Sunday, November 6, 2011

Liberalism, Neutrality, and Christianity

Until now the Analytic Scholastic has had little to say which is politically incorrect. Here's my post originally posted at The Rational Gang. Please direct any comments there:

Modern left-liberalism is not neutral toward competing visions of the good life or to competing religions. It takes a decided stance against the notion that Christ is King (Rev. 1:5).  First, consider if Christianity is actually true. In that case, many claims about what are due to God in terms of worship are true; many claims about the future of the world are true; many claims about the roles of husband and wife, claims about the nature of marriage, claims about what is essentially good for humanity are all true. All these claims are embodied in a revelation and religious tradition. This is a comprehensive world view. Liberalism holds that such religious claims cannot serve as the basis for any law which would use the state for enforcement.

What of this understanding that no religious claim can be the basis for law? To put the question in perspective, consider the following scenario. Suppose, per impossibile, that a time-traveler comes to us from an alternate universe 1,000 years from now where, rather than taking action to preserve the wolf population in Yellowstone National Park,  we instead allow it to be decimated. The bison population, no longer controlled by hungry wolves, expands at incredible rates. The bison quickly turn rabid unleashing heretofore unknown powers against the human population in retaliation for past injustices. Suppose, moreover, that we have some reason to believe our temporal voyager’s claims–e.g. as proof he has a laser gun which is impossible to replicate with current technology–and we can rule out ulterior motives. Most of the citizens see this taking place before their very eyes. Clearly the state ought to heed his warnings and preserve the wolves despite the unhappy consequences for those who like hunting and for the way of life of certain agrarians. Yet this is a very odd situation. It is not, however, ruled out in principle. So evidence coming from very odd situations doesn’t rule it out as evidence for a course of legislation.

But what happens if it is God who reveals the same thing in a similarly obvious way? The fact that it is God telling us to conserve the wolves shouldn’t rule out the legality of our doing so. If anything we should be even more prepared to take God’s advice! So that means evidence coming from religious situations doesn’t rule it out as evidence for a course of legislation either.

So what about when God decides to reveal to the world through his divine son that unless we repent of our sins and accept his grace we shall all surely perish? What happens when this is supported by miracles and rational arguments? In short, what happens when Christianity is by all indications true? Clearly we should give at least some kind of acknowledgment as a people, and some sort of preference, to this world view. The liberal seems to want to be able to rule this out a priori. But why should he be able to? If he accepts that we can base legislation on the first example, and accepts that we can base legislation on the second example, then the inherently religious nature of the consequences in this case doesn’t make our evidence any less a basis for legislation.

The liberal, in true egalitarian spirit, might object that we should treat all religions as equal. But why should we? If two propositions have differing degrees of evidence then the one with more evidence should be given preference. The liberal makes an ad hoc restriction when saying the same doesn’t apply to propositions with religious content–unless, of course, he assumes that the strength of evidence for all religions is in fact equal. At this point, however, the liberal has given up neutrality and has begun to make a comprehensive statement about religious claims, viz. that we have no rational basis for preferring one religion over another.
Another objection might be that in my first example we have good evidence which is publicly available to all citizens, whereas in the latter we do not. This is meant to justify the exclusion of religious propositions for legislation and government recognition by saying that we do not have good evidence for them. But read that one more time: “We do not have good evidence for them!” Good evidence is sound evidence. So if we do not have good evidence for religious claims, then we have no sound evidence for religious claims, or at least likely no sound evidence. Notice, however, that the liberal has brought himself to the point of assessing the claims themselves. At this point we’ve left the high seat of neutrality and entered the arena of truth.

The liberal might retort that I am straw-manning his position. By “good evidence” he means something more like “evidence convincing to all citizens.” But this is ambiguous. It could mean either evidence which should convince all citizens or evidence which actually does convince all citizens. If the former then, once again, he must mean evidence which is rational and defensible, at which point he’s come back to assessing the rationality and defensibility of religious claims. If the latter, then he has picked a poor platform for pushing his liberal policies. Such policies as the managerial welfare state, affirmative action, higher taxes, strict separation of church and state, euthanasia, and all the rest are in no wise actually convincing to all citizens. In fact, the liberal system as a whole is not actually convincing to all citizens. Precious little gets done in the liberal state which takes as its maxim that only those policies whose justification actually convince all citizens should be enacted.

Finally, the liberal may argue that the state should not use religious beliefs as bases for legislation because we could be wrong about them. However, the mere fact that we could be wrong about something is not a good reason to think we are wrong about it. We could be wrong about liberalism. I think liberals are in fact wrong about liberalism. But unless good evidence is given to show that something is wrong then it’s not ruled out in principle.

I think the liberal is fundamentally right about a few things. He’s right that if all religions have equal evidence then no single one should be given preference. He’s right to think that if a claim doesn’t have good evidence in favor of it then it ought not serve as a basis for legislation.  When applying these principles he says that religions have equal evidence–likely not very much evidence at all! Or he might say that the evidence is not convincing for any of them. These both require either a certain understanding of the very nature of religious propositions or an assessment of the evidence itself. It’s not for no reason that they are typically accompanied by agnosticism, atheism, or more relativistic flavored views; it’s because these are tied to such fundamentally comprehensive philosophical and religious claims.

