Tuesday, 31 October 2017

This is a Necessary Post

Well, it's not really.  What we can say is that it is an existent post and we can then ponder on whether it is possible, necessary or contingent.

We could certainly equivocate in order to claim that it is a necessary post, because the title of it tells us that it is "a Necessary Post" - necessity is in its self-described nature.  But that would not make it necessary, would it?  Or you could rely on my word for it, telling you that it's necessary, but some readers would not be inclined to take my word for it.

And that's only when we know that the post exists.  What about if this was one of those special posts that no-one else can read, because I haven't the right privileges for general access?  Would a philosopher be able to work from the notion that there is a asserted necessary post (or the possibility of a necessary post) to the conclusion that there is an existent necessary post?

It seems to me that she couldn't, at least not without cheating, and that discussions about necessity (or mere contingency) follow existence, rather than the other way around.

Perhaps someone can explain why the attempt to logic something into existence via the presumption of necessity is something more than theatrics?  (see also here)


Is christianity contingent?

Of course, I think it is.  But I don't believe in the god of christian theists, so I see christianity as something largely made up by Paul, perhaps together with some advisors, partly based on a mythical or mythologised Jesus character.

My question pertains more to the world view of a christian theist.  There are problems on both sides, as I see it.

In short, if christianity is contingent, then the god of christian theists screwed up and created creatures that unexpectedly ran off the rails and had to be saved by the uncomfortable execution of the Jesus character.  The ability to screw up is not a recognised characteristic of the god of christian theists.

If christianity is not contingent, which seems to be the preferred position of christian theists, then either the Garden of Eden event was staged and the "Fall of Man" was a known outcome right from the start, which could have been prevented but wasn't (thus making the god of christian theists responsible for the event, since that god is so much more powerful and knowledgeable than its creations), or the god knew that there was "sin" built into humanity that would eventually require the uncomfortable execution event (which again could have been prevented, but wasn't, thus the god of the theists is responsible for the "sin" that is built into humanity is).

Personally, I so see christianity as contingent, even within the christian theist's paradigm.  Assuming Adam and Eve existed and had free-will, they could have chosen to ignore the serpent.  Assuming an old universe creation, events could have been different, due to small decisions anywhere in our history, such that the Jesus character never existed (or was never invented), or Paul could have decided to go to the pub for a few refreshing ales rather than head to Damascus the day that he fell over and had his vision.

This sort of contingency is transferrable to other Abrahamic, if not all religions.


When I initially floated this argument (which I admit only hints at the problem), the primary defence seemed to be a total misunderstanding of what "contingent" means.   There was some variation in the lack of comprehension though, which was nice.  I took it to be a sign that some of the WLC fan-club were thinking for themselves rather than just following the party line.

The point that I was trying to make with this argument was that if the universe itself is contingent (per WLC), how could anything within the universe be fundamentally necessary?  If something in the universe is fundamentally necessary, then the universe itself would be necessary - so long as it's also essential to that universe and/or being in the universe is part of the inherent nature of that thing.

That might take some explaining.  Say we have a thing "P in a bucket", say that this "P in a bucket" is necessary, there is no world in which there is no "P in a bucket".  It would therefore follow that there is no world in which there is no bucket just as much as there is no world in which there is no P – because in any world that exists, there would be P and that P would be in a bucket.

The question that could be raised is whether, given our universe, is X necessary (is X like "P in a bucket" or is X like a different type of P, P that may be in the bucket, but might easily be somewhere else, like in a can, or lying on the floor)?  Note that X can be "something", "anything" or "a specific thing", like christianity for example.

The necessity or otherwise of X, given my caveat above (“given our universe”), would depend on the nature of the universe, would it not?  And what is responsible for the nature of the universe?  In a sense, what the objections to the argument revolved around was what could be called “the contingency of necessity”, because the theist’s god apparently gets to choose what is and what is not necessary.

On the grand scale, what that means is that what some theists consider as "necessary" is, in fact, contingent.  Unless, of course, their god is not omnipotent.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Statistical Argument for the Non-Existence of a God

Here’s a simple statistical argument as to why any given theist’s god probably doesn't exist.  The argument is possibly a variation on the problem of evil, but it's combined with the divine hiddenness issue and the inefficacy of prayer.

Let's suppose that theism was true and that scriptural instructions were true, but only applicable to those who are saved.  Let's further suppose that there is some necessary evil in the world, for whatever reasons a theist might posit and that suffering includes a certain number of children not being born (due to infertility, illness that kills a youth before being able to breed, death of children during childbirth and possibly even some number of abortions).  Say also that a theist takes the instruction from her god literally and "goes forth and multiplies", but not so literally as to become a mathematician.  Say also that non-theists don't have such an imposition and they therefore have fewer children than theists (this seems to be statistically accurate, given than christians have 2.2 children on average,atheists have 1.6).

What efficacy of prayer would we need for there to be a significant effect on populations?

I did a little spreadsheet on this, with the following assumptions:

Theists have 4.4 children per family (matching the average of 2.2 children per christian)
Atheists have 3.2 children per family (matching the average of 1.6 children per atheist
Start with a population of 100,000 evenly divided between theists and atheists
A generation is 25 years
Average lifespan is 75 years
The base probability of making it to maturity (and producing children) is 30%
A millennium is a good period to check out

Note that I assume a rather low base probability of making it to maturity to take into account wars, plagues and so on, and I picked that figure because if I go too far above that, the population after a mere 1000 years is ridiculous.  Note also that I am assuming no transfer from the atheist ranks to the theist ranks and vice versa.  I’m simplifying things by assuming even numbers of males and females make it to breeding age and assuming that all those who can couple up do so thus ignoring the possibility of non-breeding couples.

