CPBD 020: James Sennett – The Renaissance of Christian Philosophy

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 21, 2010 in Alvin Plantinga,Podcast

cpbd020

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

Today I interview Christian philosopher of religion James Sennett. This was among the funnest interviews I’ve done. I even – for once in my life – come to the defense of Richard Dawkins!

sennettSennett and I discuss:

  • the Christian inclusivism of C.S. Lewis
  • the recent renaissance in Christian philosophy
  • science and religion dialogue

Download CPBD episode 020 with James Sennett. Total time is 41:15.

James Sennett links:

Things we discussed:

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{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

Anthony February 21, 2010 at 8:26 am

Luke, so no discussion of John Loftus? John says that he and Sennett are friends.

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Sabio Lantz February 21, 2010 at 10:07 am

Hey Luke,
Could you list in the post from whence hail these philosphers (interviewees) and list a few published items of theirs. Also, if you have time:
(1) how are you finding these interviews? Cold calls?
(2) What kind of equipment do you use for the podcast? Any suggestions for anyone interested in trying the same.

You are the man !! (thanx)

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lukeprog February 21, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Anthony,

We talked about Loftus off the air, but no it wasn’t part of our interview.

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lukeprog February 21, 2010 at 1:08 pm

Sabio,

One day I’ll write a post on how I do the podcast.

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Rhys Wilkins February 21, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Rofl,

Was a good interview.

It was very out of character for you to come to the defense of Richard Dawkins lol.

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James Sennett February 21, 2010 at 6:38 pm

I would like to thank Luke for a great time with this interview, and I want to commend him for a very fair — even charitable — representation of my views in his editing of this interview. And that was no mean feat, considering our original conversation was over 2 hours long!

And for the record, John Loftus and I have been friends since our seminary days at Lincoln Christian Seminary, more years ago than either one of us is going to admit! John and I stay in touch over Facebook and email, and I’m frightfully jealous of him cuz he looks a helluva lot better in a cowboy hat than I do.

Thanks, Luke! Let’s do it again real soon!

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Kristinn February 22, 2010 at 4:24 am

Great work as usual, Luke.

Have you considered a recent comments section for your site, so readers can more easily follow those comments made below older posts? -As some of your readers are a nice bonus to your own excelent material: Sabio, Haukur, Ayer, Reginald Selkirk and more come to mind.

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Chuck February 22, 2010 at 10:46 am

Good interview, I enjoyed it a bunch.

The pastor of the last church I attended prior to admitting my atheism would have considered James a “practical atheist” for his religious beliefs. So, James, welcome to the club.

Also, I struggle to understand the “man-love” for Plantinga. I suppose it is because I am not a trained philosopher but, it seems odd for one to applaud an argument that partially wrests on the premise of “fallen angels” if the person making the argument would honestly say he doesn’t know if fallen angels exist. Sometimes philosophy sounds like free-jazz to me. I’m sure there is music there but it doesn’t correspond to the way people access or apply information. I am motivated to read some Plantinga however and better understand him seeing as I have come away with respect for both James and Luke after this interview.

Luke, thanks for this service. It is one of my favorite entertainments (a close second to “Lost”).

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Robert Gressis February 22, 2010 at 12:26 pm

I think I would disagree with Sennett a bit about Plantinga’s slaying of the logical problem of evil. I talked with two prominent Christian philosophers* about Platinga’s transworld depravity response to the logical problem of evil, and both of them, if I understood them correctly, thought that Plantinga’s response rested on the possibility of middle knowledge; however, if middle knowledge is impossible, as some philosophers (e.g., Robert Adams and William Hasker) allege, then Plantinga’s response is a no-go. Moreover, Jordan Howard-Sobel thinks the logical problem of evil works to disprove the existence of a perfect deity, so there’s still debate on this.

*–I don’t want to give their names both because I might have misunderstood the reasons they gave for why Plantinga’s Free Will Defense doesn’t work and because they might have said something less strong than that it doesn’t work.

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lukeprog February 22, 2010 at 1:03 pm

Chuck,

Plantinga’ argument does not rest on the existence of fallen angels. It rests on the logical possibility of fallen angels, which is a fairly weak (and acceptable) claim.

