaped justice? While the fact that large numbers of innocent are executed might be a reason for opposing the death penalty, the fact that some guilty people get off does not seem to be. If the problem is that some escape capital punishment who deserve it, then ensuring everyone escapes capital punishment will increase the injustice. What was clear was that there needs to be some reforms to ensure less inequitable outcomes.

Next was a paper by Evan Lenow where he argued that the philosophical doctrine of self-ownership, as articulated in its progenitor John Locke, does not support abortion rights. In this I thought he was right; Locke’s writing in the first treatise makes Lenow’s case even stronger.

That afternoon I gave my paper, “Abortion as Self-Defence”. I offered a critique of Elieen Mcdonagh’s contention that even if a fetus is a human being, its presence inside a women who does not wish to be pregnant constitutes an act of unjustified aggression and so a women’s right to self-defence entitles her to kill it. My criticism was based on the fact that, in non rape cases, the fetus’ existence inside the woman is due to voluntary sexual intercourse for which her and her partner are responsible and this action confers parental obligations upon both of them. Given that parents have an obligation to provide the basic necessities of life to their children, the fetus’ appropriation of such necessities cannot be unjust aggression. This paper was well received and there was some excellent discussion about rape cases and therapeutic abortion in the Q&A. (Audio of my talk is available here.)

Thursday was equally intense. I began the morning hearing a paper by David Wood on Paul Draper’s version of the problem of evil. This was followed by a panel discussion on Scott Smith’s recent book, In Search of Moral Knowledge. The panel consisted of Francis Beckwith, David Baggett and James Dew, all offering critique and commentary on the book and Smith offering a response.

Matthew Flannagan and Paul CopanOver lunch I met with Paul Copan and a representative from Baker Academic to discuss the launch of Copan’s and my book, Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God, the promotional events we would each be participating in, and also the prospect of further publications in the future. I was then interviewed on camera for US television about the book. [Read more →]

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Matt in San Diego

November 19th, 2014 by Madeleine

San DiegoMatt has safely arrived in San Diego and the Annual General Meetings of the Evangelical Philosophical and Theological Societies commence in a few hours.

Matt is giving two papers this year, one at each conference: “Mackie’s Answer to the Error Theory: A Reply to Joyce″ at the EPS and “Abortion as Self Defence” at the ETS. As his book, Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of Godco-authored with Paul Copan, has just been released and is available for sale at the conference, I expect he will be busy promoting that too.

If you are lucky enough to be in San Diego at the conferences please snap a pic of him for me and tag him on Facebook so we back in NZ can see what he is up to :)

I want to thank those who generously donated to help get Matt there, we couldn’t have done it without you.

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Is belief in God essential for Morality? Why Crime Statistics don’t answer this question

November 18th, 2014 by Matt

Readers of this blog will note that, of late, I have been focusing a lot in my thinking, writing and research on questions of the relationship between religion and morality. One particular frustration I encounter in this topic is the, unfortunately common, tendency for writers and researchers to conflate separate questions and subsequently give answers to the wrong questions thinking they have answered the right ones.

A good example is article which was sent to me via e-mail recently entitled “The destructive myth about religion that Americans disproportionately believe.” The article comments on a recent survey which found that the majority of people in certain parts of the world, including the United States of America, believe that belief in God is essential for morality. The author considers this a “destructive myth”. His rebuttal involves two premises: (a) he interprets the survey’s results to mean that the majority of people believe you cannot live a morally good life unless you believe in God; (b) he aims to refute this by appealing to some unsourced crime statistics that suggest atheists do not commit disproportionately more crimes than theists.

o-PRISONER-READING-facebookI think his reasoning on both points is mistaken, before getting into why, I note that this article proposes to be about whether belief in God is essential to morality; it is not about the related, though separate, question of whether the existence of morality depends on the existence of God.

Turning to the first premise (a), the article opens with:

“Pew Research Center published the results of a survey conducted among 40,080 people in 40 countries between 2011 and 2013. The survey asked a simple question: Is belief in God essential to morality? While clear majorities say it is necessary, the U.S. continues to be an outlier. In 22 of the 40 countries surveyed, the majority says it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person. “This position is highly prevalent, if not universal, in Africa and the Middle East,” says the report.”