What’s the upshot of this? Well, it’s not that either liberalism or Christianity is in fact true. Neither is it the claim that we should base all or even most legislation on religion. It’s simply that liberalism can only claim that such legislation can be ruled out if it makes certain philosophical and religious assumptions which are just as contentious as the religious beliefs themselves. If Christianity is true, and it has evidence in its favor, then there is no in-principle reason why its adherents can't appeal to such evidence for some legislation. The liberal must justify his comprehensive theses and go toe-to-toe with the religious adherent via the same process of rational discernment, rather than presuppose it on the basis of an illusory neutrality.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Dirty Herry

Since I don't have much time these days for much of anything, rather than write a blog post I've decided to post a little paper I wrote on Heraclitus. My ancient philosophy professor liked it so it must not be too bad. I'm certainly no expert on the pre-socratics and I'm just going on some of Herry's fragments. However, I don't think this interpretation is too far off the mark:

On the face of it, Heraclitus seems to be saying that opposites are one and the same. This is a flat absurdity. However, Heraclitus is one of the first great thinkers, and when it comes to great thinkers we should assume they are making a more profound point than at first sight. I think what he is really trying to say is that it is a curious fact about the universe that the things in it are constituted by having seemingly opposite properties, though not at the same time and in the same respect. For example, water wouldn’t be water unless it was life for some (fish), deadly for others (humans). The most interesting example is the river; a river is a river only if its parts are different over time. Not only does a river retain identity through not having the same parts, its identity depends on not having the same parts at every moment.

Now, if one of the quotes from Aristotle (B8) is genuine, it seems that Heraclitus is making a more general point about the world as a whole. After all, he says, “Everything occurs in accordance with strife,” strife being the seeming tension between opposites. But if strife is a general principle of the universe, how can this be consistent with his claims about the logos? The logos, according to Heraclitus, is a unifying principle of the universe. He says himself in (22B1) that all things come to be in accordance with the logos. So then how can both strife and unity be fundamental principles? I think there are two ways to interpret this, both of which are interesting.

One is the more paradoxical route. If the fundamental principles are strife and unity, then the fundamental principles themselves are in accordance with this law. After all, they unify everything because literally everything is in accordance with them. However, they are also in tension with each other; hence, both strife and unity. While on the one hand this is an interesting thought, on the other it sounds a bit like profound nonsense.

I think there is another, more coherent interpretation of Heraclitus to resolve this tension, and that is to say that the most fundamental principle is really this unifying logos. In fact, although it can’t be proved from the texts, Heraclitus could have made the following argument: (1) Opposites by their very nature do not come together to form coherent wholes. (2) However, the universe is made up of coherent wholes which are constituted by opposites. (3) Therefore, there must be some underlying reason, or logos, which explains the fact that the universe is made up of coherent wholes which are constituted by opposites. If we put this argument into a more rigorous form it would be clearly valid. For its time, I think it would’ve been a good argument, and I would even argue that some form of this argument holds true.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Adam, Eve, Darwin, and Aristotle

There has been a lot of brouhaha lately over an article by John Farrell regarding the doctrine of original sin as understood by Catholics (and I suspect most conservative non-Catholic denominations) and its compatibility with modern theories of the origin of humans. Edward Feser has posted a response which documents the fracas and describes a very good Aristotelian answer to the whole ordeal. I'd suggest it as prerequisite reading for my own post here, as he lays out more fully the metaphysical presuppositions I'm working with.

In the combox of Feser's post, a commenter lays out the following dilemma. Granted what Farrell says about genetics, either
(1) Adam and Eve both mated with non-humans, and all of the organisms we now consider humans are descended from either Adam or Eve
(2) Some of the organisms who we now consider human are not in fact metaphysically human. They are merely biologically human.

I think the first option would be the way to go, though I wonder if the existence of certain of Dr. Feser's detractors provides evidence for the second suggestion. ;-) In seriousness though, it seems hard to accept the idea that some people are not metaphysically human. Agere sequitur esse--"action follows being"--and the fact is that, in the absence of any physical deformation, everyone we know of acts like a normal human being, or at least the vast majority of people do. There's not a significant part of the population which is truly brutish. Moreover, we might use the idea that Adam and Eve's descendents mated with non-humans to explain some supposed discrepancies in the Bible. For instance, in Genesis 4:17 Cain has children by his wife. But if Cain and Abel are the only listed descendents of Adam and Eve, where did the woman come from? Well, maybe from some of the hominids who had not been given rational souls. Since it is most consistent with everyday facts as well as theology, the first claim seems the more reasonable view.

However, the commenter brings up the interesting problem that this hypothesis could some day be falsified by genetics. First, we might simply bite this bullet, though as a matter of fact I'm not sure if it's entirely correct to say that we can test this genetically. (I honestly don't know, though I vaguely recall from a biology course this not being how modern genetics works.) But second, there's an interesting point I'd like to make which should make this a little less unappealing. I would say that our first parents could have been even earlier hominids and that this possibility should make our theory nice and unassailable again:

Consider Dr. Feser's conclusions. He shows that even if there were 10,000 members of the biological species homo sapiens, this wouldn't prove that they were all metaphysically human. But we can look at this another way as well:

For all we know, God infused the rational soul into an earlier biological species. Of course, it's open to analysis of the anatomy of earlier species whether it would have been possible to infuse a rational soul into them, since as Feser points out a certain amount of physical development is a necessary condition for having a rational soul. However, I'd suggest that the amount of physical development necessary may be less than one might suspect. Here's why: I think that for every biological species there is some particular form characteristic to that species; after all, the form is the principle of life for any living thing, and the natural ends of a given form determine how a particular organism will develop. Since homo sapiens members develop differently from, say, homo erectus members, it follows that in some sense they have different natural ends (at least with regards to physical development) and we should conclude that they have different forms. This isn't very controversial really. To quote Feser:

"In fact, some A-T philosophers would hold that the specific genetic and phenotypic traits typical of homo sapiens sapiens are not even essential to human beings considered as a metaphysical category: Anything that was both animal and rational would arguably be “human” in the relevant sense, even if it had a body plan radically different from ours. "

But what this means is that having the particular form that we have is not necessary for being a human being metaphysically speaking. The only things necessary and sufficient for being a human person is to be both rational and an animal.