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lukeprog February 22, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Gressis,

I agree. Plantinga’s free will defense from proving ‘the discussion is over’. Heck, Richard Otte found a problem in the FWD that Plantinga admits in 2009, a problem that everybody else missed for 25 years! And there are other problems that are worth exploring, for example it may be that middle knowledge is impossible as you say.

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Chuck February 22, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Luke,

Thanks for the clarification on the “fallen angels” illustration. Like I said I need to read more. But, arguing for the logical possibility for something like “fallen angels” is when philosophy starts feeling like free jazz. It could be fun but doesn’t seem reflective of how people live or justify their religion.

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Chuck February 22, 2010 at 2:05 pm

Also, isn’t singularity still an open question in cosmology regarding the nature of the universe? You both seemed to concede that a beginning is a settled issue. Is it?

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lukeprog February 22, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Chuck,

Remember that Plantinga isn’t the one who felt like it was important to show that fallen angels are logically possible. Instead, Mackie claimed that the existence of God was logically incompatible with the existence of evil, so Plantinga set out to show that Mackie’s claim was false.

Did I really seem to concede that a beginning is a settled issue? I didn’t intend to, though I do currently find a beginning is more plausible than an infinite past, though not necessarily merely 13.7 billion years ago.

Also, how does it feel like free jazz? Is that supposed to be a slam on free jazz? :)

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Chuck February 22, 2010 at 2:15 pm

The free jazz illustration is to demonstrate my inability to comprehend and the exclusivity of the audience.

I’m going to read the Plantinga you recommended.

I need to listen to the podcast again and see if you conceded. You made a counter argument defending Dawkins which said that the “beginning” that the believers claim as great evidence is really just a coin toss and relative to all the bible got wrong isn’t that great a point. But, I was navigating a Chicago winter on public transportation so my mind might have drifted at that point due to the gloomy day.

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Kristinn February 22, 2010 at 2:15 pm

I just noticed the comments rss. ‘Should have known you had it covered. ;)

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exapologist February 22, 2010 at 2:22 pm

I had similar quibbles. It was probably because it was a verbal conversation and he wasn’t being careful, but he asserted that Plantinga showed that the fallen angel scenario in his reply to the problem of natural evil is metaphysically possible, when at best he’s only shown that it’s epistemically possible — or perhaps more weakly, that the objector hasn’t shown that they’re epistemically impossible (the same goes for his TWD thesis in the FWD wrt moral evil). In fact, if I recall correctly (and I many not, since it’s been a decade since I’ve read it), this was one of Sennett’s big points in his book Modality, Probability, and Rationality: A Critical Examination of Alvin Plantinga’s Philosophy (Lang, 1992).

I say this is a quibble because such epistemic possibilities are sufficient to undercut the logical problem(s) of evil. Still, it ought to be said that Plantinga’s replies are not sufficient to rebut them. To do the latter, Plantinga would indeed need to provide sufficient justification that his epistemic possibilities are also metaphysical possibilities. Unfortunately, (and here I’m going to pull rank, as my dissertation was on modal epistemology and thought experiments), epistemic possibility isn’t a good guide to metaphysical possibility.

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Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth February 22, 2010 at 8:25 pm

Oppy, Martin and others keel haul Plantinga, that overrated sophist, with the problem of Heaven.
WLC is another sophist.
That possibility argument is so absurd!
We no more need God than gremlins for mechanical failures, Thor for the weather and demons for my schizotypy.
The original Carneades, the first ignostic, keel hauled theism eons ago: we’re just a foot note.
Dawkins debates theologians and knows theology; his book is for the lay person rather than for those addlepated, advanced theologians.He make more sense that those two sophists! Victor Stenger is a master atheologian.
Ignostic Morgan
Carneades

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Sabio Lantz February 23, 2010 at 2:11 am

I was impressed by his inability to see how Dawkins’ criticism was correct. We got to watch a bright mind muster up defenses to deceive itself, even when the simple argument was presented calmly and graciously.

