Wednesday 10 June 2015

The Problems of Evil and Poor Design

I think the problem of evil can be made most forcefully when amalgamated with an argument from poor design. This is essentially the move Paul Draper makes with his Bayesian argument from evil. Draper notes that pain and pleasure serve a biological role that makes sense on a hypothesis of indifference (and is arguably a prediction of evolutionary naturalism), but is incredibly surprising under the hypothesis of a morally conscious creator.

The idea is that some features of the human design are morally significant, so that a morally concerned designer would have reason to discard or, at least, revise such design. But on naturalism, the forces of evolution are indifferent to the moral significance of the design it produces.

For another example consider how, compared to most other animals, giving birth is incredibly difficult and even dangerous for humans. On evolutionary naturalism the explanation is obvious: there were very powerful evolutionary pressures on our ancestors to have narrow hips to facilitate our bipedal mobility, and very powerful evolutionary pressures for humans to have big heads to facilitate our big brains and great intelligence. But both these traits together obviously mean a lot of trouble for birth. A morally conscious designer would see that this will cause a lot of unnecessary death and suffering and design things differently, but evolution is blind to these things as long as they don't impede reproductive fitness.

We then have two competing hypotheses: an anthropic origin by evolutionary naturalism, or by a morally conscious creator. And since each entails the negation of the other, we have strong reason to think there is no morally conscious creator.

Saturday 9 May 2015

A Moral Argument Against Theism

It's commonly thought by theists that, in the absence of God, one is faced with difficult ethical or meta-ethical problems. Within the atheistic world view, morality itself, moral knowledge, moral motivation and so on are thought to be on shaky ground. Such beliefs are the basis of moral arguments for theism. Here then is a similar argument in the reverse: the existence of God, along with three indubitable and commonly held ethical beliefs, leads to a vexing contradiction.
  1. It is wrong to treat people as a means to an end, rather than as an end in of themselves.
  2. God (a perfect being who can do no wrong) allows innocent children to suffer and die for some greater end.
  3. Therefore, that greater end must be greater for the child: it must be in his own best interests to suffer and die.
  4. We should always aim to do what is in the best interests of others, and avoid doing what isn't in others best interests.
  5.  Therefore, we should not attempt to prevent the unbearable suffering or untimely death of innocent children.
But of all things, the unbearable suffering and untimely death of children seems to be something we should always aim to prevent. To deny this is absurd, so one of the premises must be rejected. Premise (1) is a statement of Kantian ethics, a very popular normative ethical theory. It seems too obviously true to reject. Premise (2) is true if God exists at all. To reject this would be to reject theism. Premise (4) seems to follow from our very a priori concept of a moral should. These are the only three premises.

What makes this argument interesting is that (1), (4) and ~(5) are almost impossible to reject. If anything could be taken as self-evident, surely these statements should be. God's existence, on the other hand, is not self-evident. Even if theism is very well evidenced, it's surely not as well supported by our intuition as these three other statements. Therefore, we must reject theism in favour of these three induibiable ethical statements.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Divine Nature Theory and the Parsimony Problem

Divine nature theorists believe that goodness is grounded in a likeness to God's essential nature. As they would say, it is good to be loving and kind and just because God is loving and kind and just. In other words, the property goodness reduces to being a member of the set of properties that God holds necessarily. But one might wonder, why do we need God at all? Wouldn't it be simpler to say that goodness reduces directly to that collection of properties, without referencing God's nature? Why shouldn't we rather say that what it is to be good is just to be loving or to be kind or to be just and so on? This revised theory would seem to have all the same explanatory power as divine nature theory, but would be a great deal more parsimonious for not requiring the existence of God.

I once suggested this to a friend, and he responded by saying that in such a case there would be nothing all good things had in common. But this seems odd: surely for there to be such a thing as goodness, there must be something all good things have in common. Intuitively, he thought, there must be something that brings all these properties together (and in the darkness binds them). At the time I was unaware of the classic counter examples: species being an obvious case of a bundle property, being made up of a collection of properties which do not necessarily all share something in common. There are no necessary and sufficient conditions for being, for example, a lion. By analogy, we might think there need not be necessary and sufficient conditions for being good.

On top of this I now think there are two even stronger objections to this line of reasoning:

First of all, divine nature theory itself suffers from the same problem my friend had with treating goodness as a bundle property. Why is this? Because being like God is a bundle property. There is nothing all of God's essential attributes have in common, other than being those attributes God necessarily instantiates. The only difference is that we've given this collection a name ("God's essential nature") and ground goodness in a likeness to it. Theists may suggest that on greatest being theology, the divine nature theorist could think that all God's essential attributes have in common their being great-making. But greatness is no less metaphysically queer and demanding of explanation than goodness, so this move would only push the need for grounding a step back without really explaining anything substantial.

