Particularism and Christianity

JP Moreland has an interesting lecture on Skepticism and Epistemology here. He argues that our current society is hostile to religious and moral knowledge and perhaps even knowledge in general. One of his goals is to explain how we know what we know.

He claims that the duty of "knowers" is to simultaneously believe as many truths as possible while disbelieving as many falsehoods a possible. In other words, be capable of sorting one’s beliefs from good to bad. If our goal were simply to believe as many true things as possible, our task would be easier, we could simply believe everything. Similarly, if our goal were simply to avoid false beliefs, our task would be easy, simply don’t belief anything. The "Problem of the Criteria" is how do we separate our true beliefs from our false beliefs? How do we begin our sorting task?

There are three main answers to the knowledge sorting problem. The first view is Epistemological Methodism. This view holds that before I know something, I must start with a criterion that answers "How do I know it?" Apparently Descartes tried to postulate the criteria of "That which is clear and distinct in the mind" to answer the skeptic leading him the statement "I think therefore I am." However, this view has a problem. Before knowing proposition P, one must know the criterion C, and the fact R: "P satisfies C." This leads the question of “how do I know both C and R?” which leads to an infinite regress.

The second view is Particularism. This view is that there are specific things I know and I don’t need to know how I know them in order to know them. This view starts with particular knowledge claims, criteria may be developed by reflecting on particular knowledge. The criteria developed can be developed to help with difficult cases, but the criteria are no more basic than the particular pieces of knowledge that inspired them. For example, I know 2+2=4. By reflecting on arithmetic knowledge, I may be able to develop axioms of arithmetic. But if my axioms then show 2+2 is not 4, I would conclude my axioms are wrong, not that I don’t know 2+2 = 4.

The third view is Skepticism. Skeptics conclude that there is no solution to the problem of the criteria. They think that the “Methodists” are caught in an infinite regress and the Particularist is begging the question. However, how would the skeptic know that the Particularist is begging the question?

J.P concludes that Particularism is the correct view. That we can know things even if it’s possible we’re wrong. The mere possibility we are wrong is no reason to think we are wrong. I think his view on Epistemology has some merit.

JP goes on to make the case that a “Divine Law Giver” makes the most sense of morality and moral knowledge. (It wasn’t in his lecture, but he could have said moral laws seem like commands, and commands only make sense as communication between minds). For the sake of this post, I will grant that there is a God who makes sense of moral law.

However, I think Particularism poses some serious difficulties for Christianity as well. To see how, it is helpful to reflect on the nature of morality. In some cases, the same action can be either moral or immoral depending on the motive of the actor. For example, suppose a boy tripped someone. If he did it to enjoy seeing the tripped in pain, the action would be immoral. However, if he did it to prevent the tripped from being hit by a bus, the action is commendable.

In addition, a lack of action can be moral or immoral. If one has knowledge of a serious pending crime like terrorism, they would have a duty to report it. Neglecting to act in this case would be immoral. Where there is no motive, like in natural disasters, we may think the results are tragic, but the natural cause is not blamed. Who would blame the meteor for falling out the sky and destroying property?

By reflecting on these and other particular moral truths, I am justified in claiming that I know:
  • In order for an action (or inaction) to be moral or immoral a motive must attach to that action.
  • Punishing someone for the crimes of someone else is immoral (also see Deuteronomy 24:16)

Now examine 1 Samuel 15:2-3. Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he ambushed him on the way when he came up from Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

Samuel claims that God wants the Israelites to kill every man, woman, child, infant, cattle, etc. That in itself may not be wrong, however note the motive that Samuel attributes to God. This attack is punishment for crimes committed over 300 year prior. The sentence is carried out on infants and nursing mothers who cannot have taken part in the act that caused the judgment.

Notice that Samuel attaches an evil motive to the action. This makes the action evil. Thus, if someone believes that there is a God who is the basis for the moral law written on our hearts, they are justified in concluding that the God is not the one referred to in the Bible. If someone says “God wants you to make the board 5 feet long because 2+2 = 5.” I would conclude that person is slandering God’s intelligence. Here, I think I am justified in thinking Samuel is slandering God’s character.

There are some common rejoinders to this conclusion that I would like to address now. The first is God is within his rights to take any life and could have had a good reason the kill the infants and the killing could even be merciful. (Geisler and Howe make this point in their book “When Critics Ask.”) That is true, but misses the point. The point is that Samuel attributed a motive to God and that motive is evil. There could very well be good reasons for killing infants, but punishment for the sins of long dead ancestors is not one of them. Samuel is slandering God here. He should have offered a good reason, but he didn’t. If you are a Christian, what would Samuel have to say before you were convinced he was not speaking for God?

The second objection is that without God, I have no basis for claiming moral knowledge. Firstly, this objection confuses me (a particularist) with an epistemological Methodist. A second point is that I am not presuming God is not the basis for morality. I am merely claiming that if there is a God that is the Basis for morality, it is not the God of Samuel.