Friday, 26 July 2013

Hidden Premises

In some of his debates, but more clearly articulated at Reasonable Faith (not because he uses different words, per se, but because it’s not completely buried in a Gish Gallop), William Lane Craig argues that the “Problem of Evil” is a non-problem because:

“(T)here’s no reason to think that God and evil are logically incompatible.  There’s no explicit contradiction between them.  But if the atheist means there’s some implicit contradiction between God and evil, then he must be assuming some hidden premises which bring out this implicit contradiction.  But the problem is that no philosopher has even been able to identify such premises.  Therefore, the logical problem of evil fails to the prove any inconsistency between God and evil.”

If you read his article, you see that he goes on in the next paragraph to claim that “it is widely agreed among contemporary philosophers that the logical problem of evil has been dissolved.  The co-existence of God and evil is logically possible.”  This is a bold claim, with no indication of support given.  I suspect that it’s similar to the method of his madness, in that Craig is counting Christian theologians as philosophers, then claiming that among that subset of “philosophers”, there is wide agreement.  If so, then this is a deceptive claim.  We’ll just have to take a look to see whether the claim is defensible.

First though, let’s look at the Problem of Evil itself.  Variations of this argument existed well before stories of Jesus of Nazareth arrived on the scene.  It can be argued, and is in fact argued by Craig himself, that the Book of Job is all about the Problem of Evil.  The Problem of Evil was also mulled over by the ancient Mesopotamians.

But what is it?

Well, in its most simple form, the problem revolves around the question of the nature of God (that is specifically the Judeo-Christian god) and the existence of evil.  If God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent, then evil should not exist.

We’ll work through these in reverse order.

Stephen Law argues that there is no real reason to assume that any god, if it exists, is going to be omnibenevolent.  The existence of natural evil, such as the starving of animals in droughts, can in fact be better explained by an evil god who wants there to be suffering.  If God is omnibenevolent, then His acts (and His omissions) will always be good.  Therefore, logically, if there is evil in the universe, then it is not due to any intentional act of commission or omission on the part of God.

One might want to argue that perhaps, despite his best intentions, God is not cognizant of natural evil.  However, if He is omniscient then there is literally nothing that God does not know.

Alternatively, one might wish to argue that natural evil is a necessary consequence of some higher plan that God has in place.  In other words, God could not achieve His objectives without the widespread suffering that we observe on our planet.  However, this is a limitation on God’s power, in which case he is not omnipotent.

No matter how much you twist and turn, God must be impotent or ignorant or He has knowingly chosen to create the universe to be the way it is, despite being able to create it differently.

The “great defence” that Craig refers to is Plantinga’s Free Will Defence which is a variation on the defence raised by Irenaeus (130-202 C.E.)  Note that Irenaean Theodicy was an early Christian attempt to address the Problem of Evil, which was a problem for the church, rather than for atheists.

The argument runs a little like this: God has created the best of all possible worlds which includes some evil but the great gifts (to humans) of Free Will and salvation via the sacrifice of God’s Son/Self.

However, this argument itself places limits on God, implying that He’s boxed into the current arrangement by the consideration of ratios between evil and Free Will.

Remember that God isn’t just tremendously powerful, he’s considered to be omnipotent.  Additionally, he isn’t just working with the universe that pre-existed, he made it from scratch.  The assertion that God could not make a better universe in which evil and suffering were non-existent represents a failure of imagination on the part of some theists.

Remember that Plantinga is also responsible for the Ontological Argument spruiked by Craig:

1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.

2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.

3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.

4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.

5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.

6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.

There are problems with this argument, as I’ve explained elsewhere, and also with Craig’s defence of it (because he conflates Plantinga’s ontological argument with that of Anselm).  However, note carefully that Plantinga uses “maximally great”, rather than “infinitely great” or “omnipotent”.

This is little more than a sleight of hand, we all know what he means by the term “maximally great”.  He doesn’t mean that, say, Marilyn Vos Savant is in the running for being “maximally great”, or any human being, no matter how strong, smart, artistic, generous, politically correct etc etc etc.  He specifically means a god-like being, or even more specifically, God.  By avoiding the term god-like, Plantinga gives himself a little void of plausible deniability which he can use to wriggle about in.

