Modus Ponens and the Logic of Hope

Modus ponens is a basic form of a valid argument. Typically, it consists of a conditional premise, a second premise that asserts the antecedent of the first premise (i.e., the “if…” clause”), and a conclusion that asserts the consequent (the fulfillment of the conditional clause in the first premise). Its formula runs thusly,

  1. If P, then Q.
  2. P.
  3. Therefore, Q.

Example:

  1. If the media accurately reports the 2008 election results, the public will know who won the presidential election.
  2. The media accurately reports the 2008 election results.
  3. Therefore, the public knows who won the presidential election.

Of course, we could quibble over “accuracy” or the veracity of the media, but the argument above is valid. In fact, any argument having the form of modus ponens is valid (Note: Truth is another matter; validity has only to do with the structure of an argument. While any true argument must be valid, not all valid arguments are true.)

Now consider:

  1. If miracles are possible, then hope is reasonable.
  2. Miracles are possible.
  3. Therefore, hope is reasonable.

The presupposition of miracles is, of course, God’s existence. If God does not exist, then miracles as classically (not popularly) defined are not possible. A miracle is a special act of God, not merely an extraordinary event. You see, extraordinary events may be explained by other events not yet known or a series of prior events not understood to be aligned in a causal fashion to the extraordinary event in question.

Most secular people have an a priori assumption that miracles are not possible since all events can be explained by natural causes, even if we have yet to surmise those causes. But why must the acceptance of modern science as the explanation for some extraordinary phenomena entail a rejection of all other explanations, divine or otherwise? Can’t scientific explanations coexist with miraculous causes? Or, are they mutually exclusive?

Granted we are more likely to believe that events in nature are caused by natural means, but does this mean the natural world is solely sufficient to provide a satisfactory explanation for all phenomena in the world?

If some events cannot be explained by natural causes, then those events have some other non-natural explanation. (Sidebar: The popular bumper sticker from some years back “Stuff happens,” or something like it, is patently false. All events that occur in the material universe have causes. “Stuff” is an event in the material universe. Therefore, “stuff” has a cause!). If some events have non-natural explanations, then we have good reason to believe that God exists, since God is a non-natural agent. If we have reasons to believe God exists, then we have reason to hope that God may intervene. Thus, hope is reasonable, given that God exists.

Of course if God does not exist, then “miracles” would just be unexplainable phenomena. What status, then, would that give to hope?

6 thoughts on “Modus Ponens and the Logic of Hope”

  1. Paul,

    Would you not agree that to speak in terms of “natural causes” or “laws of nature”, it presupposes that nature acts independently of God?

    Do you think the force of such terminology falls short of biblical teachings on providence?

    Thanks Paul – good stuff!

  2. Excellent point, X! Absolutely agree that this manner of speaking does presuppose autonomy in nature, which is precisely the assumption of the secular/atheist mind. So, for argument’s sake, I do speak in this way.

    Theologically speaking, nothing whatsoever in the created (read “natural”) order is outside the absolute sovereign control of the Creator. Jesus, in so many words, said it thusly, “not a sparrow falls…nor a hair un-numbered).

    Nevertheless, whenever we engage unbelievers, we must keep in mind how they think in an effort to open doors to the truth of a Creator. And so, the force of speaking thusly does not mean that I endorse this manner of speaking. Rather it demonstrates that we understand the secular mind, which is critical to good communication and effective apologetics.

  3. X…
    Also consider my rhetorical question in the original post: “Can’t scientific explanations coexist with miraculous causes?”

    This would seem to address that God is involved in natural processes; albeit the naturalist would/could not admit it.

    To further unpack this consider:

    As the sovereign, all-knowing God of the universe, he has an overall “blueprint,” known only to him, in which he has already orchestrated every effect from every cause and every consequence from every condition. In his perfect wisdom and almighty power, God’s conception and resolve is to bring about the precise goal which he intends for his creation. Ultimately, everything that comes to pass is what he has purposed, and everything he has purposed comes to pass (Is. 14:26-27; Eph. 1:11).

    However, this does not eliminate intermediary causes. Persons are not puppets bound solely by a divine string. People make significantly free and, consequently, responsible choices that are part of the overall plan of God. Though human freedom is not absolute nor total in the sense that God’s design is made contingent, all people everywhere and at all times have been endowed with considerable determination impelled by the inclinations of the self, which, before redemption, is enslaved by sin.

    Nevertheless, God has providential control over all of history, despite the free, responsible choices of humans. Though Satan is the ruler of this world who seeks to bind everyone in darkness (2 Cor. 4:4; 1 Jn. 5:19; Rev. 12:9), God will have the final word (Rev. 20:10).