I'm aware that the 2.2 and 1.6 figures could possibly be per family, but I am thinking of pre-modern societies, like the ones that we have lived in for the vast majority of human history.  In the past, and even today in the third world, parents have more children as a sort of insurance policy against all the vectors of death pointing at them.  We need also to remember that the theist's god has told them to go forth and multiply, not to go forth and maintain something that is slightly above a steady population.

So, what was the outcome?  After 1000 years, there are a little over 5000 atheists and 1.5 billion theists if prayer is totally ineffective.  The atheists are, in fact, on their way to extinction – they do linger for a quite a while though, only disappearing entirely around Year 3600).  Note that this is assuming that prayer is totally ineffective, that theists are only benefitting from a tendency to produce more children.  If we introduce a very minor efficacy of prayer, making it so that 31% of children grow up to be parents, then after 1000 years, there’ll be 5.7 billion theists.  If we say that prayer is 25% effective, saving a quarter of the children who would otherwise have died, then there’d be 142 million billion theists compared to the 5000 atheists.

We can fiddle with the numbers in other ways.  We could assume, for example that all families, theist or atheist, had the same average number of children.  Let’s take the median, at 3.8.  If prayer is totally ineffective, then the numbers of atheists and theists will remain about equal – after 1000 years, there’ll be almost 5 million of each.  So, what happens if we make prayer effective in a minor way (30%->31%)?  After 1000 years, there will be 3.7 times more theists than atheists.  And if prayer is 25% effective (30%->48%), then there’ll be 647 thousand billion theists compared to the 5 million atheists, or 13.8 million times more theists than atheists.

There is, therefore, a very low-key way for a good god to not get too involved, still maintain plausible deniability (so as to remain hidden), not making prayer appear too effective (again perhaps to remain hidden) and still effectively wipe out the atheists over an extended period.  All the god needs to do is demotivate the atheists from breeding, decrease the base rate of survival to breeding age and bump up the effectiveness of prayer (from the current rate of 0%).  Note that I am not suggesting that theists want atheists to be effectively wiped out, but if atheists are going to suffer for eternity, then a good god would have some motivation for minimising the number of atheists.  For example, in the original scenario with prayer being very slightly effective, over the 1000 years, there be about 15 billion theists and only 370 thousand atheists, quite a good ratio of eternally saved to eternally damned at 41,500:1.)

Of course, this is just a simple model.  A good god could also touch some of the atheists to shift the balance.  Say that in each generation, there was a one-way defection rate of 10%.  That results not only in almost total eradication of atheists, who are now down to only 54 after 1000 years, but a quintupling the number of theists, to 7.25 billion, and a saved to damned ratio of more than 125,000:1 over the period!  Make prayer 25% effective and that ratio goes to 2,190,000,000,000:1.

So, why does the theist’s god not do something like this?  Such a small effort could make a huge difference.  The theist could fiddle with the figures to make it less impressive, if they liked, but remember that their god is apparently in control, so it can choose to make the results even better than I have suggested.  But it doesn't, which is a very real problem for a world view that contains a god that is supposed to be even slightly good, slightly powerful and has the vaguest clue about what is going on in this universe.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

The Obligations of Non-Believers

Here’s an interesting quotation from WLC:

I think non-believers are absolutely obligated to take the Lord’s Supper and to tithe and so forth mainly because they are morally obligated to become Christians and so to do the things that God commands Christians to do.

This is scary stuff for anyone who is opposed to the idea of a theocracy.  I guess it won’t register as such for anyone who is a christian, but imagine the righteous furore from the favourite websites of islamophobes around the world (and those of the alt-right, the slightly more right-wing outlets such as Daily Stormer) if the scenario were slightly different.  Imagine an imam blithely saying something similar about how non-muslims are “absolutely obligated” to fall in line with islamic traditions and so on because everyone is “morally obligated to become Muslim and do what Allah commands”.

I wondered if the context made the comment more benign than it appears.  Here's that context (from a Reasonable Faith podcast):

KEVIN HARRIS: <snip> Skipping down to the last paragraph, Howe argued that there is a difference between biblical morality and a broader morality — though for Christians, observing the Lord’s Supper is important, non-believers are not obligated to follow such rituals.

DR. CRAIG: I disagree with that!


DR. CRAIG: I think non-believers are absolutely obligated to take the Lord’s Supper and to tithe and so forth mainly because they are morally obligated to become Christians and so to do the things that God commands Christians to do. They are disobedient in refusing to worship and submit to God as he calls us to do. It is not as though they are exempt from these moral duties and that these are laid solely upon Christians. These are moral duties that every human being has as a creature of God – to worship God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and so to carry out the obligations that God puts upon worshipers.

KEVIN HARRIS: Chase that just a little bit, Bill. We often hear from our atheist friends, skeptical writers, that faith doesn’t have a moral component to it. Faith in God – whether you believe in God or not – is not a moral thing. It is just a difference of opinion or something like that.

DR. CRAIG: I think that is profoundly wrong. I think that we have a moral obligation to believe in God. The first and greatest commandment that I just quoted is that we worship God with our whole being. Atheists are fundamentally in rebellion against God and are doing something that is deeply immoral that separates them from God and leaves them under his condemnation and wrath.