However, despite the brilliance of Plantinga’s gymnastics, it is not difficult to us puny humans to come up with a conception of the universe in which evil is not necessary.  The very fact that we can come up with this idea, and the fact that this better universe does not exist, is sufficient evidence, in and of itself, that an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god does not exist.

Now, as soon as you suggest a sub-maximally great god (anything that is less than infinitely great in all categories), you run into troubles because Plantinga’s ontological argument shows that it, unlike the proposed maximally great being, doesn’t have to exist:

It is possible that a sub-maximally great being exists.

If it is possible that a sub-maximally great being exists, then (by virtue of being sub-maximally great) the sub-maximally great being doesn’t have to exist in every possible world.

If a sub-maximally great being doesn’t have to exist in every possible world, then it doesn’t have to exist in the actual world.

If a sub-maximally great being doesn’t have to exist in the actual world, then a sub-maximally great being doesn’t have to exist.

Therefore, a sub-maximally great being doesn’t have to exist.

In conclusion then, there really aren’t any premises hidden by atheists in this matter.  The fundamental premise involved is Christian, namely that God is perfect – perfectly powerful, perfectly knowing and perfectly good.

If Christians have given up that premise, they should do a better job of letting the rest of us know.


So, is Craig’s claim that “it is widely agreed among contemporary philosophers that the logical problem of evil has been dissolved” a valid claim?

Well, no.  The claim appears to be based on the idea that Plantinga has resolved the issue once and for all.  This might be agreed among certain theologians and apologists, but not among philosophers.

There may be ways for Plantinga to resolve the difficulties sketched above, so that the Free Will Defense can be shown to be compatible with theistic doctrines about heaven and divine freedom. As it stands, however, some important challenges to the Free Will Defense remain unanswered. It is also important to note that, simply because Plantinga’s particular use of free will in fashioning a response to the problem of evil runs into certain difficulties, that does not mean that other theistic uses of free will in distinct kinds of defenses or theodicies would face the same difficulties.

The problem, then, is that Plantinga not only started out by focusing on very abstract versions of the argument from evil, but also maintained this focus throughout. The explanation of this may lie in the fact that Plantinga seems to have believed that if it can be shown that the existence of God is neither incompatible with, nor rendered improbable by, either (1) the mere existence of evil, or (2) the existence of a specified amount of evil, then no philosophical problem remains. People may find, of course, that they are still troubled by the existence of specific evils, but this, Plantinga seems to (..) believe, is a religious problem, and what is called for, he suggests, is not philosophical argument, but “pastoral care”.

Plantinga's view here, however, is very implausible. For not only can the argument from evil be formulated in terms of specific evils, but that is the natural way to do so, given that it is only certain types of evils that are generally viewed as raising a serious problem with respect to the rationality of belief in God. To concentrate exclusively on abstract versions of the argument from evil is therefore to ignore the most plausible and challenging versions of the argument.


Friday, 19 July 2013

Draconic Philosophy

Something that remains somewhat of a mystery to me is just what is meant by the term “Philosophy of Religion”.  It should be quite clear cut, after all you can be a student of Philosophy of Religion at such august institutions as the Oxford University but it seems that the line between being a philosopher of religion, or an apologist, or a theologian is actually quite blurred, to the extent that when I see “Philosopher of Religion” I fully expect that person to be an apologist or theologian for some particular religion.

To get some better idea of what a philosopher of religion might be about, I checked out what Wikipedia had to say.  For reasons of comparison, let us first look at Philosophy of Science:

(P)hilosophy of science is concerned with the assumptions, foundations, methods, implications of science, and with the use and merit of science.

Now, how about Philosophy of Logic:

Philosophy of logic is the arena of philosophy devoted to examining the scope and nature of logic and/or the investigation, critical analysis and intellectual reflection on issues arising in logic.

Finally, Philosophy of Religion:

Philosophy of religion is a branch of philosophy concerned with questions regarding religion, including the nature and existence of God, the examination of religious experience, analysis of religious vocabulary and texts, and the relationship of religion and science.

Now there is already some bias in there, since not all religions contain a god (such as the more pure forms of Buddhism) and given the context, it is pretty clear which god is primarily referred to.  But the biggest issue, if we were to accept this bias, is that it creates a contingent school of philosophy.  The validity of the “Philosophy of Religion” is contingent on the truth of the fundamental assumption – that being a theistic assumption.