Secondly, there is something all good things have in common without God after all: their normativity. If something is good, then there is reason to conduct oneself towards it certain ways. There is reason to desire good things, to perform good actions, and to praise the good behavior of others. Furthermore, most would say this follows from our very concept of goodness itself. We therefore need not talk about God's essential nature to explain what it is to be good.

Divine Nature Theory: Why goodness is not a likeness to God

Divine nature theory is what I call the common theistic meta-ethical opinion that goodness is grounded in a likeness to God's essential nature. God is essentially loving and kind and just, which is taken to explain why it is good to be loving and kind and just and so on.

But there is an obvious counter example to the theory as so far construed: God has many essential characteristics that are not morally significant. God is essentially immutable, necessarily existing and ontologically self-sufficient. But it would be absurd to say that something was good in virtue of its being immutable, necessary or having aseity.

The divine nature theorist might try to revise his view, saying instead that a thing is good just in case it bears some resemblance to God's essential behavioral qualities. Necessity, immutability and aseity have nothing to do with behavior, and so they pose no threat to this view. And yet, other counter examples can still be raised. God is essentially rational, prudential, decisive, and is essentially not impulsive or whimsical. But it seems silly to think that being irrational or imprudent would have any affect on the moral value of ones action.

The divine nature theorist might take a further step back, saying instead that a thing is good just in case it bears some resemblance to God's interpersonal behavioral qualities. Being rational doesn't have anything to do with how one treats others, but lovingness and kindness and justice does.

But now there's an even more pressing problem, in that these qualities don't seem like essential characteristics of God. God cannot be necessarily loving or just, since there are no other necessarily existing people to be loving or just towards. Some have suggested positing the trinity to solve this very problem, saying God's persons necessarily love each other. But love is just one of many morally significant properties the theist is trying to ground in divine essence. What about other morally significant behavioral qualities, like being someone who punishes the wicked, or who protects the defenseless? There are no necessarily existing wicked or defenseless people for God to stand in the appropriate interpersonal relationships with.

The divine nature theorist might try one last revision. He might suggest that goodness is grounded not in any qualities God actually has, but in counterfactuals about what God would do given the opportunity. And so protecting the defenseless is good because, given the opportunity, God would always protect the defenseless.

But now the divine nature theorist has made God entirely dispensable to his theory. Even atheists can believe that, if God were given the opportunity, then he would protect the defenseless. Divine nature theory, then, reduces to something very much like ideal observer theory, and is no longer an inherently theistic account of goodness.

Tuesday 10 February 2015

Possibility of the Actually Infinite

Mathematicians define two sets as being the same size whenever there is a bijective mapping from one to the other. That is to say, whenever each member of the one set can be paired up with exactly one member of the other. At face value this makes perfect sense. If you're at a dinner party and every guest has brought a significant other of the opposite sex, then clearly there are just as many men at this party as there are women.

Why does this matter? Because, if same size is understood as mathematicians define it, then it easily follows that a set can be the same size as its proper subset. In other words, the common objection to the possibility of actual infinities simply fails by definition.

It's all the more clearer with an example. The natural numbers {1, 2, 3, ... } and the even numbers {2, 4, 6, ... } are the same size because a bijective mapping exists between them: f(x) = 2x, which pairs 1 with 2, and pairs 2 with 4, and 3 with 6 and so on. And, of course, the even numbers are a proper subset of the natural numbers.

Now you might think, this sounds super abstract. Maybe this is some weird technical idea that mathematicians throw around, but surely all this mathematical mumbo jumbo isn't anything like my understanding of what it means for two sets to be the same size. But actually, it is.

When someone wants to know how big a set is, they count the members. They point to an object and say "one", they point at another and say "two", and so on. They don't know it, but they're proving the existence of a bijective mapping between the set in question and the subset of the naturals they're vocally describing. And because the size of the set they're counting out is identical to the value of the last member, they (all by intuition and not understanding the math) infer the size of the set in question. It's odd to think that something so simple as counting has a rigorous mathematical basis that utilizes the mathematicians very technical definition of same size, but it in fact does.

Of course we needn't proceed one member at a time when counting. We could just as well point to a pair and say "two", and another pair and say "four", and so on. Or we could go by groups of ten, or hundreds or, even, the collection as a whole. It follows from this that, contrary to popular opinion, we can count an infinite set after all, we just do it all at once instead of step by step.