KEVIN HARRIS: Another thing that I would look at, if he is going to talk about what biblical morality is, what Christians would do to be moral and what a non-Christian would do (and you would disagree with that rightly), it brings up the issue suppose you encountered someone who was engaged in homosexual behavior. The temptation it seems in what we see today (particularly from Christians) is how they ought not do that, how it is wrong, how the Bible says it is wrong when if that person is not a Christian they are going to say I’m not going to follow your Bible. From that standpoint, telling them what Romans says or what Leviticus says would just fall on deaf ears. You are putting your biblical morality on me. In a sense they would be right, wouldn’t they? The issue is – your sexuality aside for a moment – what is your relationship with God? What is your relationship to Christ? That is what we should go to rather than be side-tracked on what a person is doing.

DR. CRAIG: I think that is true as evangelistic strategy that we ought to win people to Christ so that their lives would be transformed by Christ so that they can then avoid temptation and avoid sin rather than requiring them to reform their lives first and then come to Christ. But nevertheless, the truth is that insofar as they do these things as non-Christians they definitely are sinning. They are in rebellion against God. One has only to read the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans to realize that there is a whole litany of behaviors that are rampant among non-Christians which are noxious to God.  Paul says those who do such things deserve to die. They fall under God’s retributive justice and are justly condemned for doing those things. Of course, you and I are in there with them in that mass of sin. But one has fled to Christ for mercy and grace and pardon and cleansing. That is what the non-believer needs to do, too.

KEVIN HARRIS: Come as you are and then let God take care of all these things.


Nope, not any better in context.  Not at all.  WLC is implying here is that people disobeying Paul deserve to die, unless they have “fled to Christ”.  And this could easily be interpreted as “if you’re not a christian, you deserve to die”.  It's lucky that we don't have violent, fundamentalist christians out there ready to put WLC's and Paul's words into action, isn't it?

And yes, I do notice that WLC prefaces all of his multisyllabic statements with an indicator of opinion (“I disagree”, “I think”), but I think this is no more than an intellectual fig-leaf.  But I guess that’s just my opinion.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

The Problem with the FTA

Well, it's a problem.  There are other problems, and the problem I am about to describe might not even be the biggest problem that the fine-tuning argument has.  But it's snappy title for a post.  (Oh, and I mean the Fine Tuning Argument not the Free Trade Agreement ...)

When people like Luke Barnes go on and on about all the limitations on physics and cosmology that you'd be faced with if you were building a universe from scratch in order to ensure that (intelligent) life existed in it, they eventually reach a point in which their expertise is no longer relevant to the argument.  Basically, if we were wondering about the magnitude of the design problem, trying to come up with a figure that describes how unlikely it would be that a life permitting universe would be the result if we just threw the "randomise" switch, then Barnes has something to bring to the table.  But once we've arrived at a figure, say that there's only one chance in 10^240 that a universe like ours would result, then Barnes' training in astrophysics is no longer relevant, he's still a smart guy, but he can't wave his doctorate around anymore and pretend that it means anything.

In brief, what Barnes can do is help us focus in on whether the universe as it is unlikely, very unlikely or very very freaking unlikely.  He argues for something in the region of very very freaking unlikely.

Now, here's the problem.

To try to explain it, I am going to use an analogy.  It's not a perfect analogy and certain elements of it aren't strictly relevant, they are just there as part of the narrative to help explain the key point.


Say you are given an urn.  In the urn you see there is a little pork sausage.  This means that you have in your hands an LSU or an LPU, Little pork Sausage Urn or Little Pork sausage Urn, depending on your point of view.  These acronyms might seem completely arbitrary to some readers, but they’re not.  LSU and LPU are common acronyms in the discussion of fine-tuning and mean “life supporting (or sustaining) universe” and “life-permitting universe”.  The latter seems more common, perhaps because LSU is also used by Louisiana State University.  Let’s avoid confusion and talk about the Little Pork sausage Urn.

What is the probability that you have, in your hands, an LPU?  You could think about all the things that could possibly be in the urn: a balls, a sock, a small beaver, a cat, an alarm clock, a stone, the list of potential items is literally endless (using "literally" in sense of "not literally").  Thinking of it that way, you could say it's one in a bazillion, or one in 2 gazillion, or something like that.

However, you have already looked in the urn, you know there was a little pork sausage in there, so you've got very good reason to believe that there's a one in one chance that you are holding an LPU.

Alternatively, you could be led into a warehouse containing bazillions or gazillions of urns.  At random (problems with the term "random"aside), you select an urn.  What are the chances that the urn you selected contains a little pork sausage?  We don't know, do we?  The warehouse might specialise in producing urns with sausages in them, urns with pork sausages in them, urns with pork products in them, urns with nothing in them, urns with something random in them, or who the hell knows what.  To match the FTA, we have to specify that some relatively small number of urns must contain little pork sausages (so that LPUs are possible).

Ok, so we have two scenarios.  One in which we are holding an urn with a pork sausage in it and the other in which we are in a warehouse and know that there are pork sausages in one or more of a very large number of urns, but we don't know which.

Which is the scenario in which we find ourselves, with regard to the FTA?

It must be that we are holding the urn, because we cannot be in a scenario in which an LPU (now talking about a life-permitting universe) is not available to us because we are alive).

Here is the problem:  The FTA is always argued as if we are in the warehouse and there is a possibility that we don't have an LPU available to us.  It doesn't matter if the urn we are holding with a little pork sausage in it is the only such urn in the whole history of the universe (past and future) or how unlikely it is that we happen to have it in our hands.  Without it, we are in a completely different scenario, in which we have no LPU and, switching seamlessly from analogy to the thesis of the FTA, if there were no LPU, we would not exist.

No amount of jiggering with the numbers will affect that brute fact.  So the involvement of people like Luke Barnes in the promotion of the FTA is, at the end of the day, without any real value.