One is left wondering why we don’t have, as an alternative field of philosophy the study of dragons, investigating the nature and existence of dragons.  I certainly agree that dragons don’t exist, and that therefore a belief in dragons is a false belief.   However, together with the majority of religiously inclined, I agree that the vast bulk of religions are false beliefs.  If we are permitted the philosophical study of false beliefs, then why stop at gods?  Why have a philosophical study of religion at all?

The answer, it would seem, is that humans apparently come equipped with a religious urge.

Cultures around the world have come up with a bewildering array of religious beliefs from the primitive confusion of cause and effect that leads to cargo cults to the complex fusion of religious urges with science fiction that we can see in Scientology.  This apparent religion seeking aspect of being human is, I would argue, a valid field of philosophy, albeit with shades of psychology, anthropology and neurophysiology.

If we were to study religion from a truly philosophical perspective then I suspect that we’d see considerably fewer religious people in the role of Philosopher of Religion.

Instead what we frequently observe are attempts to bend philosophy to the purposes of a particular religion, sometimes with the brazen claim that, without the claimant’s favourite religion, there would be no philosophy at all or at least no philosophy as it is today.

The attempt to utilise philosophy as a tool to shore up the claims of religion represents, in my opinion at least, no more than a slightly more sophisticated variant of theology.  It is the application of philosophical notions, but not philosophy per se.  For this reason, I see little practical difference, in general usage, between the terms “philosopher of religion” and “theologist”.  I note also that there would likely be confusion between a “Philosopher of Dragons” and a graduate of Dracological Studies from one of the Scality Colleges that should be attached to universities like Yale, Harvard, Oxford and so on.

(While some apologists are also theologians, in some cases even laying claim to the title “philosopher”, and some apologists occasionally raise what sounds vaguely like philosophical argument, apologetics is more about rhetoric than philosophy.  A claim made by an apologist as to being a philosopher, by virtue of being an apologist, is even weaker than that of the theologian.)

Now this is not to say that a philosopher of religion must be totally without bias – that would be an unreasonable expectation.  Someone like William Lane Craig could, for example, be a philosopher of religion (as he claims) while maintaining a belief in the truth of his particular religion – the nature of which is a bit vague.  But if he argues the truth of his religion, he should do so as a theologian or an apologist.  As a philosopher of religion, on the other hand, he should be able discuss issues associated with religion alongside people of all faiths as well as those without faith, without any need for conflict.

Similarly, even when Alvin Plantinga warps his analytical philosophical training in order to resurrect the ontological argument, or to argue for his god against the forces of materialism, he does not do so as philosopher.

Imagine for a moment, a situation in which an academic repeatedly presents arguments for the existence of dragons (despite the total lack of evidence) or for the rationality of believing in dragons in the face of no evidence.  Would that be considered as philosophical on her part?

My answer to that is a resounding no.  Similarly, I suggest, we should not consider as a “philosopher of religion” any person whose prime objective is to promote their particular strain of religion.

For these people, when engaging in such activity, we should use the perfectly serviceable terms “apologist” and “theologian” (or, in the case of our hypothetical dragon-loving academic, “dracologian”).

Friday, 12 July 2013

Life Without Meaning

I was recently engaged in a discussion about the disappointment that some people feel when life doesn’t make any sense.  In particular, my interlocutor had been explaining how she lived her life in accordance with the rules but seemed never to benefit as a result and then stated that perhaps her faith was being tested.  Noting the implication of agency, I responded that things might seem that way if one saw the universe as being imbued with meaning – a particularly personalised form of meaning at that.  I further explained that for me the universe doesn’t have this characteristic.

Then I was asked a question which I have to admit I struggled to answer adequately:

What is it like to live in a universe like that?

The problem is that I have to properly interpret the question, then frame the answer in such a way that a person with a totally different worldview can comprehend what I am trying to convey.  As far as I am concerned, I don’t live in a different universe, and I am not ignorant of an existent meaning.  Instead, there are people in my universe who are mistakenly convinced that there is a meaning to everything that happens.