This is confused. The author states the question asked was: “Is belief in God essential to morality?” The author then interprets those answering in the affirmative as saying “it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person.” This does not follow from the affirmative answer. The question asked was whether belief in God is essential to the institution of morality itself; such a question is asking whether the institution needs this belief. The question did not ask what attributes were necessary to be a moral person.

Not only are these separate issues, they are logically distinct. [Read more →]

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The Arbitrariness Objection (once more): A brief reply to Jason Thibodeau

November 7th, 2014 by Matt

Jason ThibodeauJason Thibodeau over at The Secular Outpost has written a thoughtful discussion and response to the critique I made of Walter Sinnott Armstrong’s arbitrariness objection in my article, “Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Supernaturalism: A Reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong.”

Jason suggests that when you disambiguate the premises of Armstrong’s argument, it is formulated as follows:

(1) Either: (i) there is a reason, r, why God prohibits rape; or, (ii) there is no reason, r, why God prohibits rape.

(2) If there is no reason, r, why God prohibits rape, then God’s commands are arbitrary.

(3’’) If there is a reason, r, why God prohibits rape then r is what constitutes the wrongness of rape.

(4’’) If r is what constitutes the wrongness of rape then God’s commands are explanatorily superfluous.

The word “constitute” in premises (3”) and (4”) is a technical term for a  particular  kind of explanatory relationship. Mark Murphy explains, “The sense of explanation at stake is that of informative identification, as we explain the nature of water by identifying it with H2O or explain the nature of heat by identifying it with molecular motion.”[1]

In my paper, “Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Supernaturalism“, I argued that  (4’’) was false; (4’’) relies on a particular principle:

PI: If A is constituted by B, and someone has reasons, r, for bringing about B, then A is constituted by r.

However, PI is false. Consider a counter-example drawn from Stephen Sullivan. Consider Giorgio who is bachelor. Giorgio is unmarried because he prefers to live alone. Given that the property of being a bachelor is constituted by the property of being an unmarried man, and Giorgio’s love of living alone provides a reason for him to be an unmarried man, PI entails that the property of being an unmarried man is constituted by the property of preferring to live alone, but this is clearly false. Giorgio’s preference for living alone provides him with a reason for being a bachelor, in the sense that it is what motivates him to continue to be one, but his preferences do not constitute him being a bachelor.[2] There are, after all, many people who are bachelors who would prefer not to live alone.

Thibodeau  agrees that this counter example refutes PI, he  suggests a repair: [Read more →]

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On Judging Books by their Covers: A Fisk of the Secularist Outpost’s book review of Did God Really Command Genocide?

November 4th, 2014 by Madeleine

You should not judge a book by its cover, unless you are a secularist… then it is okay.

In a post entitled “Books Like This Should be a Warning Signal to Inerrantists“, published on 26 September 2014, The Secular Outpost’s Jeffery Jay Lowder refers to Paul Copan and this blog’s Matthew Flannagan’s, then forthcoming, book Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God.

crystal ballAfter making an acknowledged assumption as to whom authored the publisher’s description, Lowder then moves to confidently asserting that his assumption was correct, and leaps from there to critiquing the then-not-yet-published-or-available to-Lowder-to-actually-read content of the book. Yes folks, it is a live example of judging a book, quite literally, by its cover.

Lowder wrote: [note: that bold, underlined, italics are my emphasis, any other emphasis is original. My comments are in italics]

“So they admit that the relevant passages are among “the most confusing and uncomfortable passages of Scripture,” passages which make even hardened inerrantists like Copan and Flannagan “squeamish.”

This is the bit wrongly attributed to Paul and Matt that I referred to above.

“But, being the faithful believers that they are, Copan and Flannagan will argue that, yes, a “good, kind, and loving deity” would command (and, in fact, has commanded) “the wholesale slaughter of nations.””

Apparently Lowder is a clairvoyant secularist. Either that or he is really good at cover interpretation.

“How will they reconcile God’s goodness, kindness, and love with genocide? The book’s subtitle suggests that they will argue that “justice” is the answer.”


“The fundamental problem with books like this is that they fly in the face of what seems obvious to everyone else who doesn’t already hold the a priori belief that everything the Bible says must be true,”

Ah, so not being a Christian is what gives secularists the ability to boldly state the “obvious” about the content of books they have only had access to the covers of. I thought that maybe I just lacked the confidence to make such bold assertions about the content of books I have not read. (…Well, that, and the fact that, unlike Lowder, I do have access to the manuscript by virtue of my sleeping with one of the authors [whom I am married to] and I know for a fact that this is *not* actually what Paul and Matt argue. Small details, I know.)