Here's the catch, then. People who think that actual infinities are impossible (almost always because they think it's impossible for a set to be the same size as its proper subset) owe the rest of us an explanation of what 'same size' means, if not what mathematicians mean. Since they are unable to give any answer, their objections to actual infinities (usually to the possibility of an eternal past) fall flat.

Tuesday 3 February 2015

Evil as an Absence of Good?

It's very common for people to think that evil doesn't actually exist in of itself. Rather, like a hole in your shirt is just an absence of fabric, some would say evil is just an absence of good. Of course that doesn't mean there is no truth about evil, or that it wont affect your life. A large hole in your jacket, despite not being a thing in of itself, will still make you miserable on a cold, wet winters day.

But there is an obvious problem with this view, in that it would require all things (at least within the relevant domain) to be either good or evil. You can't have shirts that are neither whole nor have a hole, but you can have actions that are neither good nor evil—in fact most actions seem morally insignificant. What could be the moral value in cutting your grass, or eating a cheese burger? If you find some morally significant feature, one can always easily stipulate a scenario in which that feature isn't present.

And so defenders of this view must embrace the implausible and maintain that every action, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has moral value to some degree. This is why I favour theories of moral ontology on which good and evil are both real in a robust sense, neither being an absence of the other.

Monday 2 February 2015

Skeptical Theism and Divine Deception 2

I have become convinced that my argument outlined in Skeptical Theism and Divine Deception is not successful.

The problem is that I failed to distinguish between having justified belief, and being able to justify ones belief. The difference is that we can have justified belief without being aware of it. On externalism, the justification for a belief can be something that the subject might not even have access to, like the causal history that produced his belief. But justifying ones belief is an action rational people perform, a sort of giving of an explanation or an account of how one is justified in holding that belief.

It follows from externalism that, for all I know, the skeptical theist might be justified in believing God always tells the truth—my premise (3) is indefensible. And yet the spirit of my argument persists. If you think about the role divine revelation plays, it's always intended to account for the justification of religious belief. Religious folk would say "God has told us these things and therefore they are true," implicitly assuming that God is not lying.

But now it's clear that the implicit assumption is not plausible so long as we're committed to skeptical theism. After all, for all the skeptical theist knows, God could have a morally sufficient reason to lie about religious matters. (See the previous post for a more in depth analysis of this).

So while the skeptical theists' religious commitments might be justified, they are not something he can justify. And, since we should exercise a healthy skepticism about beliefs we cannot ourselves justify, there is still tension between skeptical theism and religious belief. It seems, at least, the skeptical theist should be no more confident about his religious beliefs than he thinks is appropriate for gratuitous evil.

We can re-formalize this argument as follows, where P is the sort of belief we can only justify by appealing to divine revelation (namely, religious belief):
  1. Without appealing to divine revelation, there is no way to justify the belief that P
  2. Skeptical theists cannot appeal to divine revelation to justify their beliefs
  3. Therefore, skeptical theists cannot justify their belief that P
  4. Doubt should be reserved for beliefs we cannot justify
  5. Therefore, skeptical theists should reserve doubt for their belief that P

Tuesday 6 January 2015

Kripke's Argument for Dualism

  1. It's possible for there to be mental states without brain states
  2. Therefore, mental states are not identical to brain states
Since mental states (e.g. pain) and brain states (e.g. c fiber stimulation) are ridged designators—referring to the same object in every possible world—the inference from (1) to (2) is valid. Kripke thinks, and I want to agree, that at face value premise (1) seems to be true. And so the materialist, wanting to say that mental states reduce to brain states, is faced with the challenge of explaining away this intuition.

The materialist might meet Kripke's challenge by rallying behind other well established identity claims, considering them partners in crime. If we're not prepared to entertain doubts about, for example, water being identical to H2O, or lightening being identical to the discharge of electrons, or heat being identical to the excitement of molecular particles, then why should we doubt that mental states are identical to brain states? While the materialists theory isn't nearly as well evidenced as these other identity claims, it's still the best explanation of why mental states are so perfectly correlated to brain states. But surely the intuition that minds could persist in the absence of brains is no stronger than the intuition that water could exist in the absence of H2O, or that lightening could occur without a discharge of electrons.