That's not to say that the involvement of Barnes is without rhetorical value, or value for anyone wanting to make a fallacious appeal to authority.  But that's about tricking you into believing that the argument has merit, not about showing that you that argument has merit.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

On Intelligent Design and Penguins

Note: this has nothing to do with the Absence of Meaning.


I noticed, at one point during my stay in Craig-Land, that there had been quite a few threads on intelligent design (ID).  Oddly enough, all had all been generated by theists, so I thought I'd shake things up a little by having a non-theist start up a thread on the topic.

As said, there were already a few threads: one on ID and complexity, one on ID and simplicity becoming complexity, one on the trouble with Darwin, one containing challenge to debate formally on the topic of design (with a focus on "design" as implying something other than necessity), one on ID and the watch and a stupid question (those were the theist’s words, not mine).

The examples brought up as evidence of design in these various threads included: the eye, the cardiovascular system, DNA, the flagellum, sandcastles and teeth.  There seems to be a set of specific staple examples that are brought up again and again in arguments for design - and even when a new item is brought up, such as teeth, which I don't recall being raised before, the shape of the argument always seems rather similar to all other versions: "this is a complex thing that appears to be useful only when fully constructed with no intermediate steps that I can identify, therefore design".  (Here's something on the evolution of teeth, so perhaps it's not such a new argument after all.)

What I wondered about was why the range of topics seemed (and continues to seem) so limited.  About that time, I had watched March of the Penguins (as narrated by god) and it occurred to me that there was an opportunity here for creationists (oops, I mean proponents of Intelligent Design [IDiots]) to argue for design via emperor penguins.  Think about it for a moment.

These birds mate and rear their young during winter in Antarctica.  To get to where they are going, they have to walk (despite being, primarily, aquatic birds that swim rather than flying, or walking) a very long distance.  When they have successfully navigated their way to their breeding ground, across largely featureless terrain, they have to survive the terrible cold of an Antarctic winter, without eating, for months on end.  When an egg is laid, it cannot touch the ice for more than the briefest moment or the chick within will die.  The penguin’s feet, therefore, must be able to not only withstand the cold of standing directly on ice and snow (for months!) but also to keep the egg warm.  The penguins must be able to transfer the egg from the mother's feet to the father's feet with sufficiently high probability of success that enough eggs survive to ensure that the next generation of penguins is viable.

All of these must line up.  The parents must have the capacity to store enough fat to last the winter, their feathers must provide good enough insulation to allow the birds to survive the long dark, their feet must be able to withstand ice below, they must be able to travel 100km across a difficult land surface (despite being aquatic birds with bodies best suited for swimming) and so on and so on.

Why is the amazing story of the emperor penguin almost never used to argue for intelligent design?  (Although, of course the story is occasionally used, as indicated in the wikipedia article on the film.)

Maybe it's because the habitation range of penguins, as a mirror image of that of creationists, is almost exclusively restricted to the Southern Hemisphere*?  (The exception there is the Galapagos penguin, and even then we’re only talking about those on the northernmost 20km of Isla Isabela, an island which is about 130km long north to south.  Occasionally there is a mix-up in the penguin version of GPS and some poor penguin ends up in the wrong hemisphere.)  The vast majority of creationists have never seen a penguin in the wild, not even the rare Australian ones like Ken Ham (from Queensland).  The few examples from New Zealand, like the Bananaman, Ray Comfort, are likely to have seen them though.


* This is a bit of an exaggeration.  While Australia and New Zealand are not quite as heathen as, say, Sweden, they are at about the level of secularisation of France (slightly less heathen than the UK).  Other nations in the Southern Hemisphere however are significantly more religious (South Africa [more religious than the US], Chile and Argentina [about as religious as the US]) and are more likely to fall prey to creationism.  It’s odd that Australia and New Zealand should have produced so many creationists – and spawned not one, not two, but three creationist behemoths (Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International from Australia and Living Waters/The Way of the Master from New Zealand [link there is actually to The Way of the Mister, from Mr Deity, it's far more entertaining]).

Monday, 16 October 2017

The How Many Problem

The How Many Problem can be expressed like this:

How many individuals does god need (or want) to save?  How many sentient beings are justifiably cast into hell in order to achieve this goal?

I'll just clarify a few things:

It is standard christian theology that the god wants to save individuals, without this the sacrifice of Jesus would be meaningless.  Even in judaism  and islam you have the concept of prophets who are instructed by their god to pass on a message of salvation to the faithful.

The actual method of salvation is immaterial.  It could be via simple belief, rebirth baptism, grace or "coming to know and love god".  Whatever the mechanism, which could be far more subtle and complex than the examples given, this doesn't change the requirement to save individuals.

The nature of salvation is immaterial.  It could be floating around on clouds with a harp, it could be bodily resurrection, it could be something more ethereal, just not being in hell or, again, something more subtle and complex than these.  What matters is that this salvation is apparently important - to the god.

We know that one individual saved does not appear to be sufficient - Adam and Eve could have sufficed, Jesus could have sufficed, Jesus' acolytes could have sufficed, thousands of early christians could have sufficed.  Even today, with billions of christians, there is still an apparent need to seek more converts (and presumably more saved).

The god in question is apparently omniscient and omnipotent and, in some readings, unchanging in its nature.  Therefore, the idea that anything is served by having billions upon billions of imperfect humans interacting with it is problematic.  Nevertheless, this is an aspect of the christian creed.  The question remains - how many is enough, what figure does the thinking theist settle on and why is this large number (at least in the billions) better than the number that immediately follows it?