This is an important point. Since having a homo sapiens form isn't strictly necessary for being a human being, this means that the amount of physical development necessary for exercising rational faculties will be different for each form. So having a smaller brain would be an impairment for a member of homo sapiens, since this is a defect relative to the homo sapiens form. But having a smaller brain may not be an impairment for a member of homo erectus. In fact, a brain the size of a very dysfunctional homo sapiens may very well be the brain size of a flourishing homo erectus. I think that this, in conjunction with the fact that the operations of a rational animal's intellect are primarily immaterial and suited by God particularly for that species' form, shows that there could have been fully functioning, rational animals in earlier hominid species. And we could have very well descended from a pair of these.

As an example to make my point clear, consider elephants (dolphins may be a similar case). These animals exhibit some of the most intelligent behavior in the entire animal kingdom. They'd seem to be ideal candidates in case God felt like endowing another species with intellect and will. Now, although elephants have much larger brains than we do (they weigh 11 lbs.!), God could endow them with an intellect which exercised the exact same functions we do, and metaphysically speaking we would all be on the same plane; we'd all be humans--homo sapiens, elephants, and all. In the same way, although we have larger brains, God could have endowed earlier hominid species with intellects particularly suited to their physical form which could have carried on rational functions just like ours do. Since they would have been both rational and animals, they would have counted as humans.

This is in many ways speculation. But in any case, I think the point still stands that we should be able to apply Feser's reasoning backwards. God could have infused rational souls into even earlier hominid species, and all human beings on this God's green earth could have descended from a pair of these hominids who were first endowed with that rational part of human nature. This line of reasoning might help to throw our theology back into the comfortable realm of unfalsifiability and consistency with modern genetics.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Remarks on "Divine Hiddenness"

[Originally posted at the Rational Gang. Please direct any comments there.]

A lot of atheists say that if God were to perform a miracle in front of their eyes, then they would believe. So then, if God is all good, and "wills all men to be saved," then why doesn't he provide such obvious evidence for his existence? Since an all-loving God is expected to reveal himself to all, and there are atheists that have reasonable nonbelief, this is evidence that God does not exist.

1. Coercion and Moral Responsibility
A first thing to note is that God wants to preserve our moral responsibility and freedom. Now, almost all accept that it is possible to coerce someone into doing something. This can be done, most obviously, by physical force, as when kidnappers pick up a hostage and put him into a van against his will. Clearly in this context the person is not responsible for this event. Another, more interesting case, is where a mother is forced by a cruel killer to choose between her two sons being shot, or else they will both be tortured to death. The mother is not morally responsible, or at least very responsible, if she ultimately chooses one child in order to save at least one; the ultimate responsibility goes to the wicked sadist who is forcing the "choice" upon her. The point here though is that the mother is not literally coerced by force; rather, she is coerced by reasons. She knows that if she doesn't pick one, they will both be lost. In cases of coercion, one loses moral responsibility for one's actions.

But then it's straightforward applying this to the case of God. God wants us to have the freedom to choose him. He doesn't want to coerce us and ultimately remove our responsibility. But if one can be coerced by reasons, and incontrovertible proof would coerce some people into belief, then it's easy to see why God would not provide incontrovertible proof to absolutely everyone in order that they might all have absolute certainty: It removes responsibility on our part.

2. Divine Obviousness:

A reply inspired by the Thomistic tradition is to say that, as a matter of fact, God isn't hidden at all. Rather, God, as the ultimate source of all being, completely and totally permeates throughout nature. This is how God is omni-present, not in the sense that the universe is God (a la pantheism), but rather that the very existence of things is just one step away from God himself. However, being creatures of habit, and being familiar with the world, we take the awful mystery of existence for granted, and fail to see the divinity which sustains it all. But this is no failure on God's part. It's a failure of us to appreciate God's creation.

3. They're Wrong:

While atheists say they know that if God were to provide them a clear sign such as a miracle then they would convert, that might, for all we (or they) know, not be the case. In fact, this is what we find from the Christian perspective in John 11, where the Pharisees, even upon hearing and accepting that Christ performed miracles, refused to acknowledge him: "So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and said, 'What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.'" So for these people, even the greatest of miracles would not convince them. How would this apply in the case of others?

According to one theory of the relationship between God's foreknowledge and our freedom, Molinism, God knows infallibly what we would freely do in any given circumstance. Supposing this view is coherent, we can apply it in the case of atheists: God does not give incontrovertible evidence to people who he knows that, in any circumstance where they are given incontrovertible evidence, would not convert. This means that atheists cannot say, "Well, if only God had given me more evidence, then I would have converted." Not necessarily.

If this is too strong, we can even weaken the principle: God does not give reasonable evidence to people who he knows that, in any circumstance where they are given reasonable evidence, would not convert. This seems more plausible anyway. For one, it doesn't seem necessary for God to give everyone incontrovertible evidence. If we are given reasonable evidence and fail to see it, then that is our fault. Moreover, this widens the group of people we are dealing with because, though some may accept God given incontrovertible evidence, fewer will accept God given only reasonable and sufficient evidence, which may explain a large number of unbelievers.

