Seems Reasonable

various topics in philosophy

Craig on the Cosmological Argument

William Lane Craig, a prominent philosopher and Christian apologist, wrote a post outlining various tired arguments for the existence of God.  A comment he made struck me as so absurd I decided to end my blogging hiatus just to write about it.

First he outlines the familiar Cosmological Argument:

1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.
2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
3. The universe exists.
4. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God.

He then sets out to defend premise (2) by saying this:

Besides, (2) is quite plausible in its own right. For an external cause of the universe must be beyond space and time and therefore cannot be physical or material. Now there are only two kinds of things that fit that description: either abstract objects, like numbers, or else an intelligent mind. But abstract objects are causally impotent. The number 7, for example, can’t cause anything. Therefore, it follows that the explanation of the universe is an external, transcendent, personal mind that created the universe—which is what most people have traditionally meant by “God.”

In the quoted passage we have a blatant use of a false dichotomy.  He claims that there can only be two explanations for the causation of the universe: (1) an abstract concept or (2) an intelligent mind.  The force behind this claim is supposed to be that whatever it is that caused the universe must be outside space and time and the only two categories of things that can exist outside of time are abstract concepts or intelligent minds.  But why on earth does Craig think this?  The only intelligent minds we know about are made of matter, so it’s not clear how one can make the leap to say that intelligent minds are of a certain kind of thing that can exist outside of space time.  It is perhaps logically possible that something that functions as a ‘mind’ could exist outside of space time, but it would be fundamentally different than any mind we have ever come across and we have zero evidence about the existence of such minds (remember the Cosmological Argument is trying to prove the existence of such a mind, so it would be question begging to already say we know about minds in this way!).

Why does Craig think he can make any claims about what exists outside of space time?  What is the epistemic ground he is standing on to make such claims?  Shouldn’t we be purely agnostic on entities existing outside of space time?

This is where the Cosmological Argument fails on a fundamental level.  It actually succeeds, in my mind, up to the premise, “The Universe has a cause”. But the leap to, “that cause is God”, is so insanely large it’s hard to believe Aquinas wrote it in the first place. If we assume that the Universe is of a type of thing that is necessarily caused, then the type of thing that caused it would have to be a type of thing that itself does not require a cause, and would therefore be fundamentally different from our Universe.  There is no evidence to suggest the existence of anything of this sort.  At this point, as reasonable people, we must be humble in our epistemology and say, “I don’t know”, to the question of what exists beyond our universe, until a justified way of knowing about things outside of the universe comes to light.


Platonism and Queerness

It appears to be the case that many philosophers secretly believe that Platonic forms exist. Plato thought that all abstract perfections of entities and concepts actually exist in our world as forms. For example, despite the fact that you have never seen a perfect circle, you can conceptualize a perfect circle and project it onto all the technically-imperfect circles in your geometry textbook.  Of course, there’s no real reason to suppose such entities exist in reality, so philosophers don’t ever talk about forms as if they actually exist.

They do something a bit sillier, I think.  They simultaneously disregard the existence of Platonic forms, then think and write as if something exactly like forms exist.  In particular, many philosophers take it for granted that morality consists of objective features in reality.  They have stopped calling these features ‘Forms’, however, and instead just appeal to our intuition and sense of the a priori to substantiate their existence.  But why is it just taken for granted that objective moral features exist?  Why believe Kant that categorical imperatives exist at all?  Did anyone stop to ask just what the hell Kant was using as evidence to substantiate the existence of categorical imperatives beyond our own internal sense of morality?

In J.L. Mackie’s “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong” he makes an argument coined the argument from queerness.  He has a discussion on Platonism and Forms and inquires about what moral features could actually be and what they could potentially consist of.  He argues that moral features would be a strange sort of entity indeed, unlike anything we observe in reality.

Now, I do not particularly think that an entity being very strange is cause to believe that it does not exist.  If I could expand upon what Mackie was saying a bit, I’d venture to say that the utterly strange nature of potential objective moral features should at least give us reason to pause and suspend belief about them. As I have stated many times before on this blog, if someone asserts the existence of some entity to me, I demand some kind of evidence for its existence, even if that entity is not even strange or extraordinary at all!  And I don’t mean evidence in some kind of logical positivist sense; I only mean to say that some amount of reasonable evidence needs to be available to me if I am to move away from an agnostic stance on the entity in question.

If we usually demand evidence even in the case of ordinary entities, then it seems like the intrinsically peculiar nature of objective moral features ought to demand more evidence than our intuition and common sense if they are to be believed in.  And the standard by which I use this ought is simple: if we are to have an epistemology that ascertains true beliefs with the highest degree of probability, then one ought to refrain from believing in something very strange that has insufficient evidence, lest you fall prey to a host of incorrect beliefs.