The nature of hell is immaterial (as in it doesn’t matter what the nature is, I am not claiming here that hell has a particular nature).  Perhaps it is all fire and brimstone, perhaps it is a long cold dark time spent away from god, perhaps it's just like this earth with all the joy and happiness sucked out of it - forever - or perhaps it is something more subtle and complex than that.  The point I am alluding to here is that those sentient beings who are not saved are apparently destined for some sort of hell (and not simple oblivion) and they will suffer there, at least for some longish period of time if not literally for a future eternity.  This is an ultimate problem of evil that is not solved by appealing to the greater good of saving some maximal number of souls, because the souls in hell are already damned.

The theist, to respond to this problem must identify a number, or a possible mechanism for setting a number, of individuals to be saved.

If this cannot be done, then the conclusion is that the god would need (or want) an infinite number of saved individuals.  It would further follow that, with any percentage failure rate higher than zero as the god churns through the souls in attempt to save them, there would be an infinite number of damned individuals.

To avoid that, we arrive at theological zombies.  But theological zombies bring their own problems (deception on the part of god, an emptiness on the part of the soul in the process of being saved in a universe otherwise inhabited by theological zombies, the level of imperfection of the soul in the process of being saved if this world is the best possible world in which it would be saved).

So, again, I ask the question: how many?

Monday, 9 October 2017

Arguing for God as Utility Monster

A couple of people have objected that the god as utility monster concept relies on the notion that a god would want to maximise the number of saved souls.

Now, this isn't my notion.  It's WLC's notion (for example, when arguing against Stephen Law (see the First Rebuttal).  WLC defends against Stephen Law's version of the Problem of Evil (using the Evil God concept) by saying:

Maybe only in a world suffused with natural and moral evil would the maximum number of people come to freely know God and find eternal life.

That said, it isn't a good idea to rely on WLC to support my argument when it leads to the non-existence of god.  He might find some new evidence that invalidates his position and thus be forced to abandon it.  So, I'd like to independently support the contention that a god would want to maximise the number of saved souls.

Now, I don't mean only that god's happiness would be paramount and suck dry the font of happiness that would otherwise be available to the rest of us - which is true enough, but also that even vague inclinations on the part of an eternal, all-encompassing, all-powerful being like WLC's god would translate into absolutes.

Here are my assumptions:

(1) the god in question is thoroughly good
(2) from (1), anything that the god wants is thoroughly good
(3) the god wants more than one person to be saved (otherwise Adam could have sufficed)
(4) the god wants more than one person of each gender to be saved (otherwise Adam and Eve could have sufficed)
(5) there is no magic number between 1 and infinity, N, that is inherently better than all numbers higher than it, such that N good things are better than N+1 good things
(6) thoroughly good things cannot be saturated (meaning that "good in moderation" is not a term that one could reasonably apply to the god's wishes - if N+1 good things are no longer good, then they are not thoroughly good and a person trying to argue this point would be left trying to determine the value of N and attempting to defeat (5))
(7) therefore, there is no limit to the number of people that "should" be saved and made available to know and freely worship the god posthumously

To defeat this argument (at least in my opinion), the theist would have to:

A. Posit a limitation to the number of saveable souls that her god can create - therefore admitting that god is not omnipotent
B. Posit a value of N and provide a supporting argument as to why N+1 is less good than N
C. Argue that the god can want things that are not thoroughly good - therefore admitting that the god is not omnibenevolent
D. Argue that the god wants something other than saved souls and churning through humans, saving the souls of some and damning others is a mere side-effect that the god doesn't care about - thereby admitting that the god is not omnibenevolent

If there is a watertight argument that defeats this notion of "god as utility monster", then theological zombies do not follow.  But, at the moment, I don't see one that doesn't throw out the notion of the theist’s god in the process (or rely on a blatant appeal to ignorance, as is likely for an attempt to defeat via option B above).

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Seems Implausible

I've often been curious as what precisely is meant by the term “plausible” in apologetics.  WLC and his ilk* frequently bang on about how their arguments build a cumulative case based on their being "more plausible than not".  I wondered whether they have looked a dictionary (my emphasis):

plausible (google)

(of an argument or statement) seeming reasonable or probable.
"a plausible explanation"
(of a person) skilled at producing persuasive arguments, especially ones intended to deceive.
"a plausible liar"
plausible (merriam webster)

1:  superficially fair, reasonable, or valuable but often specious <a plausible pretext>
2:  superficially pleasing or persuasive <a swindler… , then a quack, then a smooth, plausible gentleman — R. W. Emerson>
3:  appearing worthy of belief
plausible (dictionary.com)

1. having an appearance of truth or reason; seemingly worthy of approval or acceptance; credible; believable:
a plausible excuse; a plausible plot.
2. well-spoken and apparently, but often deceptively, worthy of confidence or trust:
a plausible commentator.
plau·si·ble (thefreedictionary)

1.    Seemingly or apparently valid, likely, or acceptable; credible:
a plausible excuse.
2. Persuasive or ingratiating, especially in an effort to deceive.


It seems odd to me that the term "plausible" should be used so frequently by WLC when it is so tightly linked to the mere appearance of truth, validity and reason and also to deceptiveness.

Why not avoid that problem by using the phrase "more likely than not" or "more reasonable than not" or "more consistent with the facts than not"?