What this ultimately shows is that, even if some atheists are not actually given incontrovertible, or even reasonable, evidence, this doesn't make it the case that God is doing something evil, the reason being that they would not accept the evidence in other feasible circumstances anyhow. It would be for God to cast pearls to swine.

4. Rationality and Reasonableness:

This leads to a further question: are atheists, in fact, given reasonable evidence? Their whole argument may be begging the question here. After all, theists believe that there is reasonable evidence for the existence of God. But then if God has provided everyone with reasonable evidence, the argument fails, because this is precisely what is in question, i.e. whether belief in God is reasonable.

The atheist finds himself in a bit of a pickle. In proposing that there is not enough evidence for Christian belief, he must give us a criterion of reasonable belief that is strong enough such that it supports the reasonableness of atheism, but is not so strong that it begs the question against the theist. To put it another way, there is a tension in the claim that "the reasonableness of atheism entails the unreasonableness of theism," because it is possible that, given the atheist's criterion of reasonableness, the theist can turn right around and say, "Well, it is reasonable to believe that God might not reveal himself to everyone with absolutely convincing evidence."

5. Five points.

To sum up, I think there are five reasons we can give as to why God's existence is not incompatible with "divine hiddenness."
(a) Reasons can coerce. So if one were given incontrovertible reasons to believe in God, then one would be coerced into belief in God. But since coercion is incompatible with significant moral responsibility, and God wants to leave us morally responsible, God does not want to coerce us. Therefore, God does not give incontrovertible evidence.
(b) God is not in fact hidden; rather, God is obvious. However, humans fail to recognize the mystery of their own existence and the creation before them, and fail to see the divine in nature.
(c) For all we know, God does not give those who have a reasonable non-belief in God incontrovertible evidence, because he knows that in all circumstances, they will not believe in God.
(e) For all we know, God does not give those who have a reasonable non-belief in God reasonable evidence, because he knows that in all reasonable circumstances, they will not believe in God.
(e) The atheist begs the question against the theist in two ways: first, by saying that his nonbelief in God is reasonable, since the theist believes there are reasonable grounds for belief, and second, by saying that his reasonable nonbelief implies God's nonexistence, since the the theist can say that, by the atheist's own criteria, it is reasonable to believe that God has reasons to stay hidden.

All in all, this provides a strong cumulative case for believing that the argument from divine hiddenness doesn't work, and that theism is left unharmed.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Aristotelian Relativism

On the Aristotelian account of ethics, what is "good" for an agent depends on that agent's essence/nature/form as well as that form's characteristic natural ends. For example, it is good for a dog to reproduce, eat and drink, and have fully working senses, the reason being that reproduction, internal equilibrium, and various types of perception are some of the natural ends (in Greek, 'teloi') of a dog. When it comes to us humans the general outline remains the same, though we will have some differences insofar as humans are essentially different from dogs, and hence characterized by different natural ends.

Now, it seems plausible to think that there are necessary ethical truths. For instance, it is always wrong for people to torture little children just for the sake of it. But could the above Aristotelian account contradict this? It seems that, given human evolution, the conditions whereby natural selection brought about the existence of humans might have brought about evil counterparts, call them "anti-humans." All of their natural ends would be inverse to ours. For instance, while it is good and fulfilling of our ends to protect others, for the anti-humans it might be good and fulfilling of their ends to commit murder. Similarly, it might be good for them to rape, torture children, commit genocide, etc. Hence, what is good or bad is simply relative to whether you are a human or anti-human. Call this idea "Aristotelian Relativism."

There are a couple of ways an Aristotelian could get out of this relativism. First off, there is the theistic route. Given God's existence and the idea that goodness is grounded in his nature, this would provide an objective basis for the good which holds across all possible worlds. This prevents the instantiation of any species whose ends include raping and murdering their young, or something of that sort, thus making the anti-human scenario strictly speaking impossible.

There are also a couple of ways for a non-theist Aristotelian to respond. The first is to bite the bullet and say that such things which appear horrendous to us (and indeed are horrendous for us) would not be horrendous for some other kind of thing. It's not a reply we might like, but that's exactly what we should expect given that it is contrary to our nature to do these sorts of actions. When we see rape, cannibalism, and slaughter in the lower animals, though we are likely to be disturbed, we nevertheless admit that it is natural to those animals to bring about and flourish from these types of suffering.

A second and maybe more satisfying way to respond is to say that such a scenario is not metaphysically possible for a species of rational animals. Remember, though they may disturb us, we already acknowledge that cannibalism, slaughter, and forced sex can be fulfilling for some lower animals, as there are examples of this found in the natural world. But with rational animals it is different. Aristotle understood the essence of man not to consist in our purely biological properties, but rather in our rationality; hence, "rational animals". It is from this that he derived the virtues and goods that we already acknowledge. But that means that for anything which can be classified as a rational animal, it will be wrong for it to do the things such as murder, rape, and torture. Hence, the idea of an "anti-human" turns out to be contradictory. If anti-humans are rational animals, and Aristotle's derivation of the natural ends of rational animals is correct, then it's metaphysically impossible for murder, rape, and torture to be good for such creatures. Anti-humans, then, are metaphysically impossible, and the things we understand to be good for persons are necessarily good after all.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Aquinas' Intellectualism

From Mike Flynn: "The will is determined always to the good, but the intellect does not always know perfectly what is good, and a particular object may not be good from every perspective.  If it were good from every perspective, the will could not freely withhold consent."

