CPBD 019: Kevin Timpe – God and Free Will

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 17, 2010 in Free Will,Podcast


(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

timpeToday I interview Christian philosopher of religion Kevin Timpe. Among other things, we discuss:

  • God, free will, determinism, and foreknowledge
  • the relationship between philosophy and theology
  • the New Atheism

Download CPBD episode 019 with Kevin Timpe. Total time is 23:40.

Kevin Timpe links:

Links for things we discussed:

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Nerf Herder February 17, 2010 at 7:53 am

Thanks for the amazing line up of interviewees you have gathered. You do a good job of interviewing them as well.

That said, how much do we need to bribe Craig or Plantinga to be on your show? :-)


lukeprog February 17, 2010 at 10:04 am

I doubt Craig or Plantinga would go for a show like mine, yet, although I did hear that Craig would like to meet me. But there are plenty of interesting people for me to talk to without Craig or Plantinga!


corn February 17, 2010 at 11:56 am

I listened to the program and noted a reference to “The Root of All Evil.” FYI, Dawkins claims that Channel 4 chose the title to be controversial and that it wasn’t one he would have chosen himself. This seems to draw a distinction between his tone and that of Hitchens, whose subtitle “How Religion Poisons Everything” is intentionally hyperbolic and provocative.


Haecceitas February 18, 2010 at 12:24 am

Actually, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if Plantinga would be willing to be interviewed. At the very least, it would be worth a try. He has a public email address and he usually gives a brief response if you’re concise and civil. So perhaps you could ask him?


Jacopo February 18, 2010 at 7:28 am

There are some misrepresentations of the New Atheists here.

As mentioned above, Dawkins does not believe that religion is the root of all evil. He says so, in the first page of the preface to the God Delusion – he eventually got a compromise with the insertion of a question mark after the title:

“From the start, I didn’t like the title and fought it hard. Religion is not the route of all all evil, for no one thing is the route of all anything.” (Preface, The God Delusion)

Furthermore, Dennett says why he avoided going into a long discussion of the existence of God. I think you touched on it when you mentioned how Dennett is primarily interested in inquiry. But in full:

“Philosophers have spent two millenia concocting and criticizing arguments for the existence of God, such as the Argument from Design and the Ontological Argument, and the arguments against the existence of God, and many brights continue to pursue these issues, hacking away vigorously at the arguments of believers as if they were trying to refute a rival scientific theory. But not I. I decided some time ago that diminishing returns had set in on the arguments about God’s existence, and I doubt many breakthroughs are in the offing, from either side. Besides, many deeply religious people insist that all those arguments – on both sides – simply miss the point of religion, and their demonstrated lack of interest in the arguments persuades me of their sincerity. Fine. What then is the point of religion?” (p. 27, Breaking The Spell)

Dennett is doing exactly what you – and your interviewee – have allowed other philosophers to do – set off from a premiss without going into great detail defending it. The premiss here is that spending too long going into the existence of God is not worthwhile. And there is surely a lot to be said for that – how on Earth would Dennett’s projected inquiries get on if we had to determine the existence or not of God before getting on with it? It’s a case that has strong parallels with only needing a broad account of moral responsibility before looking into how free will might fit with that.

Maybe you could include this as part of your ‘Ask The Atheist’:

I think it’s probably fair to say that most people are not interested in, and would simply stop reading if given, academic philosophy. This includes natural theology. The New Atheists are often criticized for not engaging with the ‘best in the field’. But the ‘best in the field’ often requires at least undergraduate level philosophy training. Often, it requires still more, with wider knowledge of cosmology or physics &c. required to understand an argument. Given this barrier, how far would you have liked to see the New Atheists engage with contemporary natural theology? I would also be interested in how far you would ask popular accounts of Christianity or other religions to engage with Oppy, Sobel, Martin and so on.


It’s a tough question, but in my opinion, I get the impression you want to set the bar too high, and thus, your criticism of the New Atheists in this blog and interviews tend to strike me as harsh. Sure, there are much better works of atheistic philosophy of religion. But they’re for people like you, who are able to do challenging philosophy, who like this sort of thing, and who want to spend a great deal of time with it. Most people, perhaps even most philosophers who are not themselves philosophers of religion, will not be willing or able to do it.