I am able to empathise with this notion of events having meaning since I impose agency and structure on random events like everyone else.  For example, if I see an accident on a particular intersection, I am likely to take more care at that intersection as a consequence – even if it’s not particularly dangerous.  At some sort of primeval and irrational level, I expect a third bad thing to fill out a sequence of three bad things.  Both these examples imply a structure in the universe that I know to not exist.

Now, I might be completely wrong on this, but I suspect that for some believers, the structure that keeps track of bad things to ensure they come in threes and which lets you see an accident in order to warn you to be a little more careful (or which adjusts the likelihood of you having an accident in line with the number of accidents you see) is their god.  While I am susceptible to occasional superstitious proto-thoughts, when I put some mental effort into it I am able to clearly see the nonsense in such things.

A believer doesn’t see any nonsense when attributing apparent meaning in the universe to their god.

Now, there may be disagreement between believers as to the level of agency behind certain events.  Some think that their god is behind every single decision, killing soldiers in protest of biblical infractions or using tragedies to make some esoteric point, while others see their god as being very hands-off such that events are merely consequences of a high level plan.  I liken this to the effects of mundane legislation.  Some may see a spike of deaths that followed the introduction of seat-belt legislation as intentional while others can see that it was an unintended consequence caused by people driving less thoughtfully, erroneously thinking that wearing a seat-belt is some sort of panacea.

So, my sort of thinking is closer to that of people who believe in a hands-off god than it is to the divinely micromanaged.

Even the hands-off believers are likely to share my point of view when it comes to things like astrology, ailuromancy, batraquomancy and kephalonomancy. They might think that a god is guiding their fortune, but not that their fate is decided by a cat.

Perhaps, therefore, the best way to explain how it is to live in a universe without an inbuilt plan is to point out that much as most people do not believe that their lives are dictated by tea-leaves, the state of animal livers, the lines on their palms (or elsewhere for that matter) and so on, I simply do not believe that there is a god performing that task. Much as there might be a plan crafted by Zeus, but it has no impact whatsoever on the average Christian, the supposed plan of the Christian god has no impact on me. I don’t think there is a plan; if there is one, I don’t know what it is – therefore I don’t need to worry about the plan not making any sense and I am not going to get disappointed when the plan runs off the rails.

That all said, even though I don’t believe that there is inherent meaning in the universe or any grand plan, this does not mean that I don’t have a meaning in my life. It’s just that any meaning I see is personal, grounded and mundane rather than being transcendent.

I choose my path, and if I am convinced to do so, I can change that path. I might follow my path because it is part of a grander personal plan, or I might follow it because following that path is my plan. The point is that the plan, such as it is, is mine.

So, what is it like to live in a universe like mine? It’s like freedom.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Abusing the Children

I’ve recently been reading some of the stories posted to r/atheism.  Now this “subreddit” has been somewhat of a cesspit, with far too many people apparently taking great joy in offending as many people as possible, but there are occasionally nuggets of gold.

My attention is often drawn towards horror stories involving religious schools and home-schooling parents in America who either misinform their children or shield them from modern education.

In 1995 Madeleine Albright, as the US Ambassador to the UN, signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.  This Convention has still not been ratified by the US Government, due in part to the efforts of special interest groups who have concerns regarding Article 12:

"Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child ... the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child..."

Some in the US also want to retain the ability to execute juveniles and sentence them to life imprisonment, which the Convention prohibits.  While there is now a Supreme Court decision that finds the execution of juveniles to be unconstitutional, as of 2010 only six states prohibits life imprisonment for juveniles.

Returning to Article 12, this wording could easily be interpreted as prohibiting private and home-schooling that is oriented at religious indoctrination, although some of those agitating for ratification argue that this isn’t really the case.

What disheartens me is the occasional comment on reddit that reflects the attitude that a child is some sort of chattel who a parent is entitled to indoctrinate any way they see fit.  This seems to border on child abuse, especially when the indoctrination requires that a child be kept ignorant of facts that are inconsistent with a parent’s faith.

A child home-schooled by young earth creationist parents will be taught that there is no support for evolution and plenty of support for creation.  This is bad enough, at the very least the child should be presented with evidence for both sides of the argument (to the extent that it exists), but in order to prevent inconvenient questions, such a child is taught not to think critically.  There is a wealth of material available to home-schooling parents, but a disturbing amount of it is linked to biblical thinking – which indicates to me that “critical thinking” for some people means being selectively critical of anything which is not biblical.