    Nothing eventuates which has not already been intended, either permissively or purposefully, by the Almighty God (Pr. 16:33; 1 Cor. 15:27; Eph. 1:11). Not only is God directly involved with creation by way of miracles, but he is indirectly involved through mediatorial means such as the natural laws of the universe, angels, individual human agency (good and evil), families, nations, and prayer.

    The ordinary providence of God can be seen in his supplying the created order with regularity in its operation (Gen. 8:22- Job 38:4-38; Ps. 104; Mt. 5:45; Acts 14:17). However, God provides extraordinarily through miraculous intervention for his specific redemptive purposes (Ex. 14:16; Ps. 78:13; Josh. 10:12-14; 1 Kgs. 18:17-49; Dan. 3:27-29; Mt. 8:2-3; Lk. 4:40; Jn. 9; Acts 9:42; Gal. 4:4; Heb. 2:4). Miracles do not transgress the laws of nature, since God set them in motion. Rather, miracles are divine irregularities in a universe that is operated by the regular ways in which God governs through natural processes. Under his providential control, miracles primarily serve to redirect human and/or satanic activity toward God’s redemptive agenda (Mk. 2:1-12; 5:30, 34). Though all miracles do not necessarily have their origin in heaven (Mt. 24:24; Rev. 13:13), those which clearly point to and confirm God’s salvific plan originate in the kingdom of light (Acts 2:43; 3:6-26; 9:40-42; Heb. 2:3-4).

    In addition, God’s providential control is seen in governing the affairs of nations. He is the chief architect and ruler over the nations (Job 12:23; Ezra 1:1; 6:22; Ps. 22:28; 33:14-15; Pr. 21:1; 16:9; Dan. 4:34-35; Acts 17:26). Even in the midst of evil God redirects the results of wrong human choices toward his ultimate purposes, whether his purposes are for blessing, discipline, or judgment (Gen. 37:28; 45:5; 50:20; 2 Kgs. 19:25; Is. 10:5, 12; 13:17; Jer. 25:9, 12; Ez. 14:9; Hab. 1:5-12; Rom. 8:28-29; Eph. 1:11).

    Not only does God redirect evil human activity toward his purposes, he also restrains evil. Abimilech was kept from having relations with Sarah, because God promised to fulfill his redemptive plan via Abraham’s offspring (Gen. 17:16-21; 20:1-7). The wicked plan of Haman to destroy the Jewish population was overruled by God’s providential plan to promote Esther in the Persian empire (Esther 4:14; 9:1-4). God contained the evil of the Ninevites by providing Jonah as a prophet to preach a message of repentance (Jonah 1:2; 3:10). Moreover, God provides government as a means of bridling the evil choices of humanity as well as allowing religious freedom (2 Thess. 2:6-7; Rom. 13:3-4; Acts 18:12-17).

    Just thinking…theologically that is ;->

  4. Great points Paul!

    All that I could add here is that at some point the doctrine of the Trinity and their eternal community and social life needs to come into play in Christian apologetics when making a case for a God who perfroms miracles that gives a genuine hope to and for the world.

    When Christians make the case simply for a God who does miracles, if the God we present to unbelievers is a single eternal monad who happens to do miracles as well, then we are left with the following:

    1. A monad God that is not by nature loving and relational, since prior to creation, this monad did not exist in loving eternal community but in isolation from others.

    2. The monad God is dependent upon creation in order to be relational and loving towards others. These acts of his are simply reactions to the created beings and are not part of His eternal nature in and of himself and apart from his creation of mankind.

    3. The monad God, at some level, has to relate to his creatures by brute force and raw power. He commands the creatures to love, not because he by nature is eternally loving and relational. It is simply from a position of the threat of raw power and brute force that the monad God commands his creatures to do anything, and not by his example or inherent nature.

    I also find that this monad is the kind of God that unbelievers often perceive from the preaching in modern day pulpits and Christianity at large–especially and unfortunately from those of us like me who are Calvinists.

    When Calvinists speak of God’s absolute sovereignty over all things when debating the issue, we often like to respond to those who differ by saying to them “YEAH, SO DEAL WITH IT.” In doing so, we may be leaving a person with a discouraging and misrepresentation of the Triune God as a tyrant non-relational monad who accomplishes His will from a position of nothing but raw power, instead of the Triune God who is not merely sovereign over all things, but in divine community is exceedingly relational, self-sacrificing, lavishly giving, loving, kind, humble, as well as being all-glorious and powerful.