Herein lies the beginning of Moral Error Theory.  My primary goal of putting forth Mackie’s argument from queerness is to provide some motivation for moving forward in the discussion about whether or not moral features actually exist and placing a seed of doubt in your mind about moral objectivity.  For if we cannot find any reason to believe that objective moral features exist, then it appears to be the case that we have an error theory with respect to moral properties, but that is a topic for a later post.

Epistemological Requirements for Hell

I decided that I do want to continue the discussion based off my first post on the problem of hell, or at least one part of the post in particular.  In that post I briefly outlined the following common defense used by the Christian apologist to justify hell:

Hell allows people to freely reject God and live apart from Him.  It is the ultimate form of respect for human freedom.

There is a lot of philosophical baggage packed into this defense.  First, I’d like to turn your attention to the words, ‘freely reject’.  What would it mean for a being to freely reject God?  (Henceforth, when I use the term ‘God’, I will be referring to the common definition of the Christian God which I have outlined in other posts.  Further, I will also be assuming that free will exists as any non-insane-Calvinist Christian no doubt believes).

Epistemic Requirements for Freedom — The Real Question

I want to argue that freedom has a certain reasonably high epistemic requirement; further I assert that freedom is essential to our common notion of justice.  I think that the sort of justice Hell doles out is particularly extreme, and thus has an even higher requirement for freedom, which in turn, produces an even greater epistemic requirement.  I will argue that human beings are incapable of possessing the appropriate level of knowledge required for hell to be a legitimate form of justice.

Consider a five-year-old who does something we find particularly evil, such as murdering a family member using a knife they find in the house.  Under our standard notion of justice, despite the incredibly tragic nature of the event, we do not punish the child as we would an adult; we do not send the child to the electric chair or to life in prison. The reason for this is that we believe the child lacks certain knowledge about morality, consequences, and reality in general, that would justify a harsh punishment.  We cannot blame the child for taking a moral action when she perhaps does not know about the fragile nature of the human body or the consequences of using a knife in the way that she did.

From this analogy, it appears obvious that epistemology is crucial when deciding upon the appropriate measures of justice for a given act made by a moral being.  You might notice that this appears to be somewhat out of line with my first assertions in the argument.  I have established that knowledge is essential for justice, not that knowledge is essential for freedom.  We are therefore missing a transitive step.  What I really want to argue is that knowledge is essential to freedom, and freedom essential to justice.  Therefore the root problem with the five-year-old seems to be that her lack of knowledge makes her actions lack freedom in a robust and genuine sense.  My next post will be devoted to substantiating this claim.

Uncomfortable Truths

If uncomfortable truths are out there, we should seek them and face them like intellectual adults, rather than eschewing open-minded inquiry or fabricating philosophical theories whose only virtue is the promise of providing the soothing news that all out heartfelt beliefs are true.

-Richard Joyce in the closing sentence of ‘The Evolution of Morality’

Words to live by.

Mark Linsenmayer on Less Wrong

I’ve been a long time follower of Luke Muehlhauser ever since his Common Sense Atheism days.  Mark Linsenmayer  recently posted an article over at Partially Examined Life (I HIGHLY recommend their podcast series; it is undoubtedly the best and most accessible philosophy podcast on the net) in response to this quote by Luke:

Large swaths of philosophy (e.g. continental and postmodern philosophy) often don’t even try to be clear, rigorous, or scientifically respectable. This is philosophy of the “Uncle Joe’s musings on the meaning of life” sort, except that it’s dressed up in big words and long footnotes… Analytic philosophy is clearer, more rigorous, and better with math and science, but only does a slightly better job of avoiding magical categories, language confusions, and non-natural hypotheses. Moreover, its central tool is intuition, and this displays a near-total ignorance of how brains work. …a few naturalistic philosophers are doing some useful work. But the signal-to-noise ratio is much lower even in naturalistic philosophy than it is in, say, behavioral economics or cognitive neuroscience or artificial intelligence or statistics…

Luke is right on the money with this quote.  Linsenmayer goes into a larger critique on Less Wrong, a blog which I also highly recommend.  I think Linsenmayer is mostly correct in his critique.  Definitely read it and check out some of Muehlhauser and Yudkowski’s work if you’re not familiar with it.

Moral Realism and the Burden of Proof

We begin as cognitivists and realists about ethics. … Moral Realism should be our meta ethical starting point, and we should give it up only if it does involve unacceptable metaphysical and epistemological commitments.

-David Brink

[Error theory] goes against assumptions ingrained in our thought and built into some of the ways in which language is used, since it conflicts with what is sometimes called common sense, it needs very solid support.