I should say, crucially, that I don’t think this means that reading and writing academic philosophy of religion is pointless, merely that some understanding should be extended to people who want to draw an opinion about these issues, without going into such very great depth as Oppy or Sobel. It also provides some justification, if not formal then at least pragmatic, for not tackling the ultra-sophisticated positions of the lifetime’s work of exceptionally clever people like Swinburne, in a popular work.


danielg February 18, 2010 at 3:32 pm

One of the best treatises I’ve ever read on this subject (though not comprehensive regarding Divine Foreknowledge, etc) is Reformed Doctrine of Predestination by Loraine Boettner

What I got out of this book, as well as my own study and life is

1. Both free will and predestination exist in reality.

What this means is that

- We are held responsible for our actions (free will)
- We are dependent on God for repentance and faith (predestination)

2. In what ratio do we emphasize each?

The metaphor that Boettner uses has stuck with me, and I like it – to the extent that we can compare God’s power to man’s is the extent to which we should emphasize God’s role in our salvation to our own.

What this means practically is that we are essentially Calvinistic, emphasizing man’s need for God to give him saving faith, and our continued need to focus on God’s ability to keep and groom us, rather than our own.

When we do emphasize our responsibility, we emphasize (a) our need to focus on God rather than our own ability, and (b) our responsibility to exercise spiritual disciplines with a view that they are “means of grace” – that we don’t actually create spiritual maturity or build ourselves into spiritual giants, but rather, the disciplines gain us access to God who then forms us.

It’s like getting into a food line. We don’t feed ourselves or create the food, but we certainly avail ourselves of the opportunity to get it.


3. While this is a paradox, these are not incompatible

I disagree with your guest and agree with Lichen(?), who defaults to compatibility. Your guest’s agrreement with Freedom and Foreknowledge, but not with Freedom and Determinism is perhaps reasonable, but as you pointed out, gets squishy when you try to define how foreknowledge works.

4. Causal Determinism

I think that pure materialists are driven to this point of view by logic, though reality, and the desire to believe that people are responsible and free, probably drives them to disagree with Causal Determinism. I think this is just one of the ways in which the logical conclusions of atheism/materialism disagree with reality, which is a good reason to reject it.

5. Cosmological Argument and Dennett

I hate the ‘what caused God’ response – there is no infinite regress – eventually, you must have an uncaused cause, and that’s God. I don’t understand Dennett’s objection to that.

6. Uncharitable Theisms

I and many others agree with Pat Robertson in principle, and those who think he should shut his mouth are being inconsistent with scripture, and I agree with Dawkins on that.

However, I am not just being unashamed of some unethical view, but rather, believe in a nuanced view that explains this well.

For example, are the Hatians partly to blame for their predicament? Absolutlely – like the person who plays in traffic and then blames others when they get hit, or like New Orleans residents who live below sea level and wonder that floods come, much of the destruction in Haiti is due to ignorance, corruption, and living in a dangerous area.

Pat Robertson’s view can be viewed as a spiritualized view of the Haitian’s fault for living without a Christian world view (practical consequences of corruption and lack of planning), as well as living in defiance of God (spiritual retribution) and in agreement with paganism/voodoo.

Retribution via natural disasters is certainly a common theme in scripture. The problem with many people’s simplistic view of this is that not EVERY storm is retribution.

But perhaps we OUGHT to think of many large scale disasters in terms of judgment and repentance. Many of the great revivals in history have been preceded by such disasters.

Now, perhaps a materialist might blanch at seeing repentance as a solution for, say, the black plague, when really, sanitation and medicine would solve it. I understand that, and partially agree with that perspective.

But Christians who verbalize disgust with the likes of Falwell and Robertson are, as Dawkins has remarked, being hypocritical and logically inconsistent with the biblical view of God they say they believe. And secularists who mock them are usually mocking some simplistic straw man of what they are trying to communicate.


danielg February 18, 2010 at 3:39 pm

And btw, there are many practical benefits to having a world view that emphasizes predestination (dependence on God, not causal determinism) while at the same time not ignoring free will and personal responsibility.

It’s a hierarchy and priority thing. If you have trust as your foundation, you have peace even when you are unsure what choices to make. You don’t depend entirely or primarily on your ability, but on God’s, which includes his ability to leverage mistakes into good things.