And yes, I know, Blackwell gives "plausible" a specific philosophical meaning, but even that should be read carefully (my emphasis again):

A claim is plausible if it subjectively seems worthy of belief even if we have not necessarily studied its objective ground

This doesn't really do much more than say that something is plausible if it's superficially convincing or comes from a subjectively credible authority.  And it includes a caveat such that when we have a claim that is “plausible”, we have not fully (or properly) investigated the evidence in support of it.  A claim that is completely wrong can still be plausible, and an (apparently) implausible claim can be right.

This doesn't, subjectively speaking, seem to be the best of grounds on which to argue for the existence of one’s god.  Belief in maybe but, honestly, is minimal justification for belief all the theist is after?  This doesn’t seem plausible.


Examples of use of the phrase “more plausible than not” but WLC and his ilk:

WLC actually seems to be one the most frequent users of the phrase.  Here’s what he had to say in a booklet, Five Arguments for God:

In fact, if the premises, taken together, are more plausible than not, then the conclusion is guaranteed to be more plausible than not, and so you should believe it.

Apparently, WLC believes that there is an obligation to believe that which is plausible.


There’s an interesting effect of negation in English which I suspect sneaks past many people.  Naively it seems that the use of “not” or negating prefixes such as “im-” imply some sort of negative reflection of the concept in question.  But this is not the case.  Consider the words “possible” and “impossible” in the following context:

It is ____________ that X (where X = (X is true)).

If we think of a phase space, mapping out the modalities of X, there might be only a very small area in which X is possible meaning that everywhere else in that phase space, X is impossible.  If there is no part of the phase space in which X is necessary (where is it not possible for X to be impossible), then across the entirety of that phase space, it is possible that not-X = (X is not true).  In other words, impossible, or not possible, is a much stronger concept than a “possible not”.

This imbalance in the strength of a term and its negation applies also to plausible (and implausible), perhaps even more so.  Because the bar for being plausible is set so low, it becomes a major issue if a claim fails to clear to that bar – so that a claim is “implausible” is a very strong statement.  When saying that a claim is “implausible”, you are not implying that it’s plausible that the claim isn’t true, you’re not even implying that the claim doesn’t seem reasonable or probable, but rather you are implying that it’s not possible for the claim to seem reasonable or probable.

I note that WLC does not shy away from appealing to the (apparent) implausibility of competing hypotheses, sometimes saying they are “extraordinarily implausible”.  I suspect that these sorts of claims are quite effective as rhetoric, in part because of an implicit understanding of how strong an appeal to implausibility actually is.

That all said, I detect a bit of manoeuvring on the part of WLC to avoid any problematic claims to certainty.  For example, from the WLC-Tooley debate:

Now I'm not claiming that I can prove that God exists with some kind of mathematical certainty. I’m just claiming that on balance the evidence is such that theism is more plausible than not. Let me present, therefore, six reasons why I think it’s more plausible that God exists than that atheism is true.

I think what WLC is doing here, consciously or not, trying to eat his cake and eat it too.  He first claims to not achieve an unrealistic standard of proof (some kind of mathematical certainty) and then he compares a plausibility claim with an implausibility claim.  Such a comparison is a rhetorical cheat.

The theist should not really be comparing the plausibility of her belief claims again their implausibility.  She should instead be digging deeper into those claims and going beyond questions of plausibility, beyond questions of appearance, seeming and subjectivity and looking at the objective grounding of her particular form of theism.  But of course, this is unlike to be an approach that an apologist would promote.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Where a World View Leads

There are far too many people labouring under the misapprehension that either atheism is a world view (it isn't) or that atheists derive their world view from their atheism (which I don't think they do, but I guess I can be convinced that some might, if any atheists can argue that case from personal experience).

Here's my position.  I'm generally a sceptical and evidential type of person.  The first means that I don't immediately accept anything as true, whether that be what someone tells me (irrespective of the medium: voice, writing, video ... I might be a little unsettled by telepathy, given that is something I consider to not exist).  I have evidence to support such scepticism given that I know people to hold false beliefs, to misunderstand situations, to be susceptible to illusions and delusions and to misrepresent the truth (whatever "the truth" may be).  The second merely means that I go where the (compelling) evidence leads, and if there is no evidence, I don't go anywhere.  If evidence points towards a number of options, then I might move towards those options, but I don't choose one of them and go all the way with it (at least not based on that one point of evidence).

This scepticism and evidentialism is what lies behind my world view: that people are often deluded, that claims without compelling evidence are almost always erroneous (and even more so when there have been thousands of years in which compelling evidence could have been collated if it in fact existed) and that good intentions are not sufficient.  (That's not the entirety of my world view, but the currently relevant elements are there.)  Out of that falls my overt and explicit atheism, as opposed to the neutral atheism that I had from birth.

Do other atheists recognise something of their position in this?

Do any theists comprehend the difference between this position and the concept that an atheist's world view might be driven by their atheism?

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Is lack of CPUE for a god sufficient warrant for passive lack of belief in a god?

I raise this topic for two reasons:

1) to point out that, for the most part, theistic arguments are not so much arguments that god exists, but rather arguments that there is "warrant" to believe in the existence of god (a la Plantinga and his followers including Craig), and

2) to ponder whether apologetic theists could stomach this position, given that, for the most part, they are all about "warrant" for their own belief rather than actual evidence of the sort that would persuade a non-theist to change their position.

I used the neologistical acronym "CPUE" to mean "credible, persuasive and unique evidence" - by which, in this context, I mean evidence that is not fallacious or ridiculous on the face of it, is persuasive to one who is not already ideologically committed to the god conclusion and is supportive only of the god conclusion and not equally (or more) supportive of alternative, competing conclusions (such as naturalism, materialism and physicalism).