Question: What if the intellect did know perfectly what was good? If I'm understanding the Thomistic intellectualist position right, in that case we would make perfectly good choices.

For one, this appears to contradict Christian theology. God is all-good from every perspective. Yet the fallen angels are in their state because of their choice to sin against God. This is inexplicable given the framework where the will would be unable to freely withhold consent.

It also appears to cause problems for our personal responsibility. After all, what we choose depends on what is in our intellect. What is in our intellect is what first comes through our senses (according to Aquinas in De Veritate). So what we choose is dependent on what comes through our senses. This would imply that whether we make good or bad choices and become good or bad people is ultimately dependent on our "sensory history", i.e. whether or not we are fortunate enough to have had the types of sensations which would lead to our apprehending the types of truths which would cause us to act well. And if that's the case, it seems our action is ultimately just a matter of our having this flux of sensory stimuli rather than another. This isn't much better than the materialist picture; we're not the proper source of our actions.

Another problem is that some people have better intellects, if that makes sense. Of course, someone with a good intellect may not have a very congenial sensory history. This would explain why smart people can turn out wicked. But for those who have better intellects and better sensory histories, being directed to the good will come much easier to them insofar as they can apprehend truth and goodness more clearly than others. Thus, by chance, they're at an unfair advantage.

It seems safe to say that this means when we're punishing criminals we're ultimately (a) punishing them for not being gifted with a good intellect or (b) punishing them for not having the right sensory history. However, one should not be punished for external contingencies beyond one's control.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Is Nihilism Self-Refuting?

Woo, been a while since a post. Okay. Consider the following argument, contra moral nihilism, i.e. the view that nothing is moral or immoral:

(1) If a belief is true, then we ought to believe it.
(2) Nihilism is a belief.
So, (3) If nihilism is true, then we ought to believe it.
(4) It is not the case that we ought to believe nihilism.
Therefore, (5) Nihilism is not true.

Is there something to 1 such that, if a nihilist were to deny it, he would be leading himself to irrationality? It would seem so. The denial of 1 is, after all, "It is not the case that if a belief is true, we ought to believe it." This seems to almost undercut the entire idea of rational argument. Denying 1 would also mean that it's not the case that, if nihilism were true, then we ought to believe it. Maybe they're fine with that, but I'm sure as heck not becoming a moral nihilist if I don't have any obligation to.

The nihilist seems to be committed to 4, since any "oughts" related to things like intellectual virtue or intellectual honesty are false on nihilism; these are, after all, ethical ideas (honesty is a virtue).

Maybe the nihilist could find some way of understanding "ought" which is entirely unrelated to ethics, making it possible to affirm that if a belief is true, then we ought to believe it, along with an obligation to believe nihilism. All of this without committing to the truth of any moral theses. This already seems implausible as such. Questions of epistemic justification, intellectual responsibility, and warrant are probably inseparable from ethics in some way. Nevertheless, suppose the nihilists pull it off. This leads to there being at least some normativity and responsibility, and the possibility of normativity and obligation in one sphere makes it harder to see why the nihilist would deny normativity and obligation in the sphere of ethics.

The situation looks grim for the nihilist then. They can (A) deny 1, implying that we're free to believe whatever we please (including the falsity of nihilism), as well as making the whole project of rational argumentation dubitable, or (B) deny 4 and accept that there is some normativity and obligation, putting them at odds with their claims about ethics. Or maybe they'll come to terms and accept all our premises. :-)

That's all a little sloppy I think, but I hope it makes sense. If not, please tell me.
P.S., birthday in two days! Would be a nice birthday present if I could figure out the soundness of this argument.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Does Conceivability Entail Possibility?

The following should probably be pretty clear to some people. Just another way of showing that conceivability does not imply possibility. The proof will go somewhat informally with a few hidden premises, and I'm not even sure if it's any good.

(1) If I can conceive of a possible world, then such a world exists. (This doesn't mean it's actual of course.)
(2) I can conceive of a possible world which is empty.
(3) Therefore, there is an empty possible world.
(4) I can conceive of a necessary being.
One can easily deduce from (4) that
(5) Therefore, there is no empty possible world.
(6) Therefore, there is an empty possible world and there is no empty possible world.
(7) Therefore, ~(1). (because 1 implies a contradiction, viz. 6)

By "empty possible world" I mean a world in which no entities exist. Some may object that this is harder to understand than at first sight, and may in fact be inconceivable. For those who agree that it is conceivable we've shown that (1) is false. For the skeptic's sake let's take a less controversial example. Let's say that in every possible world there exists at least one entity. This isn't to say that in each world it is the same entity, i.e. we're not saying there exists something x such that x exists in all possible worlds. To illustrate the point let's use a little bit of basic sets. Take two sets A = {1,2} and  B = {3,4). These two sets are disjoint. If you tried to find a set which has as its elements/members all x such that x is in A and x is in B you'd come up with an empty set. In other words, they have no members in common. In an analogous way we can conceive of two possible worlds being "disjoint", that is, not having any entities in common. So we can say

(8) I can conceive of two "disjoint" possible worlds.
(9) Therefore, there are two disjoint possible worlds.

Remember, this is consistent with our rejection of (2).