-John Mackie

It is not clear to me why philosophers think that the moral realist does not bear the burden of proof with respect to the existence of moral properties.  It is true, as Mackie points out, that moral anti-realism goes against our sensibilities and intuitions, but why should our intuition provide sufficient evidence for any sort of claim?

If someone asserts the existence of some entity, even if I find the existence of such an entity pleasing to my sensibilities, I would still like to see some sort of evidence for the existence of the entity in question. This discussion closely parallels arguments in philosophy of religion about the existence of God.  In that field, there are many attempts to prove the existence of God, either through deductive arguments, or more inductive evidential cases (a la Richard Swinburne).  But many arguments for the existence of God indeed rely on our intuition or seemingly innate sense for the divine.  There are approximately zero atheists who find this sort of argument compelling, however, and for good reason – our intuition and common sense about reality often fail us.  It is why we have the scientific method; why we demand rigor in our philosophical endeavors; and why we generally attempt to find reason and evidence behind our beliefs whenever possible.

I see no reason why morality should not be subject to the same scrutiny.  Where is the evidence for the existence of moral properties?  What sort of substance could moral properties consist of, especially if we are not to invoke the supernatural? Eventually I want to outline Mackie’s and Joyce’s work on error theory and establish a sort of agnostic error theory view on morality. Somewhere in between I’d also like to discuss how this all relates back to my posts on the problem of hell.

The Problem of Hell Reconsidered

After I finished writing my own formulation of the problem of hell, I found that premise one was loaded with presuppositions.  First, one must suppose that imperfect beings need saving and one must suppose that these beings need saving from something in particular.  In Christianity, this ‘something in particular’ is hell.  Therefore I must assume, for the sake of argument, that Christianity is only wrong about eternal condemnation. Furthermore, I must assume that a place like hell exists and define it loosely as some form of separation from God and that it is a necessary result from living apart from God, which all imperfect beings necessarily do by virtue of them being imperfect.

I think this is a fine project, but I want to reconsider the formulation that does not necessarily rely on all of these presuppositions.  What I really aim to do is to dismantle our ideas of free will and justice and therefore show the absurdity of the entire religion of Christianity.  This is obviously a much bigger project.

What follows is an attempt to form a new deductive argument with these things considered.  First, note that when I use the words ‘Hell’ and ‘God’ in this argument, I am referring to traditional Christian doctrines concerning these entities.  Second, when I say ‘moral’ I am referring to a traditional realist account of morality in which moral statements are made true or false by objective features in reality.  Specifically, I am referring to an ethical non-naturalist account of morality that a Christian would no doubt hold.

  1. Hell exists only if morality exists.
  2. Morality exists only if beings have a libertarian sort of free will (they can actually choose between competing alternative actions) and features in reality correspond to moral facts.
  3. Libertarian free will does not exist in any sense.
  4. There are no features in reality that correspond to moral facts. (note the argument does not even require that both (3) and (4) are true.)
  5. Therefore morality does not exist.
  6. Therefore hell does not exist.

This formulation, I think, is much more effective at dealing with the idea of hell.  Further, it can easily be extended then to dismantle Christianity on the whole. The project has now become one of disproving moral realism and libertarian free will.  These are two topics which can be dealt with in a secular way, which is a project I wanted to take on without addressing religion at all. Happily, then, this investigation will kill two birds with one stone.

Special thanks to jeffsocrates for helping to spur on these thoughts.

The Absurdity of Hell

The problem of evil (or suffering, if you’d like) is considered by many to be the most damning piece of evidence against traditional theism and as such, is often a primary focus in various works in apologetics and philosophy of religion.  However, I find responses by Alvin Plantinga on the issue at least somewhat satisfying insofar as I agree that the existence of suffering does not present a defeater for the Christian and it is even plausible in my mind that suffering is indeed a requirement for bringing about the best possible world.  The issue I find more damning than the problem of suffering is the problem of hell, which I don’t believe is addressed in any suitable way.

Various contemporary responses to the problem of hell include:

-Western sensibilities with regards to justice are skewed and incapable of understanding the necessity of the sort of justice hell brings about (other cultures are perfectly fine with eternal condemnation, for example!).

-Hell is necessary for allowing us to understand the significance of Jesus Christ and the cross (a la Tim Keller).

-Hell is not a place of literal fire where people are tortured, it is a spiritual separation from God (this one is meant to ‘soften the blow’ of the problem).

-Hell allows people to freely reject God and live apart from Him.  It is the ultimate form of respect for human freedom. (I find this sort of response particularly laughable and will deal with it at length.)

There are others, but it will suffice to list these as a sampling of the sort of strategies philosophers and apologists use to defend the doctrine of hell. Needless to say, I find all of these strategies utterly intellectually, and dare I say morally, bankrupt.