If you switch them around, or primarily emphasize your own responsibility, you don’t really work any harder, but you do carry the stress of having to perform.


danielg February 19, 2010 at 11:57 am

forgot to click the ‘notify’ box…


Chuck February 21, 2010 at 8:27 am

My reading of history indicates that men who were convinced of predestination and achieved political power, used their political power by resting on their predestined status and murdering those who would exercise free will in contradiction to their thesis. See Calvin and Servetus as just one example and Salem, Massachusetts as another. The New Atheist Sam Harris has it right, practical solutions that can lead us to extend and enhance the quality of life gain little benefit from things like invisible forces unable (or unwilling) to be measured against the desire to end human suffering. Those endorsing Calvinism as a workable worldview only have as their aim Theocracy which of course would be a perfect political system to assert they are right. History shows that this system is inefficacious to peace, health and prosperity. I take from it that your imagined need for a controller in the sky is not true or moral.


Ben March 1, 2010 at 2:41 pm

I have to blame folks like Dawkins at a social level as cogs in the machine for their PR disasters, but at the personal level, their position often makes too much sense. As much as I begrudge them for not taking the time to intimately learn the things they will confront in the public square, how can you blame someone for not wanting to subject their minds to endless leprechaunology that should never have been developed to the extent it has been in the first place? Is the mainstay of religion even being supported by the academic philosophy? Probably not. I know Dawkins gets feedback from students who have actually engaged all the nonsense in all its brilliance at the college level and they say, “It’s not like it gets better.” Why care? Honestly.

No one should have to get a doctorate in philosophy to be able to have a reasonable degree of certainty (like we have that say, our family and friends exist) to know God exists. That’s an evidential argument from evil right there. The more advanced theistic philosophy often solves one populace issue at the expense of creating an even more idiotic position (from someone with exposure to more education who ought to know better). So when I hear your guest speak of the need to engage more advanced theistic philosophy I can’t help but think, “Because there’s even better comedic value they are missing out on?”

Ultimately I recognize the public square needs to be about respect of individuals where they actually are and not about the honor status shitty ideas they may be peddling deserve. We are dealing with people first, and ideas second. We can’t expect people to magically realize why they are wrong without taking the time to explain it to them (assuming we are actually correct, of course).

So, I think there should be another level of advanced criticism, but it is really hard to fault the shallow end of the pool for being shallow. The more sophisticated theology is just as epistemically unfair to the human condition as the pop-nonsense Dawkins takes shots at.



Gatogreensleeves September 14, 2011 at 11:10 pm

I came here to respond to the episode, but found that Jacobo said much of what I was thinking (and thankfully someone also mentioned what Dawkins said about “the root of all evil”). I only wish to add that this is the last place I expected to see a movement characterized by its personality/attitude conflated as a coherent philosophical unity. There are several arguments from any of the “4 horsemen” that overlap with arguments that Luke makes, so to suggest near the end of this episode that no one should be persuaded by *any* of their arguments (also implying that they are philosophically unified) is just disingenuous. I also think Luke would never do the same to ‘the other side.’

I’ll just point out one bit of overlap off the top of my head, though there are countless examples: in the episode with Matt McCormick, where he talks about his “Witch Trials” argument and Luke adds, along the same lines of epistemologicalal double standards, that he wrote about the milk drinking Hindu statues- Sam Harris (who has a Masters in Philosophy from Harvard BTW- that’s not good enough for you?) argues that Sai Baba’s followers have claimed to witness him doing many miracles, including similar ones to Jesus. Same epistemological argument. If one is going to cry “uncharitable,” one should should also be careful not to “paint with a course brush” themselves.

I realize that there is a somewhat justified (and obvious) bitterness from actual philosophers of religion getting the spotlight robbed by the New Atheists and that Luke wants to champion them, but IMO, he overcompensated in this episode. Also, I wish he would ask more challenging questions of every type of theist or atheist, a la the old days of DJ Grothe… but then he might not attract such wonderful guests (so he seems to hedge his bets).

Okay, that’s all my criticism, and I hope it wasn’t TOO harsh, because other than that, I am loving going through this series and it is still one of the very best podcasts out there. Respectfully, no one is bringing this kind of dialogue to the world of podcasts.


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