(10) If there are two disjoint possible worlds, then there are no entities common to all possible worlds.
(11) Therefore, there are no entities common to all possible worlds
(12) If a necessary being is possible, then there are some entities which are common to all possible worlds.
(13) Therefore, there are some entities common to all possible worlds. (One could easily show that this follows.)

We've of course come to our flat contradiction with (11) and (13) and shown (1) to be false.

Without (1) how can we learn about metaphysical possibility? It seems to me that we'll have to go back to those good ol' essences, thus raising the further question of how we can know both essences and their implications. I wonder though how we can figure out why anything exists at all. We can't turn to essences to learn about the modal properties of being. Being has no "essence", since it's a transcendental. The falsity of (1) also has implications for those who want to create modal arguments for God. We can't just go based on God's conceivability. It's interesting to note that Robert Maydole's proof of the Maximally Great Being's (MBG) metaphysical possibility seems to rely on the very essence of the MGB.

P.S. Now we've got Ss. Augustine, Anselm, and Bonaventure praying for us on the side. :-)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

False Senses of God's Goodness

What does God's omnibenevolence consist in? I think that we need to do a little more work on fully explaining what we mean by this. In fact I'm somewhat distraught, because it seems that if we affirm God's all-goodness we should already know what we're talking about. I think that some of the notions which are typically bound up with omnibenevolence really don't make sense.

In a post a while back I presented the Prussian Free Will Defense. I think the argument is sound. The conclusion that we end up drawing from it is the following. It will be important in determining what omnibenevolence can be and what it cannot be:

(C1) It is not the case that there is some moral principle in the nature of an omnibenevolent and omnipotent being which prevents him from creating a creature who does something immoral.

"Actualizing all possible goods":
I think it's relatively easy to understand omnipotence and omniscience. Omnipotence is just the ability to do all that is possible. Omniscience is just the knowing of all things. So does omnibenevolence consist in the actualizing of all good things?

I'm convinced that this notion is incoherent. (C1) shows that God's omnibenevolence is compatible with God's not actualizing worlds which he could have actualized in which all moral agents always freely choose to do the right thing. And that is certainly incompatible with God's omnibenevolence meaning that he actualizes all possible goods.

The idea that omnibenevolence means "actualizing every possible good" is probably in contradiction with the idea of omnipotence anyhow. One could think of two goods which are mutually exclusive but are both within the range of God's power. For example, my marrying Lucy and my marrying Edith are both goods which are mutually exclusive and possible for God to actualize. However, God can only bring about one of these. Hence, if God is omnipotent, he can't be omnibenevolent if that means that he actualizes every possible good; there are some goods which God could actualize but doesn't.

"Preventing all unnecessary evil":
It seems that the existence of an all-good being must preclude the existence of unnecessary evil. Responses to the problem of evil like Plantinga's Free Will Defense say that some evils which take place are justified by greater goods. But the atheist objects that there are some evils which are probably not justified by greater goods, and in general, the theist agrees that if this were true then an omnibenevolent God would not exist. The typical attempt to solve the problem is to claim that no evils are unnecessary.

But what if the theist were to take a different route and say that even if there were evils which could have been prevented that this doesn't rule out the existence of an all-good God? In fact, I think (C1) shows that this is true. For take again the possible world W1 in which all agents always freely choose to do what is good. (C1) shows that there is no moral principle in the nature of an omnibenevolent being which prevents him from actualizing a world W2 where an evil is committed even though he could have actualized W1 instead. But in that case, some of the evils which take place are unnecessary; they could have been prevented by God's actualizing W1.

A Problem:
So we see that, based on (C1), omnibenevolence cannot imply the actualizing of all possible goods. Neither does it imply the preventing of all unnecessary evils. Yet this seems to sap omnibenevolence of any real content. How could we call something "all-good" which allows needless suffering and withholds a great many good things from us?

To me this is a big problem. I want to find some possible ways in which we can understand omnibenevolence in light of these objections. Any thoughts?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What Does It Take to Be An Atheist?

Consider some valid theistic arguments and what an atheist must do to deny their soundness.

Argument A - A Necessary Concrete Entity:

(1) Possibly a necessary concrete being exists implies a necessary concrete being exists.
(2) Possibly, a necessary concrete being exists.
(3) Therefore, a necessary concrete being exists.

Assume further that it can be shown that the necessary being is God.

What must the atheist do to deny this argument? (1) is just axiom S5. Therefore they must deny (2). This implies that (a) possibly nothing exists or (b) necessarily, there exists at least one contingent entity. This also implies that all concrete entities are contingent.

Atheist Theorem 1 (AT1): It is not possible that a necessary concrete being exists.
Atheist Theorem 2 (AT2): Either (a) possibly nothing exists or (b) necessarily there exists at least one contingent entity.
Atheist Theorem 3 (AT3): For any concrete entity x, x is contingent.

Disproving AT1, AT2 or AT3 is sufficient for refuting atheism.

Argument B - The Scotistic Cosmological Argument:
(1') Whatever is possible is contingent or necessary.
(2') A first cause is possible.
(3') Therefore, a first cause is contingent or necessary.
(4') Any contingent substance is possibly actualized by another substance.
(5') A first cause is not possibly actualized by another substance.
(6') Therefore a first cause is not contingent.
(7') Therefore, a first a cause is necessary.

What must the atheist do to deny this argument? The atheist can only really deny either (2) or (4).

Atheist Theorem 4 (AT4): Either (a) a first cause is impossible or (b) some contingent substance is not possibly actualized by another.

Hence, disproving this disjunction AT4 is sufficient for refuting atheism. Saying that (b) is false also leads to some interesting consequences about infinite regresses.