But just what is the problem of hell?  What follows is my own formulation of the problem of hell, and perhaps when this formulation is completed, we shall see some of the strategies employed above crumble.

The Problem of Hell

First, one must presuppose all of the traditional characteristics of God – perfect goodness, omnipotence, omniscience, etc.  I will forgo a lengthy discussion on God’s attributes in favor of getting straight to the point, as most philosophers and theologians agree on this issue. Let’s call the set of all of these attributes P. The following is the argument from the problem of hell in deductive form:

  1. If a God possesses P then he is able to save all imperfect beings through reconciliation.
  2. All imperfect beings are not saved by the Christian God.
  3. Therefore the Christian God does not possess P.
  4. Christianity fundamentally asserts that God possesses P.
  5. Therefore Christianity is fundamentally incorrect.

The obvious premise under fire here is going to be premise one.  In the next post in this series I will build a case for the soundness of this premise.  Once this case is established, the strategies employed to defend the doctrine of hell collapse and the rest of the argument flows deductively as stated.

Jargon in Meta Ethics, Part Two

In part one of this series, I briefly defined meta ethics and cognitivist views within. This post is dedicated to the other half of meta ethics: non-cognitivism. Non-cognitvism is appealing for  variety of reasons, but I think it ultimately fails (which I will discuss in greater length eventually).

Non-cognitivism is the view that moral statements do not have truth values; rather, they are mere expressions of desires or attitudes.  At first glance, this probably seems strange. For example, the sentence “Stealing is wrong” clearly has the structure of a proposition. It makes an assertion about some feature in the world and thus has a truth value out of necessity. But recall that meta-ethics is concerned with the language of ethics itself and aims to consider some of the underlying features or moral statements that people may or may not be aware of when they utter them. 

Emotivism/Expressivism is the view that moral statements are actually descriptions of emotional states or attitudes towards certain features in reality.  For example, when someone utters, “Stealing is wrong”, they are actually saying something like, “Boo, Stealing!” or “Stealing!” with a negative tone of voice.  The proposition, then, is merely a guise for an expression of a certain attitude, and is therefore not truth apt.

I’m mostly uninterested in other non-cognitivist accounts of morality.  I direct you to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy if you’re further interested. Expressivism and Error Theory will be more closely examined in coming posts now that the stage is properly set.

Jargon in Meta Ethics, Part One

It’s easy to get lost in all of the jargon when reading philosophy.  Seeing as how I’d like to have some discussion on meta ethics in upcoming posts, I thought I’d help out my vast readership by defining some key terms.

First, let me briefly define meta ethics. Ethics can generally be described in three distinct categories: applied ethics, normative ethics, and meta ethics.  Rather than inquiring on what actions may be right or wrong, or asking questions about ethics in the real world, meta ethics is concerned with the nature of moral language.   There are two top level categories in meta-ethics: cognitivism and noncognitivism.  This post will define cognitivism and the concepts within it.  Major terms are bolded and sub theories within them are italicized.

Cognitivism is the view that moral propositions have truth values.  For example, if I say, “killing is evil”, under the cognitive view, this proposition is either true or false.

Within the cognitivist view, the question of objectivity arises — are these moral utterances true based on some objective standard?  Or are they subjective?

Moral Realism is the view that some moral statements are indeed true, and are made true by some objective feature in reality.  Ethical naturalism and non-naturalism are two views that arise out of moral realism.  Ethical naturalism is, in my opinion, a strange view on meta ethics that states roughly that moral features are reducible in the the universe to non-moral features and can probably be empirically defined. Non-naturalism is the opposing view that moral features cannot be reduced in this way.  Non-naturalists claim that we have access to moral facts via the a priori, introspection  and some special faculty within us that allows us to know and understand morality.  This view, I think, is common among the layman, although they probably wouldn’t be able to articulate it as such.

Two of the primary meta ethical theories opposed to  moral realism are as follows:

Ethical Subjectivism is the view that moral statements are made true or false by attitudes or opinions of moral beings.  This can include a God, giving us Divine Command Theory, or it can include groups of people.  Relativism obviously falls into this category, common among undergraduate philosophy students.

Error Theory is the second congitivist view opposed to moral realism.  First, note that ethical subjectivism attacked moral realism by asserting that moral proposition are true according to subjective standards, rather than objective standards.   Error theory, on the other hand, attacks moral realism by asserting that all moral propositions are false.  It claims that no moral features actually exist in the world and our moral judgments are therefore false.  Error theory happens to be my favorite meta ethical view so expect an entire post devoted to it soon.

The next post will investigate the other side of meta ethics: non-cognivitism.

In other news, the wordpress spellchecker really hates meta ethical jargon.