It’s amusing that such people consider atheists to be overly focussed on the material, when they assume there is a huge delineation between harming a child materially (in other words physically) and harming a child intellectually.  If a parent were to remove the eardrums of a child, even if there was a religious motive, such as an injunction against modern music, this would be considered a clear case of child abuse.  But if a parent retards the intellectual development of a child by limiting education to that which is consistent with the words of an ancient book, this is merely “home-schooling” as protected by Supreme Court rulings on parental rights and religious liberties.

The last thing an atheist activist should be saying when seeing evidence of abuse (by fundamentalists, creationists and the like) is “it’s the parent’s right to raise the kid anyway they want” – shame on those who do.

The Return to Being Bad (post MaPG)

In Being Bad (Another Prelude), posted before the Morality as Playing Games series, I raised what I referred to as a question of “meta-meta-ethics”.  That question was not so much about how you construct a morality (meta-ethics) nor how you apply your theoretical basis for morality (normative ethics) nor about what people believe about morality (descriptive morality), but rather about the purpose of morality – why you might want to construct a morality in the first place.

I also asked “why do we have (or pretend to have) this morality when we so often, and often so easily, throw it away?” and “are there specific situations in which acting contrary to our morality might, paradoxically, be the right thing to do?”

I did threaten to return to this topic and address it in light of Morality as Playing Games, and thus I shall.

First I must defend the assertion that “meta-meta-ethics” is a term that might be needed.  It has been argued elsewhere that the questions I’ve raised, to the extent that they have any validity, “come comfortably under meta-ethics”.   The person quoted, however, made that assertion in context of a claim that “why you might want to construct that morality in the first place” was functionally equivalent to “why ought we try to determine what we ought to do?” – a question which was supposedly senseless.

My argument is that within meta-ethics it is most certainly not a valid question.  When you are mucking around in meta-ethics, you have already accepted that you should be moral and you are just flailing around trying to work out how.  For this very reason, I proposed the term “meta-meta-ethics” to describe the sort of question that you should reasonably address first - a question to which, in most cases, you’ve just assumed that there is a perfectly valid answer, even if you can’t really work out what it is.  Unless of course, you unthinkingly leap into the mire of meta-ethics and then claim that because you are already there, it is obvious that you must have had a reason to jump in.

I accept that “meta-meta-ethics” is an awkward term.  I also fully accept that there is probably a better term, but I know that it cannot be “meta-ethics”.

Alright, now let us look at these questions in light of the series of articles that I have recently posted.

My main contention is that, as per descriptive evolutionary ethics theory, morality is about survival.  If a group has an ethical structure which is poorly suited to promote survival, then over a period of time, that group will eventually die out or be subsumed by a group whose ethical structure is better suited to survival.  The lineages of members within a group who are less able to utilise the communal ethical structure to promote their own personal survival will also eventually die out.  Therefore, eventually, you end up with only groups with ethical structures that promote survival and a preponderance of group members who are skilled at manipulating their group’s ethical structure.

If we were to consider building a new ethical structure, or modifying an existing one, then we should be very careful to keep that in mind.  There are examples of where such attempts have failed miserably.  The Nazis tried to change their ethical structures to the extent that it would become acceptable, at least within the ruling elite, to sanction the destruction of whole classes of people (Jews, homosexuals, gypsies).  This proved to be a disastrous modification to morality on their part, since sufficient numbers of people in the world decided that this was unacceptable and they acted to eliminate the group (ie Nazis).

It is likely that some other, more well-meaning (from my personal perspective) initiatives are also doomed to failure.  For example the idea that everyone should be given self-determination, as part of whatever notional group they may wish to consider themselves a part may be doomed to failure.  In Australia, there is a great wringing of hands over deeply rooted problems in the indigenous communities, with endemic alcohol addiction, appallingly low standards of living and life-expectancy, and disproportionately high rates of violence and incarceration.  The widely accepted solution is to grant more autonomy and special recognition to indigenous peoples.  Perhaps this may actually be the solution, but there is a disturbing possibility that it will lead to the slow elimination of Australia’s indigenous peoples.  Such a failure would, in the future, be compared alongside the accidental destruction of peoples by disease (Central America) as well as more intentional efforts to commit genocide (the eradication of Tasmanian aborigines).