Argument C – A Modal Cosmological Argument:
(1*) Every contingent entity possibly has an external cause.
(2*) If the sum total of contingent concrete entities C has an external cause, that cause is necessary.
(3*) C is a contingent concrete entity.
(4*) Possibly, C has an external cause.
(5*) Therefore, possibly there is a necessary cause of C.
(6*) Therefore, there is a necessary cause of C.

What must the atheist deny? All premises seem quite strong. He must then deny (1*).

Atheist Theorem 5 (AT5): For some concrete contingent entity x it is impossible that x is caused.

Disproving AT5 is sufficient for disproving atheism.

Thus far we have Atheist Theorems 1-5:

AT1: It is not possible that a necessary concrete being exists.
AT2: Either (a) possibly nothing exists or (b) necessarily at least one contingent entity exists.
AT3: For any concrete entity x, x is contingent.
AT4: Either (a) a first cause is impossible or (b) some contingent substance is not possibly actualized by another.
AT5: For some concrete contingent entity x it is impossible that x is caused.

Disproving one of these theorems is sufficient for disproving atheism. Showing a contradiction between these beliefs and other atheist beliefs is sufficient for showing atheism as such to be incoherent. To me all of these propositions seem quite implausible in their own right.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Essences and Truthmakers

After reading David Oderberg's book Real Essentialism I've been concerned with getting a clear understanding of what "essences" are. Essences are not substances in themselves, over and above the entities which have them. On the other hand, they are supposed to provide explanatory power for the objects that have them, and they are supposed to have a specific sort of causal importance, in Aristotle's terms what is called "formal causation". In trying to make sense of these notions I have found truthmaking to be somewhat helpful (provided of course we have a good account of truthmaking). Here's an analysis:

Essence: For any entity X the essence of X is the truthmaker of the proposition that the real definition of X is [such and such].

To begin with, let's be clear about what exactly a truthmaker is. A truthmaker is some fact or aspect of reality in virtue of which a truthbearer, such as a proposition, statement, belief, etc., is true. How exactly is truthmaking helpful here? Well, it describes a real aspect of a thing.

Kit Fine provides a popular neo-Aristotelian definitional account of essences, saying that we can give real definitions of not only words, but entities, in order to explain what they are. These real definitions of objects are their essences. More work needs to be done on getting to the heart of what real definitions are and how we come to know them. (A possible account of what they are, which I am now somewhat doubtful of, is here.) But provided we have a clear understanding of this, Fine's account certainly seems to be on the right track, especially in the face of the failure of some modalist accounts. But according to the classical account, essences not only make things to be what they are; they provide explanations for causal powers. Definitions, which are linguistic entities, obviously do not.

As Kathrin Koslicki puts it in her paper "Essence, Necessity, and Explanation", "A definition, according to Aristotle, is a formula or statement of the essence, i.e. of what it is to be a certain kind of thing." She continues, "On Aristotle’s way of thinking, then, the explanatory power inherent in definitions, in their role as the linguistic correlates of essences, is a direct reflection of the causal power of essences." Since real definitions are the linguistic correlates of essences, truthmaking provides a way to get back to the essence itself.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Aristotelianism and the Christian Worldview

Originally posted here.


Throughout the centuries the Christian tradition has had a love-hate relationship with Aristotle. His logic and metaphysical categories provided strong tools for developing and formalizing such classic doctrines as the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity. On the other hand, he famously held that the universe was eternal and that there was no first man such as Adam, putting him at odds with Christian belief. Yet in the midst of this conflict, there is much to be gathered and adopted by the Christian. Here I’d like to examine a few of Aristotle’s ideas about the essences of things and see how they relate to the Christian view of man.


The first thing to note is that humans, along with every other kind of thing, have “essences” or “natures”. An essence is simply that in virtue of which a thing is what it is. It’s what makes the definition of a thing true. It’s also the grounding of a thing’s essential properties, i.e. those properties which are intrinsic to that type of thing. Without essences we could not form inductive laws, we could not differentiate between kinds of things, and we couldn’t even properly define our concepts.

Essences entail that things have natural ends or functions (what Aristotle calls the “telos”). It would be incorrect to understand “function” in terms of the functions of human artifacts such as wheels or fishing rods. Rather, things have functions in the sense that they function in a certain natural way. So we can see clearly that by their very essences things like dogs or snakes have natural functions, including sensory perception, reproduction, self-change, and sustenance. This is what makes it good for them to pursue certain goals, like eating food or reproducing. To generalize, it is good for them to fulfill their functions.

This may seem irrelevant, but it has truly significant consequences for us as well. It gives medicine a normative structure, making sense of the strong and reasonable intuition that things such as broken bones or tumors are defects, while other things such as firmness of muscle or thorough digestion are indicators of health. It means that we all have certain functions which it is objectively good for us to fulfill. This can provide a foundation for objective morality and a guide to living our lives. Thus understood, essences are both indispensable and significant.

The Christian Picture:

So what is essential to humanity? Well, recall that essences are what differentiate things from entities of other kinds. In attempting to discover our essence then, it would be useful to see how we differ from other things. We share some characteristics with non-living things because we too are made of matter and have mass. But we are different from them precisely in virtue of the fact that we are alive. We are different from some living things like plants due to our sensory capabilities which we have in common with other animals. Yet we humans can be distinguished even from these creatures by our rationality. Unlike other animals, we can abstract from concrete particulars to general universal truths. Thus, humans are by their very essence rational animals.