“just because the Bible says it.””

That is actually not what inerrantists of Matt and Paul’s ilk believe;  this is actually a strawman (small detail, again, I know).

To paraphrase something Nick Trakakis wrote in another context, “Defenses of genocidal behavior by the OT god turn a blind eye to what seem clear and obvious to everyone else — that such behavior makes a mockery out of what any person would consider morally justifiable behavior.””

This would be a good ending if the book actually did defend “genocidal behavior by the OT god.” Again, small detail.

Did God Really Command Genocide?Advice to Lowder: try, I don’t know, reading it. It got released today so you finally can. Did God Really Command Genocide? is now available from the following book providers:

Baker Books
Book Depository

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Out Now: Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God by Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan

November 4th, 2014 by Madeleine

Did God Really Command Genocide?Well done Matt and Paul. :)

Out now!

Get your copy today of Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God, by Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, published by Baker Books.

More here.

Buy from Baker Books
Buy on Amazon in paperback
Buy for your Kindle
Buy from Book Depository

(The New Zealand store launch is not until 31 January 2015 but Book Depository do free international posting.)

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“Do as I say, not as I do.” Is God a cosmic hypocrite?

October 23rd, 2014 by Matt

In, my article “Tooley Plantinga and the Deontological Argument from Evil”, I argued that Tooley’s specifically deontological version of the argument from evil fails. To summarise very briefly, Tooley’s version of the argument assumes that God has moral obligations. However, according to a fairly mainstream theistic position on the relationship between God and morality, the wrongness of an action consists in its being forbidden by God. Given that God does not issue commands to himself, it follows that he has no obligations. Tooley’s argument, therefore, contrary to his own protestation, relies on controversial substantive moral assumptions, which many theists reject.

hypocrisyIn this post I want to respond to two objections to this line of argument. The first contends my position is contradictory or incoherent; one cannot coherently deny that God is subject to the commands he issues to human beings. The second contends my argument makes God a cosmic hypocrite. Human morality consists of God saying to us, “do as I say not as I do”.

Let us look first at the accusation of incoherence.  Central to theism is the notion that God is essentially good. In my paper I set this out in terms of God possessing certain character traits: God is loving, just, impartial, omniscient, and so on. God’s possession of these traits, however, limits the kind of commands one can coherently attribute to God. Specifically, his commands must express these traits in some sense, or in the very least not contradict them. To say God is just, for example, and impartial and loving but then attribute to him commands that are unjust, hateful and partial would be incoherent.

So far so good, here is the alleged problem. If God’s commands express (or are consistent with) his essential character, then how can it be consistent with his character to not act in accord with those same commands? If God commands us to refrain from performing some action then it would be a contradiction of his character if he himself does not refrain from that action.

This objection contains a false premise. It assumes that if one person’s commands to another person reflects certain character traits then consistency with those character traits means the first person must, themselves, follow that command. This is false. Consider an example. A loving parent sets their 9 year old daughter a bedtime of 8:30 pm. This parent’s command reflects their loving character, it does not follow, however, that being loving requires that the parent herself must go to bed at 8:30 pm. Or consider an experienced surgeon. Out of concern for his patients he prohibits inexperienced junior surgeons from performing certain operations without supervision. This does not mean his concern leads him to refrain from doing this surgery himself.

This also provides an answer to the second objection that human morality consists of God saying “do as I say, not as I do”. While the sarcastic slogan may have an effective use in certain contexts to show up a person’s hypocrisy, the idea that you cannot legitimately counsel or command another to not do something that you, yourself, do is false. Parents tell children to go to bed at 9:00 pm without themselves being morally required to go to bed at 9:00 pm. Governments prohibit private citizens from punishing people for crimes yet that does not entail governments cannot punish crime. Stunt-men warn those who watch their stunts to “not try this at home”. Husbands object to other men attempting to make love to their wives, it does not follow they themselves do not make love to their wives, and so on. The point is that in many contexts the difference between people’s knowledge, character, abilities, relationship, and authority mean it is perfectly appropriate for one to tell the other to do something that she herself would not do.

It does not follow, therefore, from the fact that a God commands us to refrain from a certain action, that that God himself could never do that action.

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