For the purposes of this question, I am conceding that "passive lack of belief in a god" is close enough to "belief in the absence of a god" to be covered by considerations of "warrant".  Note that this does not accurately portray my actual position.  If anyone has huge problems with this, perhaps I could reword the question to "Does lack of credible, persuasive and unique evidence for god contribute towards sufficient warrant for the belief that there is no utility in going beyond passive lack of belief in god (in either direction, towards theism or strong(er) atheism)?"  But hopefully the reader gets the idea.

I'm not going to get into "warrant" as a topic since, as used by Plantinga, it's not a concept that I really go along with.  You can look it up if you want to know more about it.  For those who agree that "warrant" is a load of old cobblers, you can substitute it with "justification".

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

A World Without Suffering

Here is an exchange from Craig-Land on the question “why didn't the creator god create a world without suffering?”  In this discussion, which was initiated by someone else, I was granting the existence of a creator god, for the sake of the argument, so the simple answer “because there is no creator god” was not a response available to me.

The theist side of the discussion is pretty much as presented (modified only by formatting and some minor grammatical and spelling corrections, which I am hoping haven’t changed the argument at all).  I’ve added some links and recrafted some statements in an attempt to bridge the gap with respect to context.  I’ve not tried to polish my argument after the fact.


Theist: What is suffering? If suffering is defined as an experience, then a world without suffering is a world without the experience of suffering. In so far as we can tell, any living creature with a nervous system and a brain with memory capability has the potential to experience suffering. So, any world without suffering is basically a world without living creatures who possess nervous systems and brains with memory.

I think that you are opening the door to equivocation here.  I agree that pain is experiential, as widely defined: Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described interms of such damage.  If one experiences pain, one suffers.  The somatosensory system is co-opted for associating a type of pain (discomfort) with situations that are negative but which do not actually involve tissue damage - such as pain of loss, social rejection and so on.

Can we agree that, as you describe it, you are equating "pain" and "suffering"?  (I don't want to get all new-age and suggest that pain is inevitable while suffering is optional, if we think of laboratory monkeys, for example, it doesn't do us any good ethically speaking to say “sure, we're callously ensuring that they feel pain, but it's up to them whether or not they suffer”.)

So, if we are talking about pain, we have to then consider the purpose of pain.  It's originally there to minimise tissue damage, doing something that risks doing or does do tissue damage elicits a pain response (so long as the nerve fibres are functional).  For the most part, the brain/nervous system doesn't care whether the host is salvageable or not, so suffering (the experience of pain) can continue until death but in some instances, pain signals will be shut down as part of a fight or flight strategy, and it's possible to not feel pain merely because (relatively minor) damage has not yet been noticed (if it's major damage and you're not full of adrenaline, you'll almost certainly feel it).  But sometimes, the system gives up on pain messaging and instead floods the brain with opioids.

The question then becomes could the organism be motivated to avoid (further) tissue damage without causing suffering?  It seems to me that, taking a designer’s perspective, it's possible.  For example, an organism such as a human could get a message that it really, really wants to move its hand away from the heater element, rather than getting a pain message.  This could be actualised using the same "pain" receptors, but with different processing in the brain - if the brain were designed, of course, rather than just being the result of a mindless evolutionary process.  This could even be pleasurable in that satisfying the requirement to move away from a damaging situation could be rewarded by brief activation of the brain's pleasure centres.

It'd be an interesting study, seeing if an organism could be persuaded to not damage itself via a mix of positive and neutral input, rather than positive and negative input.  It could be simulated in software, and might even be a mechanism by which intelligent machines could be (ethically) trained to not damage themselves.

I do understand that pain provides some urgency to act, but I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility that we could be motivated to avoid damage without the suffering associated with pain.  And this means that it could be possible to have a world with sentient creatures with brains and nervous systems that do not experience suffering, so long as we don't define suffering as "the uncomfortable experience we get when tissue damage is happening or about to happen, which makes us prefer to act in some preventative manner".

(Note: as mentioned above, non-tissue damage related suffering involves co-opting of the somatosensory system.  If pain was experienced as just another message in the brain, then events that manifest to us as emotional or psychological pain would also be experienced differently.  For example, the pain of loneliness would be interpreted as "my situation isn't optimal for a social creature, I would prefer to do something about it".)

Theist: God could have made a world without living creatures, which would entail no suffering; but could God have made a world with living creatures who could not experience suffering? Some people might answer this question with an unequivocal yes, saying something to the effect of if God is all-knowing and all-powerful, then certainly he would know of a way and would have the means to create such a world. This is a poorly justified reason though, because it's making the mistake that God can do anything that's conceivable - which isn't true. Can God make squared-circles? Can God make an object which both occupies a space and yet does not occupy it? No and no. More reasonable, it would be better to think that God can do anything that's logically possible. By this, God can't break the Law of Non-Contradiction. But wait, does this mean God is no longer all-powerful? Hardly. Especially if we define all-powerful as possessing all power to do anything logical.

Again, this seems to be equivocation, although you did sort of define your way out of it.  You seem to be saying that because we can put words together to describe an impossible thing, then that thing is conceivable.  This isn't really true.  We can say "squared-circle" and even put effort into squaring the circle (which doesn't seem to be what you are talking about), or finding a "married bachelor" or "boiling ice", or any number of impossible things, but that does not make the referents conceivable.  The things you listed are not really conceivable, they are merely describable.