How well does this fit into the Christian view of things? Consider the idea that God is a being with infinite knowledge, and thus an intellect. In Romans 11:33 for instance, Paul the Apostle praises God’s omniscience: ” O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God!” Aristotle’s view confirms precisely what the believer says, that is, that humans are by their very essence endowed with an intellect and will like God’s. As Genesis 1:27 says: “God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them.” Every human, male and female, is essentially made in God’s image.

We can also conclude from Aristotle’s view that, because humans have an essence with natural ends, there are some things that are objectively good for all of us, and that these objective moral truths are available to anyone who uses his or her reason and conscience. This confirms what we find in Romans 2:14-15: “For when the Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature those things that are of the law; these, having not the law, are a law to themselves. Who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness to them.”

Much more could be said about all of these ideas. Yet it becomes clear how strongly these Aristotelian theses can be used to support what the Christian affirms. Hence, there is much fruit to be found by the Christian in the Aristotelian tradition, making the ancients very worthy of our attention.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Real Definition

In attempting to define things we can end up with a large amount of vagueness. For example, take the case of a kitty. When someone asks "what is a 'kitty'?" it is clearly insufficient to simply list properties which hold truly of it. For instance, in reply one might say that it is something small, furry, and cute. This would all be true. But that doesn't really help us to get at what a kitty is, does it? What we need here is not a mere nominal definition. We need a real definition.

The most precise and clear way of getting to a real definition is by what is called "genus-species classification". One must not confuse this with something like "biological species" which are these days based off of evolutionary lineage. In terms of giving real definitions of things, it usually has very little to do with that. The easiest way to understand this is with set theory and venn diagrams. In terms of set theory, a genus is just a type of superset and a species is a type of subset. A superset counts as a genus when all of the members of its subsets share certain particular attributes in common. A subset counts as a species when its members all have some special attribute which demarcates them from the members of the other subsets. This difference is called the "specific difference". So with the case of the kitty, the genus is "cat", since kitties have all of the attributes necessary to be included in the genus (superset) of cats. However, a kitty is different from other cats insofar as it is young. So the specific difference is the attribute of its youth. This creates a separate species from other cats, such as adult ones who have the specific difference of mature age. Maybe the venn diagram above is illuminating.

So to get a real definition of kitty we take the species and genus, giving us "young cat". Hypothetically, one could do this with any given natural kind of thing.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Problem of Evil, Free Will, and God's Obligations

The following argument is taken from a paper by Alexander Pruss. What I'm concerned about is the questions that it raises about God's nature; but before that I should explain the main point of the argument. Essentially, it is a variation of what is commonly known as the free will defense. I will call it the Prussian Free Will Defense. (That sounds like a chess strategy, doesn't it?) What the paper aims to show is that God's omnibenevolence and ability to make creatures with significant freedom does not preclude his creating creatures who freely choose to do evil. It essentially runs like this.

First off, the whole reason we are trying to make a free will defense is because we assume there is some moral principle of an omnibenevolent God which is incompatible with the actual existence of evil in the world. This is hopefully an accurate statement of how the atheist understands the situation to be. Let's call it the No Evil People (NEP) principle:

(NEP) There is some moral principle in the nature of an omnibenevolent, and omnipotent God which prohibits him from creating a creature who does something immoral.

We assume that significant freedom is a great good. That's how free will defenses work. This is what I mean by the phrase "significant freedom." Someone performs an action significantly freely just in case he freely refrains from a duty or freely refrains from doing something immoral. So someone who performs a significantly free action has significant freedom. Let's call the following the Significant Freedom Principle (SFP).

(SFP) It is not the case that God’s omnibenevolent nature contains a moral principle that would make it impossible for him to create a significantly free person.

Now, this is the general form of argument. What we argue for is the conditional C: If (NEP), then not-(SFP). If we take that as our first premise, and our free will defense says that (SFP) since we assume the great value of significant freedom, it follows that not-(NEP). And if not-(NEP) then there is no logical contradiction between God's creating a world with creatures which commit evil.

Here's how we argue for that conditional. First we need this Highly Plausible Principle (HPP):

(HPP) If it is logically impossible for someone to do something immoral, then he lacks significant freedom.

Classical theists usually understand God to be a necessary being, i.e. one which exists in all possible worlds. God is understood to be the creator of all things other than Himself. That means that necessarily, any contingent being is a creature of God. So if (NEP) is correct, and if it is logically necessary that every contingent being is a creature of God, then it is logically impossible that a contingent being does anything immoral. Thus, it is logically impossible that any person does anything immoral. Hence, by (HPP), it is impossible that any person have significant freedom. This implies that (SFP) is false, and thus our C is true. Modus tollens then, (NEP) is false.

I won't argue for the idea that God is a necessary being. I'd stand in the traditional theistic tradition by saying that any contingent entity can't be what is understood by the classical God. Besides, Pruss offers many arguments to show that C still holds should we understand God to be contingent. The main point is the conclusion that we have to draw from the Prussian Free Will Defense:

(conclusion) It is not the case that there is some moral principle in the nature of an omnibenevolent and omnipotent being which prevents him from creating a creature who does something immoral.

This raises some questions about the nature of omnibenevolence (can you see them?) which I hope to look at later.


I'll be using this blog to get my thoughts down and keep track of everything that I'm working on. I hope to ask some questions, generate discussion, and maybe find some answers from people who are more knowledgeable than I. If you think you have an answer please do tell!