    All I am saying is that if Christians are to make a solid and hopeful case for God and mircales to unbelievers, no matter how good and water-tight, if we leave them simply with the monad God who happens to do miracles, then in the end we have not left them with any good news or ultimate hope at all for the world being put back to rights and mankind being reconciled. This simply cannot happen under and by a monad God who has to rule by raw power.

    In saying these things, I completely affirm the truth, doctrine, and justice of an eternal hell and final judgment, and that the unbelieving world and church needs to hear the and heed these terrible and just warnings from scripture. Yet doctrine of the Trinty needs to be further brought to bear on that discussion(i.e. hell) muche than than it is today. However, that is a discussion for another day.

    That’s my two cents and personal observations form my own apologetic encounters.

  5. Very good points, Ken. We certainly do not want to present solely some generic God that is sterile, impersonal, and irrelevant. But we do have to start somewhere. Let me explain. In a day and age when the notion of God has moved from being marginalized to being the source for all evil in human history (as in the new atheism presented by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett), then I think it important to begin with baby steps. In other words, presenting the idea that God is before we move to who God is. The latter addresses the Triune God of Scripture; the former is the God of philosophy. Moving to the Triune God entails we’ve visited the God of philosophy.

  6. Paul,

    Here are some things I have been pondering further the past few days in regards to your latest post in this topic.

    I completely agree that in regards to our apologetics we often need to begin with baby steps when confronted with the atheism as presented by Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc. There is a time where simply making the logical case for the existence of God (or a god) from a variety of angles and arguments is most profitable. Yet, as I think you would agree, this line of thought has its limits, and if the athiest is sharp, he/she can turn around some of the best arguments for God’s existence and use them as part of their apologetic against Christianity to a certain degree.

    To simply argue for the existence of an eternal God, whoever he/it is, might be like ID arguments for an intelligent designer of the universe (I have nothing against ID arguments). The god/intelligent designer which may be a giant turtle, the force, the god of deism., or whatever one might wish to dream up. All then that has been established is the case for an intelligent designer and a somewhat purposeful ultimate eternal first cause (which can be very helpful initially). This does not establish whether this ultimate designer and first cause is loving, a thug tyrant, or simply indifferent.

    If the designer is a tyrant or an indifferent monad god, it seems not to really matter pragmatically in the end whether he/it exists or not. If the monad god is a tyrant who rules by raw power alone, he is not the kind of being which one should want to imitate or relate with. If he is the god of deism, he doesn’t care how we live or about the future and purpose of the creation.
    If the monad is nice and gives helpful laws to humanity, he still rules from a position of raw power and not by eternal example or by nature, Pragmatically, the tyrant, deistic , and nice god have no relevance to human lives in regards to being bound to render any type of allegiance, obedience, imitataion, or seeking relationship with him.

    Perhpas in different ways, all three kinds of gods here are thugs. Since neither kind of monad is relational by nature, it seems to follow that the creatures who bear his image would neither be relational by nature or are even obligated to be so. The creatures created by these three types of gods would eventually be tyrants of some type, like the monad god who made them.

    Also, if one wants to argue simply for a god on the basis of having an objective standard for morality, that’s fine, but there are limits to this apart from the Trinity. If the monad God is the objective and ultimate source from which binding human moral law comes from (maybe somewhat like the God of Natural Law that constitutional scholars and some of the Founding Father’s speak of), then again one is left with the problem of a tyrant God who rules from the basis of raw power instead of from that of by nature in an eternally loving and self-sacrificing Triune community.

    If the commands of scripture come from a monad God, then Christians have a book of commands that come from a God who rules by raw power. If we imitate that kind of a God, then we will over time become like him–tyrants who relate to others by raw power. The scriptures would then offer no hope to humanity in this regard. On the contrary, Christians would be perpetually at war with one another and the world in various ways, because we, like the monad God we worship and bear his image, could only ultimately relate to others by raw power as well.

    If the scriptures are a reflection of an eternal inter-Trinitarian covenant law that is grounded in an eternal self -denying love among Father, Son, and Spirit, then this is truly good news for the world–especially athiests (since the ethic they offer the world is ultimately based in raw power as well as contradiction). Those who by grace, through faith, are priviliged by grace to become a part of this eternal Trinue community of eternal self-sacrifical love, will over time, by the Spirit, act more and more Triune-like, truly becoming more human and increasingly greater image-bearers of their Creator.

    In saying these things, I in no way claim to even come close to your expertise in the area of philosophy Paul. I am simply throwing some personal thoughts out there to see if something actually sticks to the wall.

    Thank you for your all of your responses.

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