But Kripke has an answer to this. He suggests our intuitions about the possibility of there being water without H2O are misguided. It's plausible, he thinks, that we are mistaking the one possibility with another: that there is something that is phenomenologically identical to water (that we have no way, short of a chemical analysis, to distinguish it from the stuff that fills our rivers and lakes and oceans) when there isn't any H2O. But, as Kripke argues, such an explanation misses its mark when applied to the materialists reductionist theory of mind. There cannot be anything that is phenomenologically identical to pain, and yet isn't pain. If someone thinks they're in pain, or is having an experience of being in pain, then they are in fact in pain. Pain, in other words, cannot be illusory. And so the materialist cannot use these other well established identity claims as partners in crime: the evidence incriminates him alone.

Kripke thinks he's successful in defending, at the very least, a presumption against materialism. But I think there's a further response the materialist can give. Granted, it's intuitive that unembodied minds could exist. But it's no less intuitive that the materialists theory could be correct, and that mental states could actually be identical to brain states after all. But of course, if mental states are identical to brain states then they are necessarily so, and premise (1) of Kripke's argument must be false. We thus have two equally valid but opposing intuitions. What do we do with them? I suggest they cancel each other out, and leave us without any presumption either for or against materialism.

But then we are back to where we started, with no reason to reject a materialist theory of mind and some fairly significant reason to accept it: along with ontological parsimony, the identity of mental states and brain states offers an attractive explanation of the appearance of supervenience. It seems, then, that if anything at the end of the day we are left with a strong presumption in favour of a materialistic reductionism of the mind.

Sunday 4 January 2015

Problems with Agent Causation

What is causation? As I understand it, if X causes Y then:
  1. X and Y are temporally indexed propositions (or some metaphysical analog to propositions; i.e. facts)
  2. X is temporally prior (or maybe simultaneous) to Y
  3. X counter-factually entails Y
These three conditions seem to be built into our very concept of causation, and while maybe they are not alone sufficient, they surely seem necessary.

But this conflicts with the agent causation brand of libertarian freewill, which requires that causation is the sort of relationship that can involve—as operands—particular objects. Say the effect in question is "Sam's choosing to eat breakfast", then if it's a free choice it must be caused by Sam himself. It cannot be caused by any events containing Sam, or any sort of fact about Sam (e.g. his being hungry), but must be the object that is Sam. In this case, how can we understand causation? We must give up not only (1), but also (3) since particular objects cannot stand in counter-factual entailment relationships, and (2) since it makes no sense to talk about objects themselves being temporally indexed. Events containing objects might happen in some temporal order, and propositions about objects might be true at particular times, but it doesn't make much sense to attribute temporal attributes to persons. And even if it did, still Sam existed prior to the event, he exists while the event takes place, and hopefully he will continue to exist afterwards. So regardless, (2) must be given up.

In other words, to accept this brand of libertarian freewill, we have to reject everything we intuitively understand to be causation. Can the libertarian say; fine, maybe Sam's choosing to eat breakfast wasn't caused? Of course not: how could Sam exercise control in any meaningful way over an uncaused event? Such an event would be random, and randomness precludes freewill.

The libertarian might offer non-personal examples of 'object causation' in his defense, like a ball breaking a window. But to me this only sounds like a case of sloppy language. Everyone implicitly recognizes that when we say "the ball broke the window", what we really mean is "the ball hitting the window broke the window". Obviously if the ball had not hit the window, the window would not have broke. But then "the ball hitting the window" is an event, and not a particular thing: the cause and effect are both events. This therefore isn't actually a good example of object causation, because once we clarify what needs to be clarified, it's pretty obvious that it's really an event and not an object that's causing the window to break.

With all this said, it's very unclear how those who accept this brand of libertarian freedom can make sense of 'causation' without it ruining their view.

Friday 2 January 2015

Conceivability of the GCB

Some argue that conceiving of something isn't as foolproof as we might typically think. This is a common response to Chalmer's philosophical zombie argument. When you're conceiving of a philosophical zombie, how do you know you're not really just thinking about a conscious person? What is different about the two conceptions? Is it that, in the one case, you're saying in your mind 'this thing is not conscious'? But surely being able to simply describe something doesn't amount to conceiving of it: even machines can do that. Indeed, we can even describe inconsistent scenarios, but it's odd to say such things can be conceived of.

It's like trying to conceive of a transparent block of iron. Close your eyes, can you do it? Once you've managed to conjure up an image, ask yourself; how do I know this isn't really just a block of glass?

Now turning to theological matters: how do you know you're thinking of the greatest conceivable being? Is it simply because you're saying in your head, "this thing is greater than anything else I could conceive"? Indeed, how do you know it's not the second or third greatest, rather than the first? It seems Anselm's God is like the transparent iron, or the philosophical zombie: even if such a thing is conceivable, we don't have good reason to believe it.