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Chuck February 23, 2010 at 5:18 am

Well said Sabio. I began the interview with respect for Professor Sennet’s ability to change his mind from fixed beliefs and ended it hoping he still continues.

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lukeprog February 23, 2010 at 6:42 am

Lol, Chuck.

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ildi February 23, 2010 at 7:39 am

Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth: Oppy, Martin and others keel haul Plantinga, that overrated sophist, with the problem of Heaven. WLC is another sophist. That possibility argument is so absurd!We no more need God than gremlins for mechanical failures, Thor for the weather and demons for my schizotypy. Theoriginal Carneades, the first ignostic, keel hauled theism eons ago: we’re just a footnote. Dawkins debates theologians and knows theology; his book is for the lay person rather than for those addlepated, advanced theologians.He make more sense that those two sophists! Victor Stenger is a master atheologian. Ignostic Morgan Carneades  

So, I’m not the only one with this type of reaction… I am reminded of this xkcd strip: Purity

The ‘purity’ level of philosophy seems to verge on the homeopathic at times. It’s nice to conceptualize a framework and all, but don’t you have to check occasionally to see if the building can actually stand? Some of these arguments seem to have missed the scientific advances of the last couple of hundred years or so.

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Chuck February 23, 2010 at 8:02 am

Christian philosophers also ignore how the normal distribution of believers practice their religion. Christians obstructing gay marriage, stem-cell research, and the proper scientific teaching of biology do not believe god is a mere “possibility”. They believe their bibles fell from the sky in the 1st Century completely as written (in King James’ English of course).

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Briang February 23, 2010 at 8:17 am

I think there is a problem with Dawkins 50/50 argument against the beginning of the universe. I initially thought it sounded correct. Since there are only two possibilities, getting it right on the Christian side isn’t much of a prediction.

Here’s a counter example: there are only two possibilities: either Jesus rose from the dead or he did not. So if we found the body of Jesus, I could say that it doesn’t support atheism over Christianity, since there’s only two possibilities: he either rose from the dead or didn’t. See it’s 50/50!

Obviously the second 50/50 argument is mistaken. Why? Because while superficially, there are only two possible options, atheism strongly predicts one and Christianity predicts the other. Given atheism, it’s almost certain that no resurrection has taken place. Given Christianity, it’s almost certain that Jesus did rise from the dead. So finding the body of Jesus would confirm atheism over Christianity.

So to argue as Dawkins that the beginning of the universe is “50/50″ because there are only two possible options is clearly mistaken. The relevant question is how strongly atheism predicts an a infinitely old universe, and how strongly Christian theism predicts a beginning of the universe.

As I understand the debate historically, atheist have strongly predicted an infinitely old universe, while Christian theists have predicted a universe with a beginning. Of course, atheists need not accept what atheists in the past have said on the topic, but it might be worth asking why.

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Chuck February 23, 2010 at 8:31 am

Brian,

I don’t understand your argument.

We have an objective estimation of the age/beginning of the universe and we know the bible got the former way wrong and may be in harmony with a provisional cosmological theory (some, like Hawking, are not convinced regarding singularity).

Present a corpse of Jesus and then let’s talk.

Also, I can’t speak for other atheists, I can only speak for myself (that is how free-thinkers roll) but, the reason I don’t automatically appeal to the authority of past atheists in a doctrinal way would be an example of the logical fallacy known as “appeal to authority”. It is something I left behind when I realized supernaturalism, god and the bible are just not credible ways to understand reality.

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Briang February 23, 2010 at 9:23 am

Chuck,

My argument was a direct challenge to Dawkins argument that the beginning of the universe doesn’t matter, because it’s “50/50.”

I don’t think the argument “Science found the universe had a beginning, therefore Genesis is correct” is very compelling. This doesn’t mean that the beginning doesn’t support Christian theism over atheism. Christian theologians have questioned (before Darwin) whether the Genesis account of creation is literal while at the same time recognizing that there was a definite beginning to the universe.

Also, I wasn’t expecting you to accept the authority of atheists in the past. My thinking on this was as follows. If almost all atheists had said that the universe was infinitely old based on their atheism, and later almost all atheists say that a finite universe is compatible with atheism, is there good reason for this change of opinion, or is it just backpedaling? It seems to me possible that one atheist might think that atheism strongly predicts an infinitely old universe, and another that it does not and both atheists are reasonable people. The relevant question is what reasons do they have for their respective positions and are they compelling?

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Chuck February 23, 2010 at 9:36 am

Brian,

I don’t think you understand Dawkins’ criticism. He is challenging the authority Christians claim regarding the bible’s intelligence because he says getting a coin toss provisionally correct (remember, singularity is still open to discussion) is a low bar for prophecy. Luke expanded on this by showing how the Christian tradition undershot the age of the Universe further calling into question the bible’s intelligence.

When it comes to cosmological questions it is rational to always have a loose grip on provisional possibilities and allowing new data to inform one’s opinion is not back-peddling, it is the scientific method.

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Briang February 23, 2010 at 10:18 am

Chuck,

My objection is to the “coin-toss” part of the argument. Just because something can be divided into two possibilities, doesn’t mean that a prediction is no better then predicting a coin toss. What matters is not just whether one has two logical options, but how strongly each option is predicted by a given hypothesis or another. Superficially, every hypothesis can be divided into two logical possibilities.

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Chuck February 23, 2010 at 10:28 am

What conditions are you placing on the yes or no question of the universe’s beginnings that turns it into more than a classical probability?

I agree with you that a superficial hypothesis would be black and white and that is why I think people asserting the supreme intelligence of the bible due to the provisional possibility of a singularity are superficial.

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James Sennett February 23, 2010 at 1:28 pm

This point was a number of posts ago, but I hope it’s still relevant. Do not confuse the question of whether or not the universe had a beginning in time with the question of whether or not that beginning was at a quantum singularity. That the universe has not always existed (at least not as anything that could properly be called a universe, or called anything at all) is pretty much a foregone scientific conclusion, as I understand it. There is no argument over that, although there are astoundingly intricate debates over exactly what the nature of that beginning was. The idea that something like a quantum fluxuation makes the fundamental problem of a beginning go away is wishful thinking. The philosophical and theological conundrums raised by the death of the Aristotelian eternal fixed universe (and its “hopeful monster” analogue the steady state theory)still hang around to keep us all posting to our heart’s content.

Brian — your thinking on Dawkins’ argument is inspiring. Helped me sort out some of my own misgivings. Thanks.

Chuck — thanks for the welcome, though I think I prefer William Rowe’s designation, “Friendly Theist.” Whatever keeps the beer and pretzels coming!

Morgan — with all due respect, if you think Dawkins knows theology, you need to do significantly more reading in either Dawkins or theology (or both — but they tell me that goes without saying ….)

Luke — thanks again for your kindness, your open-mindedness, and your general appreciation for Plantinga and suspicion of Dawkins. ;-)

Peace to you all.
The Reluctant Disciple
aka The Practical Atheist
aka The Songman (but that’s a different life ….)

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Chuck February 23, 2010 at 2:24 pm

James,

What about Victor Stenger’s commentary on quantum tunneling and therefore no real “beginning” as we would construe it.

I do love this blog. It makes me feel like get to be part of an academic community without having to pay tuition or publish.

I’d still buy you a beer James, even if you got one more god than me.

Peace to you.

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vorodin February 23, 2010 at 2:56 pm

A very interesting post would be a one, describing why you dislike Dawkins so much.

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lukeprog February 23, 2010 at 3:09 pm

I don’t dislike Dawkins. I just have issues with some of his arguments. See, for example, this series.

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Chuck February 23, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Dawkins deals with a discipline that leads to real solutions of real problems. Apologists like Craig abstract his criticism to defend their imaginary religious models.

Dawkins criticism of god is as deep as necessary when opposing popular christianity. In fact, he seems to have thought harder and more seriously about the question of god than most people I met in church when I was a Christian.

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Chuck February 23, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Luke,

I read your part 1 of Dawkins alleged naive argument and will stop there because I respect you and your intellect and find you have failed in indicating why Dawkins is naive. I find Craig’s refutation rests on false analogy. We can infer people from arrow-heads or “people-like” creature on the dark-side of the moon because we have first-hand empirical knowledge of beings capable of creating such things, us!!! Craig’s insistence that he can infer a designer from the complexity of the universe is invalid because of the analogies he posits are simply foolish. Unless Craig has been acquainted with someone who can create a world, quasar or moon he has no basis to infer anything from the inherent complexity of the universe.

More free-jazz Luke. Kind of silly.

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lukeprog February 23, 2010 at 6:44 pm

Chuck,

You’re completely missing the point, as I tried to explain to my readers a thousand times. Craig does not argue that we can infer a designer from complexity because we can infer people-like creatures from arrowheads. Craig NEVER frickin’ says that. For more on this, please see Who Designed the Designer? and On Changing the Subject.

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Chuck February 23, 2010 at 7:29 pm

Well, I am chagrined. Thanks man. I see it now and apologize for my arrogance (ignorance?) Like I said, I’m new to philosophy (and really love it even though I don’t fully understand it all the time). The incremental nature of philosophical discourse sometimes runs headlong into my Irish temper and I react rather than ponder.

Free jazz baby. You’re dealing with a 3 chords and the truth guy in me. I’m learning the scales but it is going to be slow going.

I’ll probably ignorantly disagree again. I reserve the right to be pretentious.

Good stuff. I love your work and am humbled by your commitment to what you do.

Be well.

PS. Give me one good title as a starting point for developing my philosophy chops.

Thanks.

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Martin February 23, 2010 at 7:37 pm

I tangibly felt luke’s frustration in dealing with chuck’s answer to the dawkins critique.

chuck, read luke’s links and then read up on red herring fallacies.

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Chuck February 23, 2010 at 7:39 pm

Thanks Martin. Will do. Please, no piling on. I admitted my mistake : )

I feel like the cave-man lawyer that Phil Hartman used to play.

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Martin February 23, 2010 at 7:44 pm

You type faster than me, chuck! We criss-crossed! :) No piling on. :)

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Chuck February 23, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Thanks buddy. I am just dipping my toe in the wave pool of philosophy. The undertow got me. I really like this blog and all the followers. I feel like I am getting smarter. I also really love Luke’s commitment to reason and his avoidance of cheer-leading. Good stuff. I did throw out a nice red herring. Could of used some tartar sauce.

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lukeprog February 23, 2010 at 7:53 pm

Chuck,

Sure. This one.

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lukeprog February 23, 2010 at 7:54 pm

Martin,

I don’t mean to be frustrated. Chuck doesn’t deserve it. It’s just that I had already responded to that argument almost literally 100 times. But of course Chuck didn’t know that.

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Chuck February 23, 2010 at 8:18 pm

I deserved it and Luke’s frustration made me take notice.

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Chuck February 24, 2010 at 8:01 am

Luke,

Just ordered the book. Thanks.

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Martin February 24, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Chuck,

Other books you might like: Philosophy Made Simple and Thinking Through Philosophy.

Bother offer a good general introduction and are organized by topic rather than history; something that drove me crazy in the Idiots and Dummies versions…

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Chuck February 24, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Thanks Martin.

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Jlasato February 25, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Another interesting episode, but you and Sennett really seem to get-off listing names and book titles, and making grand evaluations (“I’ve heard Plantinga’s warrant trilogy compared to Aquinas’ summa…”). Could have been more substantive.

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Charles February 26, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Unfortunately, there is one natural evil that transworld depravity can’t address, evolution.

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lukeprog February 26, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Charles,

It could be demons. You never know. :)

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Charles February 26, 2010 at 1:03 pm

Evolution is an undirected process. Anyone who says otherwise, clearly doesn’t understand it.

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Thomas Reid February 26, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Charles:
Unfortunately, there is one natural evil that transworld depravity can’t address, evolution.

Evolution is an undirected process. Anyone who says otherwise, clearly doesn’t understand it.  

If it’s undirected (in which case no one is responsible for it), how it could be evil? Or were you kidding about the “evil” part?

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Charles February 26, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Evolution is undirected in the same way a football is “undirected” after it leaves your hand.

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