And there's no real "Law" associated with the Law of Non-Contradiction (or the Law of Identity or the Law of Excluded Middle) that your creator god could be guilty of breaking (ed – see also The Problem with Theodicies).  This sort of Law is merely a description of a state of affairs.  You seem to be guilty of reification again, but it could be that you were talking metaphorically.  We both agree that (metaphorically) your god cannot break the LNC (etc) in this universe “as created”, we merely disagree on what impact that has on the omnipotence of your god and whether the inability to break the LNC (etc) necessitates suffering.

Theist: The more important question is: would God be violating the Law of Non-Contradiction if he made a world that contained human beings who could not experience suffering? If the very definition of what it means to be human is to possess a nervous system and a brain with memory, then no, God could not make a world with humans and without suffering. Some other being would be required. Perhaps, a being with a slightly tweaked nervous system that does not register any pain at all, or is extremely numb to it. Would these beings be "human" in so far as we know what it is to be "human"? It's hard to say, but there is some merit to this line of thought because it yields what could be called the “Human Evolution Defence”.

Okay, here is where you are walking through that door to equivocation that I mentioned above.  You wrote earlier about "a living creature".  Here you are talking about "human beings".  Now your argument is presuppositional, implying that your god was obliged to make "human beings" and thus, given that "human beings" are the sort of creatures that suffer, then suffering was unavoidable.  So, the title of this discussion should perhaps be "A World With Human Beings As They Are But Without Suffering", which I agree is impossible.  But you cannot simply define your way into argumentative success.

Theist: Where the Free-Will Defence presupposes that God cannot create beings with free will that would never choose evil, the Human Evolution Defence presupposes that God cannot create human beings as we know them to be (which is to say "like us") that could not experience suffering. We have reason to suspect that nervous systems and memories like ours conferred an evolutionary advantage, and so we might also suspect that God could have let the human species develop as is such that we could procure said evolutionary advantages. Certainly, nervous systems with a high threshold for pain or ones that could (be) completely numb () would have been () evolutionary disadvantageous as pain reinforces basic cause and effect (fire = hot, hot = painful, therefore, don't touch the fire). Furthermore, a world in which the experience of pain and suffering does exist but is supernaturally pacified by God after-the-fact might also entail unintended evolutionary consequences or provide negative evolutionary reinforcement (I doubt one could say otherwise for certain).

If your god made the universe and set it up in such a way that "human beings" or something very similar to them developed by purely natural means (which sounds like a god of deism or pantheism), then I guess that's fine.  It's really no different to the atheistic position in any meaningful way.  But, for your argument to stand, we would have to be limited to the only life that we both know that we have, this one.

If you are going to shuffle over to another part of theism, in which a more perfect existence after this one is available, in which there is no suffering (Rev 21:4), then you have a problem because your god could have bypassed this world with suffering and established that world without suffering - and there is no logical objection against doing so (while there may theological or dogmatic objections).

The objection that is most frequently raised is that of filtering, identifying those persons or souls which are qualified for the life after this one.  The problem here though is that the biblical god is generally described as omniscient (Heb 4:13, 1 John 3:20, Psa 147:5, 1 Sam 2:3, Job 28:24 (although this last one could just be instantaneous, "now" omniscience)), in which case it knows the inevitable (Rom 2:28-30) result of the filtering process anyway, so it doesn't seem to need to actually carry it out.

And that's before we get into the doctrine of grace, which implies that the saved are selected anyway, such that one cannot act to be saved (and I'm aware that the doctrine of grace, "The Doctrine of Grace teaches that we are totally unable to save ourselves, to help in our salvation, to do anything to merit all or any part of our salvation, or to keep our salvation", is controversial since it opens the possibility that a total heathen like myself could potentially be saved, despite a life of spurning your god, while a devoted, sainted believer like, say, Mother Theresa could end up consigned to the flames, because our acts count for nothing).

The claim that a creator god could not create a world without suffering appears to be tantamount to abandonment of the afterlife.  Would a theist really want to abandon the afterlife?

Monday, 2 October 2017

A Problem with Theodicies

 A problem with theodicies, as I see it, is that (some) theists will initially accept – for the sake of the argument – the notion that their god does some bad things.  Then they'll spend a lot of time justifying why their god does those bad things (better goods via evil, inability to do the logically impossible, necessity of evil for good by comparison, etc).  They'll reach a conclusion that their god could in fact be justified in doing some bad things, and they will confidently declare that their god hypothesis is not invalidated by the problem of evil (so long as a long list of caveats are satisfied).  Then, finally, they'll forget all about the mental gymnastics that they just went through and will go back to believing in a god without all the caveats that those mental gymnastics resulted in, a god that they had previously accepted as invalidated by the problem of evil.

There's also the problem of using logic in a theodicy.  Certain logical truths – for example the Law of Non-Contradiction – are features of this universe ("as created", in the world view of a theist).  We use these logical truths to arrive at the conclusion that, for example, action X is not "logically possible".  This makes the impossibility of action X a secondary feature of this universe ("as created"), because that logical impossibility is a consequence of the logical truths which are primary features of this universe.

There's nothing that implies that logic transcends this universe such that a sufficiently powerful, knowledgeable and good god could not create a universe without logic – at least nothing beyond our inability to imagine such a universe, but we live in a universe in which logical truths pertain, so we are naturally limited in our imagination.

Perhaps the theist might wish to argue that logic does transcend this universe and that "prior to the creation of the universe" (whatever that means) the creator god was limited by logic and was obliged to create a universe in which logic necessitated suffering and evil.  The problem here is that the theist is therefore suggesting that the creator god is transcended by logic, is less powerful than logic.  And we know that logic is ultimately imperfect (per Wittgenstein and Russell).  Thus, the creator god is diminished and becomes a mere vassal of imperfect logic.

Is this not a problem for the theist?