Divine Hiddenness and Hitchens Worlds

It is often argued that the absence of decisive reason to believe in God is, in of itself, reason to disbelieve. This is known as the problem of divine hiddenness and, much like the problem of evil, identifies features of the world that are unexpected under the assumption of classical theism. One might note that, if God were to exist, he would want to cultivate a personal relationship with all of his creation. But many people, despite being open to theistic belief, find themselves unable to shrug off rational doubts. Because it's impossible to have a relationship with someone you don't even believe exists, these rational doubts stand as a inculpable roadblock for people entering into this loving relationship with God. Divine hiddenness offers a very different sort of challenge than the problem of evil, and incites theists to develop novel theodicies to explain why God would permit rational disbelief.

Some have supposed that, even if God made his existence apparent to all, it would only result in greater numbers of people who would reject him. Knowing God existed, people would beg him to save them from evil. But God would not do away with those evils anymore than he does now, and this would plausibly make people bitter against him. People like the late Christopher Hitchens, not simply being atheist but being anti-theist, might become the norm. Instead of simply not believing in God, they would hate God and actively resist him. Such is a Hitchens world, one in which a large portion of creation hates their creator and actively resists a relationship with him all the while accepting his existence.

Supposedly God can work around non-belief. If one does away with any idea of a hellish afterlife for non-believers, they can reasonably think God doesn't simply give up on his creation at their death. Rather God would pursue his creation into eternity, so that eventually every person would have opportunity to love and be loved by him. But a Hitchens world would be dastardly for God's goal of bringing all of creation to himself. Plausibly, these powerful negative emotions towards God could do more damage and stand as a much bigger roadblock to a loving relationship with God than mere non-belief.

While this theodicy has an air of plausibility, there are a number of holes that would have to be filled before it could be called a success. First of all, it would be rather strange for God to give us decisive reason to believe his existence, but not his moral perfection. Indeed, on classical definitions of God, any decisive reason to believe his existence would necessitate decisive reason to believe his moral perfection. And so in a Hitchens world, everyone would be fully aware and in agreement that God is morally perfect, and that every evil he permits he does so for very good reason. But how could people then hate God? It would require them to be incredibly petty, or immature, or irrational.

God, being the creator of man, is supposedly directly responsible for human psychology. If we responded immaturely or irrationally to his justified permission of evil, then it could only be because he chose us to be that way. God could have just as easily created us to be more charitable and humble in our attitudes and judgements. It's not clear why God wouldn't simply have created us with different (and, in fact, more noble) psychological tendencies. In light of this, it's still very unexpected that he would hide his existence from creation.

Secondly, the real world is populated by a great many religious people who are wholly convinced of God's existence. And yet, hatred of God doesn't run rampant within theistic communities. In fact, if anything, it seems conviction in theistic belief has the complete opposite effect.

A Dilemma for Divine Command Theorists

I am expanding and hopefully improving on a previous argument against divine command theory, given here. According to divine command theory, the wrongness of an action is metaphysically identical to the actions being contrary to the commands of (a loving) God. My objection takes the form of a dilemma: Either God can issue commands to people knowing they will have rational doubts about its authenticity, or he cannot.

If he can, then we have a strong counter example to divine command theory. Surely having rational doubts about the authenticity of a command nullifies any obligation to obey it. For example, if you received a note from the government that lacked any official markings and appeared to be inauthentic, then you can't be expected to meet their demands. And if the government didn't even put any effort into presenting the command to you in such a way that you would recognize its authenticity, then it seems absurd to think you are under any obligation to do as they require of you. With this, it follows that it would be possible for God to issue commands without generating any obligation for the recipient to obey. And since facts about identity are non-contingent, divine command theory must be false.

If he cannot, then divine command theorists face a similar challenge that's almost as bad. For if God has issued someone a command, then as long as they are rational they will recognize that the command comes from God and not anyone else. But if a rational person is aware that God has issued them a command, then they are aware that God exists. And so, if a rational person has received a command from God (i.e. if they have a moral obligation), then they are aware that God exists. But there are many rational non-believers who do not believe and are not aware that God exists. And so there are an uncomfortably large number of people who must have never been issued any commands by God.

And so divine command theorists are impaled on either of the two horns of this dilemma: either they're confronted with a compelling counter-example to divine command theory, or they must admit there are a great many people for whom every action—no matter how monstrous—is morally permissible.