The Revolution in Anglo-American Philosophy

William Lane Craig

How the field of philosophy has experienced a Christian renaissance over the last half century.

“The contemporary Western intellectual world,” declares the noted philosopher Alvin Plantinga, “is a battleground or arena in which rages a battle for men’s souls.”

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 Three schools of thought struggle against each other in the competition to win the minds of thinking men and women: Enlightenment naturalism, post-modern anti-realism, and theism, typically Christian theism. It is in the field of philosophy that the decisive battles are taking place, and the outcome of these contests will reverberate throughout the university and ultimately Western culture. In recent decades the battlelines have dramatically shifted, and I’ve been asked to talk today about some of the changes that have transpired in Anglo-American philosophy over the last generation.

In order to understand where we are today, we need first of all to understand something of where we’ve been. In a recent retrospective, the eminent Princeton philosopher Paul Benacerraf describes what it was like in philosophy at Princeton during the 1950s and ‘60s. The overwhelmingly dominant mode of thinking was scientific naturalism. Physical science was taken to be the final, and really only, arbiter of truth. Metaphysics—that traditional branch of philosophy which deals with questions about reality which are beyond science—metaphysics had been vanquished, expelled from philosophy like an unclean leper. “The philosophy of science,” says Benacerraf, “was the queen of all the branches” of philosophy, since “it had the tools. . . to address all the problems.”

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 Any problem that could not be addressed by science was simply dismissed as a pseudo-problem. If a question didn’t have a scientific answer, then it wasn’t a real question—just a pseudo-question masquerading as a real question. Indeed, part of the task of philosophy was to clean up the discipline from the mess that earlier generations had made of it by endlessly struggling with such pseudo-questions. There was thus a certain self-conscious, crusading zeal with which philosophers carried out their task. The reformers, says, Benacerraf, “trumpeted the militant affirmation of the new faith. . . , in which the fumbling confusions of our forerunners were to be replaced by the emerging science of philosophy. This new enlightenment would put the old metaphysical views and attitudes to rest and replace them with the new mode of doing philosophy.”

The book 

Language, Truth, and Logic

 by the British philosopher A. J. Ayer served as a sort of manifesto for this movement. As Benacerraf puts it, it was “not a great book,” but it was “a wonderful exponent of the spirit of the time.” The principal weapon employed by Ayer in his campaign against metaphysics was the vaunted Verification Principle of Meaning. According to that Principle, which went through a number of revisions, a sentence in order to be meaningful must be capable in principle of being empirically verified. Since metaphysical statements were beyond the reach of empirical science, they could not be verified and were therefore dismissed as meaningless combinations of words.

Ayer was very explicit about the theological implications of this Verificationism.

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 Since God is a metaphysical object, Ayer says, the possibility of religious knowledge is “ruled out by our treatment of metaphysics.” Thus, there can be no knowledge of God.

Now someone might say that we can offer evidence of God’s existence. But Ayer will have none of it. If by the word “God” you mean a transcendent being, says Ayer, then the word “God” is a metaphysical term, and so “it cannot be even probable that a god exists.” He explains, “To say that ‘God exists’ is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false. And by the same criterion, no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent god can possess any literal significance.”

Suppose some Christian says,

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