September 17, 2016

Did the Easter miracle happen?

Note: The following article was published in 2004 in The Record (a Kitchener-Waterloo newspaper) and I post it here to make it available to interested readers. The article was the 2005 winner of the General Readership category (newspaper article) awarded by The Word Guild.

A scene from the 2004 film The Passion of The Christ, directed by Mel Gibson
Did the Easter miracle happen?
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Record, April 10, 2004

Think of Easter and immediately bunnies and coloured eggs come to mind. However, as Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ has reminded us, Easter has more to do with Jesus and the Christian gospel than it has to do with chocolate.

The traditional Christian gospel or good news is that God (God the Son) came to Earth in the man Jesus, He took our punishment for sin onto Himself by suffering and dying on a cross, and then God (the Father) raised Jesus from the grave (tomb). Jesus' resurrection, that is His return to life in the same body but somehow wonderfully renewed, is said to be a glorious sign to help us believe—accept by faith—the good news.

Of course, this begs the question: Is it reasonable to believe that Jesus actually resurrected?

In the little book The Case for Easter: A Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection (Zondervan 2003), former journalist and former spiritual skeptic Lee Strobel argues that, yes, it is reasonable to believe that Jesus actually resurrected.

Strobel makes his case for Jesus' resurrection by appealing to, and defending, three historical facts:

○ Jesus was actually killed by crucifixion;

○ The tomb in which Jesus' dead body was placed was found empty a couple days later;

○ And Jesus was subsequently seen alive and well for several weeks in various locations, not only by a skeptic who touched Him to make sure He wasn't a ghost, but also by other individuals and variously sized groups of people, many of whom engaged Jesus in conversation and had meals with Him—and would later endure torture and death rather than recant their testimony.


Strobel also considers alternative, non-resurrection explanations—such as Jesus didn't really die, the witnesses hallucinated, a conspiracy occurred or it's all legend—but argues that they are all weak. Strobel's arguments are, I believe, strong, but because of space limitations I won't discuss those arguments here. I recommend that anyone who is interested in the problems with the non-miracle theories check out Strobel's book.

What I find interesting is that the alternative non-resurrection explanations, even the most outlandish ones which haven't a shred of evidence in their favour, such as Jesus has an unknown twin who pretended to be the resurrected Jesus after Jesus died, tend to be set forth by many—and clung to—primarily because of a philosophical reason.

How so? The proponents of the far-fetched have been infected by a skeptical philosophical view that has been transmitted to us from the Scottish philosopher David Hume.

If your son or daughter goes to university today and takes an introductory philosophy class, he or she will probably run into David Hume. Well, not David Hume in person, but a philosophy professor who is a kindred spirit.

Hume lived from 1711 to 1776. He is famous, rather notorious, for, among, other things, his argument against miracles. According to Hume, no matter how good the historical evidence is for a miracle such as Jesus' resurrection—even if the miracle actually occurred—the evidence is never good enough.

Hume argues that a miracle is a violation of a law of nature and that the laws of nature are very well established. The result, according to Hume, is that a miracle's occurrence is maximally improbable, and this maximal improbability counts against any good testimony for a miracle, either balancing the testimony (thereby providing grounds to suspend belief) or outweighing it (thereby providing grounds for disbelief). In reality, Hume thinks the latter is the case. Either way, though, Hume would have us dismiss miracle testimonies as unreasonable to believe.


Having studied Hume's argument for my master's thesis in philosophy at the University of Windsor and for my PhD dissertation in philosophy at the University of Waterloo, I have come to conclude that Hume's argument fails.

His argument fails because it begs the question. It “begs the question” in the sense that it engages in circular reasoning, it assumes as proven that which is at issue, and it sneaks the conclusion into the premises.

As mentioned, Hume takes the violation-of-law-of-nature aspect of a miracle to be sufficient grounds for counting the violated laws of nature wholly and destructively against miracle testimony—to judge the miracle to be maximally improbable.

Interestingly, in the case of Jesus' resurrection, such an event is maximally improbable, given the laws of nature and given that there is no intervention from outside the physical system. Significantly, this brings to light the fact that Hume makes the assumption that to make a probability judgment all that is needed is our knowledge of the relevant laws of nature.

But, it should be emphasized, we are supposedly talking about a miraculous resurrection (as suggested by the evidence), and so, although we are given the laws of nature, we are not given that there is no intervention from outside the system.

So in assuming that all that is needed is our knowledge of the relevant laws of nature and nothing about any possible intervention from outside of nature, Hume is, in effect, assuming that either God does not exist (and so God never intervenes via miracles) or, if God does exist, God's intentions concerning nature are shown to us wholly by the laws of nature (and so God never intervenes via miracles).

But if, as Hume assumes for the sake of argument, there is good evidence for what seems very much to be a miracle—Hume even allows it to be a real miracle—then Hume's assumption about the background knowledge is at issue.

In other words, in order for Hume's argument to work, it requires the assumption that the laws of nature express either all the goings-on of a universe without God or, if God exists, all of God's intentions concerning the universe. But the truth of this assumption must be put on hold when a miracle (whether actual or alleged) is supposed to be under investigation.

Indeed, for one's mind to be actually open to the possibility of the occurrence of an occasional real miracle—a possibility Hume allows, at least for the sake of argument—requires that the assumption Hume makes be suspended—at least when one is purportedly investigating the evidence for a miracle.

In other words, Hume's argument works only if we assume that there is no God who on rare occasions intervenes in nature, but this assumption is at issue when we are considering any alleged evidence for miracles.


Thus, by assuming the above-described background knowledge, Hume mistakenly begs the question which only the (alleged) miracle evidence can answer.

Hume's mind is already made up then, and not open to what the evidence suggests.

The upshot is that if your mind is not already closed to the possibility of a God who occasionally does a miracle, that is, if your mind is open to the possibility of God's existence and the possibility of this God intervening in nature, then the facts surrounding Jesus' alleged resurrection may make a miraculous resurrection explanation plausible, and even reasonable to believe.

If you weren't a believer in the past, Easter might now take on a whole new meaning.

Hendrik van der Breggen is a PhD candidate in the philosophy department at the University of Waterloo. His dissertation is titled “Miracle Reports, Moral Philosophy, and Contemporary Science.” Hendrik teaches philosophy part time at Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener and at Heritage College and Seminary in Cambridge. Besides Lee Strobel's The Case for Easter, Hendrik also recommends Strobel's latest book, The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence that Points toward God (Zondevan 2004).

Postscript (September 17, 2016): The notion of God “intervening” in nature can also be understood as God engaging in a special act vis-à-vis God's ongoing act of sustaining the creation. Space limitations in a newspaper article are not conducive to adding philosophical-theological nuance.


Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College.

September 14, 2016

What is Philosophy?

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, September 15, 2016

What is philosophy?

Philosophy is a discipline of inquiry that deals with, as a couple philosophers title their introductory textbook, Questions that Matter.  To better understand these questions, the authors look at (1) the etymology of “philosophy,” (2) the fields of philosophy, plus (3) the heart/ core of philosophy.

(1) Etymology is the study of the origin and development of individual words.

The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek philo, which means loving or love, and from the Greek sophia, which means wise or wisdom. The original meaning of philosophy is the love or pursuit of wisdom. (Of course, the foolishness of some philosophers may make us question this!)

(2) The fields of philosophy include metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, logic, and various “second-order” inquiries.

Metaphysics is the study or theory of fundamental reality. Questions asked are: What is ultimately real? Does God or gods exist? Or is reality ultimately physical?

Epistemology asks: What is knowledge? Does knowledge come only through our five senses, or can we know without the senses? Does our mind or language or cultural perspective shape or block knowledge of the real? Can truth be known? What is truth?

Value theory studies ethics and aesthetics. What is right and good? Is morality merely subjective or a construct of culture (which varies), or are there real universal moral principles and values which stand in judgment of our feelings and culture? Is beauty just what I like or what my group likes, or is there an objective standard of beauty?

Logic is the study of the principles of reasoning. What are the standards of a good argument (of the premise-conclusion sort) and what constitutes a fallacious argument?

Second-order inquires involve thinking critically about the concepts, methods, and assumptions used in other (first-order) fields of study. These inquiries are typically labeled “philosophy of ______ [fill in blank with a first-order field of study].”

For example, philosophy of science (where science is a first-order discipline) examines the assumptions of science: e.g., existence of a world external to the mind, reliability of our senses, uniformity of nature for inductive inference, applicability of logic and mathematics to the world, adequacy of language to communicate truth about the world.  It also asks: What is science? Are all observations contentiously theory-laden? Can intelligent design be a legitimate hypothesis in science?

Another example of a second-order inquiry is philosophy of history. Is history cyclic, repeating itself over and over, forever? Or is it a "one-shot" deal? Is there a purpose to history (e.g., it's a theatre in which God redeems fallen creatures) or is history purposeless (i.e., a mere accident and ultimately absurd)? Can the study of history be objective, or does it always reflect the historian's biases so accurate knowledge of the past can't be gotten?

Another second-order inquiry: philosophy of religion. Is the concept of God logically coherent? What about the concept of Incarnation? Or reincarnation? What is the relationship between faith and reason? Are there good arguments for God's existence, or is subjective experience the only evidence for God?  Does evil show that a good God doesn't exist? How do we arbitrate between competing religious truth-claims? Is there good evidence for believing Jesus' resurrection actually occurred? Or should we believe Islam's claim to the contrary?

(3) The heart/ core of philosophy is that it's a rational and critical enterprise. It's rational in the sense that it appeals to reason and evidence: reasonable beliefs are not arbitrary because they're connected to evidence logically (i.e., via truth-functional/ truth-conducive reasoning). It's critical in the sense that analysis and evaluation of all matters of belief and conduct is emphasized: assumptions, truth claims, and the logic of arguments are always assessed. Mere assertion of opinion is not enough.

So, what is philosophy? Here's a helpful working definition from the previously-mentioned philosophy textbook: “Philosophy is the attempt to think rationally and critically about the most important questions.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence University College.)

August 31, 2016

Much is lost

Lady Galadriel
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, September 1, 2016

Much is lost

At the beginning of the film Lord of the Rings, as forces of darkness gather strength, Lady Galadriel whispers sadly: “The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the Earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.”

I think our society is forgetting some important truths. Here are some examples.

We used to think we should help those who feel suicidal (remember Suicide Prevention Week?). Now, for many, suicide is understood as an exercise of personal autonomy. Also, we are beginning to encourage the weak and infirm to take advantage of “physician-assisted dying” (a euphemism for physician-assisted killing).

We used to think doctors' conscience rights were important. Now doctors' rights of conscience not to refer patients to others who will kill them are suspect.

We used to think children, especially handicapped children, should be given great care. Now 90% of prenatal children diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted.

We used to think abortions should be rare and the option of last resort. Now, for many, abortions are a badge of autonomy, honour, and equality (of course, only for those who have the privilege of already being born).

Moreover, a U.S. presidential candidate acknowledges that unborn children are actual persons, but denies them the right to life. Yet the 1973 Roe v. Wade court decision that made abortion legal in the U.S. stated abortion rights would collapse if the unborn were persons.

In Canada, we used to think that if science could establish that the unborn child is a human being, then the law should reflect that. But our law continues under the delusion that the unborn child isn't a human being.

Speaking of human beings, the director of U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) believes, contrary to sound reason, that the human embryo is merely a potential human being (it's in fact a human being with potential). We used to think using human embryonic stem cells and mixing them with animals isn't a good idea. Now the NIH is seriously considering such research.

We used to think tolerance of others' opinions was good. Now, when it comes to gender identity and expression, it's not acceptable to disagree (even via careful reasoning and appeals to medical and mental health concerns). In fact, a gay pride parade organizer says to those who disagree: “No! No! You are not entitled to your opinion.” Moreover, according to some, you are “homoppressive.” (Hmmm. Does a doctor's concern about the well being of smokers make her “smoker-oppressive”?)

We used to think that reason carefully used with evidence should put a check on feeling (which is sometimes out of touch with reality). Remember anorexia nervosa, the disorder in which a person feels overweight when in fact isn't, so diets to a dangerous extreme? Here reason shows feelings, though sincerely held, can be untrue.

But now, for many, feelings are trump. Consider Bruce (“Caitlyn") Jenner. He is a man who feels he is a woman and so has had plastic surgery to “feminize” his face and throat, has taken hormones to grow breasts, and may undergo genital surgery to remove his testicles plus use his penis to construct a “vagina.” But he isn't a woman. In view of the dangers with sex-change, isn't this like offering liposuction to someone with anorexia? Yet the world applauds.

If my feelings about myself are sufficient justification for my identity, why stop at transgender (e.g., a man identifying as a woman)? Why not trans-age (an adult identifying as a child)? Why not trans-species (a human identifying as a dog or cat or dragon)?

We seem to have lost sight of reason and truth.

Is all lost? Happily, Lady Galadriel speaks also of hope that weds reason and truth with love and courage—and forces of goodness unseen.

Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College.  The views expressed in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.

August 08, 2016

Beyond the Abortion Wars (book review)

August 8, 2016
By Hendrik van der Breggen

The following review appeared in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith: Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Volume 68, Number 2 (June 2016): 133-135. Reprinted here with permission.

BEYOND THE ABORTION WARS: A Way Forward for a New Generation by Charles C. Camosy. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015. 207 pages. Hardcover; $22.00. ISBN: 9780802871282.

In Beyond the Abortion Wars, Catholic ethicist Charles Camosy (Fordham University) looks unflinchingly at the apparent impasse in the U.S. abortion debate between “pro-choicers” and “pro-lifers” and as a solution proposes what he calls the Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act. Camosy takes the concerns of opposing camps seriously, gleaning insights and skewering falsehoods wherever they occur, and he finds large swathes of common ground that respects both women and their unborn children. In spite of occasional shortcomings in Camosy’s arguments, I agree with reviewers who deem this short six-chapter book a “must read.”

Chapter one discerns common ground between the pro-choice and pro-life camps by examining U.S. abortion rates and public opinion on abortion. It turns out that merely 2% of America’s 1.2 million yearly abortions are due to the hard cases of rape, incest, or when a mother’s life is threatened, whereas the remaining 98% are “qualitatively different,” that is, as Camosy later argues, they are due to the very real inconvenience/ burden of raising a child. (This inconvenience includes the shocking fact that 90% of children diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted.) Significantly, polls reveal that many pro-choicers wish to restrict abortion in large measure, many pro-lifers are inclined to permit abortion in the hard cases, and both camps want to reduce social pressures on women to abort. In sum: “Though some find themselves on the extremes of the debate, more are in the complex middle”—a complex middle protective of women and pre-natal children.

Camosy also shows that important U.S. demographics favor this complex middle. More women than men are against legalized abortion. Hispanics (a majority ethnicity in California and growing in Texas and elsewhere) tend to be more pro-life than pro-choice. And the vast majority of Millennials are “trending” in the pro-life-pro-women direction. Contrary to abortion polarizations presented by popular political and news narratives, the “actual facts on the ground” are amenable to a more restrictive abortion policy protective of mothers and their unborn children. Camosy finds this hopeful. I do too.

Chapter two addresses the moral status of the unborn: what, or who, is the fetus? Camosy makes it clear that contemporary science—embryology, fetology, and biology—informs us that the human fetus is in fact a human being. The fetus is a genetically distinct, self-governing dynamic entity/ individual organism that belongs to the human species. It's not feline or canine; it's human. It's not a cat or a dog; it’s a human being. It's not a kitten or a puppy; it’s a child. In addition, Camosy rightly points out, “it is simply biologically incorrect to say that [human fetuses] are ‘mere tissue’ or ‘part of their mother.’” To pro-lifers, this is well-known. For at least some pro-choicers and for newcomers to the abortion discussion, these facts need to be made clear. (In my native Canada, the Criminal Code mistakenly states that prior to birth the fetus is not a human being.)

Camosy also addresses the important objection that the unborn child, though a human being, isn’t a “person.” That is, the unborn human being lacks some specific developmental feature which confers the right to life. But, as Camosy well argues, this approach to personhood is problematic. The allegedly decisive features fail because they weaken the personhood of many human beings who clearly already have the right to life. For example, if self-awareness and ability to make moral choices are the crucial criteria of personhood, then the right to life of newborn infants as well as sleeping, stunned, or mentally disabled persons is jeopardized. As a result, the equality in equal rights gets ungrounded. Or, if a “low” trait such as the capacity to feel pain is chosen, then, oddly, personhood gets conferred to rats and mice. Camosy’s solution is to ground the equality of equal rights in the capacities to know and love (which fits well with the theological notion of being made in the image of God). Helpfully, Camosy sets out a distinction between the potential to become a human being (a potential that does not yet have these capacities to know and love, i.e., sperm and egg prior to fertilization) and the potential for a human being to become its subsequent developmental stages (a potential that does have the capacities to know and love, i.e., the union of sperm and egg). Camosy acknowledges that fertilization involves a process, so there is some gray area in which Camosy wisely urges caution.

In chapter three Camosy makes a case for permitting abortion in the few-but-difficult cases, for instance, when pregnancy threatens the mother's life or is a result of rape. Here Camosy’s arguments seem weak. He distinguishes between “direct abortion,” wherein the aim is to kill the fetus/ child, and “indirect abortion,” wherein the aim is to refuse aid to the fetus/ child, when one has no duty to aid, and so death is a foreseen but unintended result. He also distinguishes between the fetus’s “formal” innocence and “material” innocence: the fetus may lack responsible agency (and thus have formal innocence) but be a threat causally (and thus not lack material innocence). For Camosy, these distinctions allow him to hold to the moral principle that “it is always wrong to aim at the death of the innocent” yet permit abortion to save the mother's life or, in the case of rape, cease to aid via an indirect abortion (here Camosy permits the abortifacient RU-486). The terms “direct” and “indirect” are a bit confusing (most abortions are pretty direct, it seems to me), but we can let that pass as Camosy's prerogative in setting out stipulative definitions. Nevertheless, serious problems remain. Doesn’t the duty to aid a vulnerable person accrue to us—especially parents—from the very personhood of the unborn? And doesn’t abortion violate this duty, intrinsically? For Camosy’s argument to work, the unborn person's alleged lack of “material innocence” requires an equivocation on the notion of innocence in the moral principle that “it is always wrong to aim at the death of the innocent.” But, surely, the relevant notion of innocence in the moral principle is wholly “formal.” A better way is to recognize the truth that abortion is an evil. Abortion destroys an innocent who is not a responsible agent and clearly is not at all morally (“formally”) responsible for its material/ causal threatening to the mother in the first place. I sympathize with permitting abortion as “self-defense” if the unborn’s continued life materially threatens the mother’s life. Still, even in this hard case the unborn remains a person who is the epitome of innocence and vulnerability and whose deliberate destruction is wrong. So, contra Camosy, I think the above moral principle is violated when an abortion occurs to save a mother’s life, but this abortion may (i.e., perhaps) be justified, if justified at all, as a lesser of two evils. A case-by-case assessment would be needed. Also, in the case of rape, it seems odd and unjust to punish an innocent for his/her violent conception by another party. It may be politically prudent to permit abortion in the hard cases in order to gain restrictions for the 98% of abortions (I understand and favor this), but we should also continue to think carefully about the lives of all innocents—for their sake and for the sake of truth.

Camosy addresses the challenge of public policy on abortion in chapter four. He argues that the criminalization of abortion in general need not lead to increased deaths of women due to illegal “back alley” abortions because abortion has become a relatively safe procedure (due to advanced medical technology) and there is evidence that previous high estimates of such abortions were fabricated (as admitted by ex-abortionist Dr. Bernard Nathanson, co-founder of the National Abortion Right and Action League). Moreover, because law serves as a teacher, public policy restrictions on abortion can encourage a culture (as illustrated in Ireland and Poland) in which pre-natal children are protected, women seeking abortion are not punished as murderers, and illegal abortion providers are, for the sake of political prudence, found “guilty of something less than felony murder.”

In chapter five Camosy argues that “we should consider both prenatal children and their mothers as vulnerable populations,” but, and significantly, current abortion “choice” favors neither. As mentioned, over 1.2 million pre-natal children are killed annually in the U.S. while only 2% are due to the hard cases. But evidence also shows that large numbers of post-abortive mothers face guilt and increased health problems. Moreover, pregnant women face immense social pressures to “choose” abortion without real options to handle the inconvenience/ burden associated with child-rearing. These pressures arise not only from the boyfriend/ husband, parents, family, and friends, but also from larger social structures. Significantly, Camosy argues, workplaces are geared to treating all employees as men. Here all of us should take note: “Our social structures force women to choose between (1) honoring their roles as the procreators and sustainers of the earliest stages of human life and (2) having social and economic equality with men.” To protect prenatal children and their mothers, Camosy rightly argues, we should protect them from this dilemma.

In the last chapter and conclusion, Camosy proposes as a way forward his Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act. This act protects the vast majority of pre-natal children, allowing abortion in the small percentage of hard cases, plus outlines support for women to enable them to keep and raise their babies. Readers from all political stripes, and whether “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” should consider Camosy’s proposal. If the proposal doesn’t end the abortion wars, it may at least reduce the number of casualties.

Reviewed by Hendrik van der Breggen, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Providence University College, Otterburne, Manitoba